Happy Derby!

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Sal mixed us some bourbon cocktails last year, and we donned our Derby apparel for the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Living close to Louisville for a couple of years gave us an appreciation for Derby and how the city celebrates it. My aunts had been telling me for years that Louisville basically shuts down during Derby Days to make time for all of the events surrounding the horse race.

Sal and I were only in Louisville once for Derby, and while we didn’t get to the track, I made a hat (pictured above) and we joined some friends at a bar to watch. I don’t remember anything about who won or what happened, but there is something exciting about the power of those horses and the strategy employed in racing (do read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit). This was also when I drank my first mint julep, though the friend that mixed it didn’t so much as muddle the mint as drop it into a glass of bourbon. Worked for me.

If you plan to celebrate Derby, get yourself some good bourbon, craft a hat, and have fun. Your city may not shut down for Derby Days, but take an afternoon and pretend it does.

 

Chicken & Ribs

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Pictured: a close-up of Sal’s fingers covered in barbecue sauce, ribs blurry at the bottom of the frame. We are at Rooster’s, and we are feasting.

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we visit Rooster’s in St. Paul. It’s small, plopped down on a corner in an otherwise purely residential neighborhood. There’s a small garden center just down the block. When we walk inside, we smell the fryers: chicken, batter, potatoes. The old booth we slide into has been worn smooth by hundreds of people passing through. This is more of a takeout place, we realize, but we look through the menu, order at the counter, and wait. It’s agonizing. The smells of freshly fried chicken and sticky ribs cover us, and we stare enviously at the people who come in for their takeout.

When our meals are ready, we stare for a moment at the mountains in front of us. I have a pulled pork sandwich, a mound of meat on a sturdy bun, coleslaw waiting in its ramekin. Sal, more ambitious, has a rib and chicken dinner. He offers me some chicken, and the batter crackles, the juices flow, the chicken–hot, so perfectly hot–slides into my mouth as it falls off the bone. We cannot believe how delicious and perfect this chicken is. It’s the platonic ideal of fried chicken. We could eat here every week but know that it wouldn’t be good news for our arteries.

Not long ago, another fried-chicken joint moved into St. Paul. It’s the second location of a spot in Minneapolis that’s more “upscale,” I guess. There’s a full bar, and there are different kinds of fried chicken, and it all feels neatly packaged and streamlined. The bus I take every day goes by Rooster’s, and every evening I see the place is bustling. Have those people ever been to Rooster’s? Would they be here if they knew they could get tender ribs and flavorful chicken elsewhere without the wait and bourgeois trappings?

 

Rosé, We Miss You

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When we lived in Indy, a very good liquor store was about a five-minute walk from our house. This was good when we knew we’d have guests and needed to grab something last-minute or when we wanted to drink some rosé with the NBA All-Star Weekend, a tradition begun in 2014 when we learned Drake enjoys rosé.

Anyway, we’d go, and the folks there were so good at recommending things and always offering tastings. I’d been eyeing a bottle of the rosé pictured above, and the guy working there that we always saw said it was delicious as well as a steal. If I remember correctly this bottle didn’t sell for more than $12, and it’s some of the most delicious rosé I can recall. Not too sweet, not cloying, not too assertive. It had a bit of a tartness to it that recommended itself to cheeses. We miss this rosé. We can’t find it anywhere we’ve been in the Twin Cities, so the memory must sustain us.

The Easter Bunny in New York State

A couple of months ago, I finally got a new phone (the iPhone 4 from 2013 is dead!), and while going through the photos to transfer them to the new phone (long live the Google Pixel!), I realized just how many photos I’d taken of food and wine bottles. So, in an effort to preserve the memories those photos were meant to capture, I’ll be sharing those photos periodically with a little note or story to accompany them. Nothing fancy.

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When we lived in Indianapolis, it was a leisurely two-hour drive to visit my aunts in Louisville. We joked that it only took about three turns to get to their house from ours, that’s how simple the drive down 65 was. The view from the highway was mostly idyllic–farmland and trees–and when we took back roads, we wound through tiny towns that weren’t much more than a convenience store, a gas station, and a collection of houses. Southern Indiana was flat and felt very empty indeed.

We’d visit my aunts as often as we could, spending our visits out on the Bourbon Trail, eating good food, and talking about anything and everything. We lent books to each other, went to plays, and stayed up late with glasses of bourbon at hand.

For Easter, my aunt Carrie put out quite the spread, and the Easter Bunny always brought us what I like to call an adult Easter basket. The Easter Bunny, it seemed, shared some tastes with my aunts, namely: New York State wine. My aunts love it. They lived in Rochester for years, which gave them opportunity to tour around and find their favorite wineries. Now they go back a couple times each year, driving their station wagon up and returning with the trunk loaded. Their basement is a treasure trove, their own cave, featuring not just wines, but gins, bourbons, and beers. “We don’t drink it all; we collect it,” my aunt Lee says. They collect it to give it away.

So Easter dinner always featured a couple of New York State wines to go with the ham, the lima beans, and the mashed potatoes. As if that weren’t enough, my aunt Carrie would always make a Mounds Cake. A beautiful monster of a chocolate layer cake with shredded coconut and luscious frosting you want to eat by the spoonful. She gave me the recipe, but I know I could never replicate it. The recipe needs their home, their warmth, their laughter.

Writing about The Sneetches

This past November, my editor at American Theatre reached out and asked if I’d like to cover the world premiere of a musical based on Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches over at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Of course, I said yes. It would be the biggest thing I’d written yet. I conducted interviews, dropped in on rehearsals, and attended the “Sneetch Peek” organized by the marketing team.

From all of this, I learned a lot: what worked in the process as I conducted it and what I would do differently next time. Twenty-two pages of my notebook are now given over to observations about the production, quotations and notes from interviews, my own thoughts.

If you don’t know about the Sneetches, the basic story is this: all these Sneetches live on a beach, but some have stars on their bellies, and some do not. Those with stars oppress those without. It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to see that this straightforward story has a lot to say about history and about our present moment in the Trump administration. Amidst my notes I find this one:

while riding to rehearsal two days before Obama was to leave office, I listened to NPR, where everyone seemed quietly desperate, unsure of what to expect — the Sneetches’ finale about how to be friends with a Sneetch may not solve everything, but it’s a message of goodness and acceptance and sincerity and joy

I have to take some comfort in the fact that The Sneetches had a very long run, and a lot of children got that message. Even if they’d heard it before, even if their parents reinforce that message every day, I’m glad they got it at the theatre. Theatre doesn’t always set out to teach, but there’s always something to learn. And we need as many messages about goodness and acceptance as we can get.

 

Cúrate’s Spanish-Inspired Recipes Keep It Simple

One night early in my semester in Madrid, my señora held a dinner in the formal part of her apartment, inviting over two of her friends to join my two flatmates and me. This hushed room had been off-limits, and I was struck by the heavy wooden furniture at odds with the Ikea brightness of the rest of Carmen’s apartment. I don’t remember what she served for dinner that night, but I summoned up enough Spanish to try to communicate that her food was straightforward and satisfying. In English we’d say simple, so I said the same thing in Spanish: simple. The table got a Spanish lesson in response.

En español, decimos sencillo. Simple es como…estúpido. O para algo que no es complejo.

Sencillo is for modest, straightforward, unadorned. The dinner ended, but I’m still thinking about sencillo. I don’t think English has the perfect equivalent, which is why I like to use it to describe Spanish cooking. But words can only go so far. At some point, you have to taste Spanish food to understand.

So, thank goodness for chef and restaurateur Katie Button.

For a full scope on Button’s background, check out this excellent interview she did with Eater in 2014 and then read The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend. I’ve loved learning about Button’s life because it’s a textbook example of how sometimes you start to unquestioningly follow a path you merely think you should follow. Luckily for us, Button got cold feet about her PhD program and returned to her first loves: food and cooking.

Cúrate, Button’s first cookbook–created with Genevieve Ko–is named after her restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, and offers a survey of recipes that Button has translated from Spain to her restaurant to the home kitchen. It isn’t a super comprehensive, must-cover-everything cookbook (for that, check out The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas). But it isn’t trying to be.

Button’s recipes detail Spanish classics like pan con tomate, tortilla, and rabo de toro, preparations that allow their components to shine in true sencillo fashion. Other recipes start with a dish or ingredient used frequently throughout Spain–migas, cod, piquillo peppers–and then add a new twist. Migas matched with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, fried eggplant with honey instead of cane syrup, adobo sauce used on spare ribs instead of lomo. These interpretations make dishes relevant for American cooks and also point to Spain’s own culinary history, one that incorporated influences from the Moors, the Jewish population, and Spain’s colonies in the New World. The Columbian Exchange gave Spain, and consequently the rest of the Old World, potatoes for patatas bravas, tomatoes for gazpacho, and chiles for salmorejo.

Cúrate will appeal to home cooks of varying skills. The cocktail skewers and lamb chops with olive and rosemary crumble would suit those just getting comfortable in the kitchen while satisfying everyone’s palates. More ambitious projects include making sausages from scratch and breaking down a whole octopus. (The latter directions feature a two-page spread of Button in her kitchen, merrily turning an octopus inside out for butchering.) Through it all, Button offers succinct and sound advice on searching for specific ingredients, whether it’s fresh pork without additional seasonings or anchovies packed in oil (she recommends Ortiz). She recommends wine and sneaks in notes on the origins of certain dishes–such as paella and the role of white asparagus–so that readers have context for the food they’re preparing and, consequently, some fun facts to share when the food goes onto the table and the wine is poured.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s a gorgeous book. Leave it on your coffee table! Flip through it during commercial breaks! Shove it under the noses of your guests! Photos get your mouth watering (check out the luscious chocolate-brandy sabayon and the hearty fabada), while the layout of recipes is uncluttered and direct. This makes sense since so many Spanish dishes tend to rely only on quality ingredients with little more seasoning than salt, olive oil, and maybe some pimentón. That’s sencillo. With Cúrate, Button offers a tight, curated vision for Spanish cooking in the American home, and it is this vision and her voice that guides the reader and creates a cookbook that is warm, approachable, and authoritative.

In her section on paella, Button talks about meeting a cook in Costa Brava, how he went on and on about the importance of the stock in the classic rice dish. She realized, “Spaniards take pride in how long their cooking takes, both in terms of actual simmering hours, but also in terms of the years it takes to master a dish.” While the dishes in this book won’t necessarily demand years of effort before you’re satisfied with them, I like that Button views Spanish cooking as an ever-reaching cuisine, one in which recipes are passed down, shared with family and friends, refined and honed over time. In her introduction, Button describes Spanish food as “simple, comforting food that highlights the beautiful produce, seafood, and meat grown, caught, and raised all around the country.” She says simple, but I like to imagine she thought sencillo.

 

Cúrate is published by Flatiron Books. 

Sarah Grainer’s Scrump

TinyLetter is a magical thing. Anyone who has the drive can send out a regular missive to their readers on any topic they want! After LongHouse, my friend Sarah decided she’s get her food writing fix through her own TinyLetter. And Scrump was born.

As Sarah says, “Scrump is best read like the back of a cereal box: alone, while chewing, devoting only about 20% of your brainpower.” It’s a mix of stories, photos, stray observations, and fridgies (fridge-selfies) from her friends. (Yes, I got to have a fridgie in Scrump!)

While Scrump is always humorous–Sarah’s hilarious–it also takes on bigger issues. Though that’s unfair. Food is a big issue. (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs over at Food52 summed it up better than I could.) So I loved Scrump #2, the issue right after the election. In it, Sarah wrote about going to a small shawarma shop near her home in New Orleans. She and her boyfriend got into a conversation with the owner’s adult son about the food and his own childhood in Iraq. They go back to the same shawarma shop the day after the election, feeling deflated about the result but good about supporting a local place run by folks originally from Iraq. It’s small, she thinks, but it’s something:

It is meaningless, in the long run, that we chose Shawarma on the Go for dinner on Wednesday night. I’m not a fool. But in my exhausted state, it felt like the resoundingly right decision. I wanted to show up and to be grateful for their presence in our neighborhood and our country. I also wanted to eat Shawarma on the Go, because it’s delicious. I thought of our conversation with the owner’s son, so delighted to share such an integral part of his childhood with us. His food and drink. Part of what I love about food is how it is at once personal and universal. It’s an easy way to build a bridge between two people from very different places or points of view, or from the past to the present. What an incredible thing, to say to someone, Here. Taste this and you somehow are connected to me, my family, my childhood, my country. I am sharing that with you.

While many of us are still, bleary-eyed trying to figure out what we can do, how we can move forward and reject hate, Sarah offers a small, consistent method: share food, learn about it, talk to people.

Sign up to receive Scrump here.

 

Holiday Cookie Round-Up

When Thanksgiving rolls around, something in my brain fires. Or misfires. Suddenly, I’m combing my cookbooks and Pinterest pages, revisiting old favorites and hunting down new challenges. I want to make a crap-ton of cookies.

I can’t just make a batch of chocolate chips and call it a day. I have to make a variety of cookies. They have to be delicious.

Maybe it’s because, growing up, we did most of our baking around the holidays. My mom made what she called chocolate robins: chocolate cookies made sweet and dark and dense by ribbons of molasses. These were brightened by mini M&Ms. We also made the ubiquitous peanut butter blossoms. While she was still well, my grandmother, Cici, joined us in this, unwrapping Hershey Kisses by the dozen. My dad still makes his poor man’s cake, and now my mom makes addictive cake mix cookies studded with dried cherries and almond extract.

So here are the cookies I made this holiday season:

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Grapefruit Poppy Seed Buttons from Real Simple

Real Simple had a giant cookie calendar this year, which provided no end of daydreaming. However, these sounded unique, and I love citrus and poppy seeds. The result: a bite-size, crumbly cookie that walked the line between sweet and savory.

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Key Lime Cookies from Dessert Now, Dinner Later

I first made these cookies a few years ago, and their sweet-tart pucker-y-ness has gained them a place in my heart. The lime juice in the dough perks things up, and the white chocolate chips provide a satisfying crunch for your teeth. The lime glaze really puts these over the top.

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Holiday Sables from Food52

I guess a theme this year was glazes, huh? These are a tad more time-intensive since you have to roll the dough into logs, chill them, cut them into thin slices, bake, cool, and frost. But it’s worth it. They’re light and tiny and adorable, and you can top them however you like. I preferred the candied ginger…

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Meringues

This is the first time I’ve made meringues, and while it was kind of a pain, I learned a lot about egg whites. This video from The Kitchn was very helpful as was this guide from AllRecipes. I used this recipe to guide cooking times and oven temps. You can see from the photo that some of the meringues cracked while baking, but the flavor and texture came out beautifully.

I took a platter of cookies into work and was also able to fit a bunch into my suitcase going home for the holidays. That’s my favorite part of baking: sharing the goods with other people. What did you bake this year?

Food Tells Stories

Wanted to post a little update here that my interview with composer Ben Houge about his food operas went up on Paste Magazine today.

This is my first food-related publication since leaving LongHouse, and it feels good, like, hey, I can do this. Maybe I won’t be able to make it my full-time thing–at least not right now–but I can do this. I don’t know. It’s been hard to get jazzed about anything much since November 8, and while this interview about food and music obviously isn’t going to solve the very real problems our country and the world face, I hope it at least provides a few people with something new to think about, a different way of considering what they taste and what they hear.

Food, to me, is so much about identity. And sharing. You can tell a little story about yourself just by the cookies you bake or the beer you order or the recipe you send to your co-worker. You tell a story when friends come over for dinner, placing trust in you to feed them something tasty and nourishing. Maybe you linger around the table, remnants of dessert in front of you, someone pouring just a touch more wine into their glass. You tell other stories then and trade jokes and memories. Food can bring a community together, sustain it, provide joy and common cause.

Again, the mere fact of food and writing about it won’t address the divides in our country. But we can use it as a starting place. As my friend Sarah from LongHouse says, “Everybody eats breakfast.”

Clementines

 

In Spain, I dreamed of food. There were, of course, the usual cravings for American pancakes and slabs of chocolate cake surrounded by inches of thick icing. But I also craved foods within my reach: the pastries on display at the bakery I walked past twice a day, the calamari bocadillos in Plaza Mayor, the pan con tomate at La Tienda Verde near the school, the mousse cups our señora Carmen often served after dinner. Carmen was only obligated to provide us with breakfast and dinner, so, in an effort to save a little towards travel, I often skipped lunch, or I grabbed an apple and some crackers that Carmen left out for us in the kitchen. This meant that from about 9:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening, all I thought about–in addition to concentrating on, listening to, understanding, and speaking Spanish–was food. What would Carmen make for dinner? Could I get away with another heaping bowl of cereal? Should I just get myself a damn sandwich from Tienda Verde? It was not my best plan.

I have been too frugal in my life, and this was one of those times. I relaxed towards the end of the semester, and I often indulged on my trips away: a tall glass boot of beer in Freiburg, crepes and red wine in Paris, dried apricots and mixed nuts and Kir Royale in Nantes, glass upon glass of mint tea while in Morocco. I am lucky.

But I didn’t eat my first clementine until November of the semester. I was putting together the props for an evening of one-acts put on by the school, and my new friend Laurel sat backstage, peeling a clementine. She joked that the white pith at the center looked like a tree. It did. She offered me a piece of the fruit, and I accepted. Juice burst in my mouth, sweet and tart and cooling after the heavy air of the stage. I’d been a fool. I’d been a fool to ever let the spiderweb-like pith of the clementine deter me.

When Carmen added clementines to the kitchen’s fruit bowl–good-bye, apples–I ate two or three a day, supplementing them with crackers or biscuits. Once or twice, I dipped a small spoon into the jar of garlic aioli in the fridge. But it was the clementines I returned to. The weight of the fruit in the palm of my hand was reassuring, a promise of happiness, even. In December, when I went to Barajas Airport to wait for my parents, sister, and brother-in-law to arrive, I brought what I considered to be the perfect Spanish breakfast after a bleary trans-Atlantic flight: a package of magdalenas–the cake faintly smelling of lemon–and a bag of clementines.

When you first stick your thumbnail into a clementine, you release a small spray of the peel’s oil, and the sunshine smell of the fruit overwhelms you. As my family and I sat in an airport cafe, they sipped coffee, and we peeled the clementines, pulled apart each segment, and the peels piled in the center of the table, the brilliant orange a foil for the gray sky outside.