We moved last month, to a house we looked at once and fell in love with. We weren’t even really looking to buy a house, but this one went on the market and a friend drove me by and insisted it was perfect for us. Back at the office, we pulled the listing up online. “Too small,” I said. “Go look at it,” he advised. “The location is great, but we wouldn’t really be trading up in terms of size,” I explained. “Go look at it,” he repeated. “It’s probably a better house for a young single person. Or, like, a really really old person,” I offered. “Just go look at it,” he insisted. So we did. Then we bought it.
There were actually quite a few steps between the looking and the buying, all of which were unbearably nerve-wracking. Early in the process, people warned me that buying a house is stressful, and I nodded politely while secretly thinking, “I’ve bought stuff before. How hard can it be?” Here’s the difference: when you buy regular stuff, you click add to cart and a few days later the UPS guy shows up with something pretty; when you buy a house, the bank calls you several times a day to say comforting things like, “I’m reviewing your loan application and I have to ask: do you have any other money?”
But now we live here, in an adorable little mid century ranch with a river for a backyard and a kitchen twice as big as our old one.
There are a handful of things I’ll miss about living at our old house, and the farmers market is one of them. The market in our new town doesn’t start until the end of the June, so yesterday I drove back to our old town to get my fix. Guess how many of those things I bought just because they’re pretty. Hint: four. I was particularly captivated by the flowering arugula, which I’d never seen before. Evidently the flowers are nice in salads or scattered over soups or deviled eggs. Any other ideas?
I know: it sounds weird. I thought the same thing the first time I encountered grapefruit pudding. It was at a cookbook club meeting, one that I’d helped plan, around The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. The meeting was in October, which made Apple Upside-Down Cake the logical choice for dessert. To me, at least. “But that’s so expected,” my planning partner lamented, “let’s do the grapefruit pudding.”
“It’s a seasonal cookbook,” I insisted with my trademark self-righteousness. Self-righteousness never wins. It’s a clinically proven fact.
I was a little miffed about the grapefruit pudding, to be honest. But then I remembered that the whole point of joining a book club is to stretch and grow, to expose yourself to ideas and viewpoints and preferences that are not like your own, to challenge your beliefs and assumptions, to become A Better Person. Plus, I ate that grapefruit pudding and it was damn good.
I think of it often at this time of year. Of all the seasonal transitions, winter to spring is the weirdest. Last weekend we got 18 inches of snow — big, fat flakes of heavy wet snow that knocked down trees and power lines. On Monday morning when I left for work, it was 0°F; driving home on Wednesday evening the thermometer read 57°F. Then more snow, and now back to balmy. She’s a fickle creature, that Mother Nature.
I, however, remain steadfast in my devotion to grapefruit as a bridge from winter to spring, and grapefruit pudding is especially lovely for these fickle in-between days. It’s soft and warm and comforting, with a reassuring richness that’s beautifully balanced by the refreshing zing of grapefruit. The top bakes up light and airy, and the tender, cake-like crumb gives way to a bright citrus-y custard with a pleasant — almost amusing — springlike jiggle.
recipe from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, by Michelle & Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson with Catherine Price
My soufflés fell. They fell, I’m fairly certain, because I insisted on peeking at them repeatedly through the cracked oven door to make sure they were puffing up nicely. And they were, at one point. But when I pulled them all golden brown and fragrant from the hot oven, they’d fallen flatter than a pancake, concave even. “Shit, now what am I gonna do,” I thought, not out of any real concern for dinner but because I needed pretty pictures for my blog.
I like taking pictures of the food I make. It’s a meditative thing for me, being in the kitchen and behind the camera, but sometimes it gets away from me. I had a whole story mapped out around this grits soufflé, a story about homesickness—- deep, achey, ever-present, adrift-at-sea homesickness. Grits help with that sort of thing, because food—- the kind of food we care about—- is never really about just food. So I thought I’d make grits, and then I thought, “good lord, who wants to look at a picture of grits?” Within a matter of hours I’d managed to transform my antidote to homesickness into a source of anxiety over blog-worthy photographs. And just as I was beginning to fret about how I’d find the time to remake the soufflés and the light to re-photograph them by my self-imposed weekend deadline, I stumbled upon Brian Ferry’s beautiful post about honesty and the creative process. Before I was even halfway through, I’d decided not to revisit the soufflés.
I spend an awful lot of time thinking about photography, and the photographs that most interest me are those that capture things as they are—- un-staged, un-styled, of-the-moment sorts of photos. That’s not exactly the honesty that Brian was talking about, but it’s what I was reminded of as I read his post.
It’s true, I could make the soufflés again, but I’d only be doing it because I needed a photo of them, and then the things I do for pleasure—- cooking, photographing, writing—- would become a chore. Instead, I give you the soufflés as they were, along with the recipe, which I’ve successfully made for occasions both special and ordinary and which I can assure you do puff up light and airy, creamy and pleasantly gritty, with a whisper of piney rosemary and the sweet, mellow nip of roasted garlic.
recipe adapted, ever-so-slightly, from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which I love to pieces
Here’s what happens when you work for a jam company: you open your refrigerator one afternoon to put away a six-pack of beer and discover that you can’t, because there are thirteen jars of jam in the way. (Also, you get to attend fancy award ceremonies in San Francisco and personally sell jam to Alice freakin’ Waters. No biggie.)
I eat a lot of jam—in the mornings with yogurt and granola and, often, for dinner with cheese and rustic crackers. Still, I don’t eat enough jam to prevent my refrigerator from being overrun by half-eaten jars of it on a fairly regular basis.
And that’s when I start baking. I make a fantastic jam tart, but lately I’m partial to these crumble bars. They start with a tender short pastry base bulked up with oats and almonds, then comes a thick layer of jam nestled under crumbled bits of the same short pastry. The crust bakes up golden brown and nutty, with a soft, sandy texture that gives way to the bright fruitiness of jam. The combination is classic and homey, and these crumbly little jam bars are a perfectly lovely way to make use of even a brand new jar of jam.
recipe adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
Winter is magical. I generally have to be reminded of this. Often. Having grown up south of the Mason-Dixon line, I don’t have a natural affinity for things like ice and snow and frostbite, but other people do, namely my Midwestern husband and his Midwestern friends. We had company last weekend— friends from Chicago who came up to ski. And they did ski a little, but mostly I think they came up to open our back door, take deep breaths of frigid northern air and shout, with arms outstretched, “Who wants to go walk barefoot in the snow?” (no takers)
On Sunday afternoon while everyone skied I made après-ski cocktails. I stood by the windows in our cozy kitchen absentmindedly squeezing grapefruit juice as I admired the sparkle and shimmer of soft winter sunlight on freshly fallen snow. When the skiers returned, flushed and exhilarated, I mixed the grapefruit juice with rosemary-infused honey and the warm, comforting notes of bourbon and set a jug out on the counter. And the skiers said, “Oh thank you, but I like my bourbon straight,” and, “Hmmm, I’m not really a big fan of bourbon,” and, “Oooh, that looks great; I think I’ll have a beer.”
Midwesterners. I tell you what.
So I’ve been drinking Brown Derbys all week and reveling in the vivid sparkle of late winter. Grapefruit and bourbon and rosemary would taste perfectly nice any time of year, but the bright, herbaceous sweetness is particularly lovely against the bracing chill of February. This is a late afternoon cocktail, a sipping sort of cocktail, a cocktail to enjoy with friends. And if you decide to go tromping about barefoot in the snow, you’ll want a few of these in you for sure.
recipe adapted from Bridget Albert & Mary Barranco’s Market Fresh Mixology
Things I made in 2011 but never got around to writing about:
It’s occurred to me more than once over the past few years — as we’ve ripped up carpet and torn out cabinets, laid flooring and tile, hung drywall, replaced light fixtures and appliances and furniture, and slowly worked our way through 11 gallons of Benjamin Moore’s Moonlight White — that what I really should have is a home renovation blog (like Door 16, only not nearly as cool), filled with satisfying before-and-after photos and helpful tips on how to paint 50-year-old knotty pine paneling. Instead, I float about in a dream world of food, taking ambitious photos of recipes I’d like to share and then realizing oh crap, that room needs three more coats of paint before Monday; let’s order sandwiches.
But we finished the last major project on our list right after Thanksgiving and we’re now left with only minor tasks like paint baseboards and cover that weird hole in the wall and make a light fixture for the bedroom. Which means a return to a semi-normal life filled with the simple, quiet things that make me happy: cooking, writing, and eating well. I look forward to sharing all that with you in 2012.
My market is one of the only markets in the area that continues beyond September. I mentioned that to a coworker yesterday and he seemed surprised, not that more towns weren’t still holding markets but that mine was. “What do they even have?,” he asked. In addition to this stuff, there were pumpkins and squash and all sorts of leafy greens, tomatoes (yes, still!), mushrooms, broccoli, a dozen varieties of apples, and rutabagas the size of your head. I’m not sure what one does with a rutabaga the size of a human head, which is why I didn’t buy one. (As it turns out, ancient Celts carved scary faces in them and used them as lanterns to ward off evil spirits at Samhain. Duh.)
This week, with carrot greens and leek tops, it was tough to take a photograph that didn’t include at least part of a very portly little cat. She swatted at me when I took the leeks away and followed me to the refrigerator meowing. Which was not nearly as amusing as the time she got her head stuck in a bag of Twizzlers.
I don’t have a picture of that. Here are some leeks and carrots instead.