Sweet Distraction and Detachment

Parents: have you realized that your kid is a separate person from you? I haven’t yet. But I’m working on it. Tips for accomplishing this elusive state-of-being would be accepted and appreciated. I know I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been too busy living the life of a 15 ½ year old – ecstatic when I… I mean she… goes to dinner and the movies with friends or aces the PSAT or gets to the orthodontist on time. In a pit of despair when she doesn’t hand in an assignment, blows off a teacher meeting, or spends a Saturday night alone. One might think that this duel life would make me feel more connected – to her at least – but I just end up feeling isolated. S is fully aware of my predicament, and it’s not appreciated. One day I asked her how she was feeling and she said that it didn’t matter – whatever she was feeling, I was feeling it “50 times more.” Disturbing and comforting at the same time. Whenever I tell my therapist a new story looking for sympathy, empathy, something, “You’ll never believe what she did… blah blah blah blah blah,” His response usually goes like this, “So?” Then I say, “Whaddya mean ‘so?’” And then he says, “What does that have to do with you? You don’t have a Chemistry test or a DH Lawrence paper to write.” Oh.

I try to focus on my own life. Really I do. But it’s hard. Let’s see. What could I focus on instead? Work? That’d probably be smart. But, I tend to usually incorporate that into my life pretty well, and clearly it's not enough. Friends? Friends are okay – as long as we don’t talk about kids. Or… as long as at least one of their kids has a seemingly comparable issue. Does that sound bad? If it does, either you’re lying to yourself or you don’t have kids. Or you’re a saint. Luckily teenagers (and parents) aren't the most stable bunch, so there's always someone to talk to.

What’s that, you say? Oh, yeah, the dating thing again. I did that last summer. It was okay. I don’t tend to like strangers, and it gets expensive. Luckily the cover article of Boston magazine this month is about people who choose to be single. They could be married; they’re just choosing not to be. That’s me. Definitely. 

So, I’ve been cooking. A lot. It’s a distraction. It usually involves an accompanying glass of wine and an audio book. Or I’ll put the laptop in the kitchen and run episode after episode of Parenthood in the background (the arrests, runaways, betrayals, autism-induced tantrums, etc… soothe me). I made a Moroccan buffet dinner for 45 for my work holiday party. I made a gooey wild mushroom lasagna for my family Christmas dinner (celebrated a week before the actual day when I played mah jongg with Tabor and we ate guacamole mixed w a lot of salsa since my avocados had gone bad). I made a juicy pork loin wrapped in pancetta. And I’ve been baking. I never bake. I don’t even like eating desserts, so I don’t see the point of making them. But, we went apple picking and you have to do something with dozens of apples. The cat won’t eat them. So, I got on a roll. I’ve made tarts and cakes and cobblers, and Christmas cookies (okay from a mix and in a rush, but cookies came out of the oven). My favorite recipe is “Teddy’s Apple Cake” from the New York Times Cookbook. The new one edited by Amanda Hesser. It’s great for breakfast and provides a distraction both while cooking and eating. In case you need one.

Notice how I wrote, "too sweet." I've adjusted the sugar for you, but feel free to add more if you like.
Teddie's Apple Cake from The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, Edited by Amanda Hesser

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 t salt
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
1 1/2 c peanut, vegetable, or corn oil
1 1/2 c sugar (the original recipe called for 2 cups)
3 large eggs
1 t vanilla extract
3 c peeled, cored, and thickly sliced apples
1 c chopped walnuts
1 c raisins (optional, since I've never put them in)

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch tube pan. Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda.
2. Beat the oil and sugar together in a mixer with a paddle (or in a bowl w a hand mixer) for 5 minutes. Add the eggs and beat until the mixture is creamy. Stir in the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla, apples, walnuts, and raisins (if using) and stir until combined.
3. Turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan before turning out.


What I Made

So, the other day my 15-year-old daughter said this to me: You know how everyone thinks you're a great cook? That's because they don't live with you.

Huh. That's what you get when you have a 15-year-old.

I guess.

So, I've been trying to step it up a bit. To be honest, she eats a fair amount of take out. I hate to pull the single mom card, but especially during the beginning of the school year, I do work a fair amount in the evenings. And, I have an inordinately hard time figuring out what I want to cook for an entire week, so I tend to use what I prefer to call the "European" method (as it sounds better than the "unorganized" method). And I usually shop at several different stores several times a week. Sometimes I picture myself on my deathbed regretting all of the shopping I did, so I get take-out. Sometimes I picture myself on my deathbed regretting all of the take-out we got, so I shop. It depends on the week.

Here are a few of the meals I've made recently in response to the teen comment. I don't think I've received any compliments, but I haven't had many complaints either.

Carne Asada!

Apple Cider Doughnuts!

Some Thai dish from Saveur that had shrimp paste in it!
Don't make anything with shrimp paste in it. From me to you.

And (from the top of this post):

Fettucini with Chard, Mushrooms, and Pancetta!

Which definitely deserves the exclamation point for it's deliciousness and its week-night ease. Make it it's the perfect foil for Sevan Subs or Panera or Rod Dee Thai or Chef Changs or El Oriental de Cuba or Anna's Taqueria or....

Fettucini with Chard, Mushrooms, and Pancetta
Adapted from a recipe called Fettucini with Peas, Asparagus, and Pancetta in Bon Appétit, May 2010. (I found the chard and mushrooms more seasonal at the moment)

  • 12 ounces fettuccine or penne
  • 3 ounces pancetta or bacon, chopped
  • 2 lbs swiss chard, cleaned and chopped
  • 10 oz mushrooms, any kind you like
  • 1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced, white and pale green parts separated from dark green parts
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving
  • 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley, divided
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil, divided
Cook pasta in pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot.

Meanwhile, cook pancetta in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 teaspoon drippings from skillet. Add mushrooms to drippings in skillet; sauté 5 minutes or until soft. Add chard, white and pale green parts of green onions, and garlic; sauté until vegetables are just tender, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add vegetable mixture, 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid, dark green parts of green onions, 1/2 cup Parmesan, cream, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon peel, half of parsley, and half of basil to pasta. Toss, adding more cooking liquid by tablespoonfuls if needed. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer to large bowl. Sprinkle pancetta, remaining parsley, and basil over. Serve, passing additional Parmesan cheese.


A New Decade

Last month S and I were scanning the skyline of Manhattan while riding on the (highly recommended) East River ferry. She asked where the World Trade Center used to be. I pointed to the spot and showed her where the new building is going up. She said, "It's been 10 years." And, while over the past few weeks, it's been impossible to avoid the anniversary, at the time I hadn't yet realized it was approaching. As I remembered the fear and the loss, it suddenly hit me -- wait, that decade is over? I can move on? Thank God.

S was five and on her way to her second Tuesday of Kindergarten in Cobble Hill when we heard the first plane hit -- we both remember it vividly, wondering why it was thundering on such a blue and sunny morning. She spent the day in school. I spent the day with my friend Wendy, telling our life stories, watching a parade of people coming off the Brooklyn Bridge covered in ash, and catching papers falling from the sky. What follows is a personal reflection (in list form) of what's happened to me since. It has nothing to do with those events that changed the lives of so many. September 11, 2001 just happened to correspond with the beginning of the last year of my marriage and life as I knew it. And, for better or worse, it launched me to where I am today.

What I've been up to in the last decade:

1. 9/11/01 - Already drunk at 9 a.m., B was running late to work and I was able to call and stop him from trying to get his office at the Seaport. He spent the day on the couch and later kept trying to ride his bike into lower Manhattan to help all of the people who he thought he heard screaming out to him. The rest of the year was much of the same -- he lost his job and was in and out of consciousness not only on the couch, but at the bottom of closets, on the roof of our brownstone, and in the tunnels under Grand Central. Terrible and frightening every minute except for his few stints in rehab.

2. May 2002: I finally grabbed my kid and just walked out in the middle of the night.

3. August 2002: Found the job/school where I still work today and made it a second home.

4. [Insert tragic love story here.]

5. Then - now: Watched S go from 5 - 15 handling it beautifully and really badly (both of us) depending on the day.

6. Then - now: Tripled my income but never have enough (am not sure how that works, or rather, isn't working).

7. Created a whole new community - through work, S's school, and a shared love of books, food, wine, sun, mah jongg, and Brookline.

What I hope to do in the next decade:

1. Have enough (see #6 above).

2. Find someone to get through life together with me instead of always having to do it on my own. Preferably someone brilliant (or pretty smart, at least) who makes me laugh and loves to eat.

3. Bucket list: row on the Thames, eat and write about it in as many places as I can possibly get to.

4. Find a new job? Not sure yet. Would be hard to leave but should I be trying to work at a college? Or take some big independent school leap?

5. Meet my father. Maybe that's where I should start. Stay tuned....

As my old friend Bill Baker put it in his storytelling blog today: "I resolve to never forget the past, but also to not let that past prevent me from looking to the future with promise and possibility." Very wise, Bill. Thanks.

A more mundane goal I have is to perfect this ravioli. I keep failing miserably. The filling is a winner, though, so try it out. I'm just finding it impossible to figure out my KitchenAid's ravioli attachment, but you can always use a dumpling maker.

It started off so well....

And then....

You give it a try....

Ravioli Stuffed with Swiss Chard, Pancetta, Ricotta, and Goat Cheese
Adapted from
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan and my KitchenAid directions

For the stuffing:

2 lbs Swiss chard or fresh spinach
2 1/2 T onion chopped very fine
3 1/2 T chopped
3 T butter
1/2 c fresh ricotta mixed with...
1/2 c soft goat cheese
1 egg yolk
2/3 c freshly grated
romano cheese
Whole nutmeg

1. Pull the chard leaves from the stalks and wash or soak in cold water until there is no trace of dirt.
2. Put the leaves in a pot with just the water that clings to them. Add a large pinch of salt, cover the pot, and turn heat on to medium and cook until tender, about 12 minutes or so. Drain, cool, squeeze it gently to drive out as much moisture as possible and chop it very fine.
3. In a small saute pan put the onion, pancetta, and butter and turn on the heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until the onion becomes translucent and the pancetta is crisp, then add the chopped chard. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes until all the butter has been absorbed.
4. Turn out all the contents of the pan into a bowl. Add the ricotta/goat cheese mixture, grated
romano, and a tiny grating -- about 1/8 of a teaspoon -- of nutmeg and mix with a fork until all ingredients have been evenly combined. Taste and correct for salt.

[I'm going to be a little wishy-washy about the pasta dough. This is Marcella's recipe for a dough to use with stuffed pasta. And then the directions for mixing with a KitchenAid. From there you're on your own -- because it depends on what equipment you have.]

For the homemade pasta:
1 2/3 c unbleached flour
3 large eggs
1 T milk
1/2 t salt

Place eggs, milk, flour, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer. Attach bowl and flat beater. Turn to Speed 2 and mix 30 seconds.

Exchange flat beater for dough hook. Turn to Speed 2 and knead 2 minutes. Remove dough from bowl and hand knead for 1 - 2 minutes. Let rest for 20 minutes. Divide dough into 3 or 4 pieces before processing with pasta sheet roller attachment. Roll and stuff according to your machine's directions. This is where I start to fail, so I'll leave you to it.


Do I Have To?

Last Friday I went on a date. Like a real date, with someone I'd actually met in person. So, this is a good thing, right? I'm wondering why I was filled with such dread. Little things kept coming up during the day that made me want to cancel. A fight with S on the phone. The oppressive heat. Too much work. The sneaking suspicion that I'd rather be at home in bed watching episode after episode of Mad Men.

But then S and I made up, I bought a new outfit after frantically texting and emailing everyone I knew for wardrobe advice, and I went on the date. It was fun. Not earth-shattering, but fun. He took me sailing in Boston Harbor. Being incompetent at sailing, I got to just sit around and make sure that I didn't get knocked out by the mast. We sailed by the ICA and Legal Harborside. I saw a part of the city that I love from a completely different view. After the sail we went to dinner. It was one of those places that you're sure will suck (too eclectic a menu and a bar filled with college kids and televisions), but it doesn't matter because you're sitting on a deck by the water. The food was surprisingly good. I got "drunken shrimp and lobster saute," and the shellfish actually tasted fresh. And while the recommended drink sounded dreadful and was served in a plastic cup, it was delicious and did its job to take the edge off.

Then we went back to his very cool place with a pool. And we made out. And that was as far as I wanted to go, which didn't please him, but I didn't care. He's not a bad kisser but not a great one either. He has this amazing, possibly sexy, New Zealand accent, but he mumbles, so while I love the lilt, I have no idea what he's saying half the time. It was pleasant, but we didn't really laugh. He likes good food, but doesn't read fiction. He's smart, financially secure, and available, but is that enough? Like Carrie Bradshaw would say "is a relationship a relationship without the zsa zsa zu?" That feeling of excitement and butterflies is missing in this case.

In a group of women I was with last week, I mentioned some glaring typos in one of his text messages (that couldn't even be explained away with the plague of the iPhone auto-correct). One woman looked me in the eye and said a little too definitively: You are going to end up alone.

Perhaps I will. I think I'd like to date some more, but I'm not wedded to the idea. I like a life of easy laughter and I'm just not seeing it with this guy. One of the best times I've had all summer was with a different (more supportive) group of women, six of us eating and drinking on my deck and laughing for hours. This is what I served:

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes
Adapted from Marcella's Italian Kitchen by Marcella Hazan

1 1/2 pounds eggplant
1/2 pound fresh, ripe tomatoes
2 1/2 pounds chicken cut up
1/4 pound pancetta
2T extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, lightly mashed
1/2 c dry white wine
black pepper
1T parsley chopped fine
vegetable oil for frying

1. Wash the eggplant in cold water, cut off the green tops, and slice it into strips about 3 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1 inch thick.

2. Place a colander over a bowl and spread the eggplant strips along the sides of the colander. Sprinkle liberally with salt and let stand for about an hour.

3. Cut the tomatoes into chunks

4. Rinse the chicken and pat thoroughly dry

5. Chop the pancetta very fine.

6. In a saute pan large enough to accomodate all of the chicken pieces (later) without overlapping, put in the olive oil, pancetta, and garlic and turn on the heat to medium high, keeping the pan uncovered.

7. When the garlic becomes colored a pale gold, add the chicken pieces. Brown them well, skin side down first to melt the fat, then on their other side.

8. Add the wine and sprinkle with salt and several grindings of pepper. When the wine has evaporated, add the parsley and the cut up tomatoes. Turn the contents of the pan over once or twice with a wooden spoon, then cover the pan and turn down the heat to medium. Turn the chicken pieces over from time to time.

9. While the chicken cooks, take a frying pan and pour in enough vegetable oil to come 1/2 an inch up the side of the pan. Turn the heat on to high.

10. Drain the eggplant strips thoroughly with kitchen towels. When the oil is hot enough to make the eggplant sizzle, slip as much of it into the pan at one time as will fit without overlapping or crowding. Fry the eggplant on both sides until it becomes colored a rich gold, then transfer with a slotted spoon to a platter covered with paper towels to blot.

11. When the chicken is done (it should be cooked through and feel very tender when pricked with a fork) turn off the heat and tilt the pan to spoon off nearly all the clear fat.

12. Add the fried eggplant, turn on the heat to medium, and cook for 3 - 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Some of the eggplant may dissolve (yum), helping to make the sauce creamier. Transfer to a warm platter with all the pan juices and serve immediately.

* The eggplant may be fried and set aside several hours before cooking the chicken. And, as is usual with a braised dish, the entire thing may be made the day before and reheated gently just before serving.


Eating What I Want

(Note #1: When I mentioned the topic of this blog to a friend, she gasped and said something like, “Are you really going to admit online that you’re happy your daughter is away?” The answer, is "yes." Because Hemingway says to write what is true, right? And, while other single parents may have an ex-husband or two to take care of their kids every once in a while, I do not. So, while S and I generally have a blast, I need the break. I will be happy to get her back in August, but until then, I am going to relish my alone-ness.

Note #2: I wrote this post on Saturday, July 2, which is why the dates are off. And, since then I’ve had the mustard vinaigrette from this chicken recipe on lamb as well, and it was mighty tasty. I highly recommend it.)

So without further ado:

Eating What I Want

An acquaintance in my neighborhood that I see on occasion once said to me: Don’t you agree, Janetta, that it’s easier for couples to socialize than it is for single people?

What was I supposed to say to that?

Oh, yes! Your life is so much better than mine! I sit at home hoping and wishing that someone will please invite my lonely self over.

I think I do okay. I’m way funner than this woman, so maybe no one would invite her anywhere without her husband and she was taking it out on me.

That said, I am spending today completely by myself. Which is okay even for the holiday weekend because I have at least two social activities per day lined up for Sunday and Monday.

How can Janetta have the day all to herself, you may wonder, remembering that I generally have a pesky, needy (frequently wonderful) teenager around. One word for you: camp. This is the moment that I wait for all year (now that I can watch the Sound of Music and the Wizard of Oz any old time I want). This time she’s gone for 6 weeks (barring any catastrophes, but I told her coming home before the scheduled day is out – camp or, in the event of scarlet fever, the hospital, are her only options). This may sound harsh and non-maternal – my apologies to all of you mothers out there who are bereft at even the thought of dropping your kids off at camp for weeks at a time. I wish I were you, but this is the only break I get, so I’m not.

When S was younger and more dependent on me, I would fill every moment of alone time (even a day) with as many activities as possible – so by the end of my mothering hiatus, I was exhausted and didn’t even feel the break. This summer I have 42 whole days, so I’m trying not to do that.

Today I swam and ran and read and now I write. And tonight I’m going to eat what I want. Since I’m solely in charge of the shopping and cooking in my house, you’d think that would happen more often. But it doesn’t. For the next month and a half, I’m going to squeeze in everything I can that S says she won’t eat for whatever crazy reason: lamb (I won’t eat baby animals!), chicken (no rational reason at all, and she’ll eat it in Asian food, just nothing else), anything grilled (You always burn it!). And I’m going to eat every meal I consume at home outside. Something S hates to do for various complicated adolescent reasons (someone might see us!). And I’m going to do other stuff I never get to. Today I had both the Bose and the iHome blasting This American Life throughout the house. I haven’t listened to even one note on Kiss 108 in the two days she’s been gone (god, am I already down to 40 days??). And without someone begging me to buy them something every single second of every single day, I’m going to save money.

But back to the food. This recipe is one of my favorites even though I haven’t made it in many years. It was the cover recipe from the May 1994 Bon Appétit with a feature on French picnics. I generally want to live inside a French picnic, so it’s perfect for me. When I first made this chicken, I was half of a couple, socializing with ease, I suppose. And I still had two years before I would become a mother. I was 29 – I actually went on Outward Bound that same month to try to get my emotional life together before I had a baby. The best laid plans…. I was living in the country and commuting to my job at National Geographic Television during the week. It was a good time. All of the Oprah-worthy scenarios that defined my 30’s and seeped into my 40’s were totally unimaginable. I thought I had it all. Tomorrow I’m going to bring leftovers to the beach where I’m going with a couple and a single friend (who somehow managed to snag an invite despite her marital status). And then I’m driving to another friend’s ocean-side house for a pre-4th barbeque. They invited me on my own, imagine that. And I have two parties on Monday and two consecutive weekends w friends in the Berkshires. So maybe I don’t have it all, but I have what I need. And people do invite me over, and I still have this chicken. And now you do too.

Roast Chicken With Mustard Vinaigrette
from Bon Appétit

For chicken:

  • 1 6- to 7-pound roasting chicken
  • 1 large shallot
  • 2 fresh rosemary sprigs
  • 2 fresh sage sprigs
  • 1 cup Mustard Vinaigrette
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

For vinaigrette:

  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2/3 cup chopped shallots
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage

To make vinaigrette:

Mix mustard and vinegar in bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Mix in shallots and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover, chill. Bring to room temperature, mix before using.)

To make chicken:

Preheat oven to 450°F. Pat chicken dry. Season cavity with salt and pepper. Place shallot, 2 rosemary sprigs and 2 sage sprigs in cavity. Slide hand between chicken skin and meat over breast to form pockets. Spread 2 tablespoons vinaigrette under skin over breast meat. Tie legs together to hold shape; tuck wings under body. Place chicken in roasting pan. Brush 2 tablespoons vinaigrette over chicken. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary and sage. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast chicken 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F. Continue roasting until juices run clear when chicken is pierced in thickest part of thigh, basting occasionally with pan juices, about 1 hour 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)

Place chicken and herb sprigs on platter. Serve with remaining vinaigrette. I made a side of tabouli salad with tomatoes and artichoke hearts (shown above), but it goes well with anything.


First Day of Summer

Aside from eating this cake, which you really should make and consume as soon as possible, what are your plans for the summer? Really, tell me. I won't get jealous. Maybe.

Here's what I am not doing this summer (so far anyway): writing about food or going to Paris. Here's what I am doing: eating daily transformative strawberry rhubarb muffins at Flour;

rowing crew early in the morning on the Charles (with the amount of times my name emerges from the coach's mouth, I'm fairly certain I suck, but it's the best thing I've done in a long time anyway); sitting on decks with friends drinking gin and tonics and rosé wine (not at the same time). Oh, and tonight I'm going on a date. I don't actually want to go on a date, but since I'm still essentially stuck where I was when I wrote about my linguini with clam sauce dilemma a year ago, I guess it's necessary to try to get unstuck. Which also means I'm going to meditate a lot this summer. So far I just carry books around by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron, waiting for osmosis to kick in, but as soon as S leaves for camp next week, I'm going to greet each morning with a full body scan. Really.

And, I'm trying not to spend too much time thinking how last June I was brushing up on my French and reading Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in preparation for a trip to Paris. When you think about it, Boston is really just like Paris, right? River? Check. Art? Check. Croissant? Check. We even have an old church or two. And, nobody ever gets annoyed that you only speak English. Maybe we just have to treat whatever city we're in like it's Paris and actually use the river and look at the art and eat the croissant, outside at a café if possible. And I need to write. Like I pretend that I would do every day "if only I lived in Paris." Boston has writers too. Like Louisa May Alcott and Dennis Lehane. One can certainly write in Boston if one chooses to.

I will say that I have been cooking. I sat by my grill for four hours and made this pulled pork. And last night I made cauliflower cumin fritters from this Notting Hill cafe. And this weekend I'm going to the farmer's market to get fresh berries for the buttermilk cake I showed you at the top. It will be a nice send off for S before she goes to camp and the perfect start to summer. Do tell me what you're doing. I'd love to hear your plans. Maybe.

Raspberry Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh raspberries (or blueberries, or strawberries)

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter raspberries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.


Thank You Hallmark!

There are only two days of the year when I can do whatever I want — my birthday and Mother's Day. Too bad they're not farther apart. Perhaps you're thinking, "Why can't she do whatever she wants most days? Or at least on the weekends?" If you're asking that, you don't have kids, or your kids are grown and you've forgotten, or you're not a single helicopter mother. Or maybe it's just a severe lack of parenting skills that gives me only those two days. All I can tell you is that the other 363 go something like this:

J: Hey, S, why don't we go to the ICA?
S: Isn't that a museum with, like, art? I don't think so.
J: Okay, why don't we take a walk on the beach?
S: Doesn't that involve sand, and salt, and movement? Let's just go to Starbucks and then go somewhere else to buy me stuff. Did you make my lunch yet?

But while my discipline tactics clearly come from... um, nowhere... on my birthday and Mother's Day, I have S trained. Here's what I got to enjoy last Sunday:

1. An extended breakfast of baked eggs with avocado, tomato, and goat cheese on my deck (okay, I had to make it myself, but I got to eat it in peace).
2. Movie of my choice (wasn't very good, so I'll keep the title to myself, but I highly recommend Bridesmaids).
3. ICA with no discussion or backtalk and even a few moments of feigned art appreciation.
4. Lobster roll, oysters, and margaritas on the water at the new Legal Harborside. I usually poo-poo Legals, but you can't beat the location and the views, and while the lobster roll isn't quite as orgasmic as B&G's or Neptune Oyster's, it really is very good, and it's $10 - $15 cheaper.

Photo stolen from Legal Harborside web site

S even suggested a stop at Sportello for dessert. Perhaps I've mothered better than I give myself credit for. In any case, I came home feeling happy and loved.

I spoke to no fewer than three women in the week leading up to Mother's Day who were just waiting and hoping that their husbands and kids would do something special for them. Too risky if you ask me — a possible road to bitterness and disappointment. I recommend taking the bull and the daughter by the horns and doing what you want. That's my (and Hallmark's) gift to you. Along with the recipe for the baked eggs — so easy and delicious on any day.

Baked Eggs with Goat Cheese, Avocado, and Tomato
Adapted from "Herby Cheese Baked Eggs" in The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

1 t unsalted butter
3 t heavy cream
1 t chopped tomato
1 t chopped avocado
1 egg
1 t herbed goat cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh green herb chopped for garnish -- chives, chervil, parsley, whatever you have around

1. Preheat the oven to 450.
2. Place the butter and 2 t of the cream in a 3/4 c ramekin. Break the egg in the center. Carefully scatter the avocado and tomato around the egg. Dot the egg with cheese, and spoon the remaining 1 teaspoon cream over the yolk. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Place the ramekin in a small baking dish, and fill it with boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekin. Bake until the egg white is milky and the yolk is set, 7 - 10 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve immediately. I like mine with a toasted English muffin for dipping.


AARP: Chicken with Canned Corn

Ho, ho, ho....

I've started to identify with AARP. Not because there's even a remote possibility that I will ever be able to retire, but because I'm turning 46 this week, and it feels old. Forty-six isn't 50, I suppose, but it is something. I don't think I can even pretend to be young anymore. Usually I make a pretty big deal about my birthday — having multiple celebrations with different sets of friends, sending out memos at work, that sort of thing. This year I'm keeping it low-key — dinner with my family at Coppa on my birthday eve and lunch at Tico with my work friends on the actual day. Thinking about my birthday evening has caused me some angst. For a moment (okay, several moments), I considered asking out someone I know I shouldn't spend time with, but I'm trying to stay strong. So I bought a ticket to the massmouth story slam semifinals at the Coolidge Corner Theater instead. Which I plan to go to by myself. Alone. Did I say alone? I'll let you know how that works out for me.

The other day I was on the treadmill at the gym when an AARP commercial came on my TV screen. It was a great commercial — people of varying older ages, declaring what they want to be when they grow up. I, for one, definitely appreciated the idea that even when most of your life is behind you, maybe all of your choices aren't. After all, the Colonel didn't fry a piece of chicken until he was 40, and Marion Cunningham didn't revise the Fannie Farmer Cookbook until she was in her 50's. Why not me? When I grow up, I want to be a food writer, so my birthday gift to myself is to write as much as I can. Every week if possible. Not just when the spirit moves me, or (unfortunately for you) I have something of particular interest to share. We'll see how long it lasts, but now it's in print (or "on screen," as it were), so you can hold me to it.

Food writing, by definition, requires writing about food, so enough rambling and on to a recipe. This week the best thing I made (aside from the Schmitter) was Stir-Fried Chicken with Creamed Corn.

I threw a cup of diced eggplant in as well because I had one in my fridge. When you first look at the list of ingredients, you may say, "Food writing, my ass. Like I'm really going to make anything that calls for a can of creamed corn!" I thought the same thing (even S said, "um, Mom, can't you make the creamed corn from scratch?"), but since trusty food writers and cooks Amanda Hesser and Mark Bittman both said the canned bit was essential, I followed the directions. And I wasn't sorry. I even went to Stop and Shop! They don't seem to have cans of corn at Whole Foods. The last time I bought a can of anything other than tomatoes or black beans was before I was old enough to shop. It felt nostalgic. Like going back to an easier time. A time before pork belly, vacuum-packed lobster poached in butter, and burrata. A time of Swanson's, Jello, and canned peas. A time when I was six, and not 46. A time when AARP was just a rude noise you made at the dinner table after a particularly big bite of Velveeta. Was it a better time? Looking at that list, I'm going with a no. But, even then, I loved to cook and eat. Too bad I didn't know the job of a food writer existed, so I pursued other dreams. Here's hoping 46 isn't too late.

Stir-Fried Chicken with Creamed Corn (and Eggplant)
adapted from The Essential New York Times Cook Book: Classic Recipes for a New Century, edited by Amanda Hesser

1 lb boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 c peeled eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 T soy sauce
1 t Asian sesame oil
1 T rice wine
2 T peanut or canola oil
1 T minced garlic
1 small chile, seeded and minced (I used serrano with seeds)
1 can of creamed corn (or what I found, "cream style sweet corn." huh.)
1 cup frozen or fresh corn kernels
chopped cilantro for garnish

1. Mix the chicken and eggplant with the soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine in a small bowl. Put the peanut oil into a deep skillet or wok, preferably non-stick, and turn the heat to high.

2. Drain the chicken/eggplant mixture. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and eggplant to the skillet and cook undisturbed until the bottom of the chicken browns, about 2 minutes. Stir once or twice and cook for 2 minutes more.

3. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Add the garlic, ginger, and chile and stir; 15 seconds later, add the creamed corn and corn kernels. Cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through, 3 - 4 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve over white rice.


Joie de Vivre in LaLa Land

For the first time in my life — or at least since I found it around the age of 16 — I lost my joie de vivre. So, I went to LA to try to get it back. I like LA; I know many people don't. Maybe I'd have to stay there longer than a week to start to hate it. I definitely couldn't live there without making $3M an episode. And, I'd need an episode to begin with. But, I just can't resist the sun. And, I love Hollywood history. It doesn't go back that far, so it's not hard to learn, and it's filled with interesting facts and places — like the house where Michael Jackson died (as our tour guide gleefully announced: He never made it to the hospital people!). Or the park on the Paramount lot that Lucille Ball had built for publicity shots with her kids, capturing moments of "good" mothering before she sent them away and went right back to work.

I guess the thing I love most about LA is it's so unlike anywhere I've ever lived — even a palm tree in a ditch by a gas station reminds me that I'm on vacation. And this year, in particular, I really needed a vacation. Okay, so my life isn't Haiti or Japan, but it's felt at times disastrous to me. I've been sad. I'm never sad. And that joie de vivre that I can generally count on to pull me out of any situation took a hike, so I went to LA to get some of the fake stuff. They can make anything happen in LA, right? So, for a week I went searching for the façade of happiness and joy. I gazed at the Pacific ocean! I drank two margaritas a night! I stalked Diane Keaton! I was sorted by the real Warner Bros sorting hat! I made it into Gryffindor! I saw Kurt and Mercedes from Glee! I was clearly visible in the Tonight Show audience behind a guy who could eat eight raw hot dogs in 30 seconds! I rode the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier! (Okay, more scary than joyful for me, but at least I was on the ocean); I ate cotton-candy-wrapped foie gras! I used valet every day! And, I ate this pizza:

Pretty much one of the best pizzas I've ever consumed.

Maybe that list wouldn't make everyone happy. But, it made me happy. And the best part is it made S happy. For those of you who are parents, you know that a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. And, because there was no work or school to bring either of us down, we could create our own movie of our lives. But, like everything in LaLa Land, it disappeared the minute the director called a wrap — in this case when we boarded the red-eye back to the cold and gray of Boston where spring hadn't quite yet sprung.

But the sun is now out, and today is a good day. It started with leftovers of this pizza I will always crave and tried to recreate for you.

Porchetta and Artichoke Heart Pizza
inspired by the "Centurion" pizza at Hostaria del Piccolo in Santa Monica: the perfect antidote to the terrors of Ferris wheels and life.

1/2 c sharp provolone, shredded
1/2 c mozzarella, shredded
1/4 c pecorino romano, shredded
1 recipe of this dough (or use your own favorite pizza dough or, like me, go to Clear Flour Bread and buy a ball of dough for $3)
8 slices of this porchetta (or slices you purchase in a high quality specialty shop. In Boston you can find okay porchetta at Russos and much better porchetta at the South End Formaggio)
4 baby artichokes trimmed, held in lemon water
1 T olive oil
2 T minced garlic
1/2 t red pepper flakes

Saute artichoke hearts in olive oil until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. While hot, add 1/4 c of water, cover, and steam until you can just pierce them with a fork. This shouldn't take too long, depending on the size. Season with salt and pepper, cool and slice thin. Set aside with porchetta and cheeses.

Preheat oven to highest setting (500 - 550 degrees).

Dredge dough in a bowl of flour to coat and transfer to dry work surface. Holding one edge of dough in the air with both hands and letting bottom touch work surface, carefully move hands around edge of dough (as Gourmet says, like turning a steering wheel), allowing weight of dough to stretch round to roughly 10 inches.

Lay dough flat on lightly floured pizza pan and continue to work edges with fingers, stretching it into a 14-inch round. [I used to have a pizza stone but it broke and I've been happily using a non-stick pizza pan from Target ever since. But, if you have a stone, feel free to preheat it, roll dough out onto a bakers peel and do the burn-defying stunt of getting the dough from the peel to the hot stone.]

Stir together cheeses and sprinkle a quarter over the dough, leaving 1/2 an inch border. Cover cheese with slices of porchetta and artichoke hearts, sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Cook garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring, until just fragrent, 30 - 40 seconds. Spoon over pizza.

Bake until crust is golden brown, 12 - 15 minutes.

It will make you happy. I promise.


Every Year

[I wrote this post a little over a month ago. But Valentine's Day effectively got me back into a holiday gloom, so I'm going with it, outdated or not. I'll try to write something more current as soon as possible. All of my college roommates are descending on February 25 for a reunion, and you can bet I'll have a lot to say about that. So, until then....]


"Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Year's...." – Harry Burns

I've watched When Harry Met Sally dozens of times, and, until recently, I never understood what Billy Crystal's character was talking about. Now I totally get it. Today is January 3, and I couldn't be happier. No more pressure to have fun and spend money. My holidays were festive enough, but I'm so glad they're over. Maybe because they ended badly – in an Olympic-sized pool of regurgitated red wine risotto mixed with my first Dom Pérignon and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape gone south. Maybe the pressure for happiness was just too much.

What are you doing for the holidays? This is a constant refrain in everyone's fall. What if you don't have a fun response? I start panicking around August to make sure I have my answers all lined up. Christmas has gotten a little tricky since my divorce, but Thanksgiving is easy. It's my family's best holiday. We’re descendants of Henry Sampson who came over on the Mayflower, so Thanksgiving is in our blood. Anyone in our family who’s the least bit fun shows up and we cook, eat, drink, slurp oysters, and laugh. A lot. The daylight hours are filled with walks in the woods, sitting by the ocean, shopping trips to Rockland, and getting started on dinner. But cocktail hour is my favorite part of the day. We usually try to hold out until at least 4:00 when it’s definitely 5 p.m. somewhere on the continent – maybe in Nova Scotia – and then it lasts for hours.

This year we accompanied our oysters, cheese, lobster salad, drinks, etc... with a stuffed pumpkin. As I write it's still cold enough (and the need for a decent beach body seems far enough away) for this decadent treat. Basically you take a pumpkin, hollow it out, and stuff it with everything good. Meaning cheese, and garlic, and bacon, and wine. We may have thrown some kale in their as well, but I honestly can't remember. But you could. If a touch of healthiness is important to you.

The pumpkin needed a good hour and a half to bake so we filled it,

popped it into the oven, and headed out for our pre-Thanksgiving dinner stomach-emptying walk. (We don't usually all wear baggy orange clothes, but it was deer season, and fashion isn't nearly as important as making it home to dinner safe and sound!)

Problem was, as you can see, it was overcast but still a glorious day with glorious views. So we walked a long time and we forgot about the pumpkin.

When we returned, several hours later, this is what we found:

I whined for a while, "We ruuuuiiinnneedd the pumpkin! We ruuuiiinnneeedd the pumpkin!" But, as it turns out, it's really hard to ruin pumpkin, cheese, bacon, and wine, especially when cocktails are on hand to accompany the melted, delicious mess.

So, if winter or the holidays have you down, this is what I recommend:

Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good
adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table

1 small sugar pumpkin, about 3 pounds
1/4 lb stale bread, sliced and cut into half-inch chunks
1/4 lb cheese, such as Gruyère, Emmenthal, or a combination, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2-4 garlic cloves chopped
4 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, chopped
1/4 c chopped chives or scallions
1/3 c heavy cream
1/4 c dry white wine
pinch of nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment (or we actually cooked ours in a Pyrex pie plate, which made it easy to serve).

Carefully cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin like you do on Halloween. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and the inside of the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper and put on the baking sheet or in the pie pan.

Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs together in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper and put the mix into the pumpkin. It should be filled nearly to the top. Stir the cream with the nutmeg, wine, and salt and pepper, and pour it over the filling in the pumpkin. You don't want it to overflow, but everything should be moist.

Put the cap in place and bake for about 2 hours – check after 90 minutes – or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh is tender enough to be pierced easily with a fork or the tip of a knife.

When the pumpkin is ready, carefully serve with crackers and/or spoons for scooping!