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Winter Squash Soup

So my friend / media consultant / lifesaver, Alison Law, made this video of me (bottom of the page) preparing butternut squash soup. Alison put the whole clip together, cutting it down, adding music, adding a cameo by my cat Peanut, complete with his bird bib, which makes him look like Mr. Pitiful, but saves the lives of lots of little birdies.

Alison and I chose to highlight this soup recipe because it’s the one I fix most often. It’s really versatile; if you make it you can see that there’s lots of room for improvisation. It starts, as many soups do, with onions slow cooked in a flavorful fat. Borrowing from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’s suggestion, I start with bacon, about four slices of it, cut into 1-inch squares. The day I made this soup for the video, Whole Paycheck Foods had some wonderful bacon from a small Georgia farm that treats its pigs right and makes about the best damn pig products you’ve ever tasted. This stuff was rolled in curry seasonings, and it was incredible. (In fact, there is a moment when I go a little nuts tasting it in the film. Reader, I was about 13 weeks pregnant when we were making this, and that bacon tasted DAMN GOOD.)

The thing is, if you’re vegetarian you can start your onions in butter. If you’re vegan, you can start them in olive oil. It all tastes good. You let the onions cook till soft and translucent, about five minutes minimum. Keep the heat low so they don’t brown; indeed, the lower and slower you cook them, the more sweet and delicious the final soup will be. When you’ve cooked them for as long as you have the patience for, add a clove or two of chopped garlic and a uniformly sliced and peeled Granny Smith apple. (Or don’t! The apple is optional–see, versatile!) Let the apple cook with the onion for about 5-10 minutes, then add the flesh of the root vegetables you have already roasted.

About those roasted vegetables: I usually roast a large butternut squash (sliced in half longwise, seeds scooped out, rubbed in olive oil, then roasted till tender at 350 degrees, which usually takes about an hour and fifteen minutes) and a large sweet potato (also rubbed in olive oil and roasted in same pan as the squash, at 350.) You can also roast any other kind of edible winter squash. If you don’t have time to roast your own veggies–no problem. Trader Joe’s sells cubes of already peeled butternut squash. You can just use a bag of that. It’s delicious.

Once you’ve added your root vegetables (either roasted or bagged from Trader Joe’s), stir everything around so all of the flavors get mixed up. Add a bay leaf, some grated nutmeg, some grinds of pepper, and about 1 to 1 and ½ teaspoons kosher salt. You’ll probably end up needing more, but if using bacon, remember it is naturally salty. Let the vegetables cook together for about 10 minutes. If using uncooked squash from Trader Joe’s, let all of the vegetables cook together for about 20 minutes, till squash has a little give when pierced with a knife.

After veggies have all cooked together, add about 4-6 cups stock, chicken or veggie, depending on whether or not you want the meal to be vegetarian. I prefer homemade stock—which is easy to make!—but store bought is absolutely fine. Let soup come to a light boil, then lower to simmer and cook another 20 minutes.

Take off stove and let cool for just a minute. Blend in batches till soup is a thick puree. (If you have a hand immersion blender–lucky you!) If you need to add more stock to thin, do it. I sometimes like to thin with a little bit of apple juice. Once blended, return the soup to the pot and taste for seasoning. Does it need more salt, more nutmeg, more pepper? If serving right away, I like to add about 1-2 T. heavy cream, but if you are going to refrigerate or freeze soup for later, don’t add dairy till you plan to heat it up to serve.

This soup is delicious poured over a wedge or triple cream cheese such as Brillat Savarin or St. Andre (also a Scott Lewis and Edna Peacock suggestion.) It is also delightful with a few pieces of crumbled bacon on top. It makes a great fall meal with a simple salad (I like arugula, apple chunks, and toasted walnuts) and it goes great with cheese biscuits.

One note on the cheese biscuit recipe I linked to: It’s delish, but I always add a little more salt to it. Like maybe 1/4 teaspoon more than what’s called for. I’m southern, see, and we like things salty.

Here’s the vid of me making soup!

 

Mittie Cumbie Wade’s Sour Cream Pound Cake

Mittie Cumbie Wade's Sour Cream Pound Cake RecipeI’ve received some of the nicest, most touching notes this week from people who are in the middle of reading–or just finished–A Place at the Table. I’ve also received some really nice reviews from book lovers and book bloggers. I am so grateful for the word of mouth support this book is getting! Thank you.

I’ve also been getting some requests for recipes! I wish I could have everyone over and cook for them (to me heaven would be a dinner party with no one getting drunk and belligerent and people from all walks of life reunited), but in lieu of my hosting folks at my house I want to share a recipe with you from the book. This is the recipe for Bobby’s grandmother’s poundcake. Except Bobby doesn’t call her “Grandmother;” he calls her “Meemaw.”  Meemaw’s pound cake is so good she sells 10 a week out the back door of her kitchen in Decatur, GA. I had to try a lot of recipes before I found one that I thought warranted Meemaw’s seal of approval. The one I chose is the recipe of my good friend Greg Johnson, whose own grandmother was famous for her pound cake. Her name was Mittie Cumbie Wade and Greg says folks would line up for her pound cake when she served it at family gatherings. You’ll also find this recipe in the back of the hardcover edition of A Place at the Table. Remember to bring all cold ingredients (eggs, butter, sour cream) to room temperature before cooking. And this cake really works best cooked in a bundt or tube pan–it doesn’t translate well to loaf pans. Also, if you have the chance, topping this with a glaze made of melted butter, lemon juice, confectioner’s sugar and lemon zest takes things to a whole new level.

Here’s the recipe:

Mittie Cumbie Wade Sour Cream Pound Cake

Atlanta Community Food Bank: A Tale of Two “A Place at the Tables”

I just read this opinion piece by Mark Bittman on the 2013 Farm Bill that is currently being debated in Congress. Needless to say, the proposed bill breaks my heart. Just breaks it. Basically it’s a plan that punishes those who suffer the most in our society and rewards those who really don’t need a government hand-out. I encourage you to read this article, and if moved check out the environmental working group for ways to take action. Bittman’s piece also really resonates with a guest-blog I did this week for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, in which I discuss A Place at the Table the documentary, which not only shares a title with my new book, but is a real must-see and eye-opener. Seriously, I think you should download the film right now. But first read the blog I wrote for the Food Bank, then download the movie. And if moved, contact your Senators and Representatives about revising the farm bill so it is one of equity and compassion. And, hey, did you know that for every $1 you give to the Food Bank they can donate $8.47 worth of grocery products to the community?

Also, at the end of my ACFB guest-blog there are three options of simple things you can do to win a hardback of A Place at the Table the novel. You only have to choose one!

http://www.acfb.org/sharing-stories/tale-two-place-tables

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This squirrel thinks you should donate to the Food Bank.

The Fragments Left Over

Susan's Sexy Legs Carrot

A farmers market find: the sexy carrot doing a demure little knee cross.

A Place at the Table begins with an epigraph taken from John 6:12. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” In many ways this book is about lost souls finding home and so of course the words from the New Testament are fitting. But I often think of this quote when I’m cooking, as it fits well with my kitchen philosophy: “try not to throw stuff away.”

According to a piece in the Atlantic Wire, on average forty percent of the U.S. food system goes straight to the dump. I’m trying to cut that number in half when it comes to my own eating and cooking habits, and only throw out twenty percent. In other words, I’m aiming for a B-. (After all, I’m always telling my students that a B is a good grade.)

I had a fun time “gathering the fragments left over” today. I woke up around 6:30 and could not go back to sleep. At seven I decided I might as well get up and go to the Morningside Farmers’ Market, which sells organic produce and meats raised in Georgia. Naively I thought I’d have the market to myself at such an ungodly hour. But apparently lots of people are up and at ‘em at 7:30 in the morning. (Who knew?) The two most popular stalls, Crystal Organics and Woodland Gardens, each had long lines. I waited until it was my turn to pick out my carrots, beets, asparagus, strawberries, various lettuces and arugula. Then I headed over to the stand operated by Riverview, a family farm that raises pigs and cows on pasture. I bought some ground beef and some perfectly rendered lard, and listened to the woes of getting meat from a small farm approved by the USDA. (More on farm bill issues here: http://www.ewg.org/farmbill2013)

Back at home I cleaned out the fridge before unpacking my loot. The vegetable bin contained tons of old beet greens, leftover from the beet roots I’ve been obsessively roasting this spring. There was also some limp celery and an old bag of carrots from Trader Joe’s, as well as a large bag of mint on the verge of wilting. Instead of throwing this stuff out I piled it onto my kitchen counter, along with a bowl containing four egg yolks leftover from when I made meringues the other day.

I was hungering for a bright orange carrot soup with ginger—made from the carrots I had bought that day at the market. I had chicken stock in the freezer, but I thought it would be nice to make the soup 100 percent vegetarian. So I made a vegetable stock with some of the leftover beet greens, the Trader Joe’s carrots and celery, two onions, a little garlic, a bay leaf, salt and pepper. While that was simmering I made a simple syrup and flavored it with the bag of mint. (I use a recipe found in Alana Chernila’s wonderful cookbook, The Homemade Pantry). The simple syrup makes a nice soda when added to water fizzed in the “Soda Stream Soda Maker.” It also makes a nice vodka cocktail.

The last thing I prepared was vanilla custard, using the leftover egg yolks. I had a pound cake in the freezer, cut into small chunks. I toasted the chunks in the oven while I made the custard. I also cut up a quart of strawberries, added a tablespoon of sugar, and let the berries get good and juicy while the custard and toasted pound cake came together. When all three ingredients were ready I layered them, basing the concept on southern banana puddin’, but with strawberries instead. If I were British I would call it a trifle. The trifle / strawberry puddin’ is in the fridge right now, marinating. I’ll either top it with whipped cream or meringue. It is pretty much all I want to eat for dinner tonight, but I think first I’ll grill the asparagus I bought today, toss it in a vinaigrette, and top it with bacon pieces and a poached egg.

I realize it’s a little odd to be so consumed by thoughts of forthcoming meals. And it’s almost embarrassing what a thrill I get from making delicious things out of foods I might have otherwise thrown away. But it’s so satisfying! You take the dregs and the remains and the nearly rotten, and after some manipulation and some time, you create nourishment. It’s such a great metaphor—for life as well as for writing. And it saves you money, too.

Patti Callahan Henry’s Coming Up for Air. Plus grilled sandwiches: one savory, one sweet.

Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan HenryI read a wonderful book this week: Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry.

I know Patti through the Atlanta writing community. She is one of those lovely, effervescent people full of warmth and laughter. One of those people whom you want to smile at because she’s smiling and looks like she’s having fun and you want to join her. If I were a betting woman (why am I saying “if?”; I love betting), I’d wager that Patti enjoys a shrimp boil, that she slides right up to the newspaper covered table, peels a shrimp, dunks it in cocktail sauce, and washes it down with a beer before settling in to eat her buttered corn on the cob, potatoes and sausage. Which is to say, Patti seems to be a woman who enjoys life.

Shrimp Boil

Shrimp boil from earlier this summer. Patti was not involved. But I bet she would have loved it.

Patti is also a woman who has raised three kids. And before having her kids, she was a nurse. Meaning, Patti has wisdom. And has seen hard things.

All well and good, I can hear you saying, but how’s the book?

Why it’s excellent. Thank you for asking. In it Patti’s warmth, wisdom, and engagment with life–the miraculous and the mundane–is on full display.

Here’s the skinny: Coming Up for Air is the story of 48 year old Ellie Calvin. At the book’s start, Ellie’s mother Lillian dies suddenly, just as Ellie’s only child goes away to college, leaving Ellie alone with her husband, Rusty, a man more interested in his golf game than understanding any part of his wife’s interior life. After Lillian’s death, Ellie reads her mother’s locked away journals, discovering two things: Her mother was passionately in love with someone other than Ellie’s dad, and her mother was involved with the civil rights movement in Alabama during the summer of 1961. Both realizations are shocking to Ellie, who knew her mother only as a Buckhead doyenne, locally famous for her organization and practicality, and not one to feel passion about anything other than following the rules. In fact Lillian, a consummate botanical gardener, discouraged Ellie’s own passionate, wildflower nature. But from reading her mother’s journals, Ellie realizes Lillian was not always like that. At a certain point in her life, Lillian chose safety over love, and then tried to drill that choice into Ellie, an effort that largely succeeded. Until now.

The plot of Coming Up for Air is rich and layered, and I am only giving you a teeny-tiny slice of it, in part because I don’t want to include any spoilers, but mostly because I want to talk about the underlying theology of the book. Because that’s what made me unable to put CUFA down until I had read it cover to cover–the theology that Patti Callahan Henry expresses in Ellie’s reawakening to spirit and love. It is not a theology of rules and regulations and exclusion; in fact it is the opposite. It is a theology of risk over safety, of love over rigidity, of choosing spiritual wholeness over a comfortable lifestyle. It is a theology that says everyone deserves an abundance of love–you, me, even that guy over there picking his nose on the subway. And occasionally divine abundance shows itself in our earthly life, if we are open to it, if we show up.

When you get to the jubilee scene, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

I really loved this book. Was totally immersed in the plot and was moved by the steady wisdom behind it. I even read it on the subway–and I have the hardest time reading on the subway because I’m always so interested in eavesdropping on my fellow passengers’ conversations…but Ellie’s story was more captivating.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Simple, simple, simple. But oh so good.

I got a big spiritual lift from Patti’s book, and then I got a mini spiritual lift by coming home this evening and making myself two kinds of grilled sandwiches. The first was nothing unusual, just a grilled cheese with lots of butter on Pepperidge Farm white bread. My only embellishment was to rub each side of the bread with a raw glove of garlic, and to use good sharp cheddar cheese as my filling. Then, for dessert, I tried a sandwich based on a Donna Hay recipe. For it I also used Pepperidge Farm white bread, each slice spread with nutella, and then one slice dotted with raspberries. When I sandwiched the bread I pressed the two sides together so that the raspberries would flatten a bit. Then I just fried the whole thing in lots of butter, so that the nutella got all oozy and melty and the raspberries warmed up and got all bursty. I sat at my little table in my little apartment kitchen and ate the sandwiches, first the cheese, then the chocolate. It had been a hard day and I needed the comfort. I was eating the grilled cheese, thinking about the Christian tradition of taking bread and wine as a way to experience the divine. It made a lot of sense to me–that God would come to us in such a tactile, necessary package as food and drink. I hunched over my plate, concentrating on what was before me, tasting the crisped butter against my tongue.

The champagne of beers

Blame it on the fact that I’m writing a novel where the three main characters experience the world through food: I can’t stop cooking. Last night I made butter cookies at 10pm. Granted, I wanted something sweet but had nothing in the apartment and didn’t want to schlep to the market four blocks away, primarily because I’m cheap but also because I was all cozy at home in my jammies. I looked in the fridge, looked in the pantry, looked in Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. Realized I had everything I needed to make a simple little cookie: butter, sugar, vanilla, lemon (juice & zest), milk, salt, flour. That’s it. Creamed the butter and sugar til it turned the palest yellow, the sort of yellow you want to paint your walls with, then added in the other liquid ingredients plus the salt. I used fleur de sel, smashed up to fine grains, just because I figured there were so few ingredients in these cookies each component should sing. I folded in the flour in batches, just til it was incorporated, then rolled the dough into three logs and refrigerated them until they were chilled enough to cut into little disks with a knife. This means you only cook as many cookies as you want at that time–the rest you just leave, in dough form, in the fridge. This also means I wasn’t cooking the cookies til 1am, as the dough wasn’t ready til then. I decided to gild the lily and glaze them with a little lemon icing. Confectioners sugar, cream, lemon zest and vanilla. That’s it. Nice complement to the tang of the cookie.

The cookies are really good. They are very short, which means you taste the cooked butter throughout. Gives them an almost granular texture, but not in a gross freezer burnt ice cream kind of a way. And with all of that lemon zest in the cookie, its taste puckers the tongue while simultaneously delivering the sugar it craves. Which leaves you desiring more even as you eat them.

For lunch I’ve been eating an old salad standby: shaved fennel, shaved apple, shaved Parmesan, toasted walnuts and a little dressing. It makes up for the cookies, I hope. For dinner tonight I stuck with fennel and apple, but changed the preparation. I cut a Granny Smith apple into chunks, and cut half a fennel bulb into 1/4 inch rings. I also cut a chicken apple sausage into disks. I melted some butter in a saucepan and added the apple chunks to it. I sauteed the apples til they caramelized a little, adding a little lemon juice so they wouldn’t oxidize. Then I threw in the fennel. The fennel and apple sucked up all of the butter–fast–and I really didn’t want to add more fat to the dish, so I tossed in about 1/4 cup of the Miller Genuine Draft I was enjoying, thinking, hey, Germans always pair beer with sausage, maybe this will work. I let the fennel and apples absorb the liquid, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar. Worrying I might have made things too tart I also added a teaspoon of honey. I salted, peppered, then added the sausage. Cooked it all together til it was all heated through, then did one more round of apple cider vinegar and honey, to add a nice glaze to the whole dish. Finished with a little more butter.

Dear Reader: I did not expect this one-dish slapdash beer-y meal to be so delicious but it was, it was! The apple chunks were tender but not mealy, and the butter/honey/apple vinegar flavor highlighted the apple’s own natural sweetness. The fennel added that great anise-y crunch, and the chicken apple sausage was just very satisfying in an “I don’t get enough protein” kind of a way, and also tasted great with the little bit of honey glazing it. Weird meal, I guess, but I’m gonna fix it again. And so is one of the characters in my book.

What summer is, part 1

Starting with late spring’s harvest of strawberries and going all the way through corn and tomatoes and blackberries and peaches, summer is about forgoing a temperate climate for the pleasure of letting sweet things grown in the sun roll around on your tongue.

Last weekend I went to Todd Johnson’s house in Connecticut for an intensive writing retreat. We are both working on novels and both in the stage where we need to be writing a bunch of words a day. That said, one still has to eat. We stopped at a strawberry field on the way from the train to the house and bought a quart of just picked strawberries. (Dear Reader, we did not pick the strawberries ourselves, though that was certainly an option.) Strawberries from the field look so different from the cat-head sized ones you buy at the supermarket. And while the catheads are mostly water and white hull, the ones we got in CT were small, bright red, and saturated with deep, red strawberry-ness. The juice tastes like honey, only clear and thirst-quenching rather than viscous and syrupy.

But enough of that. You know what a freshly picked, ripe strawberry tastes like (an argument for the existence of God.) And speaking of the Divine, we also picked up a pint of heavy whipping cream, not ultra pasteurized. Took it home, got to work writing, and then met 3 hours later for dinner. From the city I had brought some of my spinach / artichoke dip. We poured it into a casserole dish, sprinkled the top with Parmesan cheese, heated it then ran it under the broiler. We ate this with toasted French bread. And then we skipped past any thoughts of a main course and went straight for dessert. Strawberry shortcake. I had made a simple biscuit dough using cream instead of buttermilk, and butter instead of shortening or lard. Plus I added 2 T. of sugar to the dough. Todd didn’t have a biscuit cutter so we punched them out with the top of a drinking glass, brushed the tops with melted butter and a little sugar, and put them in a hot, hot oven. Meanwhile I whipped the cream with vanilla and sugar. I had already hulled the strawberries, cut them in half, and added a little sugar to them just to get them good and juicy. We got some mint from the garden, and had our assembly line all set up. As soon as the biscuits came out of the oven, we split them in half, put four halves in each of our bowls, poured strawberries and juice all over the hot biscuits, piled softly whipped cream on top of that, poured on more strawberries and juice, and then sprinkled it all with some mint leaves cut in a chiffonade.

Dear Reader, it was good. And the next day I wrote a scene in which my characters ate strawberry shortcake…

Tuna through the years

What is it about southerners and canned tuna? Growing up I ate a tuna fish salad sandwich at least once a week, that or pimento cheese or peanut butter and banana. I don’t remember ever contemplating the taste of tuna itself. Tuna wasn’t a singular object, it was a collection of ingredients enrobed in mayonnaise. In fact the point of all of those ingredients was to disguise the actual fishy taste of the tuna. My mom used the chunk light stuff (packed in water) and mixed it with mayo, chopped boiled egg, diced sweet pickles and diced apple. The apple and sweet pickles were both chopped so fine you couldn’t really recognize them by sight–just taste. It was a sweet tuna salad, and the most dominant ingredient was the apple, which my mom said made the tuna taste like chicken.

A couple of years back I bought what has become one of my favorite cookbooks, The Mensch Chef, by Mitchell Davis. Davis teaches you how to make all of the classic Ashkenazi Jewish staples, from stuffed cabbage to potato latkes to brisket to tuna fish salad. His tuna recipe has become my favorite of the mayonnaise based varities. He insists you use albacore tuna–not the chunk light stuff–and he suggests you use tuna packed in oil. To that he adds mayonnaise, chopped celery, the juice of a lemon, a chopped dill pickle, 1/4 of a chopped onion, a chopped hard-boiled egg, fresh parsley and salt and pepper. The lemon really makes a difference, brightening the salad in a sunny sort of way.

It’s been so hot in New York these past few days that long hours at the stove are out of the question. And so I’ve been eating a lot of cold composed salads, including salade Nicoise. Gourmet Garage sells this divine tuna packed in olive oil–Tonnino–that is the best I’ve ever had. The tuna comes in thick filets. It is firm and flavorful and yummy all on its own–you could eat it straight out of the jar. (And sometimes I do.) It’s too good to drown in mayo, which is why it’s so good for a salad Nicoise, where all you do is lay it over the lettuce and pour a lemony dressing over it. But today for lunch I was really craving a sandwich, so I thought I might attempt a sort of Nicoise/tuna salad hybrid.

Here’s what I did: Chopped a few black olives–which acted as the salt for the whole thing–then chopped a tablespoon of parsley. Put that in a bowl with the wonderful tuna, gave it a few squeezes of lemon, and mixed it with a fork. Next I poured a little bit of olive oil onto two slices of French bread, which I toasted. Meanwhile I tossed some arugula leaves with lemon juice and a tiny bit of salt, and took a couple of slices of roasted red pepper out of the fridge. (I roast them stovetop and store them in olive oil.) Not it was just a matter of assembly. I am on open face sandwich kind of a gal, and this was no exception. On each piece of toasted baguette I piled on the tuna mixed with olives and parsley, then put a few slices of roasted red pepper on top of that. I finished with a topping of lemon dressed arugula.

It was a pretty great sandwich. A native of Nice, I believe, would have really dug it. Though I doubt I would have liked it as a kid. I mean, c’mon! Where’s the apple? Where’s the Duke’s?

Truques

I feel really lucky that I grew up with a mom who loved to bake. (And I’m not being reactionary here, telling all ye career girls out there to scuttle back to the kitchen and put on an apron, stat. It would have been equally cool to grow up with a dad who cooked, or two mommies who cooked, or good God the luck!, two daddies who cooked and who cooked the way that most of my gay male friends do, which is to say flawlessly.) But back to my mom, who taught me so much about cooking, baking especially, without me even knowing that sitting on the counter watching her separate eggs, we were engaged in all kinds of teachable moments and shit. Like how to pack down brown sugar when measuring it, how to scrape the excess baking soda off a tablespoon with the flat edge of a knife, how to slightly underbake cookies knowing they’ll finish cooking on the tray, how to make a well with the dry ingredients when making strawberry bread, and then pour the wet ingredients into the well.

The thing about cooking is this: It is and it is not scientific. Yes, certain chemical things happen–baking soda makes things rise–but cooking is also about our squishy, sensitive sides: smell, taste, a “sense” of how something should look, instinct. The other day I was cooking with a friend. (Not you, Kasey. I’m speaking of another friend with whom I was boiling potatoes.) We were boiling potatoes. After twenty minutes my friend said, “Okay, my recipe said they should be done by now.” I stuck a knife in one. It didn’t pierce easily. In fact it was still quite hard in the middle. It wasn’t done. Which goes to say, when cooking, you have to have all five senses fully engaged. You have to let your food slap a diamond ring on your finger!

But if you want a cheat sheet, here are the tricks I’ve learned:

1) When chopping up a clove of garlic, sprinkle the clove with salt. It makes the knife stick to it while you chop and the whole process just gets done a lot faster.

2) Shrimp cooks fast. Way faster than you think it will. Honestly, as soon as it turns pink on both sides it’s done, but I always give it one more minute after that just to be safe.

3) When you are cooking meat, steaks especially, let the meat come to room temperature before you put it to the heat. And oh Lord, please don’t cook a pork chop til it’s white in the middle. It is really fine for it to be rosy. That “cook it to 180 degrees” b.s. was just propaganda created by people who hate food.

4) A roast chicken will always taste divine if you brine it first. I use Scott Peacock’s method, 1/4 cup of kosher salt for every 4 cups water. A 4 pound chicken usually takes 1 cup of salt and 16 cups of water. Make sure the salt is all dissolved before plopping your chicken in, then just let it hang out in the fridge all day. Great fun for house guests to encounter when they happen to open the refrigerator door!

5) After you serve a chicken, snatch everyone’s leg bones and such off the plate before you do the dishes. Use them to make stock. This is not gross. You will boil the bones. The cooties and germs will go away.

6) Err on underbaking cookies. Most people burn their cookies–especially the cookie bottoms. Take them out a little sooner than necessary, then let them finish cooking on the tray. I’m serious about this.

7) This trick is courtesy of the late, great Edna Lewis, and it works! When you bake a cake, listen for little popping sounds towards the end. You’ll hear them, almost like your cake is a baby blowing bubbles. As soon as the popping sounds cease, pull the cake out. It’s done.

8) It’s a pain in the ass, yes, but do butter AND flour the cake pan.

9) Stick an onion in the freezer for 20 minutes before chopping it. You won’t cry nearly as much. On that same note, if you are serving raw onion in a salad or a salsa, slice it and put the slices into ice water for 15 minutes. Takes the sting out.

10) If you are making meatloaf, and you’re not sure whether it’s seasoned enough (or too much) just pinch off a meatball sized ball and fry it up in the skillet. It will cook in about five minutes, and then you can taste it for flavor.

11) Never wash a cast iron skillet with soap. Rub it with kosher salt if there’s excess grease or stuck on bits, then rinse it with hot, hot water. Dry it completely before putting it up, or else it will rust and be ruint.

12) When making a braise, and you are told to brown the meat first in a skillet, REALLY brown the meat. Get it golden brown, caramel-y brown. Brown the hell out of it!

13) Have your pan reallyreallyreally hot before adding to it the meat that you are going to cook. With the big ol’ exception of bacon, which should be started in a cold skillet. A cast iron skillet, to be exact.

14) Please don’t ever buy salad dressing. Just mix it up yourself. I like to use a tea cup to do my mixing. Pour in 3 parts oil to one part vinegar. I often use olive oil and white wine vinegar. Salt and pepper liberally, and beat furiously with a fork. That is it. IF you want to get fancy you can add a pinch of Coleman’s mustard powder, or a squeeze of lemon. If you are putting strawberries or Parm on your salad, use balsamic vinegar.

15) Egg whites whip higher and faster if you let them come to room temperature before beating the hell out of them.

16) If you whip 12 egg whites, then add sugar and such, thus making an angel food cake, take a plastic spatula and run it a circle in the center of the batter once you have poured it into the tube pan. This will keep there from being big old holes in the cake once cooked.

17) Really fresh eggs are really hard to peel. I’ve pretty much given up on making deviled eggs from the ones I buy at the farmer’s market because they look all pock marked and scarred once I finally get the shells off of them. When it comes to deviled eggs, an older egg is best.

18) If for some crazy reason you don’t own a deviled egg plate, you can just slice off the bottom of your egg, so it will stand up straight on the plate.

19) If you over salt your soup or stew or chili, and you’ve got some time before you are going to serve it, throw a couple of raw potatoes, cut in half, into the pot. The potato will soak up the excess salt.

20) If you find yourself without a pepper grinder (which oddly, I have, many times), pour some whole peppercorns into a plastic baggie, and scoot them all to one corner. Then take the blunt end of a rolling pin (this requires that you have a real rolling pin, and not one of those ersatz things with the handles on the end) and smash the hell out of your peppercorns. This is an extremely cathartic thing to do when feeling agitated.

Salad is not comfort food.

I love fresh vegetables. Raw ones especially. One of my favorite suppers is a spin on Judith Jones’ fennel salad: shaved raw fennel (I use a mandoline slicer to get the pieces see-through thin), shaved apple, and shaved radishes topped with little curls of Parmesan and toasted walnuts, dressed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. It’s crunchy and anise-y and light and a little sweet with nice satisfying chews of warm walnut and salty hits of Parm. I also make a raw salad with shaved beets, fennel, radish and carrot, served over arugula, also with Parm, though no walnuts and a lemony vinaigrette instead of a Balsamic one.

Come mid summer almost every meal I eat centers on the tomato. Half the time I just slice a sweet one from the farmer’s market, dribble olive oil and a dash of Balsamic on top, scatter on some s&p and basil leaves and dig in. Sometimes I’ll rip some sourdough bread into chunks, season with olive oil and salt, toast til brown, and throw into the tomato salad, letting the crisp toasty bread soak up the tomato juices. And don’t get me started on gazpacho, which I’m a huge sucker for, especially yellow tomato gazpacho, which is sweet and tart and so gorgeous in the bowl.

My point is this: I am not a finicky child-like eater who turns her nose up at healthy things, spinach and such. In fact, I devour spinach by the bagful, whether raw in a salad or sauteed with garlic and olive oil for a side dish.

Croque Monsieur with blueberriesBut I don’t want to write about healthy delicious food today. I want to write about my comfort food du jour, a white bread, white sauce, ham and cheese concoction that ze French like to call a Croque Monsieur. (Add an egg on top and the sandwich becomes a lady, a Croque Madame).

I’ve been making a boatload of Croque Monsieur lately. A more apt description might be a belly load, because these things are far from low cal. The secret to a great Croque Monsieur is bechamel, which is just a white sauce made of cooked flour, butter, hot milk and a little seasoning. The bechamel is the Cyrano de Bergerac of the sandwich. Most eaters wouldn’t even know it’s there, but boy does it make the cheese look and behave a whole lot better.

You start with the best bread you can find. I think sourdough works particularly well. Cut a thick slice, remembering that this is an open faced sandwich, so you don’t have to worry about getting your mouth around two huge slices of bread. Lightly mustard the sourdough. (Yes, it’s okay to use mustard as a verb!) I’ve been using Miele’s spicy Dijon, which adds a nice kick. Then layer on a couple of slices of ham. (I just use thin sliced stuff from the deli counter at the grocery store.) Now comes the secret weapon: Spread about a tablespoon of bechamel onto the ham, and give it a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. I usually add some chopped parsley at this point too, just because the greenness of the parsley gives the illusion that there is something healthy about all of this. Traditionally you should now top your cream sauce with Gruyere, though I use whatever cheese I have on hand. Today it was a slice of Monterey Jack with spicy peppers, and grated Parmesan. Once you cover the top of your sandwich with cheese you can scoop a little more white sauce on top of that, then cover once more with cheese. But zut alors, that is gilding the lily, and not at all necessary! Slide the sandwich under the broiler for about 10 minutes until the white sauce is bubbling and the cheese has melted and darkened and your bread and meat are warmed all of the way through. Serve with cornichons. I ate a small cup of blueberries with my sandwich, too, because blueberries are a SuperFood and I thought they might counterbalance some of the wrongness of the Croque.

Here is the thing: You don’t eat a Croque Monsieur for lunch when everything is going just swimmingly, when you are at the top of your game and you KNOW you’ll write 5000 words that day, and they’ll be good words, inspired words that will find their way into the novel that you are writing and you’re just SO ON FIRE WITH IT THAT YOU’VE GOT TO GET BACK TO IT RIGHT NOW!! You eat a Croque Monsieur when you’ve stared at your computer for 2 hours, tinkered with a paragraph, and are now trying to stop yourself from falling asleep at your desk. You eat a Croque Monsieur when your accountant calls to tell you that you’re going to owe a little more in taxes than you previously thought. You eat a Croque Monsieur when you feel a sort of generalized sadness about things, though you know the sadness is unwarranted. You know if you were to make a list of all you are grateful for that list would be long. But you don’t feel like making that list. You feel melancholy. Which means you feel French. Which means you should eat a Croque Monsieur.

You shut down your computer, turn on the broiler, put the sandwich together. Ten minutes later and you are hunkered over the plate. With each bite you try to figure out why you like it so much. You wonder if it was a nursery food for French children, the way grilled cheese was for you. You think there’s something primal about warm bread and gooey, melted things. You think you are eating too quickly. You think you had better add an extra fifteen minutes to your workout that night, but then you think, oh screw it. Food shouldn’t always be an intake/outtake calculation. Sometimes its purpose is simply that it is delicious and warm.