The Brick on a Hill

We braved the storm with dark Mexican beer and fish tacos. We never lost power and the bathtub upstairs full of cold water remained untouched, the water completely still. Last night the house felt impermeable. My dad did too. He sure surprised us on the roof.

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The tree in front of our house – the tree that I once scrubbed with water and soap when I thought the bark needed a good washing – has all of its limbs. Leaves blow and the sun briefly came out at noon. The house is a brick on a hill. I’m thankful.

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Needless to say, I’ve been cooking a lot. I stocked up on food from the farmer’s market and Trader Joe’s on Saturday. So far I’ve made a tomato sauce from big juicy Jersey tomatoes, a red lentil soup with coconut milk, a classic tomato-basil soup and fish tacos. I also tried to watch two movies during all the simmering and shaking. Despite Inland Empire’s ridiculously sexy intro, the movie put me to bed. Lynch, forgive me. I experience very long phases of falling asleep during movies. I hope it lifts soon. I even missed some of GhostBusters last night. Shameful.

There were still eggplants at the farmer’s market as late as last week. I often run into my high school AP English teacher and friend, Victoria, there. We like to talk about dogs and food. For years I’ve only cooked eggplant in the tradition of my aunt’s parmigiana. Victoria piqued my interest by talking about her go-to Sicilian style eggplant dish.  I couldn’t help asking her to elaborate with a recipe.

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Her baked eggplant includes fresh breadcrumbs tossed with parsley, anchovies, lemon zest, garlic and capers. The smell is divine. I wouldn’t be surprised if eggplants are still available at the farmer’s market this weekend.

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Definitely make it while you can still get your hands on those beautiful, purple nightshades.

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Baked Sicilian Eggplant

Ingredients
  • Two 1-pound long, slender eggplants, sliced lengthwise 3/4 inch thick
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 4 cups crustless country bread in 1-inch pieces (4 ounces)
  • 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped capers
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese (about 1 cup)
  • 4 large tomatoes, thinly sliced (about 2 pounds)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 450°.

2. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt and let stand until beads of water appear on the surface, about 20 minutes. Pat the eggplant slices dry with a damp towel and transfer them to a lightly oiled, large rimmed baking sheet. Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and bake in the upper third of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until they are golden brown and tender.

3.Using a spatula, loosen the eggplant slices from the sheet. Reduce the oven temperature to 400°

4. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the bread with the anchovies, parsley, capers, garlic, lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add the 1/4 cup of olive oil and process until coarse crumbs form.

5. Sprinkle the feta on the eggplant and top with the sliced tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter the crumbs over the tomatoes and bake in the upper third of the oven for about 50 minutes, or until browned and crisp on top. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve. 

Brooklyn, what are you eating?

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In The Shaded Region

One of my mom’s favorite words was festive. “How festive!,” she’d cry after a particular kind of eccentricity inspired her to buy fifty mini Bundt pans. I’m not exaggerating. I still unlock drawers full of holiday lollipop molds. When I needed a large pot to brine my thanksgiving turkey last year, I found a copper caldron. My mom did not kid around (except when she laughed so hard her eyes closed and her chin seemed to knock her collar bones). She liked feasts, Fibonacci, M.C. Escher and Calvin Klein stockings. For 25 cents, I washed the sheer pairs in our bathroom sink. In one obituary, she’s described as a “professor [that] helped students overcome their fear of math.” She titled her dissertation at Columbia University, Alice’s Adventures in the Shaded Region: An Analysis of An Eclectic Approach to Evaluation. She could also be very nervous. Her cheeks would flush a deep red. They would also flush when she drank wine. She liked Merlot.

When she was living alone in Vermont, she wrote home to say that she looked “forward to returning to the hectic New York scene (including all the art openings, plays and masses of people).” I like how the city’s bluestone shines after a night’s rain. It feels like I’m walking on pocket mirrors. I also like mountains and feeling like I am in the palm of one. She wrote Lake Willoughby was peaceful.

I understand her. I think I always have. I just understand her on a deeper level now. Her integrity was like a bridge’s cable that drew from her toes to her brow. Barbara. I don’t know any others.

Next Friday will be ten years. I don’t know what I think about memory anymore. Can I conjure an image of an actual face or a photograph of that face? Where is the memory of live action? Of moving arms? Turning heads? I remember moments we had in cabs and how insular they felt. How special.

She wrote that:

Her sister’s call for assistance was heard not only by Alice but by many people enjoying a day in the park on this golden afternoon. They walked towards Alice and her sister.

“It appears,” said Alice’s sister, “that this park attracts a good many members of the evaluation community.”

“What do you mean by members of the evaluation community?” asked Alice.

“They are people who have thought critically about the field of program evaluation,” responded Alice’s sister. “Do you see them coming towards us?”

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Bringing the Lobster Home

I’ve lost Julia Child twice this year. I finally found her hiding behind the couch. I made sure to pack her with me to Maine. I haven’t found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom yet but that’s okay. I’ll get back to him. I never thought I’d have the habit of losing books in the house. It feels like an act of heresy or that I’m just a bad reader, one that is not fully committed or monogamous with a novel. I’m happy that I’ve lost My Life in France for some periods though. I return to it slowly now. It’s too wonderful to leave. Perhaps this is why I flung it behind the couch in a fit of dazed ecstasy. With questions like “I knew that drowning my sorrows in wine and bouillabaisse would only make things worse. What to do?” how could I not be charmed?

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Paella is a summer tradition for my family. My mom would always host an elaborate birthday party for my dad in August. We set up a long white picnic table and eat outside, overlooking the bay. This year the tide was out so my nephew and a few boys walked across the mudflats to collect crabs and shells. For the thirty years we’ve done this, it’s never rained on the day. Tradition is a powerful thing.

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I’m not sure where my mother got this paella recipe. The cards are over 20 years old. Although it’s not listed in the ingredients above, I add 1/2 a pound of scallops with the shrimp and 4 lobsters, boiled in bay water or beer and then picked over to put in the paella during the final moments. This year I saved some of the lobster heads, cleaned them up and propped them in the paella pan.

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Me, who could pluck, flame, empty, and cut up a whole chicken in twelve minutes flat!…Me, the Supreme Mistress of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, choucroutes, blanquettes de veau….me, alas! 

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Me who brings the lobster home.

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Happiness is There

It’s pretty incredible that this is the first year that there are more women than men competing in the Olympics. Every country has female representation. Frank Bruni had a wonderful Op-Ed about women in this moment. In it, he highlighted some great athletes like Dara Torres, a 45 year old mother, that just missed qualifying for the swim team by .09 seconds. Yesterday Gabby Douglas became the first black all-around gold medalist. The body is capable of such greatness. Everyday greatness too.

Usually I’m in Maine when the Olympics are on. I’d turn on a small ten inch black and white screen and pull the rolling stand close to the couch. At night, the moon lit the water and the waves sparkled like shards of glass. Sometimes the moon was so bright that I could see the grass was a dark green. The only light in the cabin came from my flickering screen. Sometimes I had to bang it clear. Four years seemed like a very long time to wait to see the games again. Now they come much more quickly.

When my mind is cluttered, I return to my body to reset. Cooking offers this same kind of renewal and cleansing. I lose myself in the motion, the chopping and the glass of wine I hide behind the pasta canister. Happiness is there.

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That We May Eat it and Die

I love old gospel music. Two years ago, it rained on Good Friday and Leonard Lopate played the most amazing gospel music all morning (he does this annually). I recently downloaded that playlist (full of James Cleveland, Marion Williams & The Pilgrim Travelers) after attending an inspiring Sunday church service in Washington, DC this weekend.I haven’t been in church since I asked my secular parents to take me to get baptized and make my communion at ten. I thought it was very cool that I would be washed of all sin. After all, I had been up all summer night wrapped in guilt that I gave Steven Hernandez a bold middle finger on the last day of school. LORD, forgive this girl! I was tired of listening to my soldier’s cot squeak with each new toss and turn.

I really did enjoy this weekend’s service though. One passage the priest read particularly struck me: “I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (Kings, 17:12). Now mind you, I’m not a religious person. I like to think the good we do in the world we can take our own human credit for. We all have the power to be divine. We may eat, and then die.

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I knew today called for eggplant parmigiana. The weather is cool enough for it. My aunt is famous for this dish. When I was little, I sat in the kitchen with her and watched as she coated the eggplant first with salt and then with egg. As always it’s important to have really fresh ingredients: fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce. The sauce I made this morning has some kick to it. I let it simmer for 2-3 hours.

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Zeke’s Favorite Tomato Sauce 

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 4 sun dried tomatos, diced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 2 28oz canned organic whole tomatoes
  • 2 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • salt, black pepper
  • 1 wooden spoon tomato paste
  • 6-8 fresh, torn basil leaves
Directions
  1. Heat olive oil In a large dutch oven or pot. Add sliced garlic and cook until golden, constantly stirring. Add the diced shallots. When the shallots and garlic are soft, add red pepper flakes, oregano and anchovies, constantly stirring.
  2. Once aromatic (almost immediately but wait 2-3 minutes), add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil leaves and sugar, constantly stirring.
  3. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Adjust salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

The sauce is your foundation. If you don’t have time to make both the sauce and eggplant in one night (it’s a 3 hour production), make the sauce a few days ahead. This recipe is well worth the time!

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Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups plain bread crumbs
  • 10-12 fresh, torn basil leaves
  • homemade tomato sauce
  • Fresh mozzarella

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Directions

  1. Thinly slice the eggplant in round discs. (I used a mandoline this time). Salt each piece and place them on paper towels to soften and sweat. Rinse and dry them off after 10-15 minutes.
  2. Beat the eggs and coat each piece of eggplant. Bread them with plain bread crumbs and set aside. Once they’re all breaded, cover them and place in refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.
  3. In a large pan, over a medium-high heat, heat 3 tablespoons of oil. Pan fry the eggplant so each side is lightly browned. Do not burn! Make sure that you add enough oil to keep the eggplant from sticking and losing its breading.
  4. Once all of the eggplant is fried, set aside. Preheat oven to 375.
  5. In a large casserole pan, cover the bottom with an inch of tomato sauce. Place one layer of eggplant in. Layer each eggplant with a slice of fresh mozzarella, basil leaf and dollop of tomato sauce. Add another layer of eggplant and repeat until all of the eggplant is gone. Grate the final layer of eggplant with fresh parmigiana-reggiano cheese.
  6. Place in oven and bake for 45-50 minutes.
  7. Serve over pasta tossed with olive oil, fresh basil and remaining tomato sauce.

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There’s only a little oil in my cruse.

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A Thousand Steps

Ruins are inherently fascinating. During the weekend we hike along the Hudson in Cold Springs and stumble upon crumbling mansions that are tucked deep inside the woods. It’s an harrowing image to think of – entire families leaving and moving on, their farming machinery left to rot in the back of the house. What do we take with us? What really matters? Abandoned wells fill with frogs. Ruins invite fiction and echoes.

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When I see ruins, I can’t help but think of the foreclosure market and how many families are forced to abandon their homes. Do you leave the dishes in the sink? The morning coffee mugs in the cabinet? It’s frightening.

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There are a thousand steps and every step is different from the next. Zeke shows me how an animal would negotiate hard terrain. Sometimes he jumps three feet down, completely trusting the fall.

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If Food is Memory

I’ve missed writing here. Where did May go? Mother’s day already came and left. I used to resent my dad’s insistence that I call other family members on mother’s day. This year it was nice to do though. I even called some new mothers bonafide mama bears. When I was a teenager, I spent most of the day with my friend’s mothers. Sometimes I slept over on school nights. They let me sit on their stoops until late into the night. I felt like a cub they would paw and lick over, making sure the blood was gone and I was prepared for the wild again. I’m forever grateful to them.

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My mom loved to cook and take photographs of the things she made. She’d bring popovers down to the bay and take photographs of them in high grass. Her recipe cards were like small still lifes.

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I know that she instilled that value of presentation in the way I prepare and serve food now. A food’s presentation should never be so perfect that you can’t approach it with a sense of comfort and familiarity though. I don’t want cold china. I want meals to ease recollection. If food is memory than presentation is the silhouette of experience.

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