someone’s in this kitchen

Web journalism comes with equal doses of surprise, commotion, and amusement. There are ups and downs. We may shepherd stories along for months on end, but they’re still lovingly tended. They may not be earth-shattering, but they still contribute good things to the world.

On the flip side, there’s that screen, glowing in my face day after day and making this fresh-air loving soul feel a little empty now and again.

When the hum of machines gives me a headache and the incessant chatter on the internet overwhelms me, where do I turn for solace? The internet of course. From the Economist’s technology blog (via Andrew Sullivan) this bit of pro-technology is brilliant. Especially for this recovering Luddite.

All German terms for radio are derived from a single verb: funken, to spark. I’ve been trying to understand the continued appeal of radio when there are so many different and more convenient ways to get news and music, and I think it has to do with the idea that we know, when we listen to the radio, that someone, somewhere is alive. Es funkt. There is a spark at the other end, a fire on the hilltop.

A blog, done right, provides this proof the same way radio does. You hear a voice, which means that someone is actually sitting in a booth somewhere talking down the signal to you. And if they take your calls, or read your emails, then they’re listening, too. I think blogs and radio are more than the sum of the information or entertainment they provide; they’re a source of human comfort.

This week I got an email reminding me that people do read this blog, and even trust the voice behind it. It was titled “Help! Dolmas tanking!” A woman in California had tried my dolmas recipe, and, having substituting brown rice, found herself with uncooked, unappetizing rolls. She emailed me in a panic, and we had an amusing back-and-forth over the course of the day about cooking, expectations, and rice. I suggested she turn her failed dolmas into a success by dumping them in a pot with some sauteed onion and broth to make dolma soup. She took my advice and deemed her creation Ruined Dolma Soup. The point of the story is only to say that the above quote rings true. The internet doesn’t always alienate.

Last night’s dinner was one of those spontaneous successes, born of exhaustion from a brick workout (bike + run) and dictated by the contents of my fridge.  Cooking this way is freeing, as I’ve said before, and always faster than I imagine it will be. I head home night after night (hoping I’ll be motivated to get the ingredients together for some recipe I’ve had bookmarked for months) only to stumble lazily into a version of a loner’s feast: toast with sardines, cheese and crackers, yogurt and granola, kimchi and a fried egg, a simple salad, a square of dark chocolate.

I love those rare night when I get home early enough to create something actually resembling an entree. While I boiled up some linguine (left by a dear housemate who just left for Texas), I sauteed two minced cloves of garlic in olive oil. I threw in some thawed broccoli florets and let them cook a bit. Then I realized I needed protein, so opened up the cupboard and grabbed what I thought was a can of chickpeas. When I opened it, cannelini beans stared back at me. No matter. I dug my fingers right into the can and plopped them in the pan with the broccoli, adding two huge handfuls of raw spinach and a bit of chicken broth to the mix. I let the greens wilt, sprinkled on some chili flakes and salt and pepper, and then poured the whole sloppy mixture over the linguine and finished it with Parmesan. I’m lucky I had these random pictures on hand, because my camera was nowhere in sight.

This recipe is nothing special … not even worth typing out in regular recipe form. But it sort of restored my confidence in a kitchen that’s become a stranger to me in this 7 am to 8 pm life. I am so glad I remembered the fire in my kitchen (and in my stomach) for good, honest food.

Here’s the leftovers I ate today in the sun, camera in tow.

butternut squash pasta

I’m starting to wonder if I should take vitamin D supplements. The past few days have been unusually sunny for Central New York, and I just can’t get enough. Unfortunately most of my day yesterday was spent indoors in front of glowing screens. At least someone was smart enough to invent windows.

Today was much better: A perfect latte, writing about food for my assignment at the paper, riding a sunny bus and listening to my latest podcasts from RadioLab and the Splendid Table. I just started riding buses again, and let me tell you, podcasts are my new best friend.

After a few hours at the paper, I put 6.6 fresh miles on my new Saucony’s. They’re a size bigger than my last two pairs, and wider too — all in hopes that I can keep my second toenail.

February is such a tease. Snow. Rain. Temperatures tempting my skirts out of hiding, then slamming me with another get-me-a-hot-chocolate-and-a-bath-now kind of evening. But it’s a short month, really. It must be hard to establish an identity for yourself with only 28 days (and sometimes 29). Even if you’re just a month, and don’t really have much of an identity to begin with.

After running there was coffee and baked things that I will soon post about. There was breathing and stretching and the shelving of worries. Days are getting ever-so-slightly longer, inching toward six p.m. It was one of those serene evenings where busyness seems like just another mental state and a downward dog can cure anything.

I returned to an apartment warm with the fragrance of nutmeg. The day couldn’t have gotten much better as it was, and there on my stove was a steaming skillet of fusili mortared together with pureed roasted squash. There were brussels sprouts our favorite way: dry-roasted in a sweet veneer of balsamic. There was a small glass of crimson wine winking back at the rich colors of the steaming food on my plate.

In that moment I was fine with the light having faded from the day. Because the good things of night—companionship, catching up, staying put—have their place too.

And so does peanut-butter chocolate ice cream at 10 p.m. That’s when the running really comes in handy.

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red riot redux (beet and ricotta stuffed shells)

My last dinner in the mountains called for something special. Something with a little more preparation than what I’d been eating during my two-week sabbatical. Yes, crackers and cheese will satiate. Sure, four days of leftovers will keep you alive. But as great as convenient meals are, certain times remain where food transcends its usefulness and becomes something more.

I wanted that. I had eaten well, but I wanted more.

Food is, thankfully, more than filling our bellies. And while I realize that not everyone has the luxury of seeing it this way, I think that too often the people who DO have the chance to, don’t. It sounds convoluted but maybe if we could, as a culture, learn to revere food a little more, others could have enough for a change. It’s a leap of logic, but I believe strongly that with appreciation comes respect, and with respect, stewardship. If we were better stewards of the bounty of Earth and her creatures, maybe others could go to bed with full bellies too.

It’s all the beet’s fault, getting me off on this tangent. Yes, the scruffy little beta vulgaris has put me up to this, with its surprising flesh and juice that always makes me think I cut myself. Three little beetroots staring back at me from my farmer’s market sack; unlikely reminders of the value of food beyond accomplice to survival.

I wanted to make something worth eating under that 7 o’clock summer sky, clear as the eyes of a child. Something that involved some boiling, peeling, slicing, pureeing, grating, whisking and stuffing. Something that was not meticulously followed from a book that I could put my stamp on, make my own. And while I must give credit where credit is due and cite my sources, the final product ended up feeling as though it was truly mine.

Is this not how we live? Piecing together this and that, sayings and gestures we’ve responded to in others, expressions and beliefs we’ve found are magnets to our hearts. I am this and that and this thing too. I come from here and from there. So too are the meals I take the most pleasure in.

Awhile ago, my friend over at fx cuisine humbly shared his beetroot pasta disaster with the world. I admired his honesty of imperfection, and was intrigued by the beety creature he felt he wasn’t quite able to bring to life. Being already firmly rooted in beet-love, it was easy to convince myself to try out his dish. Besides, it’s not often that I indulge that most basic of human rights to creamy, cheesy pasta topped with crispy Parmesan.

The heading on fx’s post read “can you make something out of it?” I’m still not sure if this was an invitation for his readers to try their hands at the dish or just an aesthetic inquiry, but I took it as the former. Off I went, scheming and dreaming, determined to effect the harmonious reunion of beets, ricotta and pasta upon my plate. And that’s where 10 years of part-time jobs in restaurants came in handy. When I first started at fude, a funky Winnipeg bistro, we had a popular dish called the Red Riot. It was crab-stuffed pasta shells with a rosé sauce — aka a tomato-cream. A dish I hadn’t thought about in years came back to me full-force, with the perfect blueprint for my new creation.

Off to work I went, not sure how it would end up, but enjoying every minute of trying. The cheerful bubbling of the water, reddening more and more every minute as the beets deepened into their characteristic hue. Guiltlessly whirling whole-milk ricotta into beet puree, and watching it take on the color of a sunset or an embarrassed cheek. Tossing in handfuls of zippy Parmesan, grating fresh nutmeg for the first time in my life (thanks to the well-stocked cupboards where I was staying), spooning the mixture into pre-cooked jumbo pasta shells and watching the edges curl over as if each concealed a secret.

I sat down under that June sky and pressed my fork into the first shell. Pink began to escape the shell, picking up just a hint of the balsamic glaze I had drizzled over the plate. Rescuing it to my fork, I sampled my creation. It’s not often I’m truly blown away by food, especially not my own. (Honestly, I’ve gotten so picky!) But this, my friends, was pure delight wrapped in a pasta shell, each bite containing music and the glint of distant lands and the best things of the earth.

And for all of you who made it to the bottom of this post, I offer a gift from author Tom Robbins, whose passage on my favorite root might just be the best bit of food writing I’ve come across yet:

The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. ~Tom Robbins

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