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.
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?)