When the thermometer goes way up

June 8, 2011

I am in denial: about the fact that I’m moving in three days, and I just sold my desk (gave it away, actually), and now my room is sad and lopsided, like a boat listing dangerously to port. Or is it starboard? I can never remember.

Also about the fact that I only have a little over a week of cooking for myself before I’m gone for the summer, so I should be making the most of it, but it is 90 degrees and I don’t want to. So I’m eating a lot of salads. Cold soba noodles, lentil/feta/tomato salad (which I always think of as Oberlin Graduation lentil salad, because my roommates and I made it for our parents when they came for commencement 7 years ago). And this improvised tomato salad that I made on Memorial Day weekend. I justified buying the extravagant tomatoes by the fact that it was also my mom’s birthday two days later.

taste the rainbowThis barely needs a recipe, it’s just a pound of pretty tomatoes chopped to roughly uniform dice (I bought one of those fancy containers of assorted shapes, colors, and sizes – red, yellow, purple, green) plus a minced shallot, some fresh thyme or whatever herb you’ve got, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, salt and coarse-ground pepper. And a sunny day.

I’ve also been enjoying some homemade hummus. I got this recipe a couple of years ago when I accompanied a voice recital and somebody’s dad brought a big bowl of it for the reception. I’d never had homemade hummus before and was astounded at the flavor, so it was the first thing I made when I finally got a food processor. I’ve since begun customizing it with a handful of whatever I’ve got around – chopped red pepper, sliced scallions, or in this case, chipotles in adobo. I usually use 1-2 smallish chipotles per batch, but this time I used a single larger one, plus maybe I got a really spicy batch of them, because it’s so piquant as to be a naturally self-limiting snack. Oh well.


1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 Tbsp plain sesame tahini

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 tsp salt

juice of 1 lemon

some water

olive oil

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend to desired consistency (I like it not completely smooth, but that’s just me). Add salt if needed, or more water if too dry. You can also throw in additional flavorings before or after blending – if I’m using scallions I add them after, so they get mixed in but not pulverized.

Happy summer!


So long, farewell

May 28, 2011

I’m moving out of the Quincy apartment in two weeks – two weeks! – and the timing is really terrible. Not because I’m so very busy with end-of-year concerts and recitals (I am, but most of that will be over in a few days), but because this is the time of year when it’s suddenly a good thing that the bedrooms – located in the basement, but overlooking a sort of cliff, so they get plenty of light – are a solid 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. The cross-breezes that blow from the kitchen through the living room are awfully pleasant, and there are new green leaves outside the windows, though they’re already full of holes chewed by the horrible green worms that loll all over my car in the morning. So, OK, there are pros and cons to everything, and I’m not going to miss the green worms or how cold my room was in winter or the bathroom fan that sounds like a dying horse. But as I sit here in my breezy kitchen surrounded by pint glasses full of flowers (it’s concert season and I only have one vase), listening to the chatty sparrows outside, it’s hard not to think of all the things I am going to miss.

My pantry, for one. It makes me unreasonably happy to gaze at its shelves lined with bright-colored cookware, hot sauce, vinegar, pasta, and tea: it’s a feeling of plenty, a cozy, provided-for feeling. And it has my favorite view in the house, at least in spring and summer when the trees are leafy. From this angle, through the stand of skinny trees, you can’t see the house next door, so it looks like I live in a forest, not a narrow, pothole-ridden residential street in a blue-collar suburb. Downside: it’s hard to see things in there at night, because although there is an overhead light with a pull-chain, I’m too short to reach it.

I don’t know that I will miss this kitchen, exactly, what with its dearth of counter space (just enough for a dishrack and a cutting board), but I have certainly had some culinary adventures here, including last week’s flaming rhubarb crumble and the salmon that I once pulled out of the oven, then promptly fumbled onto the floor. Both those incidents involved a blue Le Creuset baking dish that didn’t break when dropped (though it melted a bit of the linoleum) and didn’t scorch irreparably even when its contents were blackened (thanks, Bon Ami), so if nothing else, at least I know that dish is nigh indestructible. More importantly, I think the two years I’ve spent here have been the ones in which I’ve grown most as a cook, trying out new recipes, ingredients, and techniques, inspired somewhat by this blog but much more so by other blogs, books, and magazines. In this kitchen I read a recipe for homemade fruit preserves and said, “Oh! I can do that.” Hence the jars of ginger-peach jam above, a combination which I haven’t really perfected yet, but I’ve got a new idea to try as soon as I can find some ripe peaches.

I think I may have mentioned that I like trees, and while the bunch outside my pantry window are sort of an illusory comfort, there are more than I could ever ask for a mere seven minutes away in the Blue Hills. I will probably come back and hike them again in the fall – maybe even the whole Skyline Trail in a day, if I can find a friend with a car to do it with me – but I’ll definitely miss the convenience of being able to hike any sunny morning that I don’t have to work, without any planning. It’s not like I’ll be starved for trees this summer; I’m supposed to climb Mount Washington with the same friend I hiked with last year, and the theater-company housing is aptly named the Spruces. There are plenty of maples and firs around my parents’ house, where I’m staying for a bit between moving and leaving for New Hampshire. But I’m worried about how things will be in New York. I’ve been spoiled here; even when I lived in Boston, there were enough trees around to harbor the occasional raccoon or oriole. Either the city will break me of my need for green things, or I’ll end up spending all my time in a park.

I do anticipate a wider array of food, coffee, etc. available in New York, and if my recent visits are any indication, I have a lot to look forward to. I haven’t been able to find a good bread place around here, though there are plenty of cupcakeries, and I’ve often wished for a high-quality independent coffee shop close by. Of course, while the South Shore may not boast Blue Bottle, Stumptown, or the like, I do have a small, secret soft spot for Marylou’s, a local chain that is almost as well known for hiring cute high school girls and dressing them in short shorts and pink T-shirts, as for its ridiculously flavored coffee.  Pictured above is the white chocolate chip iced coffee I purchased today. It was insanely sugary, and I would probably rather die than have been caught drinking it in front of my former Peet’s coworkers. But it was pretty tasty. And while I have little to say about Dunkin’ Donuts coffee except that it’s usually better than nothing, I do feel a certain pride to have lived in the town where it all started, and to have visited the Weymouth location where they still make their own pastries in-house. Maybe not as proud as I feel to have lived in the same zip code as the Sam Adams brewery. But a little, anyway.

No, I’m not going to miss my cat. She isn’t going anywhere, not if I have any say in the matter. But her personality seems to adapt to different environments; the chilliness of this apartment probably led to her realization that laps are kind of comfortable, especially my lap, especially if I’ve got a fleece blanket over my legs. So I’m curious exactly who she’ll be once we figure out where we’re living next. I guess I wonder the same thing about myself.

If you’ve been reading this long and live in the area (and you aren’t somebody I’ve never met, though if you are, hello! And thanks for reading!), consider this your invitation to come have a cup of tea or some dinner, or go hiking, or just keep me company while I throw things in boxes, sometime before I move. I haven’t had nearly enough people over since I’ve lived here, and I’m running out of chances to fix that.


What not to do with rhubarb

May 14, 2011

Well, it looks like it’s that time of year again: the time when I come home with some shiny, delicious-looking piece of seasonal produce, visions of culinary greatness dancing in my head, only to destroy that innocent fruit or vegetable through ignorance and/or faulty equipment. Last year it was a pair of artichokes that turned out brown and limp but still too tough to eat; this year it’s a pound of jewel-toned rhubarb. And although I’d like to blame my sometimes-faulty oven or my general ineptitude for baking (which have joined forces to produce countless muffins that were perfectly golden on the outside, but overly squishy and moist in the middle), in this case I think it mostly comes down to a reluctance to follow directions.

The directions I wasn’t quite following were for a rhubarb crumble, posted on Orangette in 2005. Simple enough – toss sliced rhubarb with sugar and spices, top with a mixture of flour, brown sugar, rolled oats, and… 6-7 tablespoons of canola oil? Really? Baking-challenged or not, I’ve made (and eaten) lots of apple crisp, and I’ve always used butter in the topping, and certainly not 6 tablespoons of it. I figured a couple tablespoons of butter plus a slight drizzle of oil would work out all right. But I didn’t take into account the high flour-to-oats ratio in the rhubarb recipe, and without the stipulated amount of fat, the topping wasn’t browning, though the filling was bubbling gleefully. So I drizzled on a little more oil, turned on the broiler, and set a timer for three minutes. The timer sang out, I opened the oven, and my lovely rhubarb crumble was not merely browned, but blackened, and dancing with flame. I hastily shut the oven door and turned off the broiler, then opened some windows to dispel the nasty-smelling smoke while I waited for the fire to die out.

The silver lining: while I had to scrape off the hard black crust from the top, a little of the actual crust underneath survived. And I did make one successful innovation. The crumble recipe called for orange zest and I didn’t have an orange, so I substituted a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger (borrowed from another recipe I’d dismissed as probably less foolproof, ha ha). I am basically a ginger fiend, but I think even a normal person would appreciate the warm, spicy quality of the filling. And the extra flavor probably helped banish any lingering notes of carbon.

Whether my salvaged rhubarb crumble is fit to serve the friends I’m having for dinner tomorrow, I haven’t decided yet. But I bet it’ll make a terrific breakfast, topped with a dollop of vanilla yogurt.


The best version

March 11, 2011

On my way out of the choir rehearsal I accompanied today, I got a cancellation call from the mom of the student I was supposed to be tutoring in math. Instead of spending 90 minutes drilling a fourth-grader in fractions and multiplication, I would have an extra couple hours of daylight to myself. I could go read magazines at the library, look at clothes in Marshall’s that I shouldn’t buy until next week’s paycheck, or… right. Go hiking, like I should’ve done this damp, gloomy morning, if I’d managed to kick myself out of bed sooner. I knew I needed the exercise, and I’ve had some of my best hiking experiences in similarly forbidding weather.

I’ve been feeling sort of down on myself lately, physically speaking, and it’s not really because of the wobble in my upper arms or the 10 pounds I’ve been meaning to lose forever. It’s because of my lack of determination to overcome bad weather, inertia, or whatever, and go exercise anyway. Worse, I’ve been comparing myself unfavorably to other people, some of whom I don’t even really know, who seem to have things going for them that I don’t — motivation, a more active lifestyle, stunning good looks. This is not only useless but irrelevant, because I am not those people. I don’t have their gifts, resources, or goals, I have my own. I know this. But sometimes it’s easier to sit on the couch and wallow than to get up and do something that makes me feel better about myself — me, a uniquely created person, and not a failed imitation of someone else.

Which is why I’ve decided to give up feeling sorry for myself for Lent. Good luck, right? I expect to slip up in small ways on a daily basis, but the idea is to catch myself, figure out what’s really bothering me, and do something to counteract it. I’m sleeping in too late? Move the alarm out of arm’s reach, and actually stay out of bed once I’ve gotten up to silence it. I haven’t accomplished my goals for the day? Stop reading things online and get on it. I’m sluggish and out of shape? Easy. Get out of the house and get moving.

This is how I found myself fighting my way up a rocky hill, pushing farther and faster, wanting to feel the heat in my legs and chest, the effort of breathing. Wanting to know I was doing something hard and a little unpleasant, teaching my body to be stronger and tougher. Until I couldn’t any more, and stood still, heart racing, turned my face to the flat gray sky, and prayed: God, help me to be the person You saw when You designed me, the person You still see in me. Not someone else, just the best version of me. Help me to accept who and what I am and to believe that others will accept me, even love me, too.

I kept climbing then, but more slowly, without the same urgency. I thought about how strange it is for someone like me, who’s always considered herself sort of average-looking, to be so frequently surrounded by actors, people whose job requires them to be attractive. Naturally, I feel prettier some days than others, and more so since I’ve had a couple of boyfriends to say nice things about me. And I’ll never forget my grandfather telling me I had such beautiful eyes. But on the whole: average. Then I thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom one astute blogger has compared to celery root, scruffy-looking but versatile. (Though I think Hoffman is much more interesting.) Most people wouldn’t call him particularly handsome, but he’s widely regarded as a fine actor, and with good reason.

One of my favorite films of his — OK, one of my favorite movies, period — is State and Main.  The story follows a gaggle of Hollywood personnel — actors, director, cinematographer, designers, etc. — who descend on a small Vermont town to shoot a film. Hoffman plays the tortured, idealistic screenwriter torn between pleasing the director, who insists he rewrite a pivotal scene to eliminate a problematic set piece, and remaining true to his script’s noble intentions. He’s befriended by a local bookseller and community theater maven (Rebecca Pidgeon) who shows him what’s really important, which he actually knew all along: truth, and standing up for what you know is right.

I realized today that the friendship and eventual romance that develops between these two characters is probably my favorite aspect of the film. The gentle, perceptive way she’s able to lead him to the right answer, while still giving him room to figure it out for himself, is something I’d like to emulate in my own relationships. I think I’d like someone to do that for me, too, but that’s probably a tangent for another day.

I’d like to add that State and Main is also terribly funny, especially to anyone accustomed to the clash between ambitious, high-energy artist types and small-town New England culture. I think I may have to watch it again soon, at the expense of finally watching Inception so I can mail it in and cancel my seldom-used Netflix subscription once and for all.


Toward what is ahead

March 3, 2011

I have never wanted spring to come so badly as I do this year.  I know it isn’t just me – the Boston Globe has taken to measuring our accumulated snowfall in Shaq-inches, and while we’re still 6 inches short of the new Celtic’s height, I have faith that we can close that gap soon.  But this year, there’s more riding on the change of season than sunny skies and not having to pry open my frozen car doors with a crowbar. (Don’t worry, Dad, I don’t actually have a crowbar.) My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Feehrer, always said there ought to be a fifth season between winter and spring, one called “Mud.”  I don’t see a lot of that around right now – I’m just grateful to have sidewalks again – but I think she was on to something. Spring can easily become a frantic, in-between season, the one where you tie up all your loose ends in preparation for the huge expectations of summer. But summer, for me, has usually meant another kind of limbo, a hiatus from regular life where I see the people I care most about and do the activities to which I’m accustomed. It means being too hot most of the time (and I’ve never been that great a swimmer, or that fond of lounging around in a bathing suit) and working jobs that aren’t necessarily relevant to what I really want to do, and generally feeling like I’m missing out on whatever magical experience I’m supposed to be having. This year things feel a little different, almost backwards. I know I’ve written before about my current summer job at the Weathervane Theatre, and one of the advantages of working a single, all-consuming job for a few months is that you’re not juggling a lot of different people’s expectations. Well, in my position I sort of still am, because I divide my time between mainstage and intern-company rehearsals, while also programming keyboards and writing and arranging a lot of the interns’ music, but even so: people basically understand what I’m up to, and basically want me to get enough sleep and not explode. This is wonderfully freeing, compared to “real life,” wherein I’m constantly balancing the expectations of my piano students’ parents, my bosses, the directors and actors of whatever show I’m working on (and probably whatever show I’m planning next), family and friends who’d like to spend time with me, and my own various goals and projects. Beyond that, it’s increasingly true that many of the friends I most want to spend time with are Weathervane people. So those 11 weeks in New Hampshire, stressful and activity-packed as they may be, are full of meaningful, rewarding work and people who understand and share my dreams. People with whom I can climb mountains and eat ice cream and sit around the bonfire at night, who can calm me down when I’m freaking out about some unimportant detail, who can show me what it means to put aside fear or doubt and do something with all your heart. Some of you noticed those two big steps I was contemplating at the end of my New Year’s post, and if I’ve been a little quiet over here recently, it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and planning and deciding about those things. One of them is that I’m thinking of moving to New York, to pursue theater work more seriously. This has been in the back of my mind for a while – there are infinitely more productions going on in different places and different levels than in Boston, and it seems silly not to be able to take advantage of all my theater connections there, or at very least to spend more time year-round with friends who are working towards the same things, and will push me to keep trying.

Frankly, New York scares me: it’s bigger, louder, dirtier, meaner, and more expensive than Boston (which – giant snowdrifts aside – has been doing its best to remind me how beautiful and charming it can be, as if it knew I was planning to leave). But it seems like something I should try at some point in my life, and better now when I’m younger, I think. Better now when I feel like I need to grow and stretch and change, and I know New York will challenge me to do that. How exactly, I don’t know. But I feel more ready now than I ever have before. And here’s the second big thing: though I have friends and hopefully lots of opportunities waiting for me, I’m moving alone. Without Jacob. When I move out of the apartment in June, it’s for good: I’m hoping to find a sublet for the fall, in JP or close by, then on to New York in January. I don’t want to say too much about my reasons here, because I could go on forever, and there are things I shouldn’t say in public until I’ve said them to the relevant people.

Instead I will share with you a salad I’ve been making recently. It started out as one of those throw-together-whatever’s-in-the-fridge kind of things, inspired partly by a sale on avocados and partly by a trip to Penzey’s. It’s a forward-thinking kind of salad, bright and vibrant but not getting too far ahead of itself, I hope.

End-of-Winter Salad with Ancho-Lime Vinaigrette

serves 2

1. Whisk together in a medium bowl: juice of 1 large lime, 1-2 Tbsp. canola oil, 1-2 tsp. ground ancho chile pepper, salt and garlic powder to taste.

2. Add to bowl: 2 large handfuls lettuce of choice (I used a butter lettuce/radicchio blend), 3 radishes thinly sliced, 1/2 cucumber sliced and halved, 1/2 ripe avocado roughly chopped, 1 scallion thinly sliced. Toss to coat.

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14


That restless urge

January 3, 2011

I’ve never been really big on New Year’s resolutions. The only one I’ve ever managed to keep was in eighth grade when I resolved not to kick boys anymore, even when they said really annoying things. And I almost haven’t kicked anyone since. I guess that means the kind of resolutions that work for me are things I already know I need to do, things that are small and concrete and not that much of a stretch.

So I’m not sure how much luck I’m going to have with my goal for this year: to take better care of myself. That’s something I know I need, for sure, but it’s also large and sprawling, and a lot of the little things that contribute to it are prosaic or difficult or not much fun. I need, for example, to make an appointment with my eye doctor (nothing’s wrong, I just haven’t been in a while), find a new dentist (I broke up with my old, excellent but very expensive dental practice when I finally got a health plan with dental insurance, which they didn’t take), and make a date to get my wisdom teeth removed. Blech. I’ve been putting that one off for years now, and I no longer have the excuse of waiting for insurance or a working freezer to stock with ice cream.

I need to come up with a more consistent sleep schedule — I get an OK amount of sleep, usually, but at irregular hours. Since I work mostly as a musician, teaching kids after school and adults after work, there’s little pressure to adhere to a civilized-person timetable. But I’m most productive and energetic between 10 AM and 3 PM, and I feel a lot better about myself when I get up and accomplish something before I have to leave for lessons or rehearsal. Plus I haven’t been sleeping too well lately, and I imagine smarter sleep habits will help.

I need to be more mindful of what I eat. I like to cook, I love food, but it’s too easy, especially when I’m working 12-hour days, to grab whatever’s readily available without thinking too hard about how it will make me feel. And I rarely eat much breakfast, just a couple slices of toast or some cereal to go with my morning coffee, since if I have the morning off I’ll just be eating lunch in a couple of hours anyway. My mother lost some weight a few years ago and is in terrific shape now, so if she says I need protein with my breakfast, I believe her. But this will take planning, to have appropriate food on hand and prepped. Premixing waffle batter maybe, or making a big batch of muffins or quickbread, or finally getting around to making my own granola. And I guess that goes for things like salad too; I could just as easily chop enough veggies, wash enough lettuce, and mix enough vinaigrette to last several days, then combine them daily as needed. Of course, while the prospect of having lots of tasty food easily at hand is exciting, it also makes me feel a little like a soccer mom.

And speaking of athletic pursuits, I need to be more intentional about exercise. Until Saturday, I hadn’t been hiking since Thanksgiving, mainly because I’ve had to work before noon almost every weekday, and my time off has been pretty full too (a weekend in New York, a shopping trip to Maine with my mom combined with a jaunt to Portsmouth to see a friend in A Christmas Carol, seeing Jacob’s shows and choral concerts). Making money is good, and supporting friends and spending time with family are also good. But getting outside and moving around needs to be a priority. I haven’t figured out how to do that when I don’t have any daylight hours to myself.

In some ways I feel like I’m taking myself in for a tune-up, the way you would an older car before taking it on a long trip, just to make sure it’s running efficiently and won’t break down while you’re on a snowy mountain road winding through bear country. I guess that’s the exciting part, this feeling I have that some big adventure is coming and I need to be ready. I’m contemplating a couple of changes in the coming year, things that seem scary but will help me grow, that will force me to take a more active role in my own future.

Out to dinner with an old friend last week — a Chinese buffet at the place where we always used to go with groups of friends when school got out early — I received this fortune: “Follow that restless urge to find yourself.” Vague as that may seem, and applicable to nearly anybody in nearly any situation, I still feel a little bit reassured by this piece of advice from a scrap of paper tucked inside a cookie. Also, it sounds to me like the first line of a loose sonnet. So now I have a writing assignment as well as permission to do what I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

I showed the fortune to my mother the next day. Her pithy, yet eloquent response: “Well, duh.”


Delicious heresy

December 22, 2010

It’s winter now, officially, and it’s cold and dark and there’s a lot of cold, wet snow left from two days ago, with more on the way. I’m working abnormally long hours this week because the sixth grade has their chorus concerts right after break, so I’m playing for lots more of those classes than usual, plus my usual 15 or so piano lessons. Furthermore, Jacob’s been gone since Sunday night, gone home to his family in Virginia for a couple of weeks. All this can mean only one thing: it is time to eat pancetta.

Jacob is Jewish, and though he doesn’t keep strictly kosher — he eats cheeseburgers, for instance — he does not eat shellfish or pork. I’m sure he doesn’t care whether I do, but I’m not going to spend time cooking a meal he can’t eat, so I mainly don’t eat much of those things either, not even in restaurants, because it seems unfriendly. (When I bought mussels for lunch, he was in rehearsal all day.) Don’t feel too sorry for me — I indulged in some lobster mac-and-cheese while shopping in Maine with my mom this weekend, and in New York the weekend before, I had shrimp in spicy red sauce at a Cuban place and pizza with guanciale at Roberta’s. I ate pulled-pork sandwiches whenever they appeared on the Weathervane buffet table. I do okay, really. But only when I’m alone in the apartment do I cook such things for myself.

My go-to pork-product indulgence, especially in winter, is crispy pancetta stirred into tomato sauce to make a sort of simplified pasta all’amatriciana. I’ve only had amatriciana once, in a North End eatery called Cibo (since replaced by a new place called Panza, possibly with the same owners, and a lot of the Cibo menu still intact). It was a bitterly cold, windy night, I was visiting a friend on Hanover Street, and she suggested dinner there. I remember the warmth of the place, even though we were seated close to the door; the friendliness of the host, who may also have been the owner; and the rich, satisfying flavors of that pasta dish. Of course, now that I’ve read a bit more about it, I realize purists would probably scoff at the meal I had that night; its plum-tomato sauce was laced with pancetta, not the traditional guanciale, and fontina. And an old menu I found online indicates it had eggplant, too. Heresy. But you know what? That was some delicious pasta.

The version I make at home commits the double sin of incorporating nonstandard ingredients (garlic is disputed and mushrooms unheard-of) and jarred sauce. Sure, you could make the sauce from scratch, and I probably will sometime. But for now, this is fast, easy comfort food, the perfect remedy for late December. I wouldn’t serve it to an Italian. To date I haven’t served it to anyone, actually. But I think my mother would like it.

Tomato Sauce with Pancetta and Mushrooms

Serves 2 smallish appetites.

2 oz. pancetta, cubed

2 cloves garlic, sliced

6 oz. button or cremini mushrooms, sliced

a couple good shakes of red pepper flakes

1-2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade (I like Trader Joe’s roasted garlic marinara)

pasta of choice

Parmesan/pecorino/whatever for grating on top

1. Cook pancetta in a skillet over medium heat until it’s slightly crispy and most of the fat has rendered out.

2. Push pancetta to one side of pan. Add garlic and cook until golden. Add red pepper flakes, mushrooms, and a little olive oil if needed; cook until mushrooms are tender.

3. Stir in tomato sauce, reduce heat, and cook until warmed through.

4. Serve with pasta, ideally something short and textured to catch the pancetta bits. I like tricolor rotini, because everything’s more fun when it comes in three colors.