something to celebrate

Hi, friends. It’s been a little while, and the world has already changed so much. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing less cooking and more watching, engaging with the world and with loved ones as this crisis unfolds around us, touching every area of our lives. But as hard as it is to pull my focus away from the pandemic and my anxieties surrounding it, there are still things to celebrate, and food plays a part in that as well.

Yesterday, my partner came to a huge milestone in his life and his career: he successfully defended his dissertation and was recognized as a full-fledged Ph.D. by the committee. It’s an incredible accomplishment. I brag about him a lot, and I’m proud of him every day for the man that he is. But yesterday, when they called him “Doctor…” I was truly prouder than I have ever been. We’ve been anticipating and talking about this day since we first met, and when it finally arrived it was hard to really let it sink in, to really believe that this was it, that all the hard work and sacrifices had come to fruition. But they had! And, of course, we needed cake to mark the occasion.

It’s traditional, though no longer encouraged or expected, for defense candidates to bring refreshments—at the very least champagne—to their defense. I can’t really go to anything without offering to bake something, and I knew I wanted to make a cake because what’s a better way to celebrate than having cake?? (Besides drinking.) My partner asked for this cake: Martha Stewart’s chocolate raspberry cake which I made once for a dinner we went to a little over two years ago. I call it Five-Kinds-of-Dairy Cake because it uses every imaginable iteration of dairy you can think of in a single dessert.

It’s a basic chocolate sponge flavored slightly with framboise, layered with raspberry filling, and spread with a cream cheese-butter-sour-cream-chocolate melange that is honestly, in his words, “to die for.” The only change I made was incorporating mascarpone into the raspberry filling because it was in my fridge and I wanted to use it up. I used mascarpone in a similar cake that I made for my mother’s birthday last September, and I like how it cuts the tart sweetness of the raspberries and the sugary frosting. The cake itself includes buttermilk and butter, and the frosting is made of butter, cream cheese, and sour cream (or crème fraîche if you’re fancy) in addition to the chocolate and sugar. So it’s a lot of dairy. Not for the faint of heart, or lactose intolerant.

Now, I am the world’s worst cake decorator. I usually don’t bother at all, but I do like a neat presentation. In this instance, I think I made a few fatal mistakes. I made the frosting two days in advance but I didn’t let it sit out long enough so it was too stiff to spread neatly. I made the filling too loose with added framboise and layered it too thick in between the cake layers, making them slide around as I tried to frost them. And I didn’t do a crumb coat because the icing wasn’t soft enough and I ran out of time the day of the dissertation defense. I panicked slightly as I was frosting the damn thing and pink filling started leaking out of the sides. Truly, it looked awful: it was lopsided with uneven frosting smeared all over the place, and a heap of raspberries scarcely disguising its faults.

However…it was delicious. And no one complained. In fact, they asked for seconds, which to me is the highest praise possible for any dish.

Here’s some recipe critique, for those who are interested. I don’t particularly like sponge, or cakes that use the creaming method. To be clear, that is combining butter (or another kind of fat) with the sugar first, then adding eggs, vanilla (or alcohol), and the dry mixture alternating with a liquid (usually milk). The chocolate cake I prefer to make is more a dump cake, made by dumping hot water (or coffee), eggs, vanilla, and whatever else into the dry mixture and stirring. There’s no butter so it’s a lighter, fluffier, moister cake.

I also have to say, I don’t have a lot of success with Martha Stewart recipes and I think she doesn’t really test them as thoroughly as other baking sites. In this instance, the rather thick batter is divided between three cake pans and it doesn’t rise much, so you get a pretty thin layer of cake, which burns or dries out too easily. I prefer something about two inches thick, especially if it’s a sturdy sponge that can hold itself up. Mine were an inch or less and only slightly domed, so I didn’t bother shaving them down to shape. I would recommend doubling the recipe or making only two layers at a longer bake time. Or just make my favorite cake recipe and frost it with whatever you like.

The frosting here really is delicious. I like the tartness that the sour cream brings to it. I loosened mine with a little almond milk because I wasn’t about to risk my life at the grocery store trying to find the last gallon of dairy milk. You couldn’t taste the difference. The filling is really just a basic raspberry reduction that you can substitute with your own or with jam, if you really want, and mixed with a whole eight-ounce tub of mascarpone and about a tablespoon of framboise. I have half a tub left, so it goes far.

The cake is now gone. Half of it disappeared after the defense, along with the bottle of Moet & Chandon that was absolutely worth the price. You only become a Ph.D. once, ya know? (Usually.) We gave a quarter to his parents, and ate the rest ourselves on the couch at the end of a long day and a long weekend and a long six years of hard work. We breathed deeply and took slow bites and felt, for a few moments, that everything was OK. Because it was.

The world is a scary, chaotic place right now. Each day brings news of more to fear, and nothing is certain: but we can find some certainty, some peace, some comfort in the arms and voices of our loved ones, and maybe in a wedge of chocolate cake.

Stay safe and strong, everyone.

spicy turkey skillet

Recipe time! It’s not often that I cook without a recipe or at least use one as a general guideline. I can do some things with fair confidence, but for me the interest of cooking is in creating or re-creating something that someone else already mastered so that I can enjoy it at home. The advantage of making things like bolognese and cacio e pepe and buttermilk-roasted chicken is that I learn how to cook—I pick up on the principles and I can apply them to whatever I need to whip up when time or money or supplies are coming up short.

I hesitate to even call this a recipe, and I’m certainly not going to type out the quantities. You’ll have to think of it as a no-recipe recipe, like Sam Sifton does every Wednesday in his newsletter for the New York Times Cooking section. I throw this one together every now and then and while the general makeup remains the same, I think I sub in different spices because I keep forgetting what I did last time. So, let it now be committed to writing so that a) I can remember for next time and b) you can begin your own riff.

Warm up some olive oil in a big skillet, and chop up a small onion and a couple fat cloves of garlic. I don’t fuss much here. I loathe chopping and the tears and agony that come along with chopping alliums in particular (I usually use the food processor but there was a dishes-in-the-sink-AND-the-dishwasher issue last night) and anyway they reduce so much it doesn’t really matter. Case in point: in the leftovers today I noticed several bigger chunks of garlic. They went down like a dream, and I was none the wiser. So don’t worry about chopping too small. Who cares. If you’re like me, you’re going to eat it anyway. Bang them in the pan and scatter some salt and pepper on top, letting them brown nicely and soften for a few minutes. Pop a small sweet potato into the microwave to steam, or maybe use up some leftovers from a roasted sweet or whatever. We’re all about flexibility here. I like sweet potato in this, myself. When the onions and garlic have softened, add a pound of good ground turkey (I like to get mine from a local butcher) and break it up with a wooden spoon, adding more salt, and mashing more until it is evenly distributed throughout the pan. As it browns, add as much as you please of cumin (quite a bit of this, I think), dried or fresh oregano, chili powder (I like the Mexican variety), paprika, cayenne, ground black pepper, and maybe some garlic powder if you want to really pump it up (I always do). Stir all that together and let it meld. When the turkey is cooked through, add a can of drained black beans and the sweet potato cut into chunks (if you’re using it). Keep everything going until the turkey has darkened under the influence of the chili powder into a deep brown. Adjust spices to taste, and when you’re pleased, dish it up with some shredded cheese, sour cream or Greek yogurt, scallions, and an avocado. Maybe a warm corn tortilla on the side? Cilantro? Maybe you throw some frozen corn in with the beans? Whatever you like. It’s all about you.

When I make this, I’m usually in a pinch and not feeling inspired, and I never have all the trimmings on hand. But it’s unfailingly comforting and delicious, and dare I say even healthy (low in carbs if you skip the sweet potato, but they’re very good complex carbs; quite low-fat if you buy lean turkey). It simply makes me happy. My partner likes it with rice. I like it all on its own with extra cheese melted onto every savory bite (though it had not yet done so in the photo below).

A pound of turkey plus the can of beans and a single sweet potato gets me about three meals because I’m a big boy. I think with rice or other add-ins it would stretch to four, but no one will know if you eat a good half of it yourself, standing over the stove with just the oven range light on and a glass of something for company. That’s a good evening.

on pita

I’ll be honest: I haven’t been much in the mood to cook this week. The food budget is a little tight as we plan for a busy weekend in the city and for some bigger events and travel opportunities later this year, so I’m trying my hardest to be frugal and not buy anything new to stock the kitchen until I’ve worked through some of the leftovers from last week’s late-night binges. This includes, but is not limited to, five-minute hummus, the dark-meat remain of a roasted chicken, a nub of French bread (finished for breakfast, finally), some old-ass rice, AND two full quart containers of chicken barbecue and red bean-sausage stew in the freezer. In conclusion, I do not need to buy food.

I seem to run into this problem (if you want to call it that) a couple of times a month. I have a lot of ingredients in my fridge, but not necessarily enough to cobble together into a meal. Last night I ate cold chicken thigh meat with salt and forkfuls of cold, two-day-old couscous, followed by a few spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter that I dipped shamelessly into bittersweet chocolate chips. I couldn’t even be bothered to warm anything up (my loathing of reheated chicken notwithstanding). Even if I wanted to budget the money for groceries, I just don’t feel like cooking.

That said, I like to have at least one new project or experiment to work on every week. This week, I decided, it would be pita, the impetus being the half-full container of hummus lingering in the fridge and the sad-looking bag of pita chip crumbs in the cupboard. I was too cheap to go out and buy pita, so…hell, I’ll make my own! (he said at 5:30 in the morning, lacing up his shoes for the gym)

On the surface, homemade pita doesn’t look all that intimidating. It comes together more or less as any bread does: giving the yeast a little snack of flour and sugar, then adding more flour, and some salt and oil until a shaggy dough forms and letting it rise for a while. Thing is, I’m not great with yeasted breads. I do OK with the crusty French bread recipe that I now make on a weekly basis, but really it never goes quite the way it’s supposed to. And I always add more flour. Always. Maybe my kitchen is just super moist…I don’t know. But my bread dough is always distinctly wet when I follow the recipe exactly. I added about three-quarters of a cup more flour to the pita recipe to get the shaggy dough I needed. I also forgot the olive oil until step four, when it had already risen once. For the record, this didn’t seem to make much of a difference, but more on that later.

While the dough was rising I did my ironing, keeping a close eye on the clock so I could preheat the oven and time it with when the dough should be rolled out. This is where the sticking point comes in…quite literally, as it happens. I hate working with a rolling pin. I’ve done it exactly two times, both with pretty lousy results. You see, you have these rather wet little balls of dough (perhaps more so because I had added the oil late and it wasn’t quite incorporated—they were really slick) and an allegedly “nonstick” rolling pin doesn’t really seem to give a shit when it comes to that. The first one turned out way too big and oddly shaped; it didn’t puff up in the oven at all. The second one was much smaller, but it also didn’t puff. At least it was circular-ish. On it went through half a dozen more tries, peeling sticky flat pita dough off the rolling pin, in some cases bundling it up again into a ball and starting over (probably a terrible idea), in some cases sticking to the apparently not-floury-enough countertop and THEN the container of flour fell off the very small countertop and scattered flour all over the floor. That’s when the thunderstorm hit and rain started pouring in my wide open bedroom windows, so I didn’t have time to clean up the flour before I made little white footprints all over the house, running around and closing the windows. But at this point what did it matter?

Anyway. I finished the pitas, and by the end felt like I was maybe getting the hang of rolling them out, though they turned out to be much smaller than the eight inches I was led to believe they would be. Few—if any—of them are circular. But whatever, they’re edible. I tried one with the hummus and it wasn’t bad. Maybe a little overdone.

I promise, I’ll try again. I’m not really disheartened but it wasn’t the painless process I was hoping for. Baking seldom is. (Who does this on a Tuesday??) I can now make killer brownies without even checking the recipe, and my chocolate cake never fails. But bread is another mountain to conquer, and I’ve barely crossed the threshold.

an irrelevant disappointment

I’ve been mulling over this for a little while now trying to decide how to talk about this recipe. You see, last week I had the distinct (and rare) pleasure of cooking for a guest. I made plans with a friend to get together, and had promised to cook for him the next time we did so. In the spirit of full disclosure, I told him I wanted to try out a specific recipe that had recently surfaced in the Alison Roman fandom and I needed him to be my guinea pig. He’s a perfect subject for these kinds of experiments as he isn’t a particularly picky eater (to my knowledge) and he’s the sort of affable man who won’t make you feel as though you’ve disappointed him if something goes wrong. (He’s also a blog-writer himself: check him out!) In other words: he is the perfect guest. All of this aside, it was a great excuse to spend some time together and catch up—and here’s where we come to the crux of the thing. Our evening together was one of those unusual circumstances (in my life anyway) when it honestly didn’t matter what was on the table. I think we both ate without paying much attention at all, which is in one sense remarkable because I pay far more attention to food than I should, and in another sense isn’t remarkable at all, because we were focused on the more important thing, which was the conversation at hand and enjoying the company.

So, the food. I decided to make Alison Roman’s wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts. It looked simple and delicious, the recipe wasn’t too demanding for a weeknight, and I had everything but the artichokes in my refrigerator. Perfect. I drive an hour home from work every day, so my gracious guest gave me a little head start to get myself settled (what a guy), and the night before I had prepped my favorite hummus and a loaf of this bread that I’m obsessed with so I was in good shape. The chicken went in the pan to brown, followed in due course by the artichoke hearts and onions … which is where things started to go a little south. I could already see that the pan was too crowded. My general rule is to follow a recipe strictly the first time I make it, and adjust later if I decide to make it again. Under different circumstances I might have cooked the vegetables in batches to brown them nicely and evaporate the resultant moisture, but I was crunched for time and had already forewarned my guest that a total dinner flop would mean pizza from down the street. It was all in, or nothing.

In went the wine, and all of it went into the oven to reduce—only nothing reduced. My guest arrived and we opened more wine (a delicious blend from Galen Glen) and I returned the pan to the stove to move things along, but I had still had rather a soft pile of steamed artichoke hearts and onions with (albeit) pretty well-browned chicken thighs. Oh well. I doled it out with orzo and roasted asparagus (which was perfect, by the way), and we opted to skip salad because I had slightly overdone it with the quantity of food. (Oops.)

Today as I was eating the last of the leftovers with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I tried to think of what was bothering me about this recipe. Everything else I tried by Alison Roman has been fantastic, to the point that I don’t even want to share it with anyone else. (Hop off my caramelized shallot pasta.) Sometimes recipes don’t work, and that’s OK. It’s not strictly a reflection on my skill as a cook (passable) or the skill of the author (legendary). I had read reviews from folks who said it was bland (it kinda was) and from others who said it was wouldn’t-change-a-thing fantastic (mine wasn’t). So part of my angst is bare disappointment in having created something with undesirable results. I think the remainder is disappointment at missing an opportunity to make something truly memorable for someone else, especially when it arises so seldom. (Let me here emphasize that I am not a social outcast; I choose to spend a lot more time alone than I do with people, and my kitchen is too small to host more than one person at a time. When I invite you over, it’s because I want to spend some serious time with you and I don’t always have the energy for that.)

But as I munched down the still quite-moist chicken and the rather too-soft artichoke hearts today at lunch, I thought about what I really remember about that evening (a bit hazy, thanks to the amount of wine we consumed). It wasn’t the meal, but the exponentially greater pleasure of my friend’s company that lingered on the palette. The leftovers left something to be desired, but our conversation was extraordinary. I’m not a great talker, but given a little wine and the right listeners, I will wax eloquent (read: talk too much) about certain things: classical music, European history, and food, to start with. We talked about Baroque period instruments (sheep guts) and Erik Satie. We talked about cacio e pepe and pasta carbonara (pig cheeks). We talked about love and the nature of living. We stayed up far too late and may have suffered from some pretty bad hangovers the next day. But the soggy artichokes lay forgotten on the stove, and they were irrelevant. So is my disappointment at the meal itself. And that feels pretty good.

Next time, it’ll be pasta. Next time, it could be grilled cheese, or nothing at all, and it wouldn’t matter. Sometimes, I need a reminder that the real value of a meal is the company you share it with. Cheers to that.

P

addict


Ya know, there’s something to be said for all those people who say cooking is their therapy—I, on the other hand, need therapy because of my cooking. 

Early one morning, as I reflected over my decision to cook the night before and seriously considered eating leftovers for breakfast, I came to the unsurprising but still somehow sobering realization that I have a serious addiction to cooking. Just that morning I had said I was going to go home and dutifully eat my chicken stew leftovers before allowing myself to cook something new. Well…I didn’t. I did however, stop at the Asian market on my way home—because, ya know, it made more sense to pick things up ahead of time than getting home late and starting to cook. That’s the kind of lie addicts tell themselves.

I got home at 7 (which is quite late for someone who goes to bed at 9), still giddy with the thrill of the hunt at the Asian food store. As I laid out my purchases—fresh scallions, gorgeous little baby bok choy, and a perfect sprig of Thai basil—I put aside all thoughts of leftovers. There was no question about it. Tonight I had to dive in and make Alexa Weible’s recipe for gingery fried rice

The thing is, I can’t help myself. In any practical sense, cooking that night was totally unnecessary. My fridge was stocked with enough leftovers for several meals, and the last thing I should be doing on any night of the week is carb-loading. But fried rice has a special power over me, and so, more significantly, does the methodical process of preparation, the rush of combining ingredients in perfect synchronicity with the heat of the stove, the alchemy of disparate elements forming a wholly new and unique material. All of this is too much for me to resist. It’s a drug, and it’s potent. And I need that fix or I start to get real antsy. 

It’s not that I don’t cook when I’m stressed or talk to myself like a lunatic while I do it (because I do), and that this in some way can be conflated with therapy, because it hits a lot of the same notes. But in most cases, I cook for the sheer joy of it. I cook when I’m not even hungry or planning on eating, just for the pleasure of making something, and the comfort of knowing it’s there for later, or that it’s there for someone else, or simply that it succeeded. A successful recipe gives me a better buzz than a runner’s high or an accolade for a job well done. 

Practical reasons against it notwithstanding, it was worth every one of them. This rice is outstanding. It’s bright and peppery, singing with the woodsy notes of Thai basil and garlic, soft and yielding against the slightly chewy Shiitake mushrooms and the firm, almost crisp bite of the bok choy. I ate it at 8:00 with no reservations, hugely portioned in my favorite ramen bowl, with two little fried eggs on top and some sesame seeds to boot. I sang its praises as if anyone was listening. (They weren’t.) I bragged about it on Instagram. I’m treasuring the idea of eating it again. But chances are, I’ll end up cooking again before the end of the week. Just one more hit, I swear.

mise en place

I’ve thought about doing this for such a long time that now that I finally have, it’s hard to know where to begin. Throughout the planning process, I knew what I wanted this site to look like. I kind of just jumped right to the middle and didn’t think too much about what the first post would be, but here we are. We have to start somewhere.

Like most writers, I’m used to finding myself stuck some place or another—not so often at the beginning, which is where I like best to be. When I do, I have a few little tricks for giving myself a kickstart. The most reliable one is making a list or a more loosely associated set of notes, sometimes including scraps of sentences, because I can more easily visualize the whole piece—whatever it is—in a general sense, and may be able to see a few parts of it quite clearly while the rest is a bit blurry. In a sense, this is what I sometimes do with cooking, too. I create a mise en place. When everything is laid out for me, chopped and sorted into bowls and measuring cups, I can dive in. (Though I do this far less often than might be considered advisable. I’m too impatient to do the prep work, often to the detriment of my blood pressure when something is sizzling way too quickly and I need to add the next ingredient.)

It never really occurred to me before but cooking is a lot like writing: creating something out of nothing. Sometimes with mixed results. The difference with cooking is there’s usually (with me anyway) a clear set of instructions to follow and a predictable result. I always know where to start. In this case, I want to start by explaining exactly what this is about—what you’re in for, if you’ve made it this far.

This is another food blog (not that there was any shortage of them) and at the risk of contributing to an altogether saturated market, it’s quite simply just a platform for me to write about the one thing that occupies my mind more often than almost anything else: food. Cooking and baking, specifically, but food-related things in general may crop up from time to time. The thing is—and let me be perfectly clear on this—I am not a cook in the sense of someone who is testing and writing recipes. I’m a writer who loves to cook and eat. I think a lot about food, not just in the sense of a glutton who eats a lot (though I am and I do), but as a part of our lives and our culture, as a means of expression or a coping mechanism (the latter more often than not)—really, as an addiction. I’m addicted to food. I’m addicted to cooking. Like most addictions it’s expensive and time-consuming, and arguably, depending on the meal in question, unhealthy. But there are worse things. For the amount of time I spend reflecting on food and cooking and the relationship of food to all other aspects of my life, my history and my future, my relationship(s), my career (not food-related at all), I figured…I might as well do with it what I do with everything else: write about it. For whomever wishes to read it, here it is.

A word on my “name”: writedible is a layered construct, drawn from the two things with which I am chiefly concerned: writing and eating, or edibility. If you look at it one way, you might get “write-able”. If you pull it apart, you get the end of a phrase connected to Emily Dickinson in reference to her views on the Eucharist. “Writ” in its simplest sense denotes written matter; easy enough. “Edible” is obvious. This is a blog about eating and writing. There you have it.

So, welcome. I don’t promise to post every day. I don’t even promise to post every week. But I probably will. I’m here, cooking, drinking, and eating. And when it’s right, I’ll be writing about it, too.

P