what brought me back

homemade chips

The only time I spent in the food industry professionally, I was being paid $125 a week and living in the place where I worked, as a full-time waitress and a part-time counselor at a camp in northern Wisconsin.

It was the summer after my freshman year, a nine-month span I’d spent in Florida, doing crazy things like, instead of studying, taking impromptu trips to away soccer games, sneaking away with girlfriends to the beach and, worse, speeding over 100 miles per hour down a causeway. I still remember the brown-haired boy in the car with me, sticking his head out the sunroof, laughing, hitting his nose against the ledge of my awful magenta car, making the bridge between his eyes bleed when we hit a bump in the road.

By the end of that year, the first I’d spent away from home, I’d been through bedbugs (and the resulting moving, moving again in response), an attempt to give blood (in which I passed out), my first really, really terrible report card and the most terrific case of homesickness you’ve ever seen. Even looking back, I don’t know what prompted me to, instead of returning home, move to Wisconsin, but that’s what I did.
I’d signed up, willing to do anything, and by some act of grace, I wasn’t assigned cleaning duty. Instead, they put me in the kitchen.

Early mornings, before campers and counselors were awake, I’d walk in the almost daylight to the white dining hall, the scent of warm yeast in the air. I pulled trays of puffy doughs and fresh-made eggs off the rolling warmers and set them in the buffet line. I collected dishes from round tables covered in plastic tablecloths. Sometimes, I even got tips: one elderly man told me he wanted to give me little something, as he handed me a $5. I almost cried.

When the weather was nice, the kitchen crew transported things to a picnic area in the woods, complete with an outdoor cooking area and tables lined up for a food line. It was there that I burned myself for the first time, just slightly while I carried a hot plate, causing a small scab to grow over my left forearm.

In a lot of ways, I think it’s good to burn yourself early: it gives you a healthy respect for cooking tools, and you think more carefully when you’re working with them. But in my case, it also gave me an irrational fear, and I have avoided a lot of things since—things like hot oil, bubbling and popping in a pan on the stove, which is something of a problem for a fried-food-lover like myself.

So the recipe that got me to conquer those fears would have to be a pretty special recipe, don’t you think?

Enter homemade tortilla chips.

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On Expectations

vanilla muffin cakes

The story of these vanilla bean cupcakes with salted caramel frosting is bittersweet—a perfect example of what you shouldn’t do, and I don’t just mean with recipes.

It’s the same thing I’d tell my teenage self, that cocky girl who felt she had the future in her control. Looking her square in the eyes, my hands tight on her shoulders as I shake them slightly, I’d tell her, whatever you do, if you can just remember this one thing: Don’t set unfair expectations. (On my way out, I might also add that a little styling product could do wonders for your wavy hair, but that has nothing to do with these cupcakes.)

Those simple words would have saved me a lot of heartache, trite as it sounds. If I could have learned then that when someone hurts your feelings, it’s possibly unintended; or that when it is intended, that person could be coming from a very dark, unhappy place that deserves your pity not your anger; and that, most importantly, whatever hurt your feelings, you’ve probably said and done something very similar or worse—maybe I would have learned to cut people some slack—that, and spent a few less nights listening to depressing music or whining on the phone.

From where I sit today, I know setting someone or something on a pedestal is probably the absolute worst thing you can do to it. The moment you demand things must be, you set yourself up to be devastated when they aren’t. With some things—a job that provides paychecks, for example—it’s fair to be demanding; with others—a friend that forgets to call you back or never returns your e-mails—it’s not.

But now I’m getting carried away with myself. Back to the cupcakes. From the moment I got the Chow.com e-mail, luring me with words like “irresistible” and “flecked with vanilla,” I built these vanilla bean cupcakes up to be the most marvelous I would have ever had.

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set it on the counter

banana cake

When I was in sixth grade, my friend’s mom died. Her family had moved to another state a few years earlier, far away from me, but the funeral brought them back to Illinois, to a beautiful stone church covered in ivy, with a hollow auditorium surrounded by stained-glass windows, where your voice echoed when you talked. At the visitation, I remember thinking, people said a lot of funny things. One lady told my friend her mom would be watching from heaven, letting her know if her outfits didn’t match. Another said something about the mom being an angel; several commented on the lovely makeup job. For my part, I asked my friend if she wanted to sleepover that night. Her dad said it probably wasn’t a good time.

I hadn’t known a lot of people who died up until then. I’d been to a few funerals—distant relatives, mostly. Later in my teen years, each of my dad’s parents would die, one by one without affecting me, as I’d only met them once, when they’d flown across the world from India to visit America. My mom’s mom would die just before I turned seventeen and started my senior year of high school, after I’d grown up going to her house and sharing my bedroom when she’d visit mine. In fact, in much later years, I’d attend a lot of funerals, often for people I didn’t know but whose friends or family I did.

As a twelve-year-old, there’s not a lot you understand about life or, at least, there’s not a lot I understood. I remember thinking, a few days after the funeral while I drank a milkshake, that my friend’s mom would never have one again. She’d never hold a tall glass of frothy ice cream to her mouth, never slurp it all the way to the bottom. I remember realizing this made me sad. Sometimes, still, when I buy a fast-food milkshake and set it on the counter, I think of her.

Reading through the responses to the giveaway post, where a lot of you wrote why you cook, I saw a common theme: Food is a tangible way to show love, like milkshakes were a tangible way for me to understand death, as an elementary kid.

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just what you want, Omega

omega pancake house

Sometimes when you’re hungry, you don’t want fancy. You want good taste at a good price, with a lot of options, someplace where you can feel comfortable.

And around here, that means you want Omega.

Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Omega has been in business for over 30 years—I grew up going there for the Mickey Mouse pancakes, which are silver-dollar sized and buttermilk, filled with chocolate chips and topped with whipped cream and cherries. Today, though my tastes have evolved somewhat (I usually order a cream soup to go with the bread basket or an omelet with a side of breakfast potatoes) this place remains unchanged. It still packs the crowds at all hours, especially weekend mornings, when groups come through for brunch and Omega-stamped balloons decorate the enormous bakery case.

omega pancake house

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after all

cookie brownies

Well, if you haven’t heard, this site has been around for six months now, and, to celebrate, I’m holding a giveaway! Even if you don’t want to enter to win a prize, you really should head over just to see the comments being left. One or two gave me a lump in my throat, which, admittedly, isn’t too hard to do lately—Am I the only one who can never, ever watch P.S. I Love You again? Even Flash of Genius—I had to skip to the end to see the happy ending before I lost it, just 20 minutes into the video. This does not bode well for my future, in which I am supposed to grow more emotional, aren’t I? But back to the comments: all of them have felt like they were written by old friends, and have convinced me, more completely than before, that the people who read this site are some of the nicest you’ll find, anywhere.

Speaking of which, those of you who love chocolate were awfully patient last week when I posted, the day before the biggest chocolate holiday of the year, a recipe for iced lemon cookies.

So today, I’m making it up to you.

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for a good story


(This is a giveaway post. The prizes are pictured above, the right image, courtesy of Delight.com.)

I like to hear people’s stories. (And I’m going to presume you do, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this site, which tends towards the autobiographical as much as the culinary.) It seems to me that we were made this way, or, at least, made to need the things stories are made of—relationships, experiences, plot, purpose.

In the 1940s and 50s, my grandma cooked for her husband and then later, for my mom, in a small brick bungalow in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. That was part of her story. She lived in an era when women married young and raised families; she survived the depression in an Italian family of five children. Today, I cook for pleasure, because I want to and I like to and, sometimes, because it reminds me of her. That’s part of mine.

What about you? Why do you cook, or why don’t you? When? How? Do you cook for yourself or for others? Do you enjoy it or hate it? What were your favorite food memories? Your least favorite? What is your great pleasure in eating?

Because they are tied to who you are, these questions are not just about food—they are about your history, your values, your story. M.K. Fisher said, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.”

On that theme, and to mark the six-month anniversary of this blog that occurred earlier this month, it’s time for a giveaway. I’ve shared 88 (!) stories with you since August, and you’ve been nice enough to listen. Now I’d like to return the favor.

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to make you happy

iced lemon cookies

It has been said that some people don’t like chocolate, which is very strange, I think. It gives me the same feeling as when my dog barks at 7:30 AM, while he looks at empty grass from his perch atop the sofa. The same feeling as when people say they don’t have time to read books or watch LOST. There’s something very not right about it—No sense. It’s hard to trust those kind of people, if you know what I mean.

And come Valentine’s Day, it’s also hard to believe them—especially when there are things like Maria’s chocolate-mint brownies, Joy’s layered devil’s food cake with raspberries and, oh my gosh, Nick’s chocolate lava cakes floating around the Internet. It’s true that I like my desserts chocolate—the more fudgey the better, most of the time. I would eat the New York Times chocolate-chip cookies every day if it weren’t for the preliminary planning that’s required of the three-day chilling period. And all it took for me to make my grandma’s oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies this weekend was a quick message from my friend Lan, who said she’d made them, and, immediately when I read it, I do not exaggerate, I went down to the kitchen and pulled out ingredients.

But just to show there are no hard feelings for those of you who still swear you don’t like chocolate, here’s something you will appreciate. If you’re looking for a reliable stand-in for the endorphins brought by chocolate or, say, a romantic holiday coming up tomorrow, you should look to lemons. Did you know they are proven mood enhancers? It’s true. Lemons make people happy. And these cookies? Lovely and lemon, with no chocolate at all, filled with sweet and tart flavor, topped by shimmering vanilla icing: Suddenly the word happy doesn’t seem strong enough.

Freshly glazed, these buttery cookies are soft and almost creamy, melting in your mouth as you bite in. A few days later, they stay that way, and, really, I thank the 1/2 cup of lemon juice.

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