I would be a horrible game show contestant. In fact, I’d last all of five minutes. It’s not one of my strengths to come up with answers to anything quickly. I often know the answer but it takes me a second to conjure them up…Recently as I was sitting in a Food Writing class, the instructor asked us to write about our first food memory. Now I wasn’t shocked that I couldn’t think of anything right off the top of my head. But five minutes went by. Ten minutes. Still nothing. Not only could I not think of my earliest memory, I couldn’t think of a single memory. So I kind of made one up for class, but couldn’t stop thinking about food memories after class: my parents fed me. I was sure of that. So why couldn’t I remember any landmark meals or dishes?
Well ever since the Food Writing class, I’ve been thinking about these food memories a lot…and thank god, a few have surfaced. I thought I’d record them here so I can fetch them when memory should fail me further down the line, as it surely will:
-Mom’s custard. I believe it came from The Silver Palette cookbook. It was super simple: eggs, milk, and sugar. Mom used to make it late at night (for the next day, I guess) and often after she’d gotten out of the bath so there were wafts of Nivea lotion and sweet milk trickling out of the kitchen. I loved how the custard formed a skin on the top. It was my favorite part. The most basic, simple, satisfying dessert.
-Homemade donuts. Oh god, I loved these. We’d take Pillsbury biscuit dough (half the fun of these was opening that treacherous twist container), punch a hole in the middle, fry it in the deep fat fryer and then quickly roll them in cinnamon and sugar. These smelled like heaven cooking, like a fall morning with nothing on tap except the paper and the couch. Or when you’re little as I was, bunk-bed “blankie tag” with your sister.
-Shepard’s Pie: Mom made this often, and I’ve made it on my own many times– when I was a vegetarian with Boca Burger and now, thankfully, with ground beef. Another really simple, satisfying recipe: ground beef, ketchup, potatoes, corn. I think that’s about it. We had this a lot when mom and dad would go out for the evening (that or TV dinners!). It’s always a little better the next day for some reason…maybe the juices from the meat kind of settle into everything else. The perfect comfort food.
-Lasagna: I have vivid memories of mom and I making lasagna. Many times, but specifically when I was a little girl sitting on the counter at the H Street house. I was more preoccupied with making “mini lasagna roll-ups,” which consisted of little shards of reject noodle, a smattering of ricotta, a little cheese, and…in the ol’ hopper. I don’t know how I ever had room for an actual slice of lasagna after all of the prep eating that I did. But this kind of became my signature dish growing up: whenever I cooked dinner, I’d usually make lasagna. There was something about the logical, methodical nature of it–repeating each ingredient layer over and over until they were gone–that I appreciated. It was predictable in that way. And I’d mastered it.
-Baked Alaska: the opposite of simple in many ways. This is the Christmas dessert that I remember. If I ever have kids, we will have Baked Alaska. In this day and age when everything is so easy to come by, Baked Alaska is not and for that reason, it’s even more special. You can’t just swing by the market and pick some up. Generally speaking, it’s not going to be on the dessert menu at your favorite restaurant. It takes work: making the brownie base before hand, packing layers of ice cream into a mixing bowl so tight and firmly packed that it’ll eventually slide out in the shape of that mixing bowl. Getting the ice cream out….oy. The meringue. Lighting it all on fire with blazing brandy–the real magic. Truthfully Baked Alaska isn’t really the most delicious dessert I’ve ever had. But there’s something about the process and the ritual that has earned it a golden place on my list of childhood foods that I’ll cherish.
So there…there’s a few. I’ll add more as the (slowly) come to me.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)