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.
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Everything Has Changed.

Yesterday Keith and I drove to New York, where we are now and where we picked up our new puppy.  He’s a whippet, born April eighth. We’ve named him Fergus Henderson, after the chef at St. John in London, but we’re just calling him Fergus. (Whippets are English, the name Fergus is English…) Fergus Henderson is just too much of a mouthful, especially if you want to be smart and stick both Keith and my last names in there too.  That’s a lot to fit on an ID tag.

My dad won’t admit it, but he’s pretty enamored with Fergus. I don’t blame him, because this dog is pretty damn cute.  I’ll be posting a photo of him every day on a separate site called Fergus, At Your Service, though I’m sure I’ll be mentioning him on a fairly regular basis — we’ve now got a four-legged reason to stay in.  So get used to more writing about home-cooked meals rather than restaurant food.

You’ve been warned.

Everything Has Changed” by Lucinda Williams.

Thank You.

A moment: thanks to everyone for their sympathy.  Part of me feels silly for feeling as I do about Winston’s death, particularly when I have to explain to people why I’m so unusually and sometimes publicly emotional.  At the same time, I’ve really enjoyed all the stories and memories people have shared, both about Winston and about their own beloved pets.  Winston was a huge part of my life, and he was so special to me, and your condolences and general warmheartedness are so greatly appreciated.

May All Your Days Be Gold, My Child.

Yesterday I came home from my parents’ house in New York; I went to take the dog to the vet to be put to sleep.  It would be an understatement to say that I am a wreck, my mother is a wreck, my father is a wreck.  We are the Wreckorians.

Winston was an English setter, and fifteen, barely two months away from sixteen.  He was in bad shape.  He could neither see nor hear nor walk properly, let alone consistently make it outside to pee.  He had testicular cancer and probably prostate cancer, his body was covered with little growths, his hair was falling out, and his eyelids were droopy and rimmed in red and overflowing with something that looked like snot, or slugs.  He hadn’t eaten in days.  He couldn’t poop.  He lost a pound in less than a week, which is a dream for people and dangerous for dogs.

Logically, I know that putting him to sleep was the right thing to do, but my God, was it indescribably awful.  It’s impossible to prepare for.  Lately I seem to be encountering a slew of dead pet stories, most notably “My Dog Days Are Over” by Doree Shafrir and “We Were Kittens Once, and Young” by Anna Holmes, both from The New York Times.  Both are well-written, but neither braced me for what was coming.

No one tells you how quickly a body can go cold, for example, or that a euthanized dog both looks and doesn’t look alive, and that your brain will have a hard time coping with that.  No one tells you that when it is over you will stare at your dog’s abdomen like you have so many times for the past few years, waiting for the drop-and-fall of his breathing, because even though you know it won’t happen part of you is convinced that it will.  No one tells you that you won’t listen for his nails against the hardwood floor when you go back to the house.  No one tells you how quickly you will fall asleep that night, or how hungry you will be that day, or how guilty you will feel for both.  No one tells you your father won’t stop talking about it with you, or that the two of you will often start crying for no reason even though you’re both supposed to be tough, or that neither of you will be capable of driving.  No one tells you that a sunny day is best for something like this because that way you will feel justified for wearing your oversized sunglasses and using them to hide your face while your tiny mother directs an embarrassingly-large SUV towards the vet’s.

This is what Winston used to look like.  I took this picture when I was sixteen or seventeen, and Winston was either one or two.  He was almost exactly half my age.

Winston was a great dog, but at the same time, he was a terrible dog.  He couldn’t walk on a leash, he jumped all over anyone who walked in the house, he begged at mealtimes as though he had never been fed before.  He rested his head on your thigh while you ate, leaving a damp horseshoe of drool behind when he moved on to the next thigh under the table.  He nudged your arm with his nose during dinner if he wanted your food, he nudged your arm with his nose while you read a book if he wanted to be petted, he nudged your arm with his nose while you did your algebra homework if he wanted to play.  He darted out the front door if you didn’t close it fast enough, then ran ran ran down the street and into strangers’ gardens.

He knew exactly when I would come home from high school, and waited behind the fence for me.  Once the bus got me home early and so I spied on him while he sat with perfect posture on the other side of the yard, facing the driveway intently.  Not even a squirrel could distract him.  Only when I whistled did Winston bound across the lawn towards me, barking.

He loved salami, and eating honeybees, and the spongy insides of bell peppers.  He was particularly fond of vanilla ice cream, so much so that he would huff at my father and sit next to the freezer when he wanted some.  The only way anyone could eat dried mangoes in the house was by sharing half the bag.  Cucumber peels were another favorite, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

Winston’s first winter was a doozy — foot after foot of snow hidden under inches of ice.  We spent hours digging tunnels in the backyard for him to run through; the sides were so tall we couldn’t even see his feathery tail over the tops, in spite of how high he happily held it.  He barreled through the walls sometimes, lunging through the snow like a swimmer doing the butterfly.  At one point he slipped on the ice and slid full force into the house.  He yelped, and did it again.  Then he ran on top of the frozen swimming pool, eating snow.

I don’t know what he liked more, plowing through the snow or swimming.  We taught him to climb up the ladder out of the water on his own; even though my parents had a separate fence put in around the pool, Winston figured out how to open the gate.  Sometimes we came home to a wet dog, his white hair bleached brighter than bright by the chlorine. As soon as we removed his collar he raced around the pool, deciding from which side to jump in.  If we were swimming, he swam alongside us, using his tail as a rudder.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, my father said to me.  He held Winston’s head in his hands.  I don’t know if this is the right thing.

I thought I’d be able to stay in the room while the vet gave Winston a series of injections — This one will make him woozy — but as the vet inserted the first needle, Winston yelped just as he had as a puppy when he couldn’t get any traction on the hardwood floor and skidded into a mirror.  Then, as the needle slid out of his skin, a drop of blood swelled at the injection site into a globule that the vet tech accidentally smeared across the length of Winston’s back amidst the few bald patches he had there.  That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able stay, so I rubbed his ears and kissed the pointed top of his head and sat in the waiting room next to my mom, as an African Grey Parrot looked at us with a yellow eye.

Keith didn’t understand why I had to go home for this, and the best I explanation I could give was this: I held Winston in my hands when we first brought him home as a puppy, and I slept next to him in a sleeping bag on the floor his first few nights in our house, and until I went away to college it was me he ran to.  I had been there in the beginning, and even though I had missed so very much of the middle, I had to be there in the end.

Ask me why I want Winston back so badly and why I miss him so much and I’ll say, Why do peaches make me happy? Why do I like the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet? Why do I enjoy lying in bed with Keith, looking at the ceiling on a sunny weekend morning?

These things are lovely and simple and they’re what makes living so special sometimes. We don’t need fancy cuisine or extravagant trips to feel alive. We need comfort, and love, and the feeling of warmth on our skin. And I got all that from a dog.

The title is from “Gold Day” by Sparklehorse; it came up on my iPod on the way home from New York.

A Post-Christmas Post.

Well, I survived Christmas Eve, you might be happy to hear.  Making dinner for eleven (plus one toddler, one newborn and one dog) wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be — and I promise you I’m not saying this in some sort of sad attempt to show you how cool and “together” I am, because had you seen me that morning, shrilly demanding that Keith vacuum and sweep*, you would know exactly how uncool and not “together” I am.

I’ll discuss what we served in a bit, but first I just want to say that a big part of why dinner was so successful is because Stephanie suggested I borrow a crockpot and because Marcella reminded me of an excellent baked fish recipe.  See, I knew I wanted to have a soup course but was worried about stove-space — at one point, I did in fact have all four burners going at once — which is why the crockpot was so helpful.  I just poured my soup in there earlier in the afternoon and plugged it in to keep warm.  And since I was concerned about what I would be able to cook on the stove, an oven-roasted fish was perfect.  And so stress-relieving; once I slid its tray in the oven, I was free to walk away, drink a glass of wine and have a little chat with guests.

So here’s what we had for dinner, from the top:  purée of onion soup (not pictured), potato galette, holiday rice (which my mother made for Keith specifically), salmon roasted in crème fraîche, beef tenderloin with basil-curry mayonnaise (in the ramekins), cream-braised Brussels sprouts and more holiday rice.

For dessert, which I did not photograph, I made an apple galette, chocolate mousse and two different types of caramels (more about these another day).  I also emptied a box of clementines into a bowl, though I can’t take credit for making them.

Now, here’s why preparing this dinner was so easy: almost everything could be done ahead of time. Honestly.  It’s as simple as that.

The caramels I had made a few days earlier, and sat hardening in my fridge until it was time for dessert.  The night before, I not only cleaned and split my Brussels sprouts but also made pâte brisée.  On Christmas Eve morning I sliced potatoes and apples for my savory and sweet galettes, which then went straight into the oven; they’re served at room temperature, so baking them and getting them out of the way was perfect.  As the soup’s onions sweated in a covered pan, I made and refrigerated the mousse.  After I puréed the onions with some vegetable stock and a splash of cream, it all went into the crockpot, leaving me plenty of time to make the rub and the mayonnaise for the beef tenderloin, as well as braise my sprouts.  I purposely waited until the last minute to stick the beef in the oven; everyone snacked from Keith’s cheese plate while it roasted and, as the tenderloin rested, the salmon had its turn in the oven.  And then we sat down to eat.

I’ve got to say, cooking for this crowd went much more smoothly than I could have ever hoped, mostly because I tried to choose recipes that could be made prior to dinner.  Something else that helped was preparing simple recipes that had high-impact results, like the salmon, beef, Brussels sprouts and soup.

Before I get to the recipes, here’s a shot of my parents’ fifteen-year-old English setter Winston partaking in his culture’s Christmas tradition: wearing the crown from a Christmas cracker.  Adorable, no?

Potato Galette, from Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin by Jacques Pépin
Makes eight to twelve portions

½ recipe pâte brisée
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into very thin slices, washed and dried
½ cup heavy cream

  1. Roll out dough 1/8 to 1/16 thick, in a shape that fits roughly a cookie sheet — approximately 16 x 14 inches.  If the dough is not thin enough after you lay it on the cookie sheet, roll it some more, directly on the sheet.
  2. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the oil.  Add the potato slices and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes on high until the slices start to look transparent and a few are slightly browned.  Let cool a few minutes and spread the potatoes on the dough.  Bring up the border of the dough and fold it over the potatoes.
  3. Bake in a 400° oven for approximately 45 minutes, until it’s lightly browned.  Spread the cream on top and bake for another 15 minutes.  Serve lukewarm in wedges.

Purée of Onion Soup, from Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons peanut oil
6 onions, peeled and sliced (about 12 cups)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock (I used vegetable, as one of our guests is a pescatarian)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until it slides easily across the pan.  Add the onions, garlic, salt and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, about 20 minutes.
  2. Add the stock and 1 cup water and simmer for 10 minutes more.  Purée the soup, then press it through a fine strainer.
  3. Just before serving, reheat the soup, whisk in the butter and adjust seasoning.

Crème Fraîche-Roasted Salmon, from Molly Wizenberg for Bon Appétit
Makes four to six portions

1 2-pound center-cut wild salmon fillet with skin, about 1 ¼ inches thick
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup crème fraîche

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil.
  2. Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet; sprinkle with salt and pepper. (I also sprinkled it with chopped chives, then zested a lemon over it all.)  Spread crème fraîche over salmon.
  3. Roast salmon until opaque in center, about 12 to 14 minutes. To test for doneness, cut small slit in thickest part of fillet; all but center of fillet should be opaque (salmon will continue to cook after fillet is removed from oven).
  4. Using spatula, transfer to platter.  (I served mine on the baking sheet.)

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Basil-Curry Mayonnaise, from Giada De Laurentiis
Makes six to eight portions

for the beef:
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus 2 teaspoons
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (3 ½ to 4-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed

for the mayonnaise:
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (I used cream cheese, since I had it)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Arrange an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°. Spray a heavy baking sheet with vegetable oil cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a mortar and pestle, or spice grinder, finely grind the cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the spices and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and toasted. Put the spices in a small bowl. Chop the garlic on a cutting board and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Holding a chef’s knife at a 45 degrees angle, scrape the garlic and salt together to form a paste. Add the garlic paste to the bowl with the spices. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, black pepper, and oil and stir until smooth.  (I did all of this in my mini food processor.  It came out just fine.)  Put the meat on the prepared baking sheet and rub with the spice mixture. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 125°, for medium-rare. Remove from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Cover the meat loosely with foil and let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mascarpone cheese, basil, curry powder, and paprika until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To serve: Slice the meat into ¼-inch thick slices and arrange on a platter. Spoon the mayonnaise mixture into a small serving bowl and serve alongside the sliced meat.

Five Things About Me: 51 52 53 54 55.

51. My conditioner-to-shampoo ratio is incredibly unbalanced.  I’d say it’s about four parts conditioner to each half part shampoo.  Let’s put it this way: I’m still on the same shampoo bottle that I brought to Europe in August, and on that trip I brought two bottles of conditioner.

52. I have all of my dogs’ names picked out for any foreseeable dog I might have.  The first three names are pretty much set in stone as my favorites, but the rest rotate based on my mood.

53. Jack McBrayer cracks me up.  He doesn’t even need to do anything to make he laugh.  His existing is enough.

54. Right now, I really want a nectarine.  If I could have any magic power, I would choose to be able to conjure my favorite foods at their seasonal peaks out of thin air.  No food miles, just shazam! and nectarine.

55. I read either Memoirs of a Geisha, The Secret History or Bel Canto at least once a year.  Last year I read Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto twice, and I haven’t read either Arthur Golden’s or Donna Tartt’s novels yet in 2009, so I better get to it.

Food Diary, Vol. 2: Day Three.

10.08 am: Warm milk with honey.

12.21 – 12.29 pm: Split half an apple with Keith while watching the Battle at the Berrics semifinals.  I spread mine with peanut butter, which I then get all over my fingers.  I’m messy.

1.30 – 3.30 pm: This is technically supposed to be brunch at Craigie on Main with Keith, Kelly, Nancy and Jonah, but since it’s after noon I say it counts as lunch.  I have something like three cups of coffee, all with cream and whatever sugar cubes Jonah doesn’t eat, as well as a yogurt-drenched fruit cup with some amazing figs, grass-fed and house-brined corned beef and tongue hash with a slow-poached egg and crispy onion rings and chocolate-smothered profiteroles with what is supposed to be mint-chocolate ice cream but really is just overwhelmingly minty.

6.35 pm: Coke Zero and half an order of large fries from McDonald’s while  we drive to New York. Keith eats the other half while I lick the salt from my fingers.  I know fries aren’t the healthiest choice in the world, but I love them so.

8.11 pm: A bite of Keith’s banana-walnut bread from Starbucks.  I’m the one driving at this point, so I pretty much cram the bread into my mouth in a very unladylike fashion.  My mother would be so ashamed.

10.06 – 10.46 pm: At my parents’ house, where I drink one of my dad’s Beck’s and share two and a half lamejun with the dog. He doesn’t mind that I’ve sprinkled my food liberally with fresh lemon juice.

11.15 pm: Two glasses Torii Mor Late Harvest Gewurztraminer with Keith and my parents while we discuss dogs, nightmares and Thursday’s Thanksgiving menu.