Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fog Always Lifts

I was sitting in Mr. Nara’s 11th grade English class the first time I felt excruciating pain.  We were reading Siddhartha, delving into his journey towards enlightenment via gritty human experience.  I loved that book, and Mr. Nara’s class was one of the few I truly enjoyed, yet the severity of pain was such that it felt like someone was ramming a rod into my spine.  Repeatedly.  So I left class and awkwardly made my way to the family chiropractor.  He did a little intake, walked me to an open room, and had me stand and wait while he pushed a button that would take an x-ray of my back.  I stood, and I waited, and before the deed was done all went black and I flat out fainted. 

Going back several years, my childhood was marked by the earnest use of sick-fakery techniques.  My trickery was so full proof it landed me back in third grade for a second go.  I guess I’d missed a bit too much school.  Oops.  As an emerging adult, my early delinquency manifested in a total distrust of my own signals for pain and sickness.  I not only distrusted my own signals, I was positive, paranoid even, that people didn’t believe me when I said I was unwell.  The fainting incident, while unnerving, was the one and only time to date, that I (and in my mind, everyone else) had unequivocal proof that something was really wrong. 

Pain has been my constant companion since that dramatic day.  I’ve seen doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, and specialists, all leading to the elusive diagnosis ten years later, that I have fibromyalgia.  It is my own poetic irony that having had such a seedy beginning with being “sick” I would later be told I had a health condition that is basically immeasurable, and is brimming in medical controversy.  A diagnosis is based solely upon a patient’s own report of pain; and many people, laymen and professionals alike, scoff at such mansy-pansy doctoring.  If it can’t be empirically measured with tests, then it simply ain’t real.

A decade has passed since that diagnosis, and up until two months ago, I’ve managed it pretty well.  That’s what I was told; that there isn’t a cure, there is only “management.”  Yoga, swimming, walking, a healthy diet, minimum stress, avoidance of extremes, and most importantly, sleep; these were the keys to living a life with fibro.

Last year was a personal best.  Life, of course, wasn’t perfect, but I was content.  I was in the best shape of my life, doing yoga four times a week, eating well, and simply loving life.  Then I got cocky while doing a reverse prayer pose, an injury occurred, and pain began to restrict the use of my right arm.  I stubbornly continued doing yoga for a few more months, until it became clear that if I didn’t slow down and let my arm heal, I’d be sorry.  Yet, four months after my deceleration, and my symptoms have been snowballing far beyond the simple arm injury, putting my ability to manage things to the test.  In two months I’ve missed more work than all of last year combined.  Pain, sleeplessness, cognitive dysfunction (a.k.a. brain fog), listlessness, and unexplainable exhaustion have stuck to me like glue.  It feels like no matter what I do, I just can’t shake ‘em; and of course, no doctor can measure any of the above, making it difficult to get help. 

A few weeks ago I was hit with the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt.  Over the course of two weeks the pain camped out in various areas of my body, and whether I was sitting, standing, walking, or laying down it did not seem obliged to move on.  In fact, the knots seemed to multiply like those evil Gremlins, digging in and grabbing hold, trying to shake me into submission.  From the top of my neck, down my arms, up my shoulders, along my spine, and into the wings of my back, pain had the upper hand.  The physical therapist I’d been sent to simply didn’t get it, and everything he did exacerbated the pain. Exponentially.  I began to feel much like this.

Thank God for Alison, my oldest friend, also a physical therapist.  She worked on me one night, performing some craneo-something or other, along with some gentle massage, and I woke up the next morning feeling like Lazarus brought back to life.  I was not cured, but the web of pain that had been criss-crossing all over my backside was partially released.  A miracle, that was.

I’m not gonna lie, feeling that kind of pain for two weeks straight was almost unendurable.  But honestly, what I’ve hated most these past months is the lack of motivation that’s been pervading my body.  Normally, I have energy in abundance, I am brimming with ideas, and I seize every moment in my pursuit of abundant living.  But I can barely handle work right now, let alone the maintenance of my daily life.  Goals?  Dreams?  They’re around here somewhere, but far, far off the radar at the moment. 

And now I find myself at the crossroads of this essay, the moment of truth, the crux of this wordy revelation.  The reason I write, nine times out of ten, is to get something out of my body, and make peace with it.  I wax poetic on my predicament for a bit, as I slowly come to terms with the wisdom that I already possess, but have chosen to ignore.  Here’s what I can glean in this moment:

  1. I know the most difficult experiences have the greatest power to transform me into the fullness of myself.  
  1. I know the nature of that transformation is such that the process of getting there must be uncomfortable.  Period.
  1. Looking back at every crappy experience I’ve had, I can say without a doubt that I am grateful for the gifts each one brought…even though it sucked. 
  1. My body is telling me to take a chill pill and relax.  I should listen. 
  1. I have endless reserves of resourcefulness, strength and hope, even if many days I feel weak and discouraged.
  1. I have not yet given this everything I’ve got.  There is hope in that. 
  1. Warm Milk with Honey and Vanilla is a valuable resource for times such as these.  Drink when sleep does not come easily.

Adapted from Winnie-the-Pooh’s Teatime Cookbook

1 cup milk
1/2 spoonful honey
1 drizzle vanilla

Combine milk, honey, and vanilla in a small saucepan and heat over medium until milk is steamy and warmed through.  Do not boil.  Drink in a warm bed with a good book.    

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tiptoe Into Fall

Every October I find myself in the same seasonal predicament: Cling to summer?  Or tiptoe into fall?  Our temperamental So-Cal weather loves to tease that fall is here then plunge right back into 90° weather, making my predicament even more confusing.  I mean, I love summer!  Who doesn’t?  Warm evenings spent outdoors with loved ones, sun-ripened fruits, and garden fresh veggies; summer is a time of activity and great adventures, a season to live fully, from sun-up to sundown. 

Summer is abundant in qualities that make you feel alive, but if backed into a corner and forced to choose, I’d pick autumn every time.  I anxiously await the first opportunity to build a fire in my mom’s kitchen hearth, to sit chatting while looking out the window at the fog-hugged landscape.  During fall I naturally go inward and get cozy with myself, reminiscing the prior season’s wild adventures, envisioning the year to come.  

Perhaps my love of fall has something to do with being an October baby.  Of course being the Jen that I am, it may simply be the way the food and the weather play together so nicely this time of year.  There’s just something about a rich braised stew when the night is cold and windy, and nothing beats a rainy afternoon spent with a hot bowl of soup and crusty warm bread.

I love the way fall makes idle solitude feel productive, and time spent with community feel transcendent.  And, truly…nothing brings idle and community together like a cozy breakfast on a beautiful fall morning.  Imagine your house is warm, filled with people you love to hang out with for no reason in particular.  The aromas of toasty bread, cheese, eggs, and herbs waft through the house, and mingle with the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter.  Meanwhile the morning is cool and crisp, and the light is clear as crystal. Imagine you look up and realize you’ve been sitting around the table for hours, eating, talking, and refilling coffee, and nothing on your to-do-list has been crossed off.  And yet, you know, this was not time wasted.  This morning was an investment in a life well lived. 


1 1-pound loaf french, or rustic bread, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
¼ pound prosciutto torn into 2 inch pieces
9 large eggs
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup chopped fresh marjoram

Several hours before assembling, place bread on 2 large baking sheets and let sit uncovered to dry out.  Cook asparagus in medium pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender; about 3 minutes.  Drain and rinse under cold running water to stop cooking. Drain well and pat dry.

Whisk eggs, milk, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl. Place half of bread in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Sprinkle with half the asparagus, half the prosciutto, then half of cheese mixture. Pour half of egg mixture over the first layer. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, prosciutto, cheese mixture, and egg mixture. Let stand 20 minutes, pressing with spatula to submerge bread pieces.  If assembling the night before serving, cover and refrigerate overnight.  Bring to room temperature before baking.  Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake bread pudding until brown and puffed, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes and serve.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peachy Keen

Ah, I had such plans for my five weeks off this summer!  I would cook! I would write!  Instead, I got sucked into some sort of hazy summer wormhole.  It grabbed hold as soon as I could relax and spit me out about three weeks later, dizzy and confused, feeling like I’d been abducted by aliens and had my memory wiped clean.  I re-emerged just in time to plan a solo road trip in which I spent a week eating and drinking my way up and around California.  A few more days of relaxing at home and it was back to work to begin the cycle of a new school year. 
I went into my time off with a list of recipes I wanted to share, and things I wanted to write about in here.  But things don’t always work out the way you plan.  Well, things rarely do, it seems.  And I’m learning to roll with what is, rather than clinging to what I want things to be.  So, I didn’t write.  And yet, there are things that must be shared before it’s too late.  Like this peach salad, for example.  I’ve labored over the clever angles I could take in sharing this with you.  But nothing’s coming, summer’s winding down, and the peaches will be gone before we know it.  So, I'll share it anyway, clever angle, or no. 

It was a gypsy musician I dated four summers ago who introduced me to this simple dish. When I met him in August '06, I was reeling from an awfully significant breakup, and had all the complicated issues to go with it.  As often happens when we rebound quickly, he became the catalyst of mind-blowing growth in my life, and as a result, I was able to give myself a good honest look in the proverbial mirror.  I would not be the stellar person I am today if it weren't for that time, so I am deeply grateful to him for that.  (He did have to put up with a little bit of crazy along the way.)  But seriously, I’m not sure which deserves more thanks: the personal growth he influenced, or the stunning peach salad he shared with me. 

I was actually skeptical when he suggested making it.  I wasn’t a big fan of peaches growing up.  The ones I’d had were shallow in flavor, minimally sweet, and then there was that fuzz…way too much fuzz.  But I can honestly say, this salad has changed my life, and clearly for the better.  I now wait anxiously for the first show of peaches at the farmer’s market, and on a good year, I can enjoy them from March to October.  One vendor in particular has the most amazing varieties, some soft, others crunchy, but all profoundly deep in flavor with just the right amount of sweet.  And I don’t know if peaches aren’t as fuzzy as they once were, but I have yet to run across any whose fuzz gets in the way of this salad.  

This is my favorite dish to throw together on the fly for friends on lingering summer afternoons, or late at night after a few drinks out.  It takes all of five minutes to assemble, and that includes walking out to the garden to pick the basil. It’s so painlessly simple, yet it’s as satisfying as the most complex of dishes.  People love to have their minds blown by unexpected food combinations, and this little salad really does the trick.  People’s brows furrow when they see it, and their eyes light up, as they process the obviously perfect combination of these ingredients they’d never thought to unite.

So, in conclusion, here's my advice.  Get yourself to the next farmer’s market, find the best peaches you can, and make this salad.  Eat it straight from the bowl.  Or make it pretty on a platter and share it with friends.  Or eat it straight from the bowl with friends.  Enjoy it with a glass of a crisp white wine, a flute of something sparkling, or some ice cold water with lime.  Really, you don’t need to fuss, because it’ll blow your mind, just because it’s so easy, and so pretty, and so darn good. 


Don’t skimp on the ingredients in this dish.  It’s so simple that every part plays a starring role, making or breaking the overall experience.

3-4 peaches
8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese 
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
Good olive oil (I use Columela)
Coarse sea salt (such as Maldon)
Freshly ground pepper

Cut the peaches and mozzarella however you’d like.  Sometimes I chop everything into large chunks and toss them in a bowl, other times I slice them pretty and lay them on a platter.  Whatever you decide, first, toss the peaches and the cheese with the hand-torn basil, and a glug or two of olive oil.  Add salt and pepper to taste. 

Couldn't be simpler.  

Monday, May 31, 2010

Some foods are like that.

There are dishes I make for the fun of the try, and never make again, and there are others that are crucial to the consistent and rhythmic spinning of my world. One such recipe is so ingrained into my life, that each episode of preparation takes me on a pilgrimage through several chapters of my past. Every single time I make it, memories fly through my mind like a windstorm, a gale leaving me unsteady from the force, the fragrance of loss, and community and laughter lingering in its wake.

You wouldn’t expect such personal drama to be evoked from a simple Caesar Salad, but this one is different. It’s my secret weapon, my Trojan horse. This salad catches people off guard, when they’re expecting something dull and ordinary, but instead are satisfied in an almost primal way. It leaves you feeling nourished, nurtured and completely satisfied, a simple meal that has somehow woven together the years, and the disparate pieces of my life.

This Caesar Salad has been a trusted companion through at least three of my recent past lives. When I was a family of four, it was a weekly tradition, eaten by candlelight, shared with two growing girls and a good-hearted man. The little one’s first triumph of reading came during one of those meals, a ritual-prayer the object of her determined syllabic odyssey.

It’s been present at countless community gatherings: family dinners, meals with girlfriends, holiday potlucks, and the like. Flashes from various events add to the soliloquy of images that come up each time I make this meal. I see a composite of myself over the past nine years, Caesar and red wine abounding, stories, jokes and dreams swapped with those who have co-starred in the story of my life. Some foods are like that. They hold a power over us, like Christmas rituals we refuse to let go, or birthday traditions that glue the years together.

What gets me every time I make it is thinking about how this salad has evolved over the years. It is not the same recipe I first attempted, and its evolution is a direct manifestation of those who’ve enjoyed it with me. The routine actions of seasoning croutons, buying dijon, and blending these basic ingredients, transport me to places in my memory where the ghosts of friends, current and former reside. Their influence is clearly visible as I ponder the unconventional additions I might toss into my final salad. As I sit down to eat, I send thanks to the universe for those who swept through my recollection while I prepared my meal. Each has been a significant part of my life at one point or another; each has left a culinary legacy that will linger, for as long as we make this salad.

Jen's Caesar Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit July, 2001

I love this salad and always have the ingredients on hand in my refrigerator. The dressing keeps well for a good month, so make a big batch and enjoy it at the end of a rough day, or throw it together for an impromptu meal with friends. It's delicious with sliced apples or grilled chicken added. Or, for an easy elegant meal, marinate a steak in olive oil, rosemary and garlic, salt and pepper the heck out of it, grill it and lay it thinly sliced atop the salad. Serve with a tasty bottle of red.

*Note to the anchovy averse: I was an anchovy avoider when I first made this recipe, yet I knew that the caesar dressings I'd enjoyed had anchovy in them, even though I couldn't taste it. I have experimented over the years, beginning with no anchovy, and increasing to almost following the recipe (16 filets!). The amount in this is minimal, but necessary. Trust me at least one time, open your mind, and take a risk; make it with the anchovies. I promise, you won't be sorry.

For dressing:
1 cup finely grated aged Parmesan cheese
3-5 anchovy fillets (depending on size and preference)
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups olive oil

For croutons:
Olive oil
1 garlic clove
Cayenne pepper
4 slices day old bread (I use my favorite multigrain)
Salt and fresh pepper

For salad:
Washed and coarsely torn romaine lettuce leaves
Large handful of arugula
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine Parmesan, anchovies, lemon juice, garlic cloves, and mustard in processor; blend well, until it is a smooth paste. This may take a while, and the sound of the blender may drive you nuts, but keep at it until it is creamy and luscious looking. With processor running, slowly add olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut tip off garlic and peel. Rub garlic over al sides of the bread. Brush bread with olive oil and cut into bite sized cubes. Spread out bread cubes on rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bake just until croutons are golden, tossing them about occasionally, 15-20 minutes.

Place romaine and arugula in a large bowl, along with any other ingredients you feel like adding. Add dressing a little at a time, and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese. Toss to coat. Add croutons and toss well.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Smoke Signals

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~ Mary Oliver

My current work year began amidst fire and smoke and ash. For weeks, the mountains above our school were consumed with flames, the air heavy with smoke, a cloak of ash weighing on everything for miles around. In what seemed like a direct parallel to the state of emergency that surrounded me, I entered the year feeling restless and at odds with my life. A fiery passion I could neither identify nor satisfy was simply brimming over, and it was clear that something new was at work within me.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that in an effort to cope with my inner commotion I turned to cooking. My own little food revolution commenced, and I began to cook on a level I‘d never attempted before, planning meals in courses, pairing wines, and trying dishes I’d known of, but never prepared myself. What I once would have dubbed “having a few friends for dinner” turned into full-fledged dinner parties, surprising even me with their quality of experiential transcendence. Of course, the more these events took place, the more restless I became at work, and I began to obsess about moving in a completely new direction with my life.

Over several months I considered every food related path I could think of, giving each its moment in the sun and careful consideration. The ideas ranged from teaching cooking and gardening in high school, to working on a farm, interning in a restaurant kitchen, or even starting my own little café. The ideas came and went, and while each was intriguing in one way or another, not a single one felt right. Tucking my frustration in my back pocket, I let my passion be my guide, and kept cooking and entertaining, trusting the answer would reveal itself in time.

Then, as the first decade of the century came to a close, I began to write. I don’t think I had a choice in that. Ideas would fester like smoldering wood, haunting me with their ghostly presence until I gave them form. Once expressed, the urgency would leave, and I’d feel grounded and calm and released. I was not three weeks into my new writing adventure when the answer came to me clear as day. Early one morning I awoke from a dream and sprung out of bed like sparks from a fire. In an instant, the questions dissipated and I felt absolute clarity about what I want to do with my life…what I’ve always wanted to do.

I was eighteen the first time I stayed at a Bed & Breakfast. My friend Elona and I were on a road trip around California and for some reason we were obsessed with staying at B&B’s. I’m not even sure when I first learned of their existence, as they made no appearance in my childhood that I recall. My first experience was at an understated little place, an extra room that a sweet old lady offered by the night for a decent price. From then on I was captivated, and every vacation I took was an opportunity to experience yet another independent Inn. I began to read about establishments all over the world, fascinated by the experiences Innkeepers would create for their guests. In the quiet corners of my thoughts I’d spend unguarded moments dreaming of creating my own Bed & Breakfast someday. But I’d catch the thoughts before they went too far, reminding myself that only retired people with money can do such things, filing the idea away in my mind under the dreary designation IMPOSSIBLE.

It’s amazing to me how adeptly we can hide things from ourselves. Over the past eleven years, while I diligently worked on earning my teaching credential in Spanish, then my master’s in counseling, I also worked on perfecting the craft of hospitality. I have been honing my skills as a cook, and creating the garden of flowers, and edibles that surrounds the little pink house I rent. I’ve been playing with interior decorating, experimenting with color and space to create a home that would give my guests a sense of peace and release when they walked through the door. More importantly, I’ve been attempting to perfect the talent of hosting, learning what puts people at ease, and makes them feel cared for, relaxed and refreshed.

All this homemaking meant putting money into a house I did not own, which would nag at me considerably as I began each new project. But every time I tried to talk myself out of the latest scheme, I’d tell myself, “It’s ok, I’m practicing. None of this is wasted. This time and money is an investment in something bigger.” Over and over I repeated it to myself like a mantra…I just hadn’t let myself in on the secret of what I was practicing for, and honestly, I never thought to ask.

Since the dramatic opening of school last Fall, the landscape of my inner life has been undergoing a controlled burn of sorts. The extraneous and unnecessary has been cleared away, making room for the growth of something that’s been lying dormant for years. Like the seeds of the sequoia whose germination is dependent upon heat and flames to breakdown its outer shell, I seem to have needed a year of chaos and confusion to open my awareness to what was right in front of me all along.

Among the Australian aboriginal people,
there are big dreams and little dreams.
A big dream must not be ignored.
It may be big enough to clarify and enlarge your purpose here,
big enough for you to find the story of your life inside it.
~ Robert Moss

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reconnaissance Tour

Have you ever had one of those weekends away in which everything seems to click perfectly into place? It’s as if the stars align and the universe conspires, filling every moment with an unusual amount of very good karma. Weekends such as these are what personal legends are made of, providing stories that will be remembered and retold for years to come. I’ve been blessed with several such holidays over the past few years, some resulting in stories that sound like the far-fetched imaginings of a chick-lit author; so good, the most gullible would be skeptical. This past weekend was another one for the books, but I have no qualms in saying, it was better than any other. It was perfect; but not in the way you might expect. It wasn’t idyllic, although many moments were. It was momentous, and it was personal, and it was real. It had all the characteristics I value most in my life, and I really mean ALL.

The plan was for my roommate Ang and I to head up north Thursday night via the 101, to stay with a dear friend in Ventura and continue up the coast the next morning. On Friday afternoon, we were to meet my sister Kathy, her husband Rob and their friends Cleve and Gloria, in Paso Robles. But the three weeks prior to our little getaway had kicked our asses, both of us sick without respite, both of us utterly exhausted from our emotionally draining jobs inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. So from the get-go we had to adjust, and we were a phone call away from backing out of the trip altogether. Instead, we canceled our first rendezvous in Ventura, leaving a morning later than planned. That choice was dripping in disappointment for me, as I’d been longing to see my friend, but I knew in my gut that if I ignored what my body was telling me, the weekend would be over before it began. After a good night’s sleep, we were raring to go, ready for the jaunt up Interstate 5.

Road trips are my favorite way to travel, as I love to connect home to destination. I’m mesmerized by the patterns of changing terrain, and am grounded by observing the realities that exist outside my protective little world. The trip between LA and Paso Robles offered it all: breathtaking beauty, and depressing reality. Whether the LA Aqueduct, giant beef lots, agri-business farms, or oil fields that look like something out of Mad Max, each reminded me of the daunting issues of our time. But at the same time, there was blue sky and there were hills covered in wildflowers; there were snow-capped mountains, and orchards in full bloom. At every stop there were kind people, and along the way I was with Angelina. Ang and I travel well together, and our car trips are always epic, with just the right balance of fun and depth. We talk and laugh hard, we listen to great music, read aloud, or quietly watch the road. And of course, we snack. For this trip I packed homemade rosemary cashews, farmer’s market tangerines, and a chard and goat cheese tart that just might make you swoon. It's that good.

As we neared our destination, the conversation changed, and I began to get butterflies in my belly. Paso Robles, and its environs, has been calling me for a while now. Oh, I’ve been there countless times…in fact, it’s a place I’ve spent key moments of my life, with the significant people of my past. It has always drawn me close, and felt greater than the sum of its parts, and in my gut I’ve suspected it would someday offer more than a simple weekend away. But I’m getting ahead of my story, because the reasons I feel called to Paso is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say, that lingering in the background of this trip was much hope and expectation, and I was looking for signs in and around the events of the weekend.

Our little travel group was eclectic, and hilarious. We range in age from late twenties to somewhere around fifty, and our political and philosophical beliefs are probably as expansive. With some, such differences can get in the way of connection, but with this group it simply felt like it enhanced the dynamics. Belly laughter was abundant, as was engaging, thoughtful conversation. We drank more good wine than I thought was humanly possible; we ate heavenly food at surprisingly great restaurants, met the loveliest people, and soaked up the general good energy that Paso has to offer.

After seven hours straight of luxurious wine tasting on Saturday, I thought I might puke if I looked at another glass of red. With dinner reservations set for 7:30, Ang and I thought a nap was in order, and I prayed a second wind would greet us on the other end. Not surprisingly, we passed out hard, and didn’t stir until a knock on the door signaled it was time to leave. It is not an understatement to say I felt disgusting at this point, but there was no time for showers and primping, or careful outfit planning. We threw something on and ran out the door. The restaurant was lovely, and although the thought of wine and rich pastas made me queasy, I was a trooper and survived yet another delicious meal. After dinner we debated about whether to check out one of the bars our limo driver had recommended. Honestly, I think I can speak for Angelina and say we were both longing to climb back into bed and pass out cold. But we always say we need to go out when an opportunity presents itself…I throw so many bloody dinner parties, we never meet anyone outside our established circle of friends, which is apparently not a good dating strategy. So feeling anything but Saturday-night-sexy, we dragged our hung-over selves to Level 4, we sat at the bar and ordered a vodka gimlet.

I was sure this wouldn’t last more than an hour. We sat there talking about our day, laughing over the adventures we’d had, while observing the locals doing their Saturday night thing. The gimlet went down pretty easily considering, but I was about ready to crawl back to the hotel when Ang’s voice got strangely serious and she told me not to turn around; for a certain handsome gentleman was standing right behind me. He and I had chatted earlier in the day at a winery, and frankly, I’d been a bit smitten. The second wind I’d been waiting for suddenly arrived, and at the same moment a drastic change in music occurred. The first notes of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean came on, Ang and I exchanged a glance, and nearly sprung to the empty dance floor. For thirty minutes or more we danced our hearts out to a steady stream of 80’s tunes, and at the same time I kept my eye on the lovely man across the room. It wasn’t until I was resting on a couch, that he came and sat beside me. We flirted and talked, and before I knew it we were on the dance floor busting a serious move: tall, dark and handsome...and he dances. Ten points - sexy stranger.

After the first bar the gentleman took us on a tour of Paso night life that included a cowboy bar with live music, more dancing, two satisfying games of billiards, a Scottish bar, several pints of beer, and a bar that was closed, but supplied us with shots of tequila anyway. I should’ve been falling down drunk, yet somehow I was fine. The three of us crossed the street to our hotel, dropped off Angelina, and he and I took a walk to procure a nice bottle of Justin Cabernet. It was a beautiful night and the sky was ablaze with stars. While walking through a park we were simultaneously inspired to jump on the swings and pump our way to great heights. There was a magic to the night, which had now turned to morning, and we meandered our way through several more hours of great conversation and mindful intimacy. It wasn’t until 8:30 Sunday morning that the man with smiling eyes and kind hands parted my company, leaving me to begin the day content, but exhausted.

Our final day was a delirious whirlwind of activity. We all hit one more winery, shared a lovely lunch and managed to stay awake for the ride back home. Our last experience wine tasting was something special, and it brought me right back to my core, and the reason I’d taken this trip in the first place. This was a reconnaissance tour, and I was looking to the universe for direction. I can’t say the weekend brought a moment of epiphany, or that the answers I was seeking were handed to me on a silver platter. Clarity rarely shows up in the form of a step-by-step To-Do List, or a treasure map leading to the destination of our dreams. But shining light onto one new insight can lead to a hundred more, and one step taken with confidence can fashion a whole new path.

There was a special energy propelling us through our weekend in Paso Robles, to be sure. Yet, what strikes me most is the way events seemed to reflect a poetic integration of so many disparate parts of myself. Integrity is my highest ideal, something I strive for in every moment, and so the hint of it here seems a positive sign. I don’t know exactly what is waiting around the next bend, but I don’t think I need to; I feel confident I’m headed in the right direction, and one step at a time, I’ll get there. But, as one Paso local wisely stated, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta grab your balls and jump.” Next task: discern which cliff is mine for the taking, and leap for my life.

From Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin

1 frozen sheet all-butter puff pastry (8x12 inches)
2 egg yolks
1 large bunch Swiss chard, cleaned, center ribs removed
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup sliced shallots
1 tsp. thyme leaves
½ cup whole milk ricotta, drained if wet
¼ cup crème fraiche
6 oz. semi-aged goat cheese (I used a mixture of Bucheron and Chevre)
Currant-pine nut relish (recipe below)
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make the Currant-Pine Nut Relish (recipe below), set aside, and then turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

Defrost the puff pastry slightly and unroll it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a paring knife to score a ¼ inch border around the edge of the pastry. Make an egg wash by whisking one egg yolk with ½ teaspoon water, and brush the egg wash along the border. (You won’t need all the egg wash.) Chill the puff pastry in the freezer until ready to use.

Tear the chard into large pieces. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the shallots, and the thyme. Saute a few minutes, and add half the Swiss chard. Cook a minute or two, tossing the greens in the oil to help them wilt. Add the second half of the greens, and season with a heaping teaspoon of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.

Spread the greens on a baking sheet to cool. (Or refrigerate to cool more quickly.) When they’ve cooled squeeze the excess water out with your hands.

Place the ricotta, remaining egg yolk, and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. (Vigorously whisking is probably fine.) Puree until smooth, and remove to a mixing bowl. Gently fold in the crème fraiche, and season with a healthy pinch of salt and pepper.

Spread the ricotta mixture on the puff pastry within the scored border. Crumble half the goat cheese over the ricotta, arrange the chard on top, and sprinkle the remaining goat cheese over the tart. If you aren’t ready to bake, cover the tart with plastic and chill.

Bake the tart for 20-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the cheese is bubbling and the crust is golden brown. Check underneath the tart to make sure the crust is really cooked through (if you under-bake the tart, it will be soggy).

Cool a few minutes, and then transfer the tart to a cutting board. Spoon some of the currant-pine nut relish over the tart and serve it on the cutting board at the table. Pass the remaining relish in a small bowl for anyone who would like a little more.


½ cup pine nuts
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ sprig rosemary
1 chile de arbol
¾ cup finely diced red onion
1/3 cup dried currants
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toast the pine nuts for about 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they’re golden brown and smell nutty.

Heat a small sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium, and add the olive oil, rosemary, and chile. When the rosemary and chile start to sizzle, add the onion and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low, and let the onions stew gently for about 10 minutes, until tender. Transfer to a small bowl to cool and discard the rosemary sprig and chile.

While the onion is cooking, place the currants in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Let the currants soak for 10 minutes, and then drain well.

Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan the onions were in, and reduce it over medium-high heat to a scant 1 tablespoon. Stir the reduced vinegar into the onion mixture. Add the toasted pine nuts, currants, and parsley to the onion mixture, and stir to combine. Taste for balance and seasoning.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Back to Basics

My relationship with food got off to a rather shaky start. I’m positive that no one who knew me early on would have guessed I’d evolve into the vigorous, adventurous eater I am today. As a child, I ate almost nothing outside of macaroni & cheese, potatoes, pizza and ketchup. I wouldn’t eat food that was green, mushy, textured, chewy, bitter, tangy or brown. I was wary of meat, all things gooey, and battled my mom over eating things I Did. Not. Want. I was once at the table for hours after everyone had finished, a mouthful of sauerkraut firmly lodged into my cheeks, a tepid glass of milk haunting me as I stubbornly refused to swallow.

I clung to processed foods for comfort, and McDonald’s was my favorite. On the rare occasions that my family patronized the golden arch, I’d order a cheeseburger, only to scrape everything off. Including the cheese. Or so the family story goes. More commonly my family would go to In-N-Out*, especially on Friday nights when it was my dad’s night to do dinner. I didn’t like it, and I’d literally beg we pass by McDonald’s on the way home to grab some french fries, for me. Because apparently, I didn’t like the kind of fries made to order from fresh potatoes…I liked the processed, flavored-with-beef, deep-fried, frozen-then-refried kind.

I remember clearly the moments when Real Food caught my fancy, but believe me; I was reluctant to let go of my finicky reputation. So I tucked those experiences away, and on the sly started trying new things. I began to get swept away, feeling near ecstasy when a food experience would catch me by surprise. I remember the first time I tried a homegrown green bean from my sister’s garden. I was amazed it was the same vegetable my mom** often served from an aluminum can. It was crunchy, flavorful, and appetizingly green, as opposed to that muddy-grayish-green I thought was customary. A friend’s mom made us whole-wheat banana pancakes with real maple syrup, and I was astonished. I’d never even HEARD of real maple syrup. It came from trees? I thought it came from an Aunt Jemimah bottle, and was made up of fifteen ingredients or more!? I also clearly remember going with my brother to a local-legend called Tommy T’s. We went for the prime rib tacos, only available once per week. Oh my. What a tragedy, that the restaurant is gone and I’ll never experience that pleasure again.

Each experience opened me up, and as I began to love eating, I naturally fell into cooking. My first culinary endeavors were my attempts to recreate the foods I’d sampled somewhere and loved. Whether it was the “unique” taste of a McDonald’s hamburger (yikes), a perfect homemade flour tortilla, or Bonnie’s chicken chimichangas; if a food caught my attention, I couldn’t rest until I recreated it. The more surprising experiences I had with food, the more adventurous I became, and that’s how I’ve ended up in the foodie place I find myself in today.

I continue to attempt to master the preparation of foods I love, which at this point is pretty much everything. I’m on some kind of crazy culinary pilgrimage these days, working my way through classic preparations of meat, sauces, seafood, and pastries. I play around with Indian, Thai and Moroccan, and dapple in the nouveau world of California, vegetarian and fusion cuisines. The more I learn, the more complex my endeavors become, leaving me ever more curious to see what food adventure is around the next bend. However, with all this complex food preparation going on, sometimes I need to be brought back to balance, where I can tap into my core and just enjoy. Every now and again, I need to be reminded that my first love is simple, wholesome, seasonal food, and even though I adore a snazzy-good meal, nothing nourishes the soul like a hearty bowl of homemade soup.

My lovely roommate is on a culinary journey of her own these days, and I was the grateful recipient of this amazing Kabocha French Lentil Soup she made the other night. It is healthy, hearty, and beautiful, with a perfect balance of flavors you can’t quite identify while eating it. It’s a lentil stew, but could also be served alongside chicken curry with naan, because it’s almost an Indian dal. Delicious garnished with home-toasted croutons, drizzled with plain yogurt, or sopped up with a piece of whole grain toast, this dish will satisfy no matter how you choose to serve it.

*As an adult I am quite obsessed with In-N-Out. Like, I should be on a commercial, I love it so much. Just needed to set the record straight.
**Oh, and my mom served lots of lovely food growing up. It wasn't all canned green beans and sauerkraut.


This is a recipe twice removed: it came from a favorite site of mine,
101 Cookbooks, where Heidi Swanson posts healthy vegetarian recipes, some her own, and others she happens upon in her own food adventures. She pulled this from a cookbook called SoupLove, by Rebecca Stevens, which Heidi found at a shop in the Mission District in San Francisco. Do yourself, and those you love a favor and make this soup. I feel certain, even the staunchest of carnivores will find it deeply satisfying.

1 kabocha or other dark orange winter squash, 1 1/2 lb. (I highly recommend using kabocha squash which has a nice starchy quality that adds to the consistency of the soup. Whole Foods should have it this time of year.)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt
1 cup / 7 oz green lentils, rinsed
5 coin-sized slices ginger, 1/8-inch thick
1 whole star anise
6 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, medium dice
1 leek, sliced into 1/4 moons
1 fennel bulb, medium dice

red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 425F with a rack in the top third of the oven. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Oil and salt the squash and roast cut side down (in a rimmed baking pan) with the 1/2 cup water poured into the pan. Roast until tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. When cool enough, scoop out cooked squash and set aside.

In the meantime, in a medium saucepan, combine the lentils, ginger, star anise and water. Simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon salt.

In a large stockpot combine the olive oil, onion, leeks, fennel and additional salt. Cook covered over low heat until vegetables soften, about 7 - 10 minutes.

Remove the star anise and ginger coins from the lentil sauce pan, then add the lentils, lentil broth and squash to the vegetables in the stock pot. Stir well and cook for another 15 minutes or so, allowing the flavors to blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning here with more salt if needed, and pinches of red pepper flakes to taste.

Serve as is, or topped with lots of garlicky homemade croutons.*

Serves 4 - 6.

*For the croutons simply rip up the remainder of a day-old loaf of good bread into tiny shreds, douse it in olive oil, garlic, and a bit of salt, and toast it in a 350 degree oven until golden and crunchy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Nothing can quite bring you down to earth and remind you of your humanity like straight-up attraction to another. In our core, we are animals, after all; scientifically we are classified homo sapiens, a scratch and sniff away from the wild animal kingdom. But how distant are we really from our nearest primate cousins? And what exactly separates us from their instinctual animal ways?


Attraction, and the rituals that pass between people in its clutches, are primal. Who among us hasn’t felt that fever at one point or another, when you feel taken over, out of sorts and like access to your usual common sense is simply out of order? The matchmaking skills of attraction defy logic, drawing us toward people that are clearly wrong for us in a myriad different ways. But, when you’re in it, it feels nearly impossible to resist. I cringe to think of the mating rituals I’ve engaged in, dancing around another trying to dazzle and impress, shaking my tail feathers and batting my eyes. A sensible man will swagger to impress a girl, working the room to make her laugh, seizing opportunities to flaunt his burly strength, and engaging in one-upmanship with other men, like rams fighting for dominance in the herd. It is dizzying to watch people walk the tightrope of attraction, reason on one side, crazy abandon on the other.

Now, I’m a pretty solid person these days. My head’s on straight, and as I’ve said before, I'm on a no-compromise man diet, patiently waiting for the right one to come along. Period. It’s funny how easy that is to live out when no one passing by causes a stir. It’s another thing altogether when feverish attraction walks through the door and commands your undivided attention.

I’ve been taken over and filled with that fever as of late. My vision’s out of focus and my mind is consumed with ideas that make no sense. Last week was a climactic point in a distant crush I’ve harbored longer than I’m willing to admit. With each interaction the heat increased my flush, my heart tip-toed towards my throat, and I began to consider breaking every dating rule I’ve so carefully constructed. Besides wanting to stare into those lovely dark eyes, and draw that face close to mine, I wanted to talk all night, drink good wine, and laugh until my belly ached bad.

Well, that’s what I wanted, before; before he shared the dilemma. The one I didn’t want to hear. A girlfriend. A recent commitment, yes, but a good woman expecting nothing less than to be honored and respected by this man. How did all this fever get passed back and forth, you might ask, if a girlfriend is waiting in the wings? Engaging conversation, curiosity…a hesitancy, perhaps, to blurt out “I have a girlfriend” before knowing for sure that attraction was coming his way.

By this point, a dangerously blessed amount of intimate conversation had been shared, and the interactions that followed this confession only intensified things. Before you jump ahead, hold on. No lines were crossed, the man was honorable and the woman clearly stated that for her, platonic friendship was unrealistic with this level of attraction to contend with. The conversation ended with no talk of future conversations, just a plan to let it go for now, and allow things to evolve as they are meant to. Healthy. Grounded. Mature. Reflecting the wisdom homo sapiens were named for. However…I am humbled by how difficult it is to fight off my most primal instincts, and I’ve never felt more cognizant of my animal impulses than I do right now.


Every other day we hear of yet another person in the public eye who has crossed the line, having given in to the impulses that come with that primal level of attraction. I don’t think anyone is above the discomfort of being attracted to someone when it isn’t appropriate or convenient. We seem to be able to find attraction with more than one person at a time, and as someone wisely said this week, we connect with different people in different ways. Yet, the bottom line is this: We can choose how to respond to our impulses, and it is our ability to reason, and to make choices that separates us from our wild animal relatives. So, I’ve made my choice, and if it’s not going to be those eyes and that face, then a good flick, a spoon and the best cookie dough ever will have to suffice...until this fever breaks.

*Follow the fever links to all sorts of great versions of the old classic song.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I've Made You Mine

I’ve kept a wary eye on Valentine’s Day since I was a kid. Elementary school was the stage of a drama that played out every year, annually confirming for me that this was not a day to be coveted, but rather one to tip-toe around, oh so quietly. Schools encouraged the hoopla of the holiday by providing time for the annual ritual of Passing Out Valentines. This was one of those treasured childhood activities like Picking Teams, which often planted seeds of self-doubt and inadequacy in kids who looked to their peers for validation and acceptance. We learned early on to count our valentines, to compare with our classmates, and take note of who did not pass by our heart-shaped-mail-pocket. This activity did not warm my heart, and when the drama wasn’t taking place in the classroom, it was flourishing on the playground, in the halls, and later, in the quad.

Adulthood didn’t really add to the charm of February 14th, and every year the holiday seemed to become more loaded with meaning and expectation. No amount of positive thinking or media avoidance could keep me from the avalanche of messages about love, and relationships, and whether I was in one or not, disappointment was sure to be lurking behind the shadows of doilies and hearts. And it wasn’t just me…well meaning men, who I knew without doubt to love me inside and out, would get nervous, and freeze up the same time every year. The torture was mutual, so I’d always advocate in advance that we call a moratorium on Valentine’s Day. You can’t be disappointed when there is a mutual agreement to expect nothing, and do nothing, right? Of course you can. Because, I’ve never been able to resist an opportunity to make a loving gesture, especially if it involves food, flowers, or handwritten notes. Yet, then I’d be bummed that this man, who I knew loved me, didn’t think it was essential to break the rules and show me so. Dizzy yet? I know.

For the last four years I’ve experienced Valentine’s Day as a single woman in her upper thirties. Now, this is a whole new level of February hell, which I’m sure you can well imagine. But, it’s interesting to note that the ferocity of deficiency-based-messages with which this holiday inundates someone in my situation, have become increasingly more amusing to me every year. And each cycle through the season has brought me closer to where I found myself this past valentine’s weekend: in love with my life, the people in it, and hopeful in a way that is new to me.

So, I threw a dinner party, for couples and singles alike, and there was a click in the dynamic that night, that had us claiming hopes, encouraging dreams and toasting it all in abundance. I felt enamored of the good people that surround me, and thankful for the beauty that is so present, even in times of great stress and uncertainty. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me before; my February 14th is essentially what I make of it, and this year, I saw it as an opportunity to bring together those I care about, and to wear a sassy red dress, to boot. Valentine's Day, I've made you mine.

My not-so-small gathering was a party of 10, which is my largest sit-down, three-course meal, to date. One good friend made these pretty little menus to display at each place setting.

I think my impulse to offer the choice of two entrees resulted from either an over-abundance of valentine’s joy, or a psychotic break brought on by the rapidly sinking ship that is my job. Either way, miraculously, it turned out pretty darn well for my first attempt at such a feat. My nine guests were patient and hilarious as they waited for their second course of choice, while I slammed my way through the final steps of preparing the seven dishes needed to plate our entrees. (Yikes.) Every dish truly was delicious, although, I think the star of the evening was the spiced pork stew served over polenta with root vegetables and gremolata. Talk about a love fest…I’ve never heard so many oohs and aahs.

- Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

All of my extravagant culinary adventures this past year have originated in Suzanne Goin’s cookbook, and it has never let me down. The recipes are complex (note the rather long recipe that follows), but not difficult. As a result, her dishes are full-bodied and layered with tantalizing flavors. This dish is mouth-wateringly good, and may convert the most hesitant of pork-eaters, while satisfying the most vigorous of meat-eaters. This is a great dish for a party because you can make the stew one to two days in advance, making your prep the day of much easier.

1 Tbsp. cumin seeds

2 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2. Tbsp. fennel seeds (all of these seeds are sold cheaply at Mexican markets!)

3 lbs.
pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 tsp. cayenne pepper

6 cloves garlic, smashed

1 Tbsp. oregano leaves, plus 3 whole sprigs

1 Tbsp. thyme leaves
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
¼ cup diced carrot

¼ cup diced fennel

2 fresh bay leaves

1 chile de árbol, crumbled

1 cup white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)

2 cups veal stock (I got mine at Bristol Farms)

2 cups chicken stock

1 lemon

4 sprigs cilantro

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 recipe roasted root vegetables with gremolata (recipe follows)

1 recipe polenta (recipe follows)

Toast the cumin seeds a few minutes in a small pan over medium heat, until they release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar. Repeat (separately) with the coriander and fennel seeds. (You can use a mini processor or coffee grinder if you don’t have a mortar. A mortar is much more fun, though!)

Place the pork in a large bowl with the cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cayenne, smashed garlic, oregano leaves, and thyme. Using your hands, toss the pork and spices together to coat well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Take the meat out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before you begin cooking it. After 15 minutes, season it on all sides with 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt and some black pepper. Reserve the garlic and any excess herbs and spices.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Heat a large Dutch oven over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in the olive oil and wait a minute or two, until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the meat in the pan, being careful not to crowd it. (You may need to cook the meat in batches.) Sear the meat until well browned and caramelized on all sides; this will probably take at least 15 minutes. As the batches of meat brown, transfer them to a baking sheet.

Turn the heat down to medium, and add the onion, carrot, and fennel. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the tasty crusty bits left in the pan. Stir in the bay leaves, crumbled chile, and reserved garlic and spices. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables start to caramelize.

Pour in the wine and reduce by half, about 5 minutes. Add the stocks and bring to a boil.

Use a vegetable peeler to pull long strips of zest from the lemon. Turn off the heat, and add the pork to the pot. Tuck the cilantro, oregano sprigs, and lemon zest around the meat. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven about 2 ½ hours.

To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the hot steam. Spoon a piece of meat out of the pan, and press it with your thumb or a spoon. If it’s ready, it will yield easily to a knife and almost fall apart. Taste it and weep.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Ladle most of the braising juices and vegetables into a strainer set over a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with the ladle to extract all the juices. Discard any remaining herb sprigs from the braising pan.

Return the pork to the oven for about 15 minutes to caramelize the meat.

Skim the fat from the braising juices. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat about 5 minutes, to thicken it slightly. Taste for seasoning.

Pour the hot broth over the browned meat, and stir to coat well. Transfer the stew to a large platter. Scatter the warm gremolata-coated root vegetables over the stew. Serve with the bowl of hot polenta. Tell your guests to spoon the polenta onto their plates and top with the pork and vegetables, making sure to get lots of the delicious braising juices. (You may need to serve more juices on the side if your platter is too shallow to hold them all.) We enjoyed this with a nice bottle of Malbec, which was a lovely combination.


Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. minced garlic
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
9 small or 3 medium carrots, peeled
9 small or 3 medium parsnips, peeled
9 small or 3 medium turnips
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup 1/4 –inch thick slices shallot
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the lemon zest on a cutting board and chop it coarsely. Place the garlic and parsley on top, and chop the whole mixture together until very fine. This mixture is called gremolata.

Slice the carrots, parsnips and turnips into spears of approximately the same size. (Mine were about the size of my pinky…not too thin, not too thick.)

Heat 2 large sauté pans over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Divide the root vegetables between the pans and season each with 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and the thyme. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables just start to caramelize.

Add the butter and sauté another 5 minutes, tossing them often. Add the shallots and a bit more salt and cook another 5 minutes or so, until the shallots and all the vegetables are tender and nicely caramelized. If you’re serving dinner soon, turn off the heat and hold them in the pan. Re-warm if necessary. Toss with the gremolata just before serving.


1 cup medium-grain polenta/cornmeal (Bob’s Red Mill brand, if possible, available at Whole Foods, among other places)
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Kosher salt

In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 5 ½ cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil over high heat. Add the polenta slowly, whisking continuously. Turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, whisking often. Add another ½ cup water and cook 1 more hour, whisking often and adding ½ cup water as needed, about every 20 minutes. The flame should be low, so that the polenta is barely simmering. As you whisk, make sure that you reach the bottom of the pan to prevent the polenta from scorching, or sticking. A rubber spatula works well to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot.

Whisk in the butter, and taste for seasoning. Even when the polenta is finished, you might sense it thickening up a little. If so, add a little more water and whisk to get the right consistency. If you’re not serving right away, cover the pan with plastic wrap to keep the polenta from thickening or losing moisture. If necessary, re-warm over low heat before serving.