My friend Leslie runs a Chicago-based jewelry business called LittleGemsUSA, from which 50 percent of all proceeds go straight to charity. Today it is our pure honor to feature that business here, alongside a recipe for the homemade graham crackers…
Hey guys, this is a quick dispatch from Austin, Texas, where Tim and I are holed up for the week. We flew here on my birthday Monday and picked up groceries from one of the five Whole Foods Markets in…
You say that you can’t cook; I say, Give it time. I know it looks like people are born with fresh muffins coming out of their ovens, but it’s not true. Everybody starts somewhere. And the first time you try to cook, especially if that first time is when you’re no longer a kid and there’s nobody around to tell you what to do, it’s scary because you don’t know what will happen. Everybody knows this. Most people forget this, but everybody knows this. We all have different motivations for trying something in the kitchen at the beginning: adventure, curiosity, boredom, hunger, need. Whatever yours is, I probably felt it at one point or another. I grew up in a cooking household, the kind where my mom made dinner every night and my grandma’s life centered around what was simmering on the stove. I don’t remember learning from them to love to eat; I think I absorbed it naturally, the way I absorbed language or liking to laugh. Learning to cook was something different, though. Learning to cook took time—takes time—I mean, because, in a lot of ways, learning to cook is something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
I AM WRITING THIS POST FROM MY DINING ROOM, alongside a giant piece of leftover cake. Tim’s gone at a meeting, and I’m facing a front window, from which I have now seen my neighbor add and take things from at least three different people’s trash bins this bright and sunny Trash Day, and everything’s as quiet as it is in the middle of the night. Actually, I take that last sentence back. The neighbor’s terrier just got loose, and a woman walking down the street with her dog just became the middle of a barking, frenzied confrontation. But, ah, the neighbor’s wife is coming out! The loose terrier is lolling in the grass and being rubbed! Now, all is quiet again.
Last night was my turn to host book club, the first time since we launched this monthly meetup back at the start of the year. There are nine of us in the group, ten if you count Emmie who got a job in Chattanooga this summer and now reads along with us from two hours away. When you host, you make snacks, and for Tim’s and my sakes, it’s probably good book club is always at the end of the month when it meets, because that way, when everyone comes over on the last Tuesday of August, I know not to spend a hundred dollars on food as the end-of-the-month food budget is noticeably smaller—but, for my book club’s sake, it’s also good my turn happened to fall in the month of August because I am the fresh recipient of my parents’ annual Whole Foods gift card as a birthday gift, and so yesterday afternoon Tim ran to the grocery after his meetings and came home bearing the makings of all the fresh vegetables, fruit, butter, flour and cream I could want.
Before he’d left that morning, I’d seen a tall birthday cake on Pinterest and told him how I wanted to try one. It was a sort of ambitious just-before-guests-come project to take on, especially for a girl who would list layer cakes among her top five most scary things to bake (it’s the frosting! hand me a spatula with whipped cream and I freeze!), but when I’d finished my hours for the day and he came home with brown paper bags, he helped me mix and bake and assemble things. He also spread most of the frosting. Everything was going beautifully until I decided to pull out the parchment strips I’d criss-crossed underneath the cake (“So the cake plate will be pretty and frosting-free!”) and ended up breaking the cake apart. PANIC! The end result was a large, pink, dense, moist layer cake—smooshed back together and slightly tilted to one side, like a sort of Leaning Tower of Cake hidden beneath all that whipped cream. With spelt or other heavy flours, it’s hard to achieve the same lightness of crumb and fluffy texture that defined the cake mixes of our childhoods, so the cake wasn’t as tall as I’d hoped, despite its three layers. The frosting job wasn’t perfect. And in the process of assembling things, I’d managed to spread cake crumbs all over the kitchen, from the stove burners to the floor.
“Oh, well,” I said out loud to the kitchen after Tim had left again and my book club friends were on their ways. “It’s just another rustic.”
I have the worst case of writer’s block. I don’t know what to say. I feel like Tim is going to tell me, any minute, that he’s finished what he’s doing and we need to go, so I can’t focus on what I’m writing because I keep thinking, we’re about to drive to the grocery store and we also need toilet paper and I can’t forget to set my alarm clock for tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m.! It’s Thursday night, the one night this week when we haven’t had something going on, and what was supposed to be a relaxing evening at home has turned into a nonstop day that continued into a nonstop night, and it’s 8:30 p.m., we’re only now about to go to the store, and I still haven’t written a blog post.
Part of the busy schedule this week has been, get this, because of food. In a strange turn of events, we ended up with three CSA boxes in the last two weeks, giving us bushel and bushel and bushel full of fresh food, all of which we needed to do something with so as to avoid the one thing I absolutely do not want to do, as in, waste any. This may have led to tears once or twice. Besides beets (roasted!) and beet greens (pesto!) and yellow squash, eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers (ratatouille!) and potatoes (home fries! mashed! fritters!), we’ve had squash. Oh, have we had squash: butternut, acorn, spaghetti. Most of it roasted, so as to make pureé. Also, pumpkin—namely, a 20-pound monstrosity I carried around the house and outside for a photo as if it were a small child. Well, it weighed as much as one.
And tonight, while the fridge is stocked with roasted peppers and sautéed beet stems and a tomato-kale-pepper salad, while there are half a dozen butternut squash biscuits left on the counter and some quinoa grains soaking to be cooked tomorrow, I’ll be honest and say I know a week of longer work days and unexpected meetings and two extra bushels of vegetables is not exactly the stuff of nightmares, but, honestly, I’m tired. Tim and I are having friends for dinner tomorrow and then an overnight guest through Monday, and as I sit here, looking at the photographs of squash and biscuit dough, reading through the paragraphs I’ve written, the main thing I keep thinking is, would I want to read this if I were someone coming to the post? And I want to start over. But then, what would I write? See sentence two above.
The thing I’ve found in the last year or so, especially back in the midst of planning a wedding, is that when I get too busy, the kind of busy where I’m running from one thing to another, seldom processing anything, I only function at 50, maybe 60%. This is fine when you’re doing the dishes—less fine when you’re trying to put together paragraphs (and, ahem, putting together paragraphs is what some of us do for a living).
Writing is thinking. If you can’t think, you can’t write, mark it down. And the best writers, the ones who turn words with precision and truth, are the ones who are taking time to think about what they say.
So tonight when I have nothing to say, I guess I’m really saying, help! I need time to think! And so, while Tim and I run out to buy groceries and Q-tips, cracking open a chocolate tart between the two, I say to him, listen, let’s talk. How are we so rushed lately? What is going on? And we talk and we think together, and we look for ways to pare down and take tasks off our plates.
And by 11 p.m., we’re in bed, me on my laptop, writing these last words (because I love this place! So it stays!), Tim surfing the Internet from his phone, ready to rest.
By the way: If you haven’t seen this on Facebook already, we’re thinking of doing a Q+A post sometime soon, answering any personal, blog or food questions (well, almost any questions) you guys have. Do you have a question? Ask it here: facebook.com/foodloveswriting.
If you’d been a fly on our kitchen walls this past week, you would have seen a lot of easy weeknight dinners going on. After we followed Tamar Adler’s advice and, in one big batch of cooking, filled our fridge with jars and Pyrex packed with roasted eggplant, boiled potatoes, roasted yellow squash and so on, we then began the daily task of putting her strategy to the test. There were vegetables tossed with quinoa, vegetables inside morning omelettes, leftover vegetable hash pureed with milk and water until it became a hot and creamy bisque so comforting, I almost cried. Roasted eggplant became baba ganoush. Boiled potatoes turned into mashed, soft and creamy and studded with garlic. Preroasting all your produce is not for everyone (and not for every week), but this last week, as we’ve tried it, Tim and I have seen firsthand how simplifying the strategy can be in helping to make dinner every night.
There are other things you’d see from your kitchen perch, too, though, like the failed cookie recipe I attempted, a sort of cookie rollup is what they turned out to be; or the truly amazing cookies I baked a few days after that. We’ve had our morning smoothies and thrown together a quick chicken salad, and listen, if you have two oranges, some Pellegrino and a bit of honey, go pureé it all in the Vitamix and remember what is good about life. Also, there’s been comfort cooking, like yesterday, when I made a new chicken recipe, taken from Luisa Weiss’s soon-to-be-released book, “My Berlin Kitchen.”*
Luisa Weiss is the blogger behind The Wednesday Chef, which, along with Orangette and Smitten Kitchen, is one of the first three food blogs I started reading back when I discovered food blogs five years ago. When I found her, she was a cookbook editor in New York, though today she lives in Berlin; I was reading the day she posted about getting engaged to the man she dated before her now-husband; the day she wrote about quitting her job, “leaping” as she called it, less than a year before I would end up doing the same thing; I remember reading about her sweet and beautiful wedding; I remember the first photo of her brand-new baby boy. Following along with her life the last few years, the way I do with so many blogs, the way I’m amazed some of you do with mine, I felt on some level like I knew her, and I liked that.
My friend Jacqui and I always say that the thing we most love about blogs is reading people’s stories. Sure, there are recipes and photos and nutrition info and giveaways—but what keeps me reading, what makes me care about any of it at all, is hearing someone else share their story, like she’s a friend. I started Luisa’s book two days after finishing “An Everlasting Meal,” and it only took me another three to get to the final page. She pours her heart out in the pages, detailing her cross-continental childhood, her search for identity, her eventual settling and family-making in Berlin, the city where she first belonged—and as an added bonus, there are recipes along the way.
The month of August has been a quiet one for us. Expected guests had to cancel at the last minute, plans changed and, while you’d think this would be the sort of thing to discourage us, in fact, it’s been the opposite. We’ve been dealing with the wide-open weekends of Tim’s homemade pancakes, afternoons spent writing, evening walks in the park, impromptu trips to thrift stores or out for tacos. The weather’s even cooperated, moving from the abrasive 100s to more reasonable upper 80s, making it a little easier to enjoy cooking in the kitchen again. For years, Tim’s told me about his homemade Chinese food, and this August has been his chance to take a few hours in the kitchen to show me. I’ve baked cookies without recipes. We’ve slow-cooked vegetables via Marcella Hazan. And not once, not twice, but three times, we’ve made homemade kefir-soaked spelt pizza crusts, topped by peaches and spinach and goat cheese.
In so many ways, August has been a contrast to the months before it, in which we’ve hosted out-of-town guests or traveled ourselves, and, to make up for the hours we’d be missing, worked double-time beforehand. In the same way that you appreciate your sophomore English teacher so much more because you disliked your freshman one, we’ve been basking in the beauty of this August and its slow, steady schedules.
Most Tuesday nights, we share dinner with Tim’s brother, Nathan, who lives about a mile or two away, in the house where Tim lived before October. Every other week, by the time he arrives, we’re also unpacking our biweekly CSA haul, a tightly packed bushel box of yellow squash and watermelon and sweet corn and tomatoes and so on, which we pick up from the 12 South Farmers Market held late Tuesday afternoons. On one particular week, we’re pulling away from the market, not yet home, when I catch an image on Instagram of a peach-topped pizza. Despite the loot in our back seat, we beeline for the grocery.
At home, we launch into our biweekly routine, Tim slicing up watermelon that we snack on while we divvy up the goods. Meanwhile, I mix together a pizza crust, letting it soak in the warmest spot above our oven.
By the time Nathan arrives, the August sun is lowering, the house enjoying that late-summer twilight that turns everything golden and dim, and two pizzas are in the oven, one on a stone and one on a baking sheet.
That first time is magic: crackery crust, sweet and soft peaches, the tang of goat cheese mixed with drizzles of honey. We eat it on the sofa, piece after piece after piece, the three of us flipping through channels on TV, occasionally interrupting the programming to marvel at the way the crust holds up or the way the edges have a faint hint of Saltine.
When Nathan leaves, it’s barely 8 p.m., so Tim and I clean up the dishes and put away the leftovers and take a drive, headed nowhere in particular, off to enjoy a lazy summer night, with nothing to do. I say to him, This August has been like one long date!, enough that I almost feel guilty!, and he says to me, I know.