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.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Comforts & Cravings

Working in education these days feels a bit like being aboard a sinking ship. Every other day it seems we’ve sprung a new leak or lost another sail, and I feel sure it’s a matter of time before the mast will come crashing down. It’s downright depressing, and the media’s propensity for stirring up fear and anxiety isn’t helping. Educators are afraid for their jobs, while students are anxious about the “real world” that awaits upon graduation. Parents fear that anything less than straight A’s and stellar SAT’s will be the ruin of their child’s future, and everyone, yes everyone, is being told to do more with less. This is honestly a taxing environment in which to spend one’s time, and I find myself seeking some form of comfort at the end of every day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, comfort comes in many forms, and if balanced, I think they all have their place. Sometimes my impulse is to sink deep into a yoga class, breathing away the stress, and sweating my way to renewal. Afterward I’ll inevitably crave something wholesome and homemade, causing me to dig through my recipes in search of fresh inspiration. Recently, I remembered a recipe for celery root soup I’d seen on Oprah over winter break, and during a particularly stressful week in January, it seemed just the thing. The recipe intrigued me because it was thickened with a clever vegan ingredient: cashew cream. So I made the celery root soup, and it was surprising in its simple yet layered flavor. It had the creamy texture of a soup based in dairy and potatoes, but it felt healthier and lighter than its traditional counterpart. Along with a piece of toasted whole grain bread from my favorite local bakery, it hit the spot several stressful days in a row. (Post continues below this recipe.)

Adapted from The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen
Serves 6

I halved this recipe and I enjoyed a few small bowls with some remaining to freeze for later.

Kosher salt
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium celery roots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup thick Cashew Cream (recipe follows)
Freshly ground black pepper
Chopped chives for garnish

Place a large stockpot over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect. (Cool trick!)

Add the celery root, celery, and onion and sauté for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and bay leaf, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the Cashew Cream and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, cover the lid with a towel (the hot liquid tends to erupt), and blend on high. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle into bowls. Garnish with chives and serve with something crusty and delicious to sop up the soup from the sides of the bowl.

Makes 1 ½ - 2 cups

1 cup whole raw cashews, rinsed very well under cold water.

Put the cashews in a bowl and add cold water to cover them. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight. Drain the cashews and rinse under cold water. Place in a blender with enough fresh cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Blend on high for several minutes until very smooth.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of me, so I’m going to be honest and tell you that when I’m stressed, I don’t always crave yoga and healthy vegan soup. Sometimes I stand over my counter with a bag of tortilla chips, a block of cheese, home-roasted salsa and an avocado, and for twenty minutes straight I build little bits of fatty chip heaven. I’ve had many valuable end-of-the-day conversations with roommates and former loves while engaged in this compulsive snacking ritual, and most cannot resist its charm.

Still other times my stress compels me to reach deep into my food memory and seek solace in carbs and dairy and salty pork products. A recent end-of-the-week craving had my roommate and I messing with Ina Garten’s recipe for Mac and Cheese. The meal was enjoyed with a particularly lovely bottle of Malbec, while viewing the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. Hot, gooey pasta, ruby-red wine, much laughter and Colin Firth; that might just be the perfect way to spend a rainy Friday night with a good friend.

So, let’s summarize: the future feels uncertain; pretty much everyone is stressed out; and the pressure seems unbearable at times. Every day it feels like this boat is sinking, yet the beauty of it is, none of us is fighting this fight alone. In spite of everything, there are moments of peace; there is laughter; there is beautiful food; and there are lovely people to share it all with. This too shall pass, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll look back on these Armageddon-ish times, with fondness and nostalgia, grateful for the lessons we learned.

Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style
Serves 6 to 8

We halved this and got nearly four healthy meals each out of it. Ina may be a bit more abundant in portions than we. Yikes.

Kosher salt
1 lb. macaroni (or something spiraly and fun like Cellentani)
1 quart milk (I used 2%)
6 Tbsp. butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
12 oz. Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups - I used cave aged Gruyere)
8 oz. extra-sharp aged white Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
½ tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated is lovely)
1 ½ cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used country french bread & pulverized it in a mini food processor)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
A couple Tbsp. freshly chopped rosemary, to your taste
Frozen peas or prosciutto

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions, 6-8 minutes. (Don’t overcook!) Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don’t boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. We added frozen peas at this point, which was yummy. I'm thinking prosciutto would be delicious as well. Once you've finished adding any extras, pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and rosemary and sprinkle generously over the top of the pasta. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are browned on top.

Enjoy with a green salad, a nice glass of wine, and good friends.