Thai Cafe by Steven Wang

Go Your Own Way

I’ve eaten and adored more piles of pad thai than I can count, starting with a first tentative (and screamingly spicy!) bite the first time I went to Chicago (thanks, db!), escalating into a more-than-weekly habit when I lived in Brooklyn. I’ve watched the line cooks at Thai Cafe in Greenpoint throw the ingredients into the hot wok by handfuls, let the flames shoot up everywhere, and deftly turn out a beautiful pile of noodles for me to devour.

But I’ve never made pad thai. Never even tried to make it. It just seemed too— what? Far from what I knew how to cook? Full of ingredients I knew intimately by taste but not by name? When I did look for recipes, they all seemed full of conflicting ingredient lists and directions, each with their streak of insistence that theirs was the pure way, the real pad thai.

Tonight I made pad thai. I finally found a demystifying recipe from a cook I trust (Deb at Smitten Kitchen), realized I had most of the ingredients and knew how to find the others, and I just gave it a whack. I shook something loose. And it was good. There were tastes in there I recognized from Brooklyn, and now I’m breaking them down and thinking about how to re-jigger the recipe to more closely match my memory of the blissful, fresh, light version in my memory. And I’m going to make it again and again, I know I am, and different every time. And sometimes I’m going to throw snow peas in there, and sometimes cabbage, or pickled radishes because nobody’s looking over my shoulder and I’m not a purist, and I’m going to follow what tastes good. I’m going to improvise.

It’s taken me a long time to be alright with improvising in the kitchen. I’d always tinker with recipes, but never tromp too far afield for fear of wasting food or making something not so hot (umm, that’s why god made smoothies and microwave popcorn, Lori). It’s taking me even longer to be okay with improvising a life. Lately I look at my “career,” a patchwork of things that I do, an assortment of hats I put on and take off: writer, campaigner, project manager, interviewer, editor, violin mom, pre-pubescent advisor, wife, gardener, adjudicator of Band-Aid worthiness, social media planner, fundraiser, communications strategist, listening ear, cook. And I think I felt like there must be something wrong with having all those hats. What am I really? Shouldn’t I be able to say?

But I’m all those things and more besides, and some I haven’t even started to be yet. An evolving list of ingredients, sometimes successful and sometimes, meh. I lose my mojo somewhere for awhile and then some days I wake up and, like the deft scrape and scoop of the line cook, I’m in the zone, and it comes out right. I’m not going to stop making it.


Pad Thai for Now

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

You’re gonna make 2 servings at a time in your wok, because that’s about how much fits in a nice big wok. If you don’t have a nice big wok, use any large saute pan that can take super high heat (not a nonstick pan or enameled cast iron). This recipe makes 4 humongous servings.

  • Soak in warm water to cover for at least 10 minutes and up to 15:
    • 1 lb rice sticks (dried rice noodles about linguine width)
  • Prep your tofu:
    • Either drain, press, and cube 1 lb of tofu, then fry in hot oil in the wok, drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and chili
      OR use a pre-baked tofu cut into small cubes (I like the kind from Trader Joe’s).
  • Stir together this sauce that I’ve extrapolated for myself. Yours will evolve, I’m sure. This is enough for 4 servings:
    • 4 T tamarind sauce/concentrate (this one I think is pretty essential, and it was at my local Asian market, so it’s probably at yours)
    • 1 T worcestershire sauce (you can sue me, but I’m not big on fish sauce, and pad thai I love is very light on it)
    • 1 T rice vinegar
    • 1 T low-sodium tamari or other soy sauce
    • 2 T dark brown or demerara sugar
  • Prep the rest of your setup:
    • 1 large bunch of scallions, chopped, white and green parts in separate bowls
    • 6 cloves garlic OR 2 small shallots, chopped
    • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten in a small bowl
    • Thai chili flakes or Sriracha sauce
    • Canola, grapeseed or other neutral, high-heat cooking oil
    • 3-5 cups bean sprouts
  • For the last stage, have ready:
    • lime wedges
    • chopped salted peanuts
    • ideally, chopped cilantro and Thai basil

 

Then it goes like this—about half of your ingredients from each of your prepped stashes as you cook 2 servings at a time.

  1. Drain your noodles and get your wok really screaming hot.
  2. Add: about 2 T oil
    Garlic or shallot plus white parts of scallions
    Stir-fry till they just start to take on color
  3. Add noodles (1/3 to 1/2 of the whole pound that you soaked)
    And the sauce (just half of it)
    Stir-fry until the noodles have absorbed the sauce and look mostly cooked
  4. Push your pile of noodles to the side of the wok
    Put 1/2 of your eggs in the blank spot and let this sit for a sec
    Throw your tofu, chili flakes, a small handful of bean sprouts, and a small handful of scallion greens on your noodle pile while you’re waiting for the eggs to get half-cooked.
  5. Scrambled the eggs and everything else into your noodles.
  6. Turn this out onto a plate, top with another small handful each of bean sprouts and scallions.
    Sprinkle generously with cilantro, basil, and peanuts, and squeeze lime over.
  7. Be happy with yourself, even as you chew over how you might change it up the next time.
    Hey, we’re alive here. We’re growing.
    xo
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Backyard Syruping

This New England transplant has learned that buckets on trees are one of the first reliable signs that spring is coming. And we’re so hungry for it.

IMG_5517Steam starts to rise from small sugar shacks in the hills, and on the weekends you can see fleece-jacketed neighbors wander toward these little barns like bears staggering out of hibernation, drawn to pancakes and company. The sap flows in the maple trees, the syrup soaks into the pancakes, and conversation gets lively again.

If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness all on your own. Maple sugar season is brief and intense, like spring—the sweetest sap only flows when the days get just a little bit warm but nights are still cold. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it reliably lifts me out of winter-induced fatigue and back to a state of wonder. Embarking on this process with your kids only magnifies the magic. Sugar from trees? Are we living in Candyland?

IMG_6858It doesn’t even have to be a sugar maple. Really! We tap two trees; one is a Norway maple, and the other a red maple. The sap from sugar maples has a naturally higher sugar content, which means less boiling time to get a very sweet syrup. But I love the hearty, complex maple flavor of our homemade syrup.

Our sugaring “operation” is completely lackadaisical. We really don’t know what the heck we’re doing, and you don’t have to either. I confess we’re in it for the process as much as the product. (Although, fair warning, you could get hooked and find yourself poring over University of Vermont studies of sugar content variation.) We don’t have a hydrometer or a candy thermometer. We don’t have a sugar shack or a cauldron over a fire, just a willingness to steam up the windows of the house on raw March evenings while we boil a few gallons of sap down to a level that tastes right. The difference between something that’s 1-5% sugar (the sap) and 65-70% sugar (syrup) is heat and patience. There’s got to be some kind of metaphor in there.

Tapping Your Trees

This is the only part of the process that requires a little bit of specialized equipment. You can purchase a few spiles (the taps that act as tiny sap faucets), buckets, and covers online in various places, but if you’re in a northerly region where syruping is common, your best bet is to visit a sugar shack and talk to the proprietor. I’ve never met one who didn’t love to jaw about the process. We got our handful of supplies from a maple producer who was switching from buckets to the new system of taps, lines, and tanks. (Bonus: you might get to eat some pancakes while you’re there.)

Supplies

drill
7/16ths inch drill bit
spile
hammer or mallet
bucket (optional – you can use any clean container that will hang off the spile)
lid

Choose a maple tree at least 10 inches around. This process does create a wound that the tree will need to heal, so make sure you choose a tree mature enough to handle it. Pick a spot on the trunk about 3-4 feet from the ground, on the sunniest (south facing) side, if possible. If you’ve tapped this tree before, make sure you pick a new spot at least 6 inches away from last year’s hole. IMG_5541Drill a hole at a slight upward angle (so the sap will flow down), 2 to 3 inches deep. You need to get past the bark, into the sapwood, but not into the heartwood of the tree.

Place the spile in the hole and tap it in with the hammer. You want to be gentle here; don’t split the wood, or your precious sap will leak out all over instead of dripping down the spile.

If you’ve chosen a warmish day, in just a few seconds you’ll find sap starting to drip off the end of the spile. I dare you not to grin with delight.

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If you’ve got a bucket, hang it on the hook to catch this steady drip, and put your cover in place, too. I love the thoughtful design of our old spiles; there’s a small hole on top to thread the cover’s wire through, creating a hinge. Simple and marvelous. If you’re using a plastic container, make a hole for the hook and position your container so the sap can flow in, but the top is shielded from rain and bugs.

Now just wait. We check our two-gallon buckets daily on our heartiest tree. If you’re using a smaller container, you might want to check more frequently.

Harvest and Boil

The bad news: it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. The good news: most of the process is pretty low-maintenance.

Supplies

flour sack towel or cheesecloth
colander or strainer
sap storage bucket (optional)
large deep roasting pan or stock pot
jar funnel (optional)
storage jars (I highly recommend glass)

Remove any bits of bark or adventurous insects by straining your sap through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a flour sack towel.

IMG_5488If you’ve got lots or can’t boil it off just now, you can store sap in a clean bucket outside or on a porch. Then onto the stove it goes, over a high flame. For a long, long time. If it’s not too cold to crack a window, that helps to vent the steam. You’ll find varying opinions on this, but I don’t mind steaming up the house, especially if we’re nursing spring colds. The sap doesn’t start to have much of a smell until it gets about 2/3 of the way boiled down, anyway, and then it smells like a walk in the woods and a batch of cookies all at once.

I tend to leave my stock pot on the back burner and just add more sap to it once there’s room. I figure all that boiling and re-boiling has got to kill any hardy microbes trying to set up shop. A wider pan evaporates faster, but the stock pot works fine for me. I turn on the burner as soon as I get home with kids and backpacks in tow, and I leave it on while I’m cooking dinner and all evening long, refilling it with the day’s harvest. After the sap has reduced to a couple of inches in the stock pot, taking on a bit of color and sweetness, I set it aside in a smaller saucepan until I have time to watch it more closely.

Finish and Store

This part requires a little more attention, but is still easy enough to keep an eye on while you’re pinging around the kitchen with other tasks. Boil your almost-syrup over more moderate heat now, testing its flavor and consistency with a spoon periodically.

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Two easy tests along the way: 1) I tend to notice more foaming when we’re getting to the final stages. 2) Drop some boiling syrup from a spoon into a jar of ice water. If it immediately forms a blob and sinks, you’re there.

When it looks and tastes like syrup, turn off the heat, and strain it into your jars while it’s still hot. The larger pores of cheesecloth work better than a flour sack towel for finished syrup, but I make do. Paper towels and coffee filters, however, are pretty useless here.

Place a clean lid on your jar, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate your syrup for up to three months. Not that it’ll last that long.

IMG_5472It really is a kind of magic, you know. According to a helpful FAQ from the University of Minnesota, chemical reactions take place in the boiling process to create the distinct brown color and maple flavor we adore. “Neither the exact nature of these reactions nor the identity of the reacting substances are known. That is why chemists have been unable to create an artificial maple syrup flavor that even remotely tastes like the real product.” Take that, Mrs. Butterworth.

Eat Up!

Try your homemade maple syrup in these favorite recipes:

Oatcakes

Pear and Almond Oatmeal

Melissa Clark’s Olive Oil Granola (but I make it with almonds)

And of course! Tall, Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes from Smitten Kitchen

Fresh baked soft pretzels on a cooling rack

Snow Day Soft Pretzels

We’re buckled down here in New England, and the radar shows that most of the East coast is doing the same. I’m happy to have our snug and cozy family time back after two whole grueling days of being back to ye olde work-and-school routine. Whew. Time for a break!

bird feeders piled high with snow

Birdfeeder Snowmeters

As long as the power stays on, I’m definitely up for a baking project, and these pretzels are pretty great when you actually want something that will occupy the kids for a while. Instant gratification they’re not—I actually didn’t even mention them until the dough had risen and was ready to shape. But they’re worth it. “So much better than the ones at the mall,” says Soph. Most definitely.

We made these a lot when I was a kid, and I remember spending tons of time trying to make letters, dinosaurs, even fortune pretzels. When you’re shaping, keep in mind that they need to hold up through the poaching process, and that they’ll rise and expand quite a bit more as they bake. But they won’t need to be beautiful to be delicious.


Soft Pretzels

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 16 full-sized or 32 miniature pretzels

2 c warm water (100 to 110 F)
1 T + 2 tsp sugar
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 T salt (kosher or table salt here)
2 tsp olive or canola oil
1/4 to 1/3 c baking soda
1 large egg
Coarse salt or pretzel salt (I used Baleine coarse sea salt because I already had it hanging around)

Mix the dough:

Combine warm water, 1 T of the sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl if you’re doing this by hand, which is not hard, since there’s not a lot of kneading involved). Let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1 cup flour and combine thoroughly.  Add the regular salt and 4 more cups of flour, and mix until combined plus another minute or two. Add 1/2 cup flour and do that again. Is it still very sticky? You might need the last 1/2 cup of flour. If it’s winter and your house is dry as a bone, I doubt you’ll need it (we didn’t). Give it one more whack, a/k/a knead it about 10 times on the counter. Scrape out your mixing bowl, then add oil and spread to coat the inside. Put your dough back in, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and put it in a warm spot for an hour.

Shape the dough:

Punch down your lovely dough and divide it into 16 equal pieces. I love a bench scraper for this job. Put the pieces under plastic so they don’t dry out while you’re shaping. Now you can let the kids have at it.IMG_7979

Roll each piece out to about 16-18 inches long on a lightly-floured board or counter. Now you can braid it, shape it traditionally (make a loop, cross the loop over twice, pull the ends down the center of the circle and you’ll wind up with a loop on each side and your nice little twist in the center), or go to town with your imagination. Place the shaped pretzels on a parchment-covered baking sheet.

Right about now, you want to preheat your oven to 450.

Poach your pretzels:

This is what makes them taste like pretzels! But this part is definitely an adult’s job. Bring 1 1/2 inches of water to boil in a wide, shallow pot. (I used my biggest saute pan.) Make sure you have at least an inch of pot above the water level. When your water is boiling rapidly, add the baking soda and remaining 2 tsp. sugar—things will foam up! Put the water at a simmer and add 3 or 4 pretzels. You may have to turn up the heat again to keep the water at a simmer, especially if your pot is good and wide. I use a fish turner to move the pretzels into and out of the water, since they need delicate treatment and good straining. Poach for 1 minute, then flip over in the water and poach 40 seconds to a minute longer. Drip dry them slightly as you move them back to the baking sheet, and repeat with your next batches.

Glaze and salt:

Beat the egg with 1 T water, then brush the pretzels with the glaze. Sprinkle with coarse salt. If you like sweet pretzels, switch out the salt for cinnamon sugar here.

Bake:

at 450 for 12 to 15 minutes, until they are golden to deep brown, depending on how crispy you like your pretzels. Cool 5 minutes on a rack. These are best eaten the day they are made, which is not a problem over here!

Half-eaten soft pretzel on a blue plate with a schmear of mustard

Ordinary Extraordinary

A couple of years ago I found myself driving baby Stella to Boston Children’s Hospital at 3 in the morning in pouring January rain, gripping the steering wheel super tight as other cars passed me on the Mass Pike, and I remember thinking, wait—what the hell are these other people doing on the Mass Pike at 3 a.m.?

And then I popped out of my narrow world for just a moment, where I’d been feeling put-upon by the fact that I was required to stick my baby in a carseat in the middle of the night in order to get her the scheduled surgery she needed. And I saw all the other cars. And I remembered that as hard as things were for me, that wasn’t extraordinary. That was ordinary. Life asks so much of us, all of us, so much of the time. And I sat there, hunched behind my steering wheel, in awe at the quiet strength silently underlying this sweep of cars on the slick, wet road, underlying the love of every parent, every person.

I’m not supposed to be writing this right now. I’m supposed to be doing something else. But if I always did what I was supposed to do, I would never pop my head up and see the other cars, the other faces, connect with them. Joy makes us pull our heads up from our screens and look at the sky, look each other full in the face for a moment. And it’s okay that we have to spend a lot of time with our faces in our screens, and working our way through checklists and performance reviews, and washing the dishes and folding the laundry (again). It’s okay that life asks this perpetual labor of us—so long as when joy calls us, we listen. (Gawd I’ve been watching too much Call the Midwife, haven’t I?)

A lot is asked of us, and we live in a brutally demanding moment. There’s no end to the need to resist, to mobilize, to work for justice. There are days I’m surprised to look up and see that my Facebook feed hasn’t left physical welts on my body. We’re shelled by a near-daily cascade of horrors. We’re worried for ourselves and our friends and neighbors. I sometimes feel like I’m running around with a paper towel that’s already soaked up everything it can hold, but I’m still mopping with all I’ve got. (I wrote about that for parent.co too, if you need a moment of validation!)

For a long time after Trump was elected, this blog felt like a rather shallow enterprise to me. There’s so much to be done. I guess I forgot to look at the title of my own site. Yep. Still gotta eat. We gotta keep strong, people, gotta feed the resistance. So here’s something to feed your bodies. Bring it to a table where you can look into the faces of loved ones—or strangers—and feed one another with your eyes, your hopes, your plans.

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Slow-Cooked Hoisin Chicken with Slaw

Adapted from a pork recipe at The Kitchn

For the chicken:

3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs

1/2 c bottled hoisin sauce

1/4 c soy sauce

3-4 coin-size slices of fresh ginger (you’ll fish it out at the end)

2 T chopped garlic

Mix all this in your slow cooker and set it to low for 6 hours, or high for 4 hours. If you have a long work day (all hands raised!) this will be fine on the “keep warm” setting for another 3 hours past cook time. Whew. It falls apart into shreds which you can either serve over rice, scoop up with flatbread, or just plop it on the plate.

For the slaw:

1/2 to 3/4 head green cabbage, finely shredded

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup peanuts (I like salted here), chopped

1/2 c peanut or canola oil (anything neutral here)

1/4 c rice vinegar

2 T toasted sesame oil

2 T soy sauce

1 T sugar

I like to combine the first 3 ingredients ahead of time and throw them in the fridge. You can use bagged slaw here, but the fineness of the cabbage shreds does kind of make the whole thing more light and delicate. If you’ve got a mandoline and a moment, go for that. I try to maybe make the dressing ahead and set it in the fridge too. Then I can just chop the peanuts and toss everything together when it’s dinner time. Last time I forgot the peanuts and the children were not happy! They like lots of peanuts.

For a hearty variation on this slaw, use red cabbage, more sesame oil, and black sesame seeds instead of peanuts.

Crickets

What a different world it is since I last wrote to you.

A world without Kev, who died almost a year ago now, and whose voice, mock-scolding or laughing with me, I still hear constantly, thank god. A world, starting today, without John Ashbery, a founding father if ever there was one.

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I carried this book in my backpack for more than a year. I have read it more times than any other single volume of poetry.

A world whose simmering dangers have bubbled up into more prominent awareness in a President Tr*mp era. (Fingers still crossed this is the shortest possible “era.”)

So buffeted are we by memories, elegies, news cycles, abandoned self-improvement regimes, that sometimes I’m actually stunned at constancy.IMG_7505

The ocean. Properties of drippy sandcastle design. My patient, unwavering husband. Turning butter and eggs and sugar and flour into muffins.

Last week I got to swoon for constancy a bit, sitting on a favorite beach, my only industry the meditation of castle building—and wrecking, and building atop the ruins—and the occasional fetching of a wind-snatched sunhat. Somehow it seems to have built a reserve of steadiness, and I’m ready to head back into the flow.

Surfing that wobbly balance of news consumption and activism to make myself some way useful and mostly skirt political despair. (Lately I like this podcast.) Putting up tomatoes.Buying new shoes for the girls and then what feels like a week later buying more new shoes for the girls because their toes are now busting through. Okay, September. Bring it.


Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins

These are amazingly soft and light without any white flour whatsoever, a magic trick achieved with the combination of finely ground oats and yogurt. The recipe struck me as a curiosity for that reason when I saw it in Real Simple. And then I had to make it just a little bit less healthy. With a sugared lid, since that’s how we roll. They’re still pretty tame in the butter and sugar category; you could honestly tell yourself you had oatmeal and yogurt for breakfast . . .

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Oh my god I forgot the sugared tops this time. Shit.

1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup pecans or slivered almonds, toasted
1/4 cup golden flaxseed meal (Bob’s Red Mill is a good brand, at your natural foods store, or substitute more nuts if you’re brave)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Heat the oven to 375. Add all the above ingredients to a food processor and pulse until finely ground. (Make sure your oats and nuts are ground well.)

In a separate large bowl, whisk together:

4 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup white or light-brown sugar
1 cup plain yogurt (whole or lowfat)
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla

Add dry ingredients to your wet ones and stir until just combined. Gently fold in:

2 cups blueberries, frozen or fresh

Scoop into paper-lined muffin trays (these are sticky—if you don’t like paper liners, you could get away with parchment here, but not with cooking spray alone). My favorite tool for this is an ice cream scoop with the sweeper feature that kicks the dough out when you depress it. You can spray your scoop with cooking spray and that’s even easier.

Sprinkle the tops of your muffins-to-be with:

2 tablespoons sugar

Bake at 375 for 22 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in muffin tins at least 15 minutes. Fear not the first day of school.

Poetry in the Margins

For long stretches, I let the poetry-making, art-eating parts of myself lie fairly dormant. While this particular piece of my life is essential to who I am, I haven’t been disciplined enough or selfish enough or strong enough (depending on how you view these things) for its centrality to hold when waves of other responsibilities sweep around me. There are times I have neglected that identity so completely that I shy away from calling myself a poet at all. I nearly gave myself whiplash from nodding my assent so vigorously when I read Kim Brooks’ amazing recent essay about the challenges of being a mother and a maker. If you care about being a good parent and making art, the struggle is real, and it’s always tipping out of balance one way or another. Then again, it’s not a museum piece, is it? It’s a life!

But oh, joyously, one miraculous day in April I find myself eating pulled pork at Kathranne’s house in Iowa, meeting poets and curators and artists and musicians and talking shop with all of them, gabbing about collaborative art-making and Joseph Beuys and Eileen Myles and Negative Capability, laying hands on the incredible traveling boxes made for Correspondence Publishing, pondering the difficulties of memoir with a new friend who used to be a tiger trainer (now raising three boys with equal aplomb, no small feat), tapping out poetry ideas on my phone in the guest bed, too wired to sleep. And oh, yes! That part of me is still there, the one who has something to say about all that, and wants to hear what you have to say about all of it too. I get to feel like a poet again. And its sticking to my ribs this springtime, not fading.

Another gift of travel is realizing how flexible life is really, more than you remembered — how blinkered our routines become. Just seeing how someone else does it somewhere else, that opens up a huge pool of relief in which to swim back into yourself and let all the “shoulds” float away. How is the real question, how to structure things so there’s time and headspace for doing that which brings you joy. Whatever way you invent to make a life, with people-loving and art-making and social-justice longing and maybe without going bankrupt, you can make something beautiful, a life that’s free in surprising ways, and yours. I do believe that, and this spring, I believe it more than usual. The hard part (and it really does turn out to be a hard part sometimes) is that it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.

Even in recipes I like flexibility, so here’s the one from that evening in Iowa, which you can bend to your will and taste.

BarbeCue pulled pork

IMG_5675My favorite thing to start with here is a 3.5 pound boneless pork butt (yes, let’s get the tittering out of the way), but if that’s a bit pricey, I go with a 5 pound piece of pork shoulder, sometimes called picnic shoulder. With the shoulder piece you’re going to wind up with about 3 pounds of meat and have to trim off a great deal of fat (I was curious how much, so last time I weighed it — 11 ounces of fat and about 1 pound of bone). If you’re me, by the end of all that trimming you might wish you’d sprung for the pork butt. But I leave that up to you. If you’ve got a really big dutch oven you can double this, but as written it already feeds a crowd, and fits in a crock pot if that’s your tool of choice.

I find cooking things for long stretches tends to dull the flavors a bit, and they need a refreshing pick-me-up at the end. This layering gives the depth of flavor you want too — an echo of sorts. I use bottled barbecue sauce for this step (I like Stubb’s or the Trader Joe’s sweet and smoky Kansas City kind), but if you really want to make your own, this recipe looks about right to me.

3 to 4 pounds of pork butt or shoulder (see note above)
2 T brown sugar
1 T paprika
1 T smoked paprika
2 T chili powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne — optional for extra heat
1/2 to 1 cup barbecue sauce

Cut pork into 2 or 3-inch cubes and place in your dutch oven or crock pot. Mix all remaining ingredients (except barbecue sauce) in a small bowl and rub it all over the pork. Your hands are really the best tool for this. (If you’re going to be out all day, you can do this part the night before and stash it in your fridge til morning.) Set your crock pot to low or your oven to 200 and cook for 8 hours. Your pork should shred easily with two forks, and the melted fat will make a happy orange juice in your pot. The amount of this will vary greatly depending on how much fat was in your particular hunk of meat. You can drain most of this fat if you are concerned about it, or stir it all in to your shredded meat. I drain all but about 3 tablespoons — that seems to be enough to make things tasty but not heart-stopping.  Stir in 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce and taste. Does it need more? You can probably just about eyeball it.

Makes about 24 sliders for a party or 8 main dish servings. Freezes gorgeously.

Pretend Spring

I dunno, guys. It’s pretty weird out there. Even Eileen Myles, my personal heroine of wedding/welding toughness, vulnerability and smarts, thinks it’s the end of the world. The latest Republican debate might give transcriptionists a seizure, or maybe anyone trying to follow it. We’re all lobbing election-related memes past each other on Facebook. That’s where I follow Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which lets me know almost daily about a kid the age of mine who has killed or been killed senselessly by an unsecured firearm. Plenty of people are talking about America like it’s jumped the shark. The constant stream of reports about police brutality and debt-driven incarceration mount to a din; my outrage and despair seem only numbed and paralyzed by the frequency. The number of migrants fleeing into southeastern Europe has tripled in the past 2 months, though it hasn’t been cracking the headlines. I’ve had to supplant my afternoon public radio news habit with loud music I can belt along to. There’s only so much one can take.

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If only we all had such good attitudes about crashing.

It feels strange to walk outside and find crocuses thinking about being themselves, chart the diversifying birds daring their way up to the feeder, check the sap buckets, smell thawing earth. How can this be the same world? But it is this world I lean on to rescue me from the solipsism and anthropocentrism of our media diets. We belong to both of these fragile worlds. And each offers glimmers of beauty each day, beauty that is bound up with the struggle, not separate from it.

Read Something Beautiful

The absurd position of mothers in the only industrialized nation without mandated maternity leave is something that felt invisible to me when I became a mother only 7 short years ago. People are talking about it now, loudly, and that gives me hope:

Amy Westervelt wrote this great piece about how Having it All Kinda Sucks

Melinda Gates is talking about unpaid labor and how it affects women AND men in the global economy.

Lidia Yuknavitch writes lyrically and movingly about life’s complications, how “all the beginnings have endings in them.”

Make Something Amazing

If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it always, always lifts me out of headline-induced nausea and back to a state of wonder.

Check back soon for a tutorial on making your own homemade small-batch syrup!

 

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Syrup spokesmodel and fairy princess

The Longest Shortest Month

I’m not from here. It always comes up in February, when I’m mystified by the hardy native New Englanders who are skating on the pond (isn’t that dangerous?!) and throwing themselves down the sides of mountains (ditto?!) all giddy and rosy-cheeked, while I am cursing the impossible curbside piles of filthy snow that send me face-planting into parking meters when I am just trying to put quarters into them. I’m from Ohio, so I did grow up with real winters, but we’re in another category ovah heah.

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This springtime farmshare haul seems like a pipe dream.

Ah, February, home of some of the most disgusting, outright unfriendly weather the year has to offer! Those of us who don’t get to flee to the tropics during school vacation week get to juggle playdates with cabin-fevered kiddos and nurse our conspiracy theories about February vacation week being some sort of winnowing plot to make the non-natives lose their already-sweaty grip on the cliff-edge of sanity. Or maybe it’s a conspiracy to sell lots of wine—a fellow parent made the convincing argument this week that we should be allowed to hook up to an IV drip of Rioja until at least March 1.

IMG_5009All of which is to say that it’s totally bonkers that it’s Lent right now. PSA: it’s February. Don’t Give Up Anything. You need it all. And also to say, on the Pollyanna side of things, that soon the sugar shacks will open, their steamy barns overflowing with pancakes and flannel shirts, and the bulb show will open, redolent with hyacinths and weirdly sexy tulips. Not yet, but soon. Until then, I bring you: bacon, butter, and cheese.

 


 

Roasted Vegetables with Polenta and Poached Eggs. And Bacon.

Adapted from this recipe at The Kitchn, with amazing Crack Broccoli from Catherine Newman.

2 medium heads broccoli
1 lb cremini or baby bella mushrooms, halved
3.5 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup polenta
2 cups water
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
8 eggs
1 lb sliced bacon

Cook bacon:
Heat oven to 375. Place a metal cooling rack atop a rimmed baking sheet and lay your strips of bacon out on the cooling rack. (Yes, really! This works better than a broiling pan.) Bake about 12 minutes, depending on how thick your bacon is and how crispy you like it. You don’t need to turn the bacon, really! Hands-free bacon. Set it aside to cool.

Roast vegetables:
Turn the oven up to 475 and place a rimmed baking sheet in to heat.

Cut broccoli: The stems are fabulous here, so I like to do it this way: Peel the broccoli stem with a vegetable peeler. Trim off the woody end. Cut the stem in half, and trim the top into long-stemmed florets. Cut the remaining stem into french-fry-sized pieces. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. (Don’t leave out the sugar, it really helps with caramelization.)

Slice mushrooms in halves or quarters so they’re about evenly sized, and toss them with another 2 teaspoons olive oil in a separate small bowl.

When the oven is up to temp, carefully pull out the hot baking sheet and dump the broccoli onto it. Use tongs to quickly spread them out, maximizing stem-to-pan contact where you can. Stick it back in the oven for 6 minutes. Toss the broccoli with tongs, then add the mushrooms and return to the oven for 3-4 more minutes.

Make polenta:
In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil with 1 teaspoon salt. Pour polenta into the simmering water, whisking all the while, add milk, and turn to low. Let the polenta slowly blubber and plop on the back burner with a lid half on it for about 15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and the cheese. Stir until melted.

Make eggs:
Fry or poach eggs to your preferred doneness.

Serve:
Scoop out some polenta and roasted vegetables on each plate. Add bacon. I like to plop my eggs on top of my polenta. Maybe let the kids have some juice, even if it means they’ll bounce off the walls like ping pong balls. Serves 4.

O What a Lovely Morning

At last we’ve got the coating of snow I’m used to here in New England, and it hasn’t yet turned all gray and impossible. In fact, fresh powder is magnifying today’s sun nearly to full sparkle mode. Even yesterday’s snow day was easy, since I already have Stella anyway on Mondays. The addition of Sophia meant they had each other to play with, and they happily traipsed upstairs and down, taking turns selling lollipops, mothering many dolls, teaching school, and being puppies. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Minimal squabbling! We broke out the boo-boo buddy zero times! I mended a hole in a stuffed sheep’s armpit, drank coffee, folded laundry, mixed pizza dough, and roasted garlic. Later we baked cookies, read books, and had a singalong at the piano, like something out of Little Women. The whole time I’m thinking, What the hell? 

Getting a break from the constant uphill climb feels amazing, and scary, like the other shoe’s about to drop. But let’s not let the paranoiac win! Let’s just soak it up, bemused and wide-eyed and grateful. And let’s try to keep the ball rolling by starting tomorrow off with a good breakfast.


Pear and Almond Oatmeal

Serves 4 generously

2 cups rolled oats
4 cups water
1 large pinch salt
3 large ripe pears, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons sliced or slivered almonds
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons almond butter
1 tsp cinnamon sugar or cardamom sugar

Combine oats, water, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer about five minutes, adding the pears in the last minute or two. Meanwhile, toast the almonds in a dry skillet, stirring frequently, until you can just start to smell them. Stir the syrup and almond butter into the oatmeal and divide among four bowls. Sprinkle cinnamon/cardamom sugar and toasted almonds atop each and serve.

Clean and Cozy

Ah, the late-January reckoning with New Year’s resolutions. After a couple weeks of eating right and exercising and going to bed on time and organizing the craft cupboard (again), I wash up on the potato-chip covered shoals of chocolate island. I give up trying to do everything right and just try to find something binge-worthy on Netflix. Well, maybe not give up, exactly. But the idealism of early January shuffles humbly into the realism of February.

I’ll still contend that our resolutions are good for us. One leaf of kale has, like, 100% more vitamins in it than zero leaves of kale. Right? Though thank goodness for a little parmesan to soften the blow. Of just about anything, really . . .

Like many others, I wrote “Konmari the whole house” on my list, and have so far done five and a half things on my checklist of over 120 categories (thank you, Pinterest). IMG_5370But hey, the girls saw my dresser drawers and wanted theirs the same way, and they love it. It also means they can find their favorites without totally destroying the drawers, so it’s definitely a win. I’m not going to be thanking my purse anytime soon (though I do sometimes feel a little bad for the poor thing), but I am finding plenty to aspire to in Marie Kondo’s blockbuster home organizing book. I don’t follow the folding technique she details, but I discovered that for me, the important part is being able to see everything at once in my drawer, and if I just put an extra fold or two in shirts and pants, they’ll cooperate. It’s been a reminder that you don’t always have to follow things to the letter, and sometimes incremental improvement is just marvelous.

I also embarked on this Clean Eating Challenge, accomplishing almost a week of produce-and-prep-intensive menus before crying “Uncle!” and putting off Week 2 til further notice. I do want to get back to it, though. The menus are delicious and the portions plentiful! And the kids liked our rule that as long as they tried everything on their plates, they could ask for a grilled cheese instead. But man, that long grocery list was expensive! The Week 1 grocery list, multiplied to serve 3, ran us $350.

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Produce ahoy!

Zoiks! On the plus side, I’ve resolved to create my own Clean Eating challenge for a family of 4 that’s much less expensive but still nutritious, yummy, and kid-friendly. I’ll let you know when that’s ready.

This Clean Eating challenge was so expensive partly because of our truly messed up food marketing and distribution system, but let’s save that for another day. The other reason was that it’s geared for spring, so I was buying out of season produce that I normally get from my farmshare. Doh! We were eating nicoise salads for lunch on frigid days, which made them harder to fully appreciate. Clean eating for winter should be cozier, and this recipe fills the bill—and your belly.


 

Dal with Cauliflower and Peas

Adapted from this recipe at Better Homes and Gardens

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon or garam masala
7 cups water (or use half vegetable stock and reduce salt to 1 tsp)
1 large head cauliflower, chopped in small florets (chop and include the white stem, too)
2 to 2 1/2 cups yellow lentils (sometimes called yellow split peas in the store)
3 cups frozen peas
6 to 12-ounce can coconut milk

In a large skillet or saute pan, fry the onion and tomato paste in the oil over medium heat until the onions are soft and the paste starts to stick a bit in places. Stir in curry powder, ginger, garlic, salt, and cinnamon. Add 1 cup water and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon.

Pour all this into a slow cooker—or if you prefer to use your oven, make the whole shebang in a heavy dutch oven. Add the remaining 6 cups of water and the lentils. Stir and cook in your slow cooker on low for 7 hours or high for 4 hours, or in a 300 degree oven for 3 hours. The lentils will fall apart into a smooth soup when you stir. It’s self-pureeing!

Add the cauliflower, peas, and coconut milk and cook on low heat (whether slow cooker or oven) for another 20 to 30 minutes. This batch serves 6 generously and will probably give you some leftovers for weekday lunches too.

Serving ideas: This is great as a thick, hearty soup on its own, but can also be served over rice, with chapatis or nan, or alongside grilled chicken if you’re feasting. I’d love to serve this with grilled yogurt-marinated chicken, chapatis, and cucumber raita.