I always thought I’d be a teacher when I grew up. Like the dutiful first child that I tend to be, I went to school to be a teacher. I continued on to graduate school. I taught college freshman in Boston and moved on to teach high school freshman back in California. My mom was a teacher and I’d grown up spending time in her classroom (ahh, the hours of Oregon Trail!), hearing tales of her students, and witnessing her late-night grading sessions. It seemed so seamlessly that, all of a sudden, I had a classroom and tales of my own. Until I didn’t. The teaching climate in California was (and still is) a tough one and finding solid work became impossible. People often ask if I miss teaching. I miss my students a great deal and I miss the act of teaching — the challenge of thinking through how to present a piece of information or a structured lesson so that a classroom full of different kinds of learners could really “get it.” I realized last week that, while I’ve been out of the academic classroom for a few years now, in many ways, I’m still doing the very same thing. Food writing and recipe development has, at its core, the act of learning and teaching. There are new kitchen skills to master and dishes to try; there are ways we take what we learn and make it our own based on tastes, ability level or preference; there are then ways we pass them on to others. Saturday night that process came to be in the form of a very fine roast chicken and a grapefruit chess pie.
I roasted my first chicken about a month ago. I know, I know: I’m a little late to the game. It’s been one of my main sources of kitchen and food writing shame: shhh, I have no clue how to roast a chicken! I’d decided all that was silly, so I set out researching many different recipes, landing on one from The Commonsense Kitchen, a book I love dearly. I bought my chicken, picked up some aromatics and lemon, gave my sister a quick call for support (she knows everything there is to know about cooking meat. I have her on speed dial), and got to roasting. A while later, Sam and I realized we’d just eaten what was essentially pretty uncooked chicken. I’d been so fearful of drying it out that it was far from properly cooked. So what began as a hopeful quest to teach myself a new kitchen skill ended with a sense of defeat. I consoled myself that, hey, I’d tried it and clearly, this once-vegetarian wasn’t meant to be much of a chicken roaster. I told the story to my friend Olaiya a few days later. She’s quite wonderful with food — she’s worked in many Seattle kitchens and was one of the founders of The Pantry. Also: she knows her way around a roast chicken, and thought with a little instruction, I could as well. So we got a date on the calendar for a proper chicken do-over. Sam and I would get the bird, the wine and the bread. She’d bring a side dish and the knowledge. I’d make a pie. We were set.
The chicken turned out beautifully. I brined it overnight, we stuffed it with rosemary and lemon and slathered it with olive oil, salt and pepper. Olaiya showed me how exactly to truss it and tell when the chicken is done without using a thermometer (as I’d obsessively done previously) — instead learning how to really feel when it’s done, how to wiggle the leg, how to even eyeball the juices coming out of the thigh to get a sense for it. All of that information would’ve taken pages to write down in a cookbook, but I feel like I really, truly get it now. I think I could actually teach someone else how to roast the perfect chicken at this point. But there are certain things that are best shown, yes? I think your very first roast chicken may just be one of those things. Making pie crust just may be another. If you’ve never made a pie before, you could read a million recipes and it’d take some time to get it just right. But if you have someone beside you instructing you to not let the butter warm, how to work gingerly with your fingers, how to roll out the dough in outward strokes without pressing downward — you’d likely get it in one evening.
So a few years later, while awash in rosemary and olive oil and chicken juices, I was yet again thinking about the act of teaching and all of the different ways it works best. Chicken aside: After dinner I brought out the pie I’d made, a pie born from reading about a new recipe, tweaking and revising it. The pie dough is based on a delicious rye dough I learned from Heidi (with a little added vanilla, inspired very recently by Sarah of The Yellow House) and the filling is one I stumbled across in the new Lee Brother’s cookbook, The Lee Brothers’ Charleston Kitchen (which comes out for purchase at the end of this month). If you’re not familiar with chess pie, it’s a Southern recipe that bakes up a sweet, almost custard-like pie traditionally calling for a bit of cornmeal. I’ve had a great lemon chess pie in the past, but wouldn’t have ever thought to lay grapefruit wedges out amongst the custardy filling while baking. It was a big experiment and I couldn’t wait to see how it’d turn out.
I tried a small sliver before serving it and found myself rather smitten with it, but I wasn’t sure how others would feel. Sam said he loved the crust but wished the citrus pieces were smaller. Olaiya would’ve sliced the grapefruit pieces in thin rounds — I agreed that may have been more delicate. Her boyfriend, Beau, seemed fond of it. My friend Keena just picked up a leftover slice to take home — we’ll see what she thinks. The point here is not the reception of the pie. Sure, some people will like a recipe and some won’t. That’s always the case. The point is the way in which we’d all do it again a little differently. We learn, we try something, and we change the way we’d do it in the future based on our findings. The cycle continues and continues. That’s what I so love about cooking, really. It’s always changing.
In this odd little food writing world, we often call that cycle of inspiration, borrowing, learning and then taking what we like and making it our own “adapting”. And it is. But at the heart, it’s also all about learning from each other and graciously giving back — of getting excited to share a discovery, of trying to think through the very clearest and most direct way to write a recipe so you all can make it easily in your own kitchen. In this way, all of this is not so far from what I thought I’d be doing with my days years ago. Writing a clear, cogent pie recipe isn’t all that different than sitting down and breaking down a Hamlet passage: we read the original text, we break it down so we understand it, and then we pass it on in a way that makes sense to us. Today there are fewer parent conferences, for sure. Far fewer grading rubrics and pairs of Banana Republic slacks. And at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. I’m happy to have landed right where I am (decidedly not currently in Banana Republic slacks).
While the pie recipe below looks a bit complicated, it’s actually a relatively simple pie, it just requires that you pre-bake the crust so I give you pretty clear instructions for how to do that. And I also walk you through segmenting a grapefruit in case that’s a new skill. At the heart of it though, it’s a simple custard-based pie. The Lee Brothers suggest to cook the pie at 300 F, but I found this wasn’t adequate to actually set the custard, so I’ve adjusted it here so it should work for you at home. Maybe you’ll try it and let me know what you think? Maybe you’ll do a little something new with it and tell us about it here? Reading, reworking, passing it on. Adapting. Or teaching. Or whatever you’d like to call it, really.
I give instructions here for making the crust quickly with your fingertips. If you’re more comfortable and familiar making it in a food processor or have another favorite technique, by all means use that. The pie dough recipe yields enough for two pie crusts and you’ll only use one here, so freeze the other for a future pie you’re excited to try. Last, note that between the crust and filling, you’ll use 3 eggs total (although you’ll be doing some separating–see below). Please note, rest time for the pie crust isn’t indicated in the cook times above.
Adapted from: The Lee Brothers Charleston Kitchen
Sweet Rye Crust: (yields 2, 9-inch pie crusts)
To make the crust: Whisk first four ingredients together in a medium bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms and some small lumps remain. Drizzle vanilla extract over the dough and slowly sprinkle in cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, quickly stirring with a fork or your fingers until the dough becomes sticky and begins to clump together into a more uniform mass. Divide dough into half and form 2 single flat, chubby disks; wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day. Once chilled, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is large enough to fill a 9-inch pie plate. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie plate and nestle into place. Leave 1-inch of overhang (if there’s a great deal of overhang, trim), then fold edges of the dough under and crimp.
Pre-bake the crust: To avoid a soggy pie, prebake the crust on 400 F: Using a fork, lightly prick the bottom of the crust. Take a sheet of aluminum foil and layer it on top of the pie crust, gently nudging it down so it’s snug on the bottom and the sides. Fill the foil-covered crust with dried beans or pie weights to hold it in place. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove pie weights/beans and foil. Brush crust with egg yolk to create a moisture seal (again, to prevent sogginess). Decrease the oven to 350 F, and place back in the oven to dry out further, another 5 minutes.
Make the filling: Finely grate the zest of one of the grapefruits (about 1 teaspoon loosely grated zest), and set aside. Segment the grapefruits: trim off the top and bottom so each end is flat. Peel the fruit by placing the tip of a sharp knife just inside the border where the pith meets the pulp and slicing down along the curvature of the fruit. Repeat until whole fruit’s been peeled. Then, over a bowl to catch the juice, gently cut the segments of pulp with a sharp knife by slicing towards the core as close as possible to the membranes that separate the segments. Preserve the juice. Gently strain the segments, reserving the segments and juice separately (you should have about 1 cup segments and 1/3 cup juice). Whisk the zest and salt into the grapefruit juice.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites and yolks together until they’re light and creamy in color, then whisk in the cream and melted butter.
In a medium bowl, mix the sugar, flour and cornmeal together. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture in thirds, whisking after each addition. Stir in the grapefruit juice until combined.
Pour the filling into the pie crust. Arrange the grapefruit segments in the custard (they’ll float to the surface as they bake). Transfer the pie to the oven and bake at 350 F until the top has nicely browned and the center jiggles stiffly, 35-45 minutes. Cool completely on a rack, about 20 minutes, before serving.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.