Of course, being a dedicated eater, and a woman, I’ve always had to reckon with the risk of weight gain, to balance sensual indulgence with sensible moderation.
I was a skinny kid, a happy glutton who ran around outside for hours a day. That all changed when I left home for the first time. At 16, a homesick teenager, I glutted myself on homemade oily nutty granola with whole milk, whole-wheat toast thickly paved with cream cheese and strawberry jam, meatball subs on long, soft white rolls dripping with meat juice, entire big bags of Doritoes, and calzones, those soft bricks of dough encasing melted, oozing white cheese. And those were just my after-school snacks. (As meager compensation, I took to drinking Tab, the ubiquitous diet soda of the era, but of course it didn’t help.) Soon, not surprisingly, I was not fitting into my jeans anymore. Being 16, I squeezed myself in anyway and hoped for the best and looked marshmallow-like.
Back home again during the summers, the weight went away as I reverted to my family’s sensible habits of small portions and a lot of exercise. It wasn’t rocket science, I found out.
At 18, living in France during the year after high school, homesick again, I found plenty of solace in food. Frenchwomen may never get fat, but I haven’t got a drop of French blood that I know of. I was an au pair girl in the countryside in the Allier district; being around kids, especially 4 little boys who didn’t finish their food, it was very easy to overeat to keep from throwing out their leavings. Nursery food is both comforting and fattening, and French nursery food is irresistible: buttery scrambled eggs with brioche; tartines made of baguette and Nutella, that cracklike chocolate-hazelnut goo; 4 platefuls at a time of uneaten roast chicken with potatoes au gratin — I was the family dishwasher; instead of scraping it all into la poubelle, it seemed so much more responsible to eat it. Soon, I was husky again.
In college and graduate school, I didn’t eat much. During my late 20s and 30s, I stayed very thin, although had a few bouts with weight gain. These happened when I was depressed, playing a lot of computer word games (and by a lot, I mean obsessively: during my Boggle addiction, I saw many dawns; Scrabble, the next addiction, was more of a daytime thing, but whole blocks of hours went by without my budging), and feeling stuck in some way. New York City offers plenty of comforting food, on every street corner, in every deli, or – if you don’t want to leave the house, as I often didn’t – there’s always Freshdirect.
The year I turned 40, when I was training for the New York City marathon and running up to 21 miles a day, I paradoxically, unfairly started gaining a lot of weight. I felt like I had a 10-pound water balloon around my torso and hips. I ran the marathon wearing this water balloon. Of course, I was carbo-loading during training because I thought you were supposed to eat mounds of bread and pasta, along with soy sauce for sodium intake.
It turned out, I discovered a year later, thanks to a naturopath, that I was gluten intolerant, and one of the side effects of gluten allergy is bloat. It was, literally, a water balloon. I went off gluten completely, and it magically melted away. And that, I figured, was the end of my battle with weight gain.
Then I turned 47. This was almost 3 years ago. My mother, who is always a reliable guide to the mysteries of getting older, had warned me about this. That year, after a lifetime of having a flat stomach, about which I had always felt annoyingly smug, I got my comeuppance: suddenly I had a poofy belly and a little muffin top over the waistband of my tight jeans. It just happened, as if my body had been programmed for it. I hadn’t changed my eating or exercise habits.
As problems go, this is a minor one. But I had recently fallen in love with Brendan, who is almost 20 years younger than I am. If there was ever a time when I wanted to look as young and cute and trim as possible, it was now, goddamn it. But when I tried eating less and exercising more, I lost weight, but not the poof. It wouldn’t budge.
As my late 40s went on, I left New York and moved up to New England with Brendan. We are both passionate cooks and eaters. He is 6 feet tall and thin and just turned 30, and I am 5’ 7” and turn 50 in August: the math is simple. He can eat more than I can: I’ve finally figured it out.
But for a while there, until a couple of months ago, I pretended otherwise. It made it easier that Brendan would say, “But I love you like this, you look so much better now than when I first met you, you were so scrawny then. Eat, eat. I adore you.” What woman could resist that? Not me.
But this winter, I came back from a three-day trip to New Orleans and recognized that I had hit an all-time high of weight gain. It’s a number so alarming, I can’t even say here what it was, but trust me: it was cause for concern, as was my stomach, which was suddenly not adorably poofy, it was a gut.
Gradually, since then, I’ve begun to revert to my old lifelong habits, learned from my mother and Michael Pollan: Eat well. Not too much. And not too many carbohydrates. Thank God, I’ve been losing weight, and I’m starting to feel like myself again. But the roll is here to stay. I have almost managed to embrace it.
Weight Loss Lunch
In a big bowl, mix 2 cups fresh mesclun, 2 ribs chopped celery, 1 grated carrot, and 1 sheet of chopped nori (sushi seaweed). Toss lightly with a dressing of sesame oil and rice vinegar. Wave a log of goat cheese over it so a few crumbs tumble in. Savor them as you eat the entire salad. Follow with 3 big cups of nettle tea, which tastes like mulchy bogwater but has magical diuretic properties.
Strangely, given that we’re in the middle of what passes for a heat wave up here, it’s been a week of steady potato-eating. The other day, we discovered the steak frites at our local bistro; these fries are addictive — gluten-free, crisp, thin, and drizzled with herb mayonnaise. It’s a dangerous addiction to tempt: we can’t afford it if we ever hope to renovate this kitchen.
Last night, I made a clam chowder with 2 dozen littlenecks, onion, pancetta, 2 cobs’ worth of corn, and a large diced Yukon Gold that turned tender and mealy in the clam liquor broth and soaked up the brininess. Clams and potatoes and pork are an unbeatable combination, especially with corn and onion, especially in a savory soup.
The night before last, I made thick fresh organic pork chops marinated in orange and lemon juices, olive oil, ginger, a heap of garlic, Worcestershire sauce, smoked coriander, and rosemary, with boiled new red potatoes and steamed asparagus.
On another recent night, we made thick, juicy, lean, flavorful burgers, bison mixed with chopped onion and Worcestershire sauce and fried in butter in a cast-iron skillet, on toasted gluten-free buns, with oven fries: thin-wedge sliced Yukon Golds and matchstick sweet potatoes baked in peanut oil in a hot oven and well salted. We dredged them in a ketchup-mayonnaise dipping sauce. Alongside, we made a tomato-red onion-avocado salad. As we ate this meal, or rather, shoved it into our mouths, we asked ourselves how it was possible to drool and eat at the same time.
I’ve been making treats for Dingo by nuking cubed sweet potato on a plate covered in plastic wrap for 4 minutes. It might be the perfect dog treat. They’re easy to make and cheap. He loves them, they’re good for him, and they don’t make him fat. I throw them one by one at his head, and he catches them in midair, or doesn’t, and goes scurrying after them. He’s pretty adept, and totally game, no matter how wayward my throwing arm may be. If there’s a senior division in the Doggy Olympics, he might qualify for the 2013 Games.
And the potato festival continues: tomorrow night, I’m making a niçoise salad with oil-packed Italian tuna, those intense wrinkly pitted black olives, hothouse tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, capers, and more new red potatoes, boiled and sliced, with an anchovy-shallot vinaigrette.
Potato, potahto, potato, potahto! They’re so good in hot weather, any way you slice, cook, nuke, or boil them. They have a cooling property in the summer, although they’re equally warming in winter. They’re magical, like a Thermos.
On our walk today, we saw the amphibious tourist vehicle called the Downeast Duck trundle by us at the top of the Eastern Prom. A little while later, as we came along the trail above the bay, we saw it floating out in the water.
“I want to make a dish called Downeast Duck,” said Brendan suddenly, after we’d been walking for a while in silence.
I am always up for a speculative discussion of a hypothetical future meal.
“What would you serve with it? What cuisine?” I said. “Chinese? With rice noodles? Ginger-cilantro broth? Hot and sour or barbecue sauce?”
“Downeast,” he said. “So it would be Maine duck.”
And that was that, because he is the native of this region, and therefore the authority on all things local.
We batted this idea around, trying as hard as we could to include some lobster in our vision: duck confit with lobster terrine? Too fancy and labor-intensive. Roast duck wings with lobster claws? Funny in theory but awkward on the plate. Duck and lobster jambalaya, risotto, or paella? Too much starch all around. We jettisoned the lobster, or rather, saved it for another meal, and settled on the following simple feast: duck breasts, pan-fried until they render much of their fat, then a heap of cut-up potatoes, Yukon Golds probably, pan-roasted in the duckfat. The sliced crisp breasts go on top of a mound of julienned zucchini tenderly poached in chicken broth and butter. And alongside, a simple salad of sugar-snap peas in a dressing of champagne vinegar, hazelnut oil, and thyme.
Later, on the way home, the Downeast Duck drove by us yet again. We waved at the tourists, and they waved back.
There are approximately 1,987,998 recipes for potato salad in this country, and many more in other countries, especially Germany. But mine, I say without humility, is a good one, maybe even better than average.
Feel free to adjust all the amounts – they’re only guidelines, and everyone has favorite proportions that may differ from mine.
Boil 2 pounds of red new potatoes till their skins just begin to split. Drain them, cut them in halves or quarters while they’re still hot, put them in a bowl, douse them in apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper them, and chill them, covered.
When they’re cold, add to them 3 chopped celery ribs, 3 chopped hard-boiled eggs, 1 minced medium red onion, and, if you like, some diced cooked carrot. Other optional ingredients include capers, fresh dill, and anchovies. Some people love apple in their potato salad: I am not one of them. But go ahead if you must.
Make a dressing with ½ cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of mustard, 1 teaspoon paprika, and 2 minced garlic cloves.
Mix everything together and eat right away, or chill and eat later. Very good with hot fried chicken, barbecued chicken, or cold leftover chicken of any kind.
It’s summertime in Maine, finally, after a long, cold, rainy spring. We’ve been on a bit of an eating and drinking binge around here, as usual. Lately, a theme seems to be emerging: pink.
Last weekend, Brendan’s best friends visited us from Washington D.C. and Oakland. Suriya is a diplomat-in-training, about to be assigned to her first foreign-service post. Richard is a documentary filmmaker whose movie, “Music Man Murray,” is winning awards; his girlfriend, Caitlin, is an NPR announcer in the Bay Area with a following that includes a bona-fide stalker.
Naturally, we fed our illustrious guests the finest pink food and drink: we sat in the sunshine on clean, wide, sandy Ferry Beach in Cape Elizabeth and ate lobster rolls and drank chilled rosé as we gradually all turned the same color as our lunch, except Suriya, who was already tan, and is olive-skinned anyway. For breakfast, I made strawberry smoothies, cold, creamy, and the color of our sunburns. For dinner one night, I made shrimp tacos: the shrimp, marinated in a lot of garlic and red pepper flakes and lime juice, turned hot pink in the skillet. Dingo, who is fond of shrimp shells, enjoyed his own little pinkfest underfoot.
I flew down to New York on Tuesday for three nights to hawk the paperback of “The Astral,” and the first thing I did when I arrived was to head to Balthazar, like a homing pigeon, for oysters and steak tartare. Their tartare is the best in the world. It is a lovely shade of pink, and it’s rich and flavorful and so fresh I could feel a beating cow’s heart somewhere in the vicinity of my lunch.
When I got back to Portland on Friday, Brendan took me to lunch in a shady square in the middle of town. We sat outside, Dingo under the table, and ate lobster Caesar salads and drank a bottle of very cold, very good rosé. Overhead, leaves rustled in a clean, ocean-scented breeze and seagulls made their cranky announcements to one another in the sunlight. Painted on the wall of the building in whose courtyard we sat was a trompe l’oeuil mural that made it look like the side of a church in Brugges. A homeless woman yelled something. A group of tattooed local kids busked on a nearby bench with banjo, guitar, and accordion. They sounded really good, as most musicians here do. Many dogs walked by with their people.
“We live in Maine,” I announced, as I do occasionally, enjoying the oddness of it – neither of us ever expected to live here, not by a long shot, and yet, now that we do, it feels inevitable.
“We live in Maine,” Brendan agreed.
The next night, we ate clams on the half-shell and steak. The raw clams were the color of pale-pink rosebuds, and the inner walls of the medium rare, thinly sliced meat were labia-pink and juicy.
Last night, we went to Happy Hour at the nearby New Orleans place. They have dollar oysters; yesterday’s dozen came with a strawberry mignonette that was the most beautiful pink I’ve ever seen – dusky rose, still a little foamy from the blender. The vinegar and strawberries gave a sweet-tart gloss to the briny-sweet oysters. The insides of the oyster shells were nacreous pale pink. We ordered a tequila cocktail called an Afterglow: it’s not pink, technically, it’s a rosy-orangey red, but it’s made of passionfruit juice and thinly sliced hot Thai peppers, and it tasted pink, at least to me.
At the Japanese place on the corner, where we eat as often as we can afford it, we’ve been ordering pink food lately, too: the Salmon Lady roll, which comes with sliced toasted almonds and pink house-made spicy mayonnaise on top, and the tuna tataki salad of quiveringly fresh pink-red rare fish with vibrant green mesclun.
Pink is a festive color, girly. It’s the most erotic color, gentle but hot. Pale, it’s the color of velvety flower petals and lips and the tips of tongues and fleshy folds and sexy underwear and bubbles blown by bubblegum-chewing Lolitas. Darker on the spectrum, it’s the color of courtesans in push-up corsets in boudoirs draped in satin. The animal kingdom celebrates pink with the exotic and gorgeous and strange: coral cornsnakes, flamingos, octopi, and starfish. Elephants, hippos, dolphins, and monkeys (and poodles) come in pink. In food and drink, it’s the color of summer.
In a large bowl, mix 2 cups of finely chopped watermelon and watermelon juice with the following, all minced: 1 cored red pepper, 1 large, cored, peeled, very ripe tomato, half a red onion, hot red pepper to taste, 1 cored peeled cucumber. Add a good splash of red wine vinegar and another of olive oil, salt and black pepper to taste. Chill well.
Ladle into 2 bowls, garnish with minced fresh basil if desired, and serve with chilled Provençal rosé. Follow with shrimp cocktail, then thick slices of grilled pork tenderloin with boiled new little pink potatoes and steamed red chard. For dessert, serve warm rhubarb compote with strawberry ice cream on top and a bottle of Lambrusco.
The other evening, I was upstairs, reading John Crowley’s “Little, Big” in the bathtub with a glass of wine. Brendan was downstairs, making basil pesto. I thought this was a fine arrangement, all around.
After a few pages, I put the book down, because it’s too big and heavy to read in a bath and I was feeling lazy. I stared out the window at the trees. I was just thinking how nice it is to look into lush green tree branches from a second-story window when a series of strange noises came up from the kitchen. First, a whirring of some machine I didn’t recognize. Then, a clanking stop to the whirring. And then, immediately, a strangled yell that could only have come from Brendan, because Dingo was lying right next to the bathtub.
“Are you all right?” I shouted down into the sudden silence.
“No,” he shouted back. In his voice was complete certainty.
I leapt from the tub and ran downstairs as fast as I could with wet feet.
Brendan was standing with his hand under the running water of the sink. Then he pressed a wad of paper towel to it and lifted it above his head.
“I don’t want to lose my fucking finger,” he said. “This is bad.”
“What did you do?”
“Stuck my finger in the immersion blender to clear it. Like a total fucking idiot. I accidentally turned it on while my finger was in it.”
“We’re going to the emergency room,” I said. “I’ll be right back, I’m getting dressed.”
“I can’t believe I just did that,” he said.
We went out to the car. I was shaking but trying to stay calm.
“I’ll drive,” I said.
I have a learner’s permit but no license. It’s the fourth permit I’ve had, and I’ve never taken a driving test although I do, in theory, know how to drive.
Brendan drove us the four blocks to the hospital. He got out at the doors to the ER and I got into the driver’s seat and carefully, slowly drove the car into the parking garage and put it into a slot. I left it there, with Dingo in the back seat, and joined Brendan in the ER, where the triage nurse took his vitals (fine) and insurance information (none), asked him how much pain he was in on a scale of 1 to 10 (6 1/2) and then sent him back out to the waiting room to await an X-ray and stitches.
“You don’t have to wait,” he told me. “Go home and order some pizza. I don’t think we’re having pesto tonight. I’ve lost my appetite for it.”
We both laughed.
I went out to the parking garage and got into the car. Dingo sat bolt upright in the back seat; I could see his wide eyes staring at me in the rear view mirror.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I know what I’m doing here.”
I’d had a full glass of wine earlier in the bath, and I was still shaking from the shock of Brendan’s accident. Even so, I managed to get the car out of the parking spot and began spiraling around the parking garage, looking for the exit. I was going the wrong way, it dawned on me, so I executed a three-point turn without hitting anyone’s bumper and took us down and out of there. I crept onto the quiet hospital lane. It was raining. The windshield was fogged. I turned on the thing I hoped was the wiper: it was. Brendan’s legs are much longer than mine; his chair was so far back I had to extend both arms and legs to drive, and I couldn’t find the thing that moved it forward. Dingo stared at me the entire time I drove, as if willing me not to screw it up.
Wishing for a movie soundtrack, something both heroic and suspenseful, I muscled that Subaru through empty quiet streets, four blocks, all the way home, without getting lost or getting into an accident. And I managed to turn into the alley and park it in the garage. At a slight angle, but I got the job done.
The kitchen looked like the scene of a vegetal crime: dark green pesto was spattered everywhere. I took a picture of the immersion blender on my cell phone and sent it to Brendan: its round blade guard was caked in green sludge. It looked evil.
“Throw that fucking thing away,” he wrote back.
I threw it out instantly. I covered the bowl of half-made pesto with plastic wrap and stuck it into the fridge. Then I called the pizza place on the corner.
Three hours later, he came home with seven stitches in his finger. He hadn’t cut through to the bone, luckily, but he was in a lot of pain and ready for cold pizza and a lot of wine.
“Look at the cupboards,” he said. “They’re splattered in blood.”
So they were. It looked as if someone had been quickly and deftly murdered there. With a wet sponge, I wiped it off. Because our cupboards are made of a space-age substance called melamite, the blood came off with a single swipe. It was the first time I hadn’t cursed this yuppie kitchen we inherited from the previous owners.
With a mezzaluna, not an immersion blender, chop several large handfuls of fresh basil as finely as you can. Do the same with a medium handful of pine nuts. Crush two cloves of garlic and mince. Stir together, add salt and a lot of grated pecorino romano cheese and generous amounts of olive oil. Mix well, and toss with hot spaghetti. Blood optional.
Yesterday on our walk, the tide was as high as I’ve ever seen it here, churning at the stone seawall. The beaches had disappeared. We walked through driving rain and a hard wind, glad we’d worn knit hats and sweaters and raincoats. Dingo, who is always energized by cold weather and sapped by heat, scampered around like a hyperactive puppy. We kept up with him, both to warm ourselves and to get the daily constitutional over with as fast as possible.
Small branches had blown onto the path along the cliff, bright green. The underbrush was sodden and vivid. We saw no one except a couple of diehard runners trundling along with their heads down. Raindrops dripped off our noses. Our knuckles were numb. Dingo’s huge ears protruded from his little wet head, making him look even more like a bat than usual.
As we headed down along the paved bike path, looking out at the blurred green islands and heaving brown ocean, there was a sudden gleam ahead and a whir of an engine, and then a car appeared out of the rain, a beige, nondescript sedan, coming at us, very fast. Before we could fully register the fact that a car was somehow on the bike path or jump out of the way, it raced past us, grazing our raincoats. Luckily, Dingo wasn’t in its path or it would have hit him.
We stared after it as it barreled off.
“What was that?” I said.
“Crazy woman,” said Brendan.
The car stopped, down the path. Its taillights glowed red, and then it backed up, fast, right toward us.
“She’s trying to hit us maybe,” I said.
This time, we had the presence of mind to get out of the way. We retreated to the dirt footpath behind a bush, feeling silly, while I called 911. I felt even sillier doing this, because we couldn’t make out her license plate number, but I wanted to take some sort of action. She sat there, her car idling, while I described the car to the dispatcher, and then she took off again, forward this time. She would be gone by the time any cops could come to investigate.
On the way home, we stopped at the seafood market on Commercial Street. Back at home, warm in dry clothes, we sat at the kitchen counter and ate tender little silver boquerones on hot toast with mayonnaise, along with potato chips and small bottles of cold sake, solely for the purpose of restorative warmth, of course. We considered heating up the sake but decided that cold would warm the cockles just as well.
After he was toweled off, Dingo got some apple with peanut butter, which he accepted as his due, but delicately, not unlike a pasha being offered, on a silken pillow, a sweet pastry made of beaten gold, spun sugar, and the flour of a rare and precious grain brought from lands far off.
When the time came to cook dinner, as it always does around dusk, we reconvened in the kitchen. Brendan opened a bottle of rioja, better than the usual one we drink, and poured two glasses while I took from the vegetable bin the ingredients for tonight’s planned supper: boy choy and shiitake stir fry with peanut sauce and bean threads.
We looked at the vegetables for a while without much interest. We drank some wine.
I reached into the freezer and took out the package of ground pork we’d bought last fall at a farmstand. After I stuck it into the microwave to thaw, I minced mounds of garlic, cilantro, ginger, a Serrano pepper, and half a red onion. In a medium-sized glass bowl, I put dollops of rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, gluten-free oyster sauce, tamari, and lemon juice, to make about 1 1/2 cups of sauce. I whisked it all around, added plenty of garlic and ginger, and whisked some more. In a smaller bowl, I poured an equal part of boiling water over a big wad of peanut butter and stirred till it was smooth, then added that to the sauce.
To the thawed pork, I added the red onion, Serrano pepper, the rest of the garlic and ginger, the cilantro, and enough of the dipping sauce to moisten it well, about half a cup. I stirred the pork mixture as lightly and quickly as I could till it was all mixed together.
From the very bottom of the fridge, where they’ve been sitting untouched for months, I pulled out a package of the rice wrappers I’d ordered online from a Thai import company last spring, when we had a yen for shrimp spring rolls with peanuts, scallions, and mint. Evidently, they keep for a very long time in the fridge.
I soaked each one for a few seconds in warm water until it melted a bit, then wrapped a rectangular wad of pork mixture in it, burrito style. When there were 8 of them and the pork was all gone, I heated a layer of peanut oil in the nonstick wok and fried them in two batches for a good long time, until they were cooked through and chewy-crisp on both sides.
We sat at the counter and devoured all of the pork dumplings. The dipping sauce was spicy and full of different flavors, as dipping sauce should be; there was none of that left, either.
When our plates were empty, we drank more rioja and contemplated the vegetables on the counter one more time, and then I put them away for another meal.