You know where to find Grains of Paradise (or even what they are) and smoked paprika. You love beets, fatty fish, and biscotti. You use the word “tangle” to describe salads, judge people for their restaurant choices, and hate doing dishes in the morning. You are Amanda Hesser–or, at least, share some of her endearing, neurotic traits.
A food writer for The New York Times, Hesser’s writing is luminous, visual, and snappy. Good food writing literally picks you up and draws you into a tactile world in which you’re literally sitting at a country table alone at dusk, at a busy wedding banquet, or on the floor of a bare apartment listening to an ambulance drive by. In short, you’re not at home holding a book thinking about laundry or work deadlines. With Hesser, I was transported to a summer afternoon in Maine or her back balcony in Brooklyn Heights. I read “Cooking For Mr. Latte” in a day and a half; I lay in bed drinking it all in, mentally cataloging all of the recipes I’d try and becoming immersed in the back story of dating Mr. Latte (later we learn, Tad), eventually getting married, moving to Brooklyn, and coming to terms with family/friends/changing relationships. Essentially: the pedestrian elements of daily life that we all experience. Yet most of us don’t draw it out in such a sensuous, affable way.
When talking about old friends, Hesser writes: “When dining out, she does not order salad. She will begin with foie gras or sardines and move on to things like braised rabbit, lamb, and pheasant. When she shops for groceries, she buys her cheeses, olives, and wine from the Wine and Cheese Cask on the corner of Washington and Kirkland, bread from Hi-Rise, and her meats from a butcher. Nan understands that it is all right to buy a good pate for an appetizer, and that one perfect croissant is better than five good muffins. She is a dedicated minimalist who knows how to be generous” (182). I now know Nan. Hesser excels at small details that illuminate character fully in a matter of seconds–what any good writer strives for.
When talking about food in her chapter “Single Cuisine,” Hesser writes: “I might toss a poached egg with pasta, steamed spinach and good olive oil, and shower it with freshly grated nutmeg and cheese. Or, I might press a hard boiled egg through a sieve and sprinkle the fluffy egg curds over asparagus. It’s not traditional comfort food, but it works for me. I like rich, full flavors paired with clean bitter ones–a gentle lull and a bracing finish” (288). The way in which Hesser describes her simple meals alone is the same exact way I felt while relishing her sweet food memoir: a gentle lull as I lay squandering away the afternoon, and a bracing finish when I turned the last page. I was sad to leave Brooklyn, intimate dinner parties and trips to the market, and genuine vignettes about navigating through the food world–one day at a time.
Stand-out recipes in the collection include: Beet and Ginger Soup, Chicken Salad w/ Basil Mayonnaise, Chocolate “dump-it” cake (her mother’s go-to birthday cake recipe), and Mountain Honey Gingersnaps with Candied Ginger.
For more of Amanda Hesser, catch her upcoming project Food52.com, a recipe sharing/contest/archive that will culminate in a cookbook compilation. With Amanda at the helm, it promises to be a gracious and tantalizing endeavor. I want to be her when I grow up.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.