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Overshare zone!

13 Nov

We’ll start in the kitchen, where most things start out anyway.

I haven’t forgotten about the blog, I haven’t even been particularly unmotivated. I’ve been cooking like crazy, looking for comfort in simmered stocks and baking projects… the truth is I’ve been avoiding this little corner of the internet. It’s hard to know how much to share to a public audience when your writing is about food, and as much as you try to make your life about food, circumstances come up that make you think about things that aren’t as pleasant or easy as throwing a roast in the oven. This summer was a rough one that raised a lot of questions and forced me to make several big, shaky, scramble-yer-brain decisions in order to maintain some semblance of sanity. To begin, I left my job and started working in a new kitchen.

I wasn’t getting the kind of cooking experience that I really wanted. I wasn’t learning anything new, and I felt any talent I had in me was going to waste there. That, and sometimes you just have to say fuck it and take care of yourself, because you certainly can’t depend on your boss(es) to do that for you, as was proven to me time and time again there. As some form of catharsis it’s tempting for me to spill everything on here, but for posterity I’ll leave it at that. I got an opportunity to work in a new kitchen, (which I’ll brilliantly just call Kitchen from here on out- creativity points!)– the kind of kitchen that embodies my food ideals. You know the drill- all locally sourced, organically grown, made from scratch comfort food that has none of those terrifying manufactured food shortcuts that are used in plenty of restaurants. I also got the chance to work with dough, which was something I’d never gotten to do before, so on some days I wake up early and hang out in the kitchen by myself, where I roll baguettes and form perfect little buns, get elbow deep in biga and totally destroy my hands in the process. It’s lovely, and I’ll probably never be able to wear nail polish again. C’est la vie.

It had been a few years since I was the new kid in a kitchen, and it’s funny to be in that spot again. I’d forgotten what it was like to consistently fuck things up and have to apologize for it. It can be frustrating, because no matter how proficient you feel you are in the kitchen you will inevitably screw up some major things simply because it hasn’t become an engrained process. Every kitchen is different, and you come to rely heavily on muscle memory to get your timing right and not totally lose your cool with the exceptional multi-tasking that the longterm staff make look easy.

Being new in this kitchen and watching myself falter and fail on a regular basis is pretty damn similar to what’s happening in the rest of my life right now. C and I ended our relationship, which I won’t get into here. Between that, my love life, my dad and his sickness and my family relationships, what I’m left with is one big pile of questions and uncertainty and sadness and nostalgia and excitement and weirdness. Just like at Kitchen, with that pile of stuff I have try to come up with solutions so I don’t lose my shit completely. I reconfigure how I go about things. It is clumsy and painful and half the time I think I look like a jackass. I might accidentally boil 12 pounds of radishes instead of beets. I might make twice as much dough as I was supposed to. I might knock over a pot of perfectly diced vegetables that represented a two hour project I now have to shortcut and re-do completely.  As any of my friends will tell you, I might well up and cry for no apparent reason, or I might crack up and dance around and smile at babies and be a happy, well-adjusted person for a moment.

For awhile it was hard to write about food because I wasn’t eating. After I started eating again, I eventually started cooking again. But still, writing wasn’t coming to me. I’m building myself back up block by block, and creative output is the last thing I’m coaxing back to the surface (besides, you know, general happiness and coping strategies. Life!).

Also, what the what is UP with it being dark All. The. Time!? It blows, and since I refuse to build a light box and only enjoy photographing food by natural light that means I have to eat at like, 4 pm at the latest to get a decent photo. Well THAT’S not gonna happen since lately I stay up until the wee, wee hours in the nighttime and that means I eat at 9 or so. Clearly I just need to eat out more, preferably lavish meals where I can get on about cream and butter and salt. In the meantime, bear with me. Soon enough I’m sure I’ll get my sea legs back. Er, my kitchen legs. Er… life legs. Here’s hoping.

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Homewards

4 Sep

Last week I got all excited about Labor Day weekend and the fact that the family would be together again, celebrating the time that seems more precious with every visit. We didn’t have any grand plans, but wanted to putter around the house, maybe sleep in, listen to music and, well… eat. Because what else does a family of varying interests and hobbies do to pass the time together? While at home I find myself mostly occupied by preparing food, which is how I like it. Shopping at Central Market or Whole Foods is a luxury compared to my everyday shopping situation, as is my free reign to pick out anything the family might enjoy (I went a little crazy at the antipasto salad bar… YUM). Things are a little weird these days… for the first time in my life, I’m facing things I’m 100% unsure about, and the stress about money and family and sickness and sadness and priorities and plans– well, it’s pretty daunting sometimes. It’s been a rough summer. But nothing makes me feel quite as happy and making food and feeding people. A tray of meats and cheeses, olives, and baby heirlooms while the family and friends socialize is always welcomed with such gratefulness. A pork tenderloin with a little balsamic browning in the cast iron elicits smiles from everyone who smells it.

 

Picking anything ready from the garden and rifling through the pantry and fridge for any forgotten carrots or potatoes for a roasted vegetable dish makes me feel industrious. Waffles from mom in the morning, fresh maple syrup and cans of jam from Beth waiting for me on the counter– home doesn’t always feel like home as I get older, but it always does if someone’s cooking. We picked blackberries in the back acreage, and with our bounty were rewarded with pie and a cobbler…

 

 

 

…although the best part may very well be spotting that perfect warm blackberry on the bush, placing it on your tongue, and pressing it against the roof of your mouth as it melts into some cosmic substance that can’t be replicated by people.

 

 

 

While I was home I bought a new book, and Beth gifted me another.

 

With her permission I’m abandoning the Jonathan Franzen book that has definitely NOT helped improve my state of mind, and instead I will read my favorite Ruth Reichl’s beautiful food prose and a diary of foods and meals and illustrations to inspire me to stay active in the one realm that I know is good for me.

 

Home is a lot of things… and it’s not always that embroidered sentiment you wish it was. Inevitably you have to process unpleasant realities while locking arms with those around you in fortitude, despite what your mind may be screaming at you to do otherwise. At least while we all figure out how to just be amongst all of this, we have plenty of food to enjoy with each other at our table.

 

 

 

 

Trainwreck July: Sadness, Sunshine, Confusion, and One Really Weird Cake

31 Jul

Usually in western Washington people emerge bleary eyed at the first sign of summer and basically go apeshit with excitement. After being cooped up for the past 9 months, we break out our pasty legs, throw our responsibility out the window, and generally swim and day drink for as long as the weather allows until we are ushered, hungover and exhausted, back into our homes and onto our creative projects that the dismal atmosphere encourages.

It’s all just part of the routine, but this summer’s been a little different. When I left for the Grand Canyon trip, it was still dreary and wet, and when I came back ten days later, it was full force summer time. I was writing my mental list of activities I could now enjoy (oversize margaritas, hula hooping, oyster consumption on patios, etc.) when I found out that my dad has cancer. Suddenly nothing sounded very fun, and then the quarterlife crisis that had been on a gentle simmer on my mind’s back burner boiled over into a giant, starchy, hard to clean up mess. Then it went unnoticed and escalated into a full blown kitchen fire, but luckily a few key people have been routinely dousing that thing in baking soda, so it’s just a small, controlled  yet still alarming fire at the moment. Side note: Did you SEE that metaphor? They don’t teach those things in college. Oh, what, it’s kind of janky? GIVE ME A BREAK I’M SAD.

Three days after his prognosis it was his birthday, and even though he hadn’t felt like eating I forced him to consider what kind of cake I should make for him (since grief translates well into I-Love-You food). He chose a classic chocolate with buttercream, and I loved every moment of making it. Normally I don’t care that much for baking, but if it’s for my dad I’ll bake anything he asks for.

So then, two weeks after the news broke about my dad, it was suddenly my sister’s birthday and she had another cake request entirely. I’ll tell you it’s absolutely impossible to say no to my sister, who told me over the phone that

all I want is a train cake! 

And I’m like, wait, what? Ok…?

I like to bake cakes… but I’ve never tried to make one that looked like anything EXCEPT A CAKE, but since it was allllllll she waaaaaaanted, I decided to give it a whirl.

After watching this insanely misleading video  about how TOTALLY DOABLE and VERY, VERY EASY making a train cake is, I was all “Oh, I can definitely do that. I can do that so well ALREADY that I’m going to make it from scratch, too, and blow all these mom-commenters out of the water!” Said mom-commenters were all, “I couldn’t believe how fast and easy this cake was to make!” and “My three year-old just went cah-razy for it!!!!111!!!” Nevermind that my sister was turning 28, and there was no mention for train cakes appropriate for adults, but damn it, BETH WAS GONNA GET THAT CAKE.

Then off to the grocery store where I spent approximately 45 minutes assessing various candy shapes for the train decorations, carefully picking up and setting down every kind of geometric candy and weighing the importance of taste versus aesthetics when I finally bought it all and came home to make the damn thing. And holy mustard, I needed a bigger kitchen counter for a cake that required so many pans.

I probably shouldn’t have picked a recipe I’d never tried before, and I DEFINITELY shouldn’t have picked a recipe that called for 6 eggs. Failing to notice that is a big, red flag that I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BAKE WELL and obviously shouldn’t be left in charge with the task of assembling an engine and three trains cars with what turned out to be the flattest, stickiest, and richest cake I have ever produced in my life. Suffice to say, the cake was far too difficult to work with, and though I managed to carve some shapes that, when stacked and terribly frosted, approximated the general shape of an engine car, I did have to bite the bullet and buy a box mix for the rest of the cars.

Thus began the arduous process of frosting.  I seriously can’t believe how effortless that Betty Crocker video made it all look, because there was lots of swearing and definitely some crying during the creation of this cake. After watching the video about 6 times and  then attempting to replicate the results, I was left with some very serious questions:

1. After “crumb coating” the cakes you’re supposed to refrigerate them before your next frosting layer. Where are you supposed to find space in a normal functioning refrigerator for two cutting boards covered in precariously frosted cakes? Also, by this point I was finishing up the project at my parents’ house, and their fridge is always crammed with ten thousand condiments and every manner of leftover. Which is more important- curried chicken salad or smoked salmon? SOMETHING HAS TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE CAKES.

2. Ok, so I crumb coat the damn things and they are not ANY easier to frost the second time. In fact, they are even a little harder, as the fridge didn’t seem to help the frosting set at all, and now I’m just smearing gooey frosting on top of gooey frosting AND IT’S MAKING A DAMN MESS.  How are you supposed to keep the boxcars looking like, I dunno, rectangular!? Because by now the boxcars look like tiny, colorful footballs and I’m about to lose my shit for real.

3. After frosting the things and begrudgingly accepting the fact that they’re just gonna look like tiny, colorful footballs, I am forced to relocate the extremely fragile, sticky, cake crumbles onto a surface with a train track of piped frosting. In the video, the baker just reaches down with her bare hands and gingerly plops the cars onto the track with no resistance whatsoever from the frosting. Seriously, RIDDLE ME THAT. I carefully try to transfer the cakes with a flat spatula and not only to I maim the frosting even more, but I drop one on it’s side and totally ruin the train track frosting while simultaneously collapsing an entire boxcar. So, how on earth are you supposed to fix this? WHY, BETTY CROCKER, WHY?

It was about at this point that Beth came home and started squealing with delight about her train cake in the works, and I am covered in frosting and cake, bewildered at what potential she could possibly see on that terribly-piped train track, but I try to swallow my frustration because she looks excited, and dad is telling me that I’m doing a great job. Ha!

Anyway, I finally pulled my shit together and started plastering a bunch of candy to the thing in an effort to

a) Cover up as many failed frosting jobs as possible and

b) Distract people altogether

Which left me with one more question: Is this supposed to taste good? Because I know very few adults who enjoy eating an enormous pile of frosting and cake and candy all at once… so maybe THAT’S why this cake is typically relegated to the world of three year olds. I get it now. I tried to pick candies that would go with the lemony flavor of that scratch cake I used for the engine, but it was still a weird eating experience. Luckily Beth seemed to like it, and my brother is basically a hummingbird so he was pretty excited about frosting covered peachy rings.

So, she was happy. Good thing I love her so much because that entire thing was worth it and I’d do it again (though hopefully a bit better this time…) if she asked. It doesn’t even need to be her birthday.
This whole month has kinda felt like making the train cake. I’m upset, I cry a lot, everything’s pretty messy and weird looking. It’s been hard for me to care about food when I’m preoccupied with family stuff and I’m trying to grab at some form of control to make my life feel more manageable. I’ve missed it this past month though, and sometimes I forget that making food and talking about food brings me a lot of joy and energy. I’m pulling myself into a better state of mind this week, today, right now. I’m starting with this post. And then I’m going to make a big, delicious dinner for friends this evening, like old times.

One Lucky Girl.

18 Mar

Today my parents, brother, and uncle drove up for a belated birthday dinner at our local southern restaurant (think oyster po’ boys, jambalaya, hush puppies, etc), followed by presents and cake at C’s and my house. Dinner was absolutely wonderful, and I topped it all off with a Bombay Sapphire gimlet- because I guess I was feeling like a total princess.

But when mom asked what sort of cake I wanted, I told her cheesecake (obvs!) yet hardly expected her to make this masterpiece on her own! Not that I was surprised at her aptitude; on the contrary, I first got  into cheesecake after mom made me a lemon cheesecake a couple years ago. So, a couple of things….

A) I had no idea at the time of that initial lemon cheesecake that she even knew how to make a cheesecake. That’s a skill reserved for pros who get paid for their time, in my opinion. It’s a demanding process!

B) That lemon cheesecake was far better than any professionally baked cake I’d ever tasted.

C) She totally blew me away with her beautiful spectacle of a cake. I mean, it not only tasted like heaven, it looked gorgeous.

This was made by the woman who regularly asks me how to do basic kitchen tasks when she TOTALLY KNOWS how to do them, simply because “you’re the professional!”

Listen here, mom.

I have learned so much about cooking from my mother, my sister, my cooking jobs, and C. Competency in the kitchen is a cumulative knowledge. And I guarantee, no cheesecake I ever make could look as beautiful or taste as flawless as this one. This one was made with years of expertise behind it.

And on a totally different note– remember Ralph? My hand mixer from hell? Well I’m pretty sure I gave my Granma nightmares, because for my birthday she sent a check with explicit instructions to replace my death-defying (if not narrowly) hand mixer. So here you have it: Ralph’s replacement, Margene. Normally I’m not into naming inanimate objects (besides cars, OBVIOUSLY. And bobbleheads. That’s a different story), but I’ve been watching way too much Big Love lately and Margene seems like the only appropriate name for such a fun-yet-still-practical sort of gal.

Oh, Tangerine Margene. What a lovely specimen. She came with standard whisks, dough hooks, and a blender attachment for soups. If my birthday celebrations are any indication of the year to come, then bring it on. I’ve been so overwhelmed with gratitude for family’s and friend’s attention and thoughtfulness. Now… onward and upward! I’ve got so many projects to do! With my new camera (insert squealing noise here), a new hand mixer, and a bellyful of oysters, I feel completely inspired to work towards new things. If I could find a still of Wet Hot American Summer’s scene where Christopher Meloni and Michael Showalter triumphantly high five after a long montage of successes, I would. But please know, THAT is how I feel right now. High fivin’ a million angels! Oh god, I’ve mixed up all my pop culture references. What else is new?

Cioppino Quickie Christmas Phone Blog!

25 Dec

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Behold! Its Christmas and I’m venturing into the world of mobile blogging… gross. I never thought I’d type those words exclusively with my thumbs. C and I are working on cioppino for dinner,  and DAMN it is good to make such a luxurious dish on someone else’s dime and in a far superior kitchen! Can’t wait to share photos of the results with you. Until then, HAPPY CHRISTMASTIME!!

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