Life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you

Today is the third anniversary of our first date. We woke up this morning feeling tired but cheerful and ready to clean and unpack. It snowed last night in Portland; I walked Dingo at 7:15 through a light powder. My mother arrives tomorrow for a weeklong visit — we want our new guest room to be ready for her.

Yesterday we moved, officially, into our new house. We got here at 3, parked in the garage spot we rent from Alice, our next-door neighbor, and carried our backpacks and the food box and Dingo’s bed in through the back door. Our stellar contractors, Patrick and Jeff, were just wrapping up the job. We helped Jeff load up the painting equipment so he could go home to his wife and new daughter. I started mopping while Brendan went around with the Shop-Vac and Patrick rehung the blinds in the newly gold twin living rooms, or “parlors,” as we might have to pretentiously call them, because that is what they are.

Just as Brendan’s mother and grandmother arrived, stage right (front door), Patrick exited stage left (back). Brendan and I gave Kathy and Charlotte the grand tour: gold parlors, foyer minus the tile inlay (tiles arrive in two weeks), newly restored upstairs bathroom with its old, dense pine floors (Patrick rescued them from a demo site) and handmade walnut countertop, green study with new built-in shelves and cabinets and window seats that look like they came with the place, big blue bedroom with an old clawfoot tub in one corner. (We found the tub in the basement when we bought the place, and that was the only place we could figure out to put it; I’ve always wanted a tub in the bedroom.)

The back half of the second floor and the third floor are a separate apartment; we inherited our great tenants from the previous owner and feel very lucky about this. Our house has a checkered history. It’s a brick Italianate three-story, built around 1875. It was a boarding house in 1922; it was already divided into two apartments then, and the owner’s name was Jennie Stein, we learned from the only historical document we could find. In the 1990s, it was a Goodwill house for adults with Down syndrome. Before that, it was a school.

In the past ten years, it’s gone through several owners, and more than one of them was apparently (according to Alice) batshit. This was evidenced in some of the décor that we ripped out – a crappy build-out between the bedroom and the bathroom with an MRI-like shower stall in one half and a half-assed closet in the other; hideous blue tile and fall-of-Rome-like fixtures; thick super-plush puke-gold carpet over the entire upstairs and staircase; cockroach-brown/red shiny Brazilian cherry prefab flooring in foyer and kitchen and dining room; and so forth. That’s all gone now, and the original upstairs pine and hemlock floors, and the stripped staircase, are gleaming with new polyurethane. Our intention in renovating was to restore the house so people would wonder what was done to it aside from painting the walls and refinishing the floors. This took our contractors months of hard work to achieve.

After the tour of the upstairs, we took Kathy and Charlotte downstairs through the foyer to the back half of the house to show them the disastrous, post-yuppie, half-demo’ed kitchen – the instant we bought the place, we ripped out the Brazilian cherry, hoping for original flooring underneath. It’s there all right, grand old king pine boards, under two layers of plywood. Meanwhile, the kitchen and dining room floors are dirty plywood, and the kitchen consists of white melamine cabinets, a gigantic white side-by-side fridge, cold ugly granite countertops, and a layout that makes me shudder. One of the windows has been Sheetrocked over.

Some day, when we have the money, we’ll tear it all out and do it over. For now, now being the foreseeable future, this is our kitchen, the place where we’ll cook our meals. Brendan took the doors off the top cabinets, which instantly improved things, and we plan to swap out the gargantuan, horrible fridge for an older, top-freezer, stainless steel one. Patrick gave us a tip on an appliance guy who happens to be his cousin, and anyone Patrick recommends is okay with us.

The dining room, which is hardly separate from the kitchen, has an old fireplace with an original tile hearth (as do the parlors) and an old crystal-teardrop wrought-iron chandelier, and, like all the rooms in the house, it’s spacious, high-ceilinged, full of light from big windows. A previous owner wallpapered it with pages from old editions of Green Mansions and A History of the Presidents. Another former owner, or maybe it was the same one, chopped off the back of the built-in hutch to make an enormous yuppie powder room behind it. In the next renovation phase, we’ll put everything back the way it might have been, once.

After the tour, the four of us went to Caiola’s, a Mediterranean place a couple of blocks from our house. After salads all around, Brendan ordered a manly hanger steak with mushrooms, but we ladies opted for the shad roe, pan-fried with bacon. Shad roe is light, delicate but rich – and it has the consistency of a kidney, spongy but meaty, melting on the tongue. With it, we drank two bottles of Argentinian Malbec, and for dessert, we shared a pannacotta that likewise melted on the tongue.

Kathy and Charlotte went back to Falmouth, and Brendan and I spent our first night in our new bedroom. We have no curtains yet, just blinds, and the streetlight is right outside the windows. The light kept us awake, since we’re used to total rural darkness. We’ve been on our usual cleansing early-spring diet this week, so all that rich, salty food gave us both a touch of Victorian dyspepsia, perfectly in keeping with our house’s vintage.

New England Kitcharee

Every spring, after a decadent, gluttonous fall and winter, we have our own version of Lent: we spend a few days eating lentils. Two years ago, thanks to a recipe my sister Susan sent us, we made kitcharee, an Ayurvedic mung-bean stew we made with lentils because there are no mung beans to be had in New England that we’re aware of. We drank nothing but water with lemon. After five days of this cleansing monodiet, light-headed and giddy, we broke our fast with bison burgers and a bottle of good rioja. Last spring, in addition to a three-day kitcharee diet, we went on the wagon, or something like it, for five months. This year, we’re opting for moderation and hoping for the best. This year, our kitcharee was slightly unorthodox but delicious nonetheless:

In 2 tablespoons peanut oil or ghee, saute a teaspoon of garam masala and ½ teaspoon each coriander, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, and salt. Add a chopped red onion, 2 serrano peppers, 1 red pepper, 3 carrots, 2 celery ribs, and many cloves of garlic, chopped. Saute for a while till it all softens. Add a cup of rinsed red lentils, 1/2 cup of basmati rice, a whole cut-up cauliflower, a cup of Pomi chopped tomatoes, and enough organic vegetable broth to make a thick stew. Simmer covered till cooked, stirring frequently and adding more broth as necessary, about 45 minutes. Serve with chopped cashews, cilantro, Sriracha hot sauce, Greek yogurt, and Major Grey’s mango chutney.

We were at the beach, everybody had matching towels

Brendan turned 30 on Wednesday. In the late morning, we loaded Dingo into the car and drove to Crescent Beach on the coast of Maine. I had made reservations about a month earlier at a luxury spa-resort that takes dogs. We were in luck that day – it was eighty degrees and sunny. On the hour-plus drive from the White Mountains down to the ocean, we had the eerie feeling that we were in West Texas. The trees were bare, the landscape scrubby, the sky a deep, hot blue.

We arrived at the hotel just two minutes before Brendan’s scheduled “hot stone massage” – one of my presents to him (the others were a banjo and the promise to stop biting the shit out of my cuticles and fingernails for one year) – so he rushed off to “the sanctuary.”

I checked us in and unloaded Dingo’s bed and our backpacks and carried them up to our “spa suite,” an airy, comfortable loftlike affair with enormous windows and a small veranda overlooking the grounds and ocean. The décor was 1990s WASP drab – beige walls, wicker chairs, and a kitchenette with granite countertop. After I’d ordered a bottle of Prosecco and some fruit and cheese from room service, I took Dingo down to the wide, clean beach to reconnoiter and make use of some of the poop bags the hotel had thoughtfully provided for him — along with a doggy beach towel, L.L. Bean blanket, bowls, and a large “turndown treat.”

Brendan came back from his massage laughing. “She put hot pebbles between my toes,” he said. “I felt like a driftwood sculpture.” We sat on our balcony and ate and drank and watched some of the other guests stroll around, sniffing and chatting, peeing on things and making amiable jokes: a genteel New England lesbian couple with their golden retriever, and a cozy sixsome: two white-haired men in polo shirts and khaki shorts, two Spandex workout-pants-wearing women, a yellow Lab, and a King Charles spaniel. We felt as if we were simultaneously in a Fellini film and an Agatha Christie novel in which the murder victim was a purebred dog.

When that bottle was gone, we wanted another one, so we wandered down to the big porch, where we lounged on a wicker sofa while Dingo flirted bravely with the lesbian couple’s leggy redheaded golden. He retreated, as usual, to lie behind me, cowering, when things became too hot for him to handle.

“What kind of dog is he?” one of the lesbians asked.

“A sato?” I said. “A Brooklyn Brown?”

“He’s a mutt,” said Brendan definitively.

“He’s so handsome,” she said.

The Inn by the Sea has a doggy menu, which was the topic of much hilarity among the two of us in the days leading up to our trip. However, my irony vanished when the waiter handed us an actual menu.

“He’ll have the Bird Dog!” I said.

“Not the Meat Roaff?” Brendan asked with mock astonishment.

“The Bird Dog is pretty much what I cook for him at home!” I said. “Chicken and vegetables, but with rice instead of oats.”

Brendan gave me a look of amused affection.

The sun went down; it got chilly. We repaired to the lobby to join several other couples and their dogs, all of whom lay docilely under the tables.

We ordered more Prosecco and looked at the human menu. Since we were splurging, I ordered the lobster, which came with a melting, buttery risotto and vegetables. Brendan requested the filet mignon with lobster, which wasn’t on the menu, but which they agreed to do for him since he was the birthday boy. The food arrived and was fantastic. While we devoured it, Dingo, former street dog that he is, did not nap or loll or mind his own business like the exemplary, well-bred animals all around him. He lay at my feet as directed, but he was on red alert, his eyes trained like gun sights on my mouth as I put food into it, food he hotly wished to be eating himself. He was perfectly polite about it, but raw yearning pulsed in his skull like an idling outboard motor.

Breaking one of the cardinal rules of dog mastery (which I don’t generally do, but this was a special occasion), I slipped him, one by one, two carrot discs and the two lobstertail fans. These he crunched so loudly and happily, the woman at the next table looked over to see what was making that noise. I noticed that her pug was angelically asleep, its buglike head nestled between her feet.

Lobster Thermidor

Brendan went to LA last weekend to attend his best friend Richard’s 30th birthday party. He brought Richard a Maine lobster kit: claw crackers, bibs, butter dishes, forks, picks, and sea salt, as well as a few lobster souvenirs from the Portland airport. His real present, however, arrived a couple of days later: two live lobsters sent overnight from a small town in coastal Maine.

During our cocktail hour on our veranda, Richard called, ostensibly to say happy birthday and to consult about the proper way to cook the lobsters, but mostly, I suspected, to tease Brendan about his birthday trip to the “doggy-inn resort,” as Richard called it.

“Dude, it’s great here,” said Brendan. “Just slit the lobsters in half. Be sure to start at the head and stab them right behind the eyes. It’s the most humane way to kill them. Then grill them.”

There was a silence, I assumed because Richard was balking at this idea. I didn’t blame him. Stabbing lobsters in the head is medieval.

“So make lobster Thermidor,” Brendan said. “That way, they’re already dead when you cut them in half.”

In the end, Richard did neither of these things; he made lobster rolls. But we plan to make lobster Thermidor, a dish that would not be out of place in either an Agatha Christie novel or a Fellini film:

Cut two cooked lobsters in half, lengthwise. Cut their meat into bite-sized pieces. Clean and reserve their body shells. In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add 2 minced shallots and soften, then add 1/2 cup of dry white wine. Reduce by half and add 2/3 cup of heavy cream and ½ cup fish stock; reduce till it starts to thicken. Stir in 2 tablespoons parsley, 2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, a spritz of lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon dry mustard. Stir in ½ cup shredded Gruyere. Add the lobster meat, then divide between the two shells. Sprinkle with 1/3 cup shredded Gruyere and broil until bubbling and golden brown. Serve with wedges of lemon.

Rise up this mornin’, smiled with the risin’ sun, three little birds pitch by my doorstep

I was able to go to college and stay there, all four years, thanks to a combo platter of financial aid: a tuition reduction from Reed College, a Pell grant, student loans, and the work-study program, which meant that I worked a certain number of hours per week in the campus bookstore and on campus security (with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie). It was the 1980s. I didn’t think twice about this largesse – my family was poor, and I needed to go to college, and my grades and SAT and Achievement scores were okay, so of course I’d get help. That was how it worked back then.

Except for the three weeks every summer when I joined my family on Tuckernuck Island, I worked between school years. Again, because it was the 1980s, jobs for college students weren’t hard to find. The summer after my freshman year, I was hired by Jo, a senior at Reed, along with four fellow Reedies, to cook for a camp for emotionally disturbed children near Shawnee, Pennsylvania, in the Delaware Water Gap.

The camp offered an eight-week program. The kids lived in cabins with their counselors, and we cooks lived together in our own cabin – Jo, Jen, Lucy, and I, in four little cots in two straight lines. Ben, the only man on the kitchen staff, bunked with some of the other male staff, probably the grounds crew.

We had a rotating roster of duties. Breakfast duty, for example, meant showing up before 6 in the morning and breaking eggs into a Hobart from pallets that held 8 dozen each (I got very good at the two-handed egg crack; we all did), beating them with electric paddles, adding milk, cinnamon and vanilla, and soaking loaf after loaf of generic wheat bread in batches in the egg mixture and frying them on the huge griddles.

Lucy and I were frequently on breakfast duty together. Lucy was my favorite person on the crew, and my friend. She was little and fine-boned but very strong, with wavy long blonde hair and a wry, calm disposition. She wore white wife-beaters and baggy canvas shorts and Birkenstocks. We listened to a lot of Bob Marley; now, whenever I hear “Natty Dread,” I’m suddenly back in the camp kitchen at dawn.

Jo, our sterling, super-responsible, serious boss, armed us with ring binders she’d assembled, full of recipes proportioned for however many people we were, 200 as I recall. It was classic cafeteria food, all of it — red-bean chili, which we stirred with paddles in tall stainless-steel pots, and spaghetti and meatballs, and various casseroles like baked ziti and mac and cheese, which we baked in industrial ovens in pans the size of small sleds.

Because the children all had varying degrees of “issues” and disorders (which these days would naturally be medicated), their diets were severely restricted. The recipes were filling and healthy – heavy on vegetables and starches, light on meats and fats. The kids weren’t allowed to have any sugar at all. Desserts were sweetened with sugar-free applesauce, industrial-sized cans of it; I still remember the vast sheet pans we made of gingerbread and brownies and cobblers, which came out of the oven smelling delicious and looking bona-fide and tasting… disappointing, at least to me. I had a sweet tooth, back then, years before I discovered alcohol. Applesauce did not cut it.

One day, I came into the kitchen for my shift and was confronted by a walk-in filled with boxes I was evidently expected to haul forth and deal with: 40 whole, plucked, very dead chickens, all of which needed to be hacked apart into the usual components: breast, thigh, drumstick, wing. I had never butchered a chicken before. I took the first one from its tightly-packed box and laid it on a cutting board and hefted the cleaver I’d been handed by Jo before she headed back to the cabin for a nap.

The chicken looked small, and vulnerable, and goose-pimpled, as if it were chilly and wanted a blanket. It was about the size of a very young human baby.

I looked at Ben, who was on duty with me that day. “Have you done this before? You’re the guy.”

“No,” he said. “And don’t be so sexist.”

Ben was sweet-faced, intellectual, pale-skinned, and mild-mannered. All things considered, I was possibly the more viable candidate.

“Here’s a chart, I think,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. Then he went off to make vats of potato salad.

I looked askew at the chart, put it down, and got to work. The first attempt went badly; I’ve never been much good at following directions, having a rebellious, self-directed personality that brooks no bossing-around from authority of any kind, even harmless and potentially helpful pieces of paper. I was glad the poor chicken was already dead. The second attempt was little better. I now had a heap of hacked-up bird parts and was starting to feel, of course, like a serial killer. I arranged the third one for dismantling. It looked as daunting as the others. With inward resignation, I consulted the chart, finally. According to the instructions, birds came apart neatly. It was a matter of knowing where the joints were and severing them, not cutting into bones, but liberating each piece from its neighbor with a sharp, well-placed chop. The carcass itself likewise came apart with little resistance if you sort of tugged it open it like a book and cut through the hinges of cartilage.

About ten chickens in, I basically had the hang of it. By my thirtieth, Ben could have blindfolded me and I would have taken that thing apart no problem, chop-chop. I stopped seeing the chickens as once-living beings, stopped worrying about desecrating their little corpses. They were food, damn it. They were going to be coated in spiced breadcrumbs and baked. They were going to feed a bunch of kids who were hyperactive, depressed, out of control, manic, hypersexual, maladjusted, violent, and/or learning-disordered. And this was my job.

Potato Salad for 200

Boil 60 pounds of potatoes until tender. When they’re cool, peel and cut them up.  Add 8 cups chopped onions, 15 cups chopped celery, and 60 hard-boiled eggs. Mix together 12 tablespoons salt, 4 tablespoons pepper, 4 quarts mayonnaise, 4 quarts Miracle Whip, and stir into potato mixture.

We’ll go fishin in the crawdad hole, honey, baby mine

The other day, a Flat Rate Priority box of 2 dozen oysters arrived from Cape Cod. Beau, a college acquaintance turned Facebook friend and fellow food lover, had gathered them himself near Wellfeet, where he lives. When he’d posted a general offer to send oysters for bartered items, I pounced on it within seconds.

The postmistress in Center Conway told us we were lucky she didn’t eat the oysters herself and pretend to us that they’d never arrived. We certainly felt lucky. They were some of the freshest, sweetest oysters either of us had ever eaten. And they were gone so fast. The instant we got home from the post office, Brendan put them on ice and got out the shucker while I made a shallot-vinegar sauce and a ketchup-horseradish-Tabasco-Worcestershire sauce mixture. We poured ourselves some wine and stood at the counter and downed all 24 of those oysters with wild gusto. When they were gone, we grinned with loopy, dazed, chops-licking glee at each other.

It had made them taste even better, knowing that he had just… gone to the ocean and picked them up. If we’d bought them at a store, eating them wouldn’t have been as much fun. And they certainly wouldn’t have been as good.

My mother and sisters and I spent the summer of 1972 with my grandparents in a rented farmhouse in Maine. It was near a beach whose name I don’t remember; we called it Blue Boat Beach because of an upside-down dinghy that was always there. That summer, we picked wild blueberries that just… grew in a meadow for anyone to eat. They were warm and sweet and bursting with juice. My sisters and I gorged on them as fast as we could pick them. If our mother had brought them home from the supermarket, we wouldn’t have been nearly as excited about them.

When I lived in France during the year after high school, there were things around the place that I could just… go out and get and bring back and feed to the family I worked for. I picked up basketfuls of sweet, meaty chestnuts that we roasted in the fireplace around Christmastime. Peppery, bright-green watercress grew in a large, stream-fed stone pool. I put it into salads with lamb’s ear lettuce. Wild nettles could be picked (with gloves on) and washed and chopped and made into an excellent, savory soup with potatoes, onions, and a bit of butter and cream.

Starting when I was in college, I spent many summers on an island off Nantucket called Tuckernuck, where my mother’s third husband’s family had a house. The small island had no paved roads, electricity, or stores, nothing but twenty or so old shingled cottages scattered through grassy moors and scrubby woods. We went surf fishing for striped bass and bluefish, casting out into the waves, standing waist-deep in the water. When I reeled in a fish, I clonked it on the head to kill it, and then, later, on the breezeway of our house, I attached it by the tail to a big, rough clipboard and slit its belly open with a sharp knife and reached in and pulled out its entrails, feeling as macho as Hemingway.

My mother used to stuff the oily, strong-tasting bluefish we caught with whole garlic cloves, lemon slices, and sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme that she pulled from the kitchen garden. She doused it in olive oil and surrounded it with potatoes and baked it. That was the best bluefish I’ve ever eaten – rich and tender and so garlicky and herby, its gamey-fishy flavor was overwhelmed and conquered.

We took quahog rakes and a bucket in the rowboat around the point in low tide to pull huge, knobby clams from just under the sand on the shallow sea floor. I used to make a good chowder out of them. Just as with the wild blueberries in Maine, it was so much more exciting to eat the food we’d found or caught than it was to eat lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers from the kitchen garden. Gardening takes a lot of ongoing work, whereas foraging in any form feels romantically primitive and elemental and is instantly rewarding. The taste of the wild is seductive.

When I saw Beau’s offer, I’d been intending for a while to learn to identify and gather some of the edible plants that grow in the woods and fields around here in New Hampshire. In exchange for those wild oysters Beau went out and got from the ocean, I offered to forage some mushrooms and send him some – oyster mushrooms would make a particularly nice symbolic exchange.

I imagine that mushrooming is something like an Easter egg hunt – you prowl around the woods until a glowing white or pearlescent orb leaps at your eye. Of course, as a novice, I’ll invest in guide books and exercise extreme, obsessive caution, but what I’m really gunning for is to tag along with a local experienced guide, someone to teach me the difference between edible and toxic fungi: morels and “false morels,” chanterelles and Jack O’Lanterns, Hen of the Woods and the intriguingly (and no doubt accurately) named Sulfur Shelf. Fresh mushrooms are amazing, sautéed very briefly in olive oil with garlic, thyme, lemon juice and zest, tossed with hot linguine and topped with parsley and Parmesan cheese, but they’re not worth dying for, or even spending a night doubled up in acute gastrological pain for. Very few things are.

When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing

I lived in New York City for twenty years. By the time I left and moved up here, my entire being felt as if it had shaped itself around the familiarity of urban life, so completely I hardly noticed any of it — traffic noises, sidewalks full of crowds, garbage trucks roaring and clanking at dawn, strong smells, 24-hour lights, the crash and squeal of the subways, the constant sense of millions of people around me.

Sometimes, in this isolated farmhouse, I catch myself feeling as if Brendan and Dingo and I are living inside a children’s book, a happy one. The view from the table where we sit working all day is wondrous: long, wild meadows surrounded by stone walls, stretching down in two directions to dense old shaggy woods, a lake, a beaver pond, and finally mountains that stretch back to the sky. Standing out on the porch, I saw a robin redbreast just now in the crabapple tree over by the lilac bushes.

This morning, a van drove by the house. This was the occasion for a lot of excited barking for Dingo, who lies on the window seat all day, on high alert for nonexistent intruders. He barks his head off at squirrels, passing cars, melting snow, the wind, and nothing. Every time, I let him out so he can race into the driveway and stand barking with his entire body, legs splayed, tail swishing, neck stiff, everything ready to spring. I stand on the porch and try to see what’s causing all the fuss. It’s usually invisible to me.

The other night, the raccoon got into the garbage; when I got up before dawn to pee and let Dingo out, I saw a dark midsized thing scuttling off toward the copse. He dropped something good; Dingo slunk to the wooden trash bins and scooped it up before I could stop him. He carried it off toward the barn and didn’t come back until he’d eaten it.

Today on our walk, we passed Michelle, a woman we know who does gardening. Her dog, Jenny, is a ginger-colored, gorgeous pit bull mix who loves Dingo. Michelle was raking pine cones. Jenny and Dingo flirted a bit until he got shy and came over to me. Dingo has absolutely no game with female dogs. He yearns for them (every day on our walk he checks the Fishers’ place for Jenny), and then, when they’re right in front of him and ready for fun, he gets flustered and shy and hides behind me and asks to go home.

In warm months, we sometimes go up Foss Mountain to watch the sun set. Brendan has done this since he was a boy. We take a bottle of hard cider and a bag of salted, roasted cashews in a knapsack, along with water and an apple or a treat for Dingo. We drive as far up the mountain as we can go, then park and get out and hike the rest of the way, ten or fifteen minutes up through a blueberry meadow, then a rock-rubbled path with a stream running down it, then a granite outcropping, all the way up to a lookout point at the top. We sit on a boulder and feel as if we’re on the windy roof of the world: all around us in every direction lies the old New England mountainous wilderness, dotted with the occasional farmhouse set into a cleared field. As the sun goes down, we drink cider and eat nuts and hardly talk. In the new dusk, we climb back down and drive down the steep, winding mountain road and come home to cook our supper.

Nights are very, very dark here, the kind of profound darkness that hardly exists anymore. The copse that spans the driveway is haunted. As a kid, Brendan would sometimes have to walk through it at night on the one-minute walk home from his friend Colie’s house. He has told me that the hair on the back of his neck would rise as he approached it, and he’d run as fast as he could through it, just for that short stretch of the road. When I first came here, I went out for a short night walk once, alone, and I felt it, too.

We eat a lot of childhood-type food here. Last night, we had grilled hamburger patties with ketchup, sweet potato fries, and sunchoke soup. Today, we had peanut-butter toast for breakfast and basmati-red lentil chili with mango salsa for lunch. For afternoon snack, we had herrings on toast with horseradish mayonnaise. For supper tonight, Brendan is making the most comforting, cozy dish in the universe: pasta with pea sauce.

When I make soup here, which I do very often, I use as few ingredients as possible, according to a working theory that the fewer the ingredients, the better the soup. Consequently, my soups turn out to be the kind of simple, nonthreatening food I loved as a kid. The other day, I made a stellar, addictive soup of nothing but aromatics, cannellini, herbs, and spices: 2 onions, a bunch of celery and carrots, and a whole head of garlic, all chopped and sauteed, with 2 bay leaves, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, smoked paprika, cumin, cayenne, and Worcestershire sauce, with salt and pepper, enough water to cover, and a can of rinsed white beans. We put parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil into each bowl when it was done. It was velvety and exciting, a deeply rich-tasting stew.

Another socks-knocked-off recent addition to our soup repertoire is “spicy bubble and squeak soup,” a recipe that came from my friend Brock, who lives in Ireland. You sauté a garlic clove and a chopped onion in olive oil, add three diced potatoes and 2 bay leaves, then cover with water or chicken broth. Simmer till the potatoes soften and then mash them in the pot with a fork or a masher. Add as much shredded Savoy cabbage as you want – he said a couple of handfuls, I added a whole small cabbage with no ill effects. While this simmers, chop up a spicy chorizo (no other sausage works as well; I tried it with chicken Andouille and it was lackluster) into small pieces and fry it until the red fat runs out, then add it with its juices to the soup and let it simmer a while longer.

The sunchoke soup we had last night was like something out of a fairy tale – magical, with the unusual, nutty flavor of this knobby strange-looking tuber. I chopped up a pound of well-scrubbed (but not peeled) Jerusalem artichokes, which are not artichokes at all, but the roots of the sunflower. I simmered them in chicken broth with fresh rosemary and a pinch of nutmeg, and then, when they were soft, I pureed them with a little light cream. I poured the hot puree from the blender into bowls and added caramelized onions and a handful of Parmesan cheese, and then we availed ourselves of the bottle of Cholula chipotle hot sauce. It was so good, we ate the entire pot, and when it was gone, we wished we had more.

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