I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

When I was about seven or eight, I watched The Parent Trap II with my brother and our cousins.  The storyline isn’t that important (best friends want their single parents to marry, and — coincidence? — one of those parents is a twin played by Hayley Mills) but what stuck with me for some reason was a scene early on in the movie where the two young girls bake cookies.  They had a huge mixing bowl on a kitchen countertop, and the two kept on throwing in what seemed to me to be the craziest ingredients into their dough: marshmallows! Cap’n Crunch! M&Ms! pretzels!  Then the girls formed their cookies and put them in the oven, and all I could think was, Gross.

I really think that that movie is what turned me off of baking.  Interestingly enough, it didn’t turn me off of cookies.

In the time that’s passed since The Parent Trap II, I’ve made my peace with baking, and with what my seven-year-old self would have thought to be gross cookie ingredients.  As a seven-year-old, for example, I never would’ve even considered eating anything with coconut in it; like my former teacher Steve Almond wrote in his excellent book Candyfreak, “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture… I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.”

True dat, Steve.Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies -- 10thirty.

I like coconut, I really do, but its cuticleness just drives me bananas.  I think that’s why I’m so surprised that I adore these cookies as much as I do.  The trick, with these not-overwhelmingly-sweet cookies, is toasting the cuticle out of the coconut and amping up the richness of its natural flavor.  As a result, you get these little soft bites of truly intense coconuttiness — which just so happens to pair quite nicely with a luxe dark chocolate, I might add.

Have these cookies changed my mind about coconut?  Perhaps not.  But they’ve definitely got me thinking about coconut a bit more, and with something like a smile on my face.

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies, from Cooking Light
Makes about twenty-five cookies

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.
  3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.
  4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.
I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” was originally recorded by Merv Griffith, but I’ve had a huge fondness for Danny Kaye since childhood, and since he was a huge lover of food, I went with his version.
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I Am What I Am.

There are many words the people in my life could use to describe me, but I don’t know if the word “nice” would be amongst them. “Creative” would be, and “loyal,” I’d hope. Perhaps “funny,” likely “clumsy,” and ideally “clever.” I wouldn’t mind hearing “chic,” but that may be stretching it. “Nice,” though — that one I’d wonder who was pranking me with vocabulary.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think I’m a bad person; in fact, growing up I was pretty much a “good girl,” a fact I think my parents would even readily admit, even if at the time they thought otherwise. I’m just not who people envision when they envision “nice.” I think they probably envision someone like Reese Witherspoon. You know she’s nice.

Reese Witherspoon -- 10thirty.

I, on the other hand, really like the word “thoughtful.” That’s one I like quite a lot. I mean, I love the holidays for the presents, and not for the reason most would assume. What I love is considering what a person likes. I love just thinking about a friend, and thinking about what I could give or get to make her or him happy. I love thinking, “Wow, Erin would really like this.” I love packaging those presents up, making a tag that says what gift goes to who, stacking a pile of wrapped parcels into a bag for delivery. But mostly I like thinking about the people I love, and finding something that might make them smile.

So when I see a recipe whose flavors I know will appeal to Keith even more than they will to me, I’ll tear that recipe out, file it in my binder, and save it to try one day. There’s a school of thought out there that believes women dress to impress other women more than they do for men. Well, I cook for Keith, and in more ways than one.

I don’t look at this as a domestic thing, or an anti-feminist thing — it’s a love thing.  I care about this man, deeply, and since this man enjoys Indian food, the least I can do I throw together a really easy chickpea curry every now and again.

Chickpea CurryI lack the ability to explain how simple this recipe is, and how quickly it all comes together.  A lot of the times, I read little magazine articles about putting dinner on the table in minutes, and when I try those same recipes it takes me twice as long to make it through as I’ve been promised.  This is not the case with this chickpea dish.  It literally takes as long as it takes to cook rice to make this, and if you use boil-in-a-bag rice as recommended, it’s even faster.  Basically, this dish makes a funny, clumsy, loyal, creative, clever and possibly-but-likely-not chic gal like me thoughtful and nice in one fell swoop.  So everyone wins.

Chickpea Curry with Basmati Rice, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

1 (3.5-ounce) bag boil-in-bag basmati or brown rice
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, diced
1 ½ teaspoons garam masala
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can unsalted crushed tomatoes
1 6-ounce package fresh baby spinach
½ cup plain 2% Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Cook rice according to package directions; drain.
  2. While rice cooks, heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in garam masala; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add chickpeas, tomatoes, and spinach; cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in yogurt and salt. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve over rice.
I Am What I Am” by Spiritualized.
Reese Witherspoon photo from Hooked on Houses.

Know Your Chicken.

This is a tale of two chickens.

Both chickens are sweet and savory, both chickens spent some time in a 400° oven, and both chickens were devoured with relish.  One chicken Keith really loved, and one chicken I just couldn’t stop eating.  Truly.  Nonstop eating.  By me.

Chicken w. Roasted Grapes + ShallotsKeith’s chicken — roasted with grapes and shallots and rosemary and thyme — reminded me of something my mother made once or twice when I was growing up.  That too was a chicken with grapes, and in my memory that chicken was mostly sweet and bathed in a honey-colored broth.  Its grapes were not as deeply baked as Keith’s chicken, whose grapes were roasted until unctuous and almost jammy.

This chicken was meant to be made with thyme and thyme alone, but I had a little pinch bowl of minced rosemary leftover from another dinner, so I figured, Why not, and threw it in the mix too.  I think Keith’s chicken was the better for it, especially since the evergreen-ness of the rosemary paired so well with both the shallots and the grapes.

Once last thing about those grapes: the burnt ones were best — crispy, crunchy, juicy and buttery-smooth.

Roast Chicken w. Potatoes + Butternut Squash

My chicken, the chicken of the nonstop eating, was earthier than Keith’s and a bit sweeter, probably because of all of the butternut squash that got roasted alongside it.  The red potatoes took on some of the sweetness as well, which was actually pretty awesome when you think about it — crispy-on-the-outside candy-coated carb wedges.

Something else that was actually pretty awesome about my chicken was that its recipe called for dried rubbed sage and minced garlic, and the fact that the recipe was leagues better when I subbed in a combination of fresh sage and thyme for the dried and a garlic paste for the minced.  In the oven, all the flavors beneath the chicken’s skin came together in a rich and satisfying way.  I normally find fresh sage to be a bit bitter and wood-ish; in my mind, it only pairs well with strong profiles that can really stand up to it.  When roasted with the thyme and garlic paste, the sage became almost like a sauce under the skin.

But this isn’t a chicken competition; it’s all about preferences, mine and Keith’s.  I suggest buying two birds and giving both recipes a whirl.  That way, no one loses and everyone wins.

Chicken with Roasted Grapes + Shallots, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

1 ¼ pounds assorted seedless grapes, cut into small clusters
6 large shallots, peeled, halved through root end
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme plus 6 large sprigs (I used a mixture of rosemary and thyme.)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 4-to 4 ½-pound chicken, excess fat removed from cavity

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Gently toss grape clusters, shallots, chopped thyme, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in large bowl to coat. Rub chicken with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil; sprinkle inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place thyme sprigs in cavity. Place chicken in large roasting pan; arrange grape mixture around chicken. Roast until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of chicken thigh registers 165° and grapes are shriveled, about 1 hour 10 minutes.
  2. Transfer chicken to platter; let rest 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, arrange grapes and shallots around chicken. Transfer pan juices to small pitcher; spoon fat from surface of juices and discard. Serve chicken with pan juices alongside.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes + Butternut Squash, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided (I made a garlic paste instead.)
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
½ teaspoon dried rubbed sage (I used a mixture of fresh sage and thyme.)
1 3 ½-pound roasting chicken
Cooking spray
12 ounces red potatoes, cut into wedges
1 ½ cups cubed peeled butternut squash
2 tablespoons butter, melted

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Combine 1 ½ tablespoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and sage in a small bowl. Remove and discard giblets and neck from chicken. Starting at neck cavity, loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Lift wing tips up and over back; tuck under chicken. Rub garlic mixture under loosened skin. Place chicken, breast side up, on rack of a broiler pan coated with cooking spray. Place rack in broiler pan.
  2. Combine potatoes, squash, butter, 1 ½ teaspoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Arrange vegetable mixture around chicken. Bake at 400° for 1 hour or until a thermometer inserted into meaty part of thigh registers 165°. Let stand 10 minutes. Discard skin.
Know Your Chicken” by Cibo Matto.

The Day I Read A Book.

A continuation of the books I read in 2011.  Read about April.

May

  • By the time I got around to reading it, I’d forgotten all of the reviews of Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge.  I’d forgotten that Ms. Strout’s work was more anthology of related stories than novel, that the setting was a small New England town in coastal Maine, that the titular character wasn’t in fact the main character after all.  Worth the read, but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s worth the hype.
  • The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber is an absolutely terrible novel that everybody in the world should read.  I mean, it’s about a pack of way-more-intense-than-werewolves wolves living, hunting and killing in 1970s New York City and the two police detectives that are tracking them down.  Oh, and I should mention that parts of the story are told from the point of view of the wolves.  So awesomely bad.  One of my goals for 2012 is to get my hands on a copy of the film adaptation.
  • Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from The New York Times edited by Amanda Hesser is pretty self-explanatory.
  • So is, in a way, Elizabeth Graver‘s The Honey Thief, as it is about a thief of honey, but imagine how boring a story it would be if that were it as far as plot were concerned.  The novel is about mothers and daughters, religion, inheritances and friendships, as well as honey.
  • I purchased a copy of Room at Fully Booked in Manila; at that point in our trip, I had read all of the books I’d packed and The Wolfen off of Keith’s iPad, and was desperate for something to read, as I had three days in Hong Kong and a twenty-something-hour flight back to the States to get through.  I hadn’t followed the previous year’s hoopla surrounding Emma Donoghue‘s novel but it just so happened that Room‘s plot fit in perfectly with my kidnapping/crime obsession.  Though told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view, the reader quickly realizes that Jack and his mother live a grim and terrible sort of life: abducted at nineteen, Jack’s mother had gotten pregnant and gave birth in captivity, and all Jack knows of the world is the 11 x 11 room he was born in.  Though I sometimes find the use of children’s first-person narration in adult novels to be gimmicky, Jack’s perspective was unique and interesting enough to keep me reading.
  • After years of trying, Keith and I secured reservations at elBulli in November of 2010, and for that reason I was particularly interested in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli by Lisa Abend, which chronicles not a year of elBulli so much as a year in the life of a stagiaire at elBulli.  It’s fascinating to learn of all their backgrounds, interests, successes and failings, regardless of whether or not you’d eaten at the restaurant or not.
  • I should’ve kicked my kidnapping kick before reading Still Missing, as I found the abducted narrator of Chevy Stevens‘s novel to be both irritating and without redeeming factors.  Skip it.
  • Laura Lippman‘s I’d Know You Anywhere is also about kidnapping, is leagues better, and ultimately forgettable.

June

  • I hadn’t read any Nick Hornby in years; it was only Juliet, Naked‘s availability at my local library that made Mr. Hornby’s most recent novel my first of his to read since About a Boy.  Funny stuff, this, and a must-read for those who have music nerds in their lives or who are self-aware music nerds.
  • My book club needed something to read, so I recommended In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff, simple because I already had it out of the library and had just started the book the same day.  The mystery takes place in turn of the century New York — a genre, historical period and location that the ladies in book club all love, so for that reason it was it good fit.  The main character, a detective with a tragic past, transfers out of a gritty and corrupt New York City precinct to sleepy, quiet Westchester County.  Instead of finding tranquility, he’s face-to-face with the most brutal murder he’s ever seen.
  • I’m not going to lie, I read Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick by Molly Ringwald only because I was on a Breakfast Club kick.
  • Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is told from the perspective of four characters, a writing technique that I as a reader and a writer really enjoy.  Sometimes it can be done beautifully (In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, for example) but more often than not, this is done in a mediocre fashion.  Ms. Miller is a fine writer, and she tackles this well, but I didn’t find any of the four characters to be unforgettable.
The Day I Read A Book” by Jimmy Durante.

Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

Salad Days (Are Here Again).

I have a fantastic memory.  This isn’t a grandiose statement, not in the least.  It’s plain fact.  I can describe what I wore to the first day of class for all four years of high school, I can recall conversations from months ago in great detail, I can remember not only passages from my favorite books but also where those words lie on a page, I can tell you about the various culinary tasks assigned to me as a child by my mother in order to keep me occupied and out of trouble.  Popping canned chick peas out of their individual translucent skins, for example, or picking parsley leaves off of their stems, or tearing the legs and shells off of shrimp.

That was a particular favorite of mine, denuding shrimp.  I believe the first time I was made to do this, strip shrimp from their shells, was when I was in the first or second grade. My mother emptied a bag of oyster-colored shrimp into the colander she had placed inside the stainless steel basin of the sink, then set our gray-and-black plastic footstool at my feet.  I’ve always been short, and the footstool’s added few inches allowed me to almost tower over the small mound of shellfish.  My mother showed me how to remove the slippery spindly legs and the smooth sectioned skeletons, and how to make sure each shrimp’s tail remained intact without its husk.  I made a game of this, giving myself points for each entire tail I shucked, though I quickly lost count; I’ve never had a head for numbers.

Ripping the legs from the pleasantly slimy and surprisingly firm shrimp bodies was highly satisfying, even to my grade school self.  There was something simply rewarding about grasping the five sets of legs in my stubby child’s fingers and giving them a sharp pull.  I was also kind of blown away by the fact that my mother had given me permission to basically destroy something, to literally tear something apart.

When I found the following recipe in the pages of Cooking Light, the first thing I thought was about how similar-yet-different it sounded to the avocado salad from Bon Appétit that Keith and I so often enjoy.  The second thing was I want to tear the legs off of some shrimp, and my mind simultaneously conjured up a physical memory: the feeling of those miniscule legs, gently bent like the willowy branches of a tiny tree, between my finger and thumb.

I felt the need to shell shrimp as keenly as a craving, and so I set about gathering the ingredients for this salad.   I can’t tell you what pleased me more: the end result — which was quite spectacular — or learning that breaking down a pile of shrimp still makes me ridiculously happy.

Don’t bother making this salad if you can’t find fresh tarragon at your local market.  Its licorice-y flavor is integral to the dish, and you’ll be doing everything involved — the rest of the ingredients, your taste buds — a great disservice by trying to substitute dry for fresh.  And if you have the good fortune of living with a dog, consider giving him or her the tarragon stem to nibble at.  This does two things: freshens his or her breath, and gives you something cute to look at while you segment your citrus fruit.

Shrimp, Avocado + Grapefruit Salad, from Cooking Light
Makes four courses

2 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 ounces peeled and deveined medium shrimp
½ teaspoon salt, divided
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 grapefruit (I used two navel oranges, since Keith doesn’t like grapefruit)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
6 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 peeled avocado, cut into 12 wedges (I used two, and chopped them into a rough dice)

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle shrimp with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add shrimp to pan; cook 3 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring frequently. Remove from pan; keep warm.
  2. Peel and section grapefruit over a bowl, reserving 3 tablespoons juice. Combine grapefruit juice, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper, tarragon, brown sugar, and shallots in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add lettuce; toss. Arrange 2 cups lettuce mixture on each of 4 plates. Top each serving with 3 avocado wedges; divide shrimp and grapefruit sections evenly among servings.
Salad Days (Are Here Again)” by Procol Harum.