the truest test

spinach pizza

I have a running theory on friendship, which maybe you’d like to hear? Essentially, it is this: If you find someone who won’t run away when you confess your love of cheesy country music or endlessly ridicule you when they see your high school yearbook, that’s someone worth hanging on to. Because, as we all know, it’s one thing to be liked when you’re on your game, and it’s quite another to be liked when you’re at your worst, wearing your glasses and that junior-high retainer at night or, geeking out to the complete lyrics of “The Broken Road” while the two of you ride in the car.

When you have been loved that way, without condition, like I have, it’s amazing how still unnatural it can feel to extend that love to others, how revelatory of your truest self. My friend Jackie’s better at it—you’d like her. When she comes over on a Saturday afternoon to expectations of going out for lunch and, instead, finds me, anxious, telling her I have two rising pizza doughs I don’t know what to do with and, Can we just stay here, only first we’ll have to go to the store and buy mozzarella? she doesn’t flinch. Then, when after coming home with groceries, we both recognize a near-deathly smell coming from the slimy asparagus that’s brown on the bottoms, which I’d had my heart set on making a salad with, she’s only happy to head right back to the same store, just before stopping by the train for a quick pick-up and returning to the kitchen to resume activities. Jackie’s the kind of friend that likes you even with your quirks; she’s flexible and forgiving.

pizza with cheese

And, if you’ll permit the analogy, this kind of friend is a lot like the right kind of recipe.

It’s one thing to have a recipe that’s fussy, giving good results when you do everything just perfectly, measuring exactly, following the proper order, keeping the room the right temperature—it’s like the friends who like hanging out with you on a Friday night when your hair’s curled and your lips glossed and your house immaculate—not bad to have, maybe necessary. But it’s another to find a recipe that’s flexible, that lets you change things around a little, that forgives mistakes and yields something good anyway. When you find that kind of recipe, like a companion, you hang on to it, no question.

Like this pizza crust.

pizza crust

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like where it came from

banana bread

The year I finished school—for good, with no more plans for extra degrees anywhere near on the horizon—my brother and I celebrated with a trip to Boston over Labor Day weekend. It was the first of three such vacations, as we’d later go to California and then D.C. (and maybe Montreal this August!), and neither of us had ever been to New England, unless you count New York City or that high school trip I took to Baltimore by way of a week in Philadelphia.

So it’s hard to say if the newness of it all—traveling as an adult no longer a student, traveling on credit card rewards points that pay for your hotels and airfare, traveling on borrowed time from work because, after all, you’re employed full-time now—deserves most credit, but, whatever the reason, we loved Boston.

banana bread

The public transportation was cleaner than I was used to. The streets were more historic—filled with brick buildings and interesting architecture and a long winding Freedom Trail that we walked one hot afternoon. We spent a day in Cambridge, visiting Harvard and watching new students wander around tree-lined streets. We bought souvenirs from a random artist peddling drawings of the Boston scenery.

And, also, there was the food.

banana bread

I may not have had a food blog where I could post photos back then, but I still took them: of the bakery cases (and the bakery cases), of gelato at Faneuil Hall, of a box of Mike’s Pastries, tied up with string. One night, hungry and facing long waits at the restaurants in the North End, we ended up eating thin, chewy pizza from a small café-style place where we’d seen it on someone else’s table. If I tried to find that place now I couldn’t, but the pizza I will never forget.

On the day we were to fly home, we rode to the airport, checked our bags and found ourselves with several hours of wait time. That’s when we made one of the best decisions of the trip: we pulled out our weekend Charlie tickets and beelined for Flour Bakery + Café in Fort Point Channel, on Farnsworth Street. Adam got a brioche, I think; I ordered a macaroon. We ate them just before heading back to Logan International, where I wouldn’t want to eat another thing, lest I lose that sweet, sweet, satisfying taste in my mouth.

slice of bread

So when Monday, going through old food magazines on my day off work, I found Joanne Chang, pastry chef/owner of Flour, featured in Gourmet, I knew what I had to do. Tearing her banana bread recipe out of the glossy folds, I pulled three saved bananas out of the freezer and headed to the store for three more.

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the kind he likes

homemade caramels in a tin

When I ask my dad if he wants to do something—it doesn’t matter if it’s running to Sam’s Club on a Saturday, sitting to talk one day I’m upset or going for a walk with me and my brother Father’s Day evening—his answer is, always, yes.

And while I could tell you a lot of other things I love about him—the fact that I sometimes catch him watching kids’ movies by himself, or that he taught me to invest money when I was only 17, or that he has the kind of natural passion to sell you on any idea, anytime—it is this first thing that I love most.

My dad doesn’t read blogs, but he tells everyone he knows I have one. He doesn’t use Twitter, but he asks me to explain it. He has this natural ability—and it’s not just with me—to know what you’re interested in and talk with you about it. He knows how to care about people, unselfishly.

So for Father’s Day, after we took him out for lunch, which he thanked us for at least five times, and after we gave him a card, which he said was perfect, I wanted to give him something else, something that would match his interests, you know? And if there’s one thing I know Dad loves, it’s caramels.

heating caramel

On a recent trip to Minocqua, Wisconsin, my parents came back with, among other things, a white paper bag filled with soft, chewy caramels—the kind you chomp like taffy. And Dad said, more than once, it’d be nice if I could make some like that.

A quick Google search yielded me this: a recipe from that had 63 reviews and four-and-a-half stars.

Here is what happened, all while I was on the phone with a friend, who responded “Good luck” when I mentioned candy thermometer: I combined ingredients in my Le Creuset pot, latched the thermometer on the side and waited, watching the mixture gradually melt the butter and begin to bubble, then froth, then come very close to overflowing the pot. First lesson: when making caramels, use a very, very large pot.

Still on the phone, I used a glass measuring cup to transfer a third of the mixture to a separate pan, figuring the chances of huge, sticky caramelized mess to be less that way. Within a few minutes, the mixture was again overwhelming my first pan, so, though it was at more like 235 degrees F than 242, I took it out and poured it into the buttered 9 X 13 glass dish.

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You’re Invited

cupcakes and raspberries

My blog is turning one in August, and I’m having a party.

Will you come?

Over the last year, you’ve sent me awfully nice e-mails, telling me something about why you like this site or giving me the recipe for a similar dish or asking for clarification on something. I really like the notes about how your cookies looked when they came out of the oven, all puffed and golden, and especially the ones about how something you read here got you to think about things—even ones having nothing to do with food—in a new way.

So I was thinking, for the one-year anniversary of Food Loves Writing, why not have a real-life party? There will be cake and there will be cookies, August 8, at a park in the Chicago suburbs:

gilbert park

Maybe all who comes will be me, the two friends who’ve already promised to appear, and no one else. If so, we’ll eat a lot, and that will be lovely. But if any of the rest of you come, too, well, I hope you know how much I’ll love to meet you.

coconut cupcakes

Maybe we could have a cookie-decorating contest? Or a frost-your-own-cupcakes table? In that case, we should really have these: coconut cupcakes, as seen at Everybody Likes Sandwiches. They’re good (and, bonus: vegan! which seems to be the theme this week).

These are the exact opposite of my droopy gray coconut cake—the one I botched by grabbing coconut flavoring instead of extract? They’re moist and sweet, with flecks of coconut throughout. They’d have been wonderful with coconut frosting, too, but, well, did you know you can over-beat whipping cream? Let’s just say lesson learned, and, um, these aren’t half bad with spoonfuls of raspberries on the side.

vegan coconut cupcakes

Anyway, back to the party.

I really don’t have much nailed down but the location and time: August 8, between 7 and 8:30 PM, at a gorgeous pavilion walking distance from downtown Downers Grove.

I’ve made a Facebook invite for the event (you have to log in to see it), and, if you’re able, I hope you’ll R.S.V.P. there. I’d love to see you, hear your story and share a glass of lemonade.

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Give Me a Big Scoop

chocolate ice cream VEGAN STYLE

Here is the ugly truth: When I eat too much ice cream, I get sick.

But I love ice cream.

vanilla ice cream VEGAN STYLE

Saturday night, at around 10:30 PM, I couldn’t say no to a big, frothy milkshake at Stella’s Diner, orange and vanilla like a Creamsicle. For what it’s worth, it was delicious. And I don’t know if it was the milkshake itself, or the combining of said milkshake with scrambled eggs, two-and-a-half pancakes (not all three because, please, I show some restraint) and a few fries, but I got so sick later, people. Sick enough that all I ate for breakfast the next day was a mushy banana and sick enough that I might not want another milkshake for a very long time.

chocolate ice cream from above

Maybe this sort of thing happens to you, too? I like to think I have an iron stomach, but I don’t, and it’d be nice to know I’m not alone. If I’m really honest with you, I’ll also mention, technically, I have Crohn’s Disease, which is a digestive disorder that requires, among other things, regular medication, annual doctor visits and, this is the worst part, watching what you eat. It’s no big deal, most of the time. Just when I do things like, you know, eat milkshakes late at night, chased by breakfast foods. Also, when I have too much chocolate, too many cookies, very spicy foods and, I swear, the smallest cup of regular coffee. But that’s probably true of most everyone. Right?

vanilla ice cream from above

What I need, you could say, is a way to enjoy foods I love (i.e., ice cream) without fear of churning-stomach consequences. In other words, I need Wheeler’s.

chocolate and vanilla

Have you heard of Wheeler’s? I’d guess if you’re from Boston, you have. That’s where the storefront is, drawing people for healthy ice cream flavors that include everything from coffee to oreo to blueberry to coconut. Made with soy, almond, coconut or rice milks, these creations have 1/3 fewer calories than regular ice cream and are just as creamy, icy and refreshing.

inside of Vegan Scoop

Also, since we we’ve been talking about vegetarianism around here, it seems appropriate to mention that these recipes are 100% vegan, using various milks, arrowroot powder (available in the spices aisle at the grocery store, at least at Whole Foods) and sometimes crazy things like cocoa butter instead of dairy or egg products.

And now, with the arrival of their new cookbook, The Vegan Scoop, we who are not from Boston can try the ice cream, too.

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we will have salad

summer salad

What you who are not from the Midwest might not know is that Chicago gives us many seasons, in the same week—in the same day—anytime it wants to. Saturday, for example, I spent the gloomy morning at the library, watching dark skies send rain onto waving maple trees and brick houses, but by early evening, the sun was bright and high, the air warm, charcoal breezes around us while we walked to dinner. Later still, the breezes turned cold again, when I pulled on my thickest coat to step onto the street and get in my car.

This has happened before, like when the air turned near-balmy in February or when we had our first snow before Halloween; it will happen again.

So when you visit, please bring a coat and t-shirts, sunscreen and an umbrella. We make no guarantees. All you can really be sure of is that we’ll be here, smiling, ready for whatever comes next, with bare trees turned to thick green clusters along the highway, spindly bushes turned to pink and red blossoms in yards, the threat of rain in the eastern horizon.

salad on the table

When you come in June, we will have salad—light and refreshing, cool and crunchy. Where winter (or early June sometimes, ahem) is hearty beef stew, summer is salad, even if it’s raining or the air turns cold and there are puddles to our doorway. This isn’t California—you can’t eat our produce year-round—but this is summer after all, and, some say, it’s smarter to eat for the weather you want than the weather you have.

making salad

Sometimes, in fact, when you eat like summer, summer comes. After I made this salad, a combination of greens and fruit and a homemade vinaigrette, we flipped and flopped from hot to cool, but by Sunday afternoon, when I met Jacqui for lunch at one my favorite places, it just so happened that the weather was absolutely perfect, and, even with temps predicted to drop below 50 in the evenings, I’ve heard most of this week will be hot and dry, sunshine everywhere. It’s summer, people. This is salad weather.

bowl of summer salad

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Still Happily

beef stew in a bowl

I’m not one of those people who used to be a vegetarian, but that’s not to say I haven’t thought about it sometimes. I read one of those Best American collections—I wish I could remember which one—in grad school, and there was an essay about an American living in the U.K., maybe in Ireland? For the summer, he worked on a lambing farm, where he took care of the lambs and helped with births and, also, watched them be killed, which was devastating. I sobbed. Reading his experiences, I thought for the first time about the ethics of eating animals. Since, I’ve read about the poor conditions in meat-packing plants or the way animals are bred in dark, overcrowded buildings where they can’t move around and seldom see grassy fields or sunlight. (I wish I could’ve seen Fresh when it came to Milwaukee and will plan to watch Food, Inc.—If you’ve seen either, I’d like to hear your thoughts.)

So far for me, though, the enjoyment of a steady diet of poultry, with red meat thrown in once or twice a week, still trumps the alternatives, both because it’s such an easy way to get protein and because, honestly, it tastes good and is convenient.

This internal conflict is probably why I was so interested to read Susan Bourette’s book, Meat: A Love Story, sent to me by its publishers over a month ago and which I’m just finishing now. Marketed as a response to ethical questions like the ones I face (i.e., How can a person who likes eating meat do so without guilt?), it got my attention.

And, turns out, there are a lot of good things about this book: a window into many different aspects of the meat industry; the raising of questions many of us (meat-eating or not) may ask; encounters with diverse characters, from cattle ranchers to Inuit whale-hunters in Alaska. But what I’d hoped would be a reasoned approach towards responsibility/action turned out never to cross the line of personal story. It’s interesting, yes. Full of information, yes. You learn new perspectives. But what it isn’t, and this is worth mentioning, is anything beyond that.

beef stew

Anyway, here’s where I’m at right now with meat: (1) I’m sure I want to take, with open hands, whatever food is given to me by friends, free of special demands, because I love them more than controlling what I eat. (2) And when I cook, rather than cutting meat out of my diet, I am looking for better sources of it—Whole Foods, for example, which has a cruelty-free policy; or, a C.S.A. that could give me the option to buy meat directly from farmers in Illinois.

I’d by lying if I said I didn’t buy ground beef or stew meat at Dominick’s when it’s on sale, like it was last week, but I am trying to move towards better choices, slowly, while still enjoying myself.

country bob's

This stew, cooked overnight in a crock pot, is the perfect example of why I am still, happily, a carnivore. Marinated with Country Bob’s All Purpose Sauce, covered in chopped vegetables, it practically makes itself. When I pulled out a Tupperware container filled with it for lunch on Tuesday, reheating it in the microwave and bringing a forkful to my mouth, I literally exclaimed, out loud to the office, “Mmm, this is good,” one hand hitting the desk and the other frozen mid-air.

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