I awoke early this morning to another cold rainy gray day. As I got out of bed and put on my robe, Dingo came back soaking wet from his walk. While Brendan made coffee, I toweled him off and fed him, and then he sloped off to the couch for a nap while we drank our coffee, holding onto the mugs for warmth.
We’re all craving sun and warmth. Every time I put my coat on yet again to go out, I think, what season is this? Outside, I adjust my expectations, put on my hood, try to convince myself that it’s not late February. The chilly air forces me to stay retracted into myself, like a prolonged inhalation, when I’m jonesing to expand and turn outward and get the stale air out of my lungs. The trees and bushes in this town are just starting to bud, but barely, cautiously; I’m sure they all feel the same way I do, as well as the bulb flowers, which are getting a late start in recently thawed dirt. The ash tree in back always puts out leaves much later than the trees around it. It’s showing no signs of renewed life yet, and I don’t expect anything from it for a while. We’re all walking around hunched into our warm clothes, looking askance at the sky, griping to anyone who will listen, marveling at how disappointed we all are after such a brutal winter to be denied a warm, sunny spring. It feels unnatural and cruel. Our bones are cold and our timbers are shivering, up here in the north.
Rebelling is pointless. Yesterday, at the Japanese place, the waitress was surprised that I wanted cold sake rather than hot. Defiantly, I ordered it, along with a big cold fresh crunchy salad and a summery cucumber-avocado roll. It’s spring, dammit, I thought. But the meal failed to warm my cockles; I stayed chilled. I had to drink a pot of piping-hot tea to recover from it.
This morning after cinnamon French toast with hot maple syrup and blueberries, we took our daily walk on the Eastern Prom, the foghorn lowing, the high tide slapping and sucking against the stone sea wall, the pavement and gravel and grass all sopping wet. It was too foggy to see the bay or islands. The rain slid down, greasy and cold, not a spring rain but a chilly one, with malicious intent. Up on the cliffs, the still-bare branches dripped.
The only people out besides us were two groups of men, none of them up to any good: a couple of wild-eyed hobos drinking hooch and puffing cheap cigars on the stone steps up to the trail (“Happy spring! Beautiful spring day!” they trumpeted at us as we climbed up past them, cackling as if this were the best joke ever made), and then a group of three preppy, athletic-looking teenage boys in blazers and khakis. They ambled by us on the path, not making eye contact, trailing the smell of skunky ganja. They looked like sweet-natured, well-bred high-school seniors cutting school.
“That could have been me fifteen years ago,” said Brendan.
“One of them even looks like you.” I paused. “Ha ha, you were in high school fifteen years ago.”
“I was in high school thirty-five years ago.”
I laughed. “I was in the class of 1980.”
He laughed. “I was in the class of 2000.”
“I’d been married for four years by then. I’d published a novel.”
“You graduated from high school two years before I was born,” he said.
It never fails to amuse and entertain us, our age difference. We never seem to tire of exchanging these facts and marveling at them, holding them up like shiny objects, cocking our heads at them. “You were how old then?” is a question guaranteed to amuse us.
Maybe we’re so fascinated by these things because we’re equals. When we’re alone together, we feel as if we’re the same age. He knows all the old songs, he’s seen all the old movies, he’s read all the books I’ve read. I could never condescend to him or make him feel callow, nor would I. And because he’s emotionally steadier and calmer and more grounded than I am, he never makes me feel hoary or staid. We’ve decided that we’re both around forty. Or maybe I’m a little younger than that. Who knows? What is age, again?
“We were the only ones out today without booze or drugs,” I pointed out as we climbed the steep hill to where we’d parked. “I feel left out.”
“I want some whiskey now,” said Brendan.
“This is a good day for whiskey.”
“Perfect whiskey weather,” said Brendan. “Something peaty and single malty.”
“We have some Laphroaig left from Scotch Club.”
We got into the car, Dingo in the backseat with his wet, dirty underbelly, us humans in front with our wet, muddy shoes. The windshield was soaked with rain. Windshield wipers creaking, we drove slowly along. It was time to discuss the night’s menu.
I decided to forget about rebelling against this damned unnatural weather and try to combat it.
“How about a fish soup, maybe a chowder?” I said. “With hot bubbling melted cheese toast?”
“Yes,” said Brendan. “And whiskey.”
At Whole Foods, we bought Yukon Gold potatoes, a bag of frozen corn, a bunch of parsley, plus frozen fish broth and half a pound each of monkfish, haddock, and sea scallops. We got a chunk of goat gouda for the cheese toast.
We came home and toweled Dingo off. Our house felt chilly. The heat was on, the radiators were doing their best, but lately the air in here seems to be refusing to warm up, as if in protest.
Later on, after our work gets done, we’ll make a batch of cocktails based on something called a Penicillin that Brendan drank in a bar in L.A. once, to cure his cold: Laphroaig, ginger-honey simple syrup, and lemon juice. It’s a cold cocktail, as befits the season, but it ought to warm us up just fine.
The other night in Brunswick, late in the evening, after we’d all drunk a lot of wine and the conversation had turned free-form and far-ranging, my friend Genevieve posited that the movie “Terminator 2” is to blame for the female hard-body phenomenon of the 1990s, which persists to this day.
“If you watch ‘Seinfeld’ through the years,” she said, “you can see it happen. Pre-‘Terminator 2,’ Jerry’s girlfriends all look like normal women, like us. Post ‘Terminator 2,’ after 1991, when Linda Hamilton got all buff, they’re suddenly all ripped. It’s James Cameron’s fault.”
We had just eaten a decadent and lavish feast; I was not feeling particularly muscular, to put it mildly, even though I have been to exactly two Pilates classes this year. Our hostess, Mary, had made cod and shrimp poached in olive oil, with piperade, a slow-cooking stew of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, over polenta, and chard steamed in garlic. While dinner cooked, we guests all crowded into the kitchen with wineglasses and chatter and offers to help. It was a crowd of ten writers and painters, equal numbers of men and women.
As I poured myself more wine and jumped into a conversation about the deliciousness and seasonal ephemerality of fried shad roe, I was thinking about what makes a successful dinner party: this obviously was one, from its first moment, when we parked and got out of our car, and Mary’s son, who was outside playing with Brock and Lane’s son, told us we could go straight through the barn into the kitchen.
We wandered through the barn and found a door. When we came into a comfy big kitchen with a sunroom though an arch, Mary handed us cocktails of Campari, grapefruit juice, and lime. (I had forgotten all about Campari; now I remembered how much I’ve always liked its herbaceous bitterness.) After eating some cheese, crackers, and dates while kibitzing a bit in the sunroom, I wandered into the kitchen and was handed a small cutting board, a head of garlic, and a knife. I started crushing and peeling garlic cloves while Brock washed chard and Mark did something else. Mary was monitoring an inch of so of olive oil with garlic and herbs in a shallow wide pot. I looked at the table where other ingredients awaited their fate and espied a cookbook. Peering at the recipe, I blurted out without thinking, “Wow, you use cookbooks!”
“You really don’t?” said Mary, surprised, and I had to admit that I really don’t, not usually, except for the cardamom chicken with rice and caramelized onions from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and a couple of other standby favorites. Although I poke around the Internet when I want to learn new dishes and methods, I am singularly and habitually unadventurous when it comes to trying actual recipes from actual books.
After I handed off the minced garlic and before I began chopping chard stems, I pawed through this one, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was beautiful and expertly laid out and looked like it might be a lot of fun to cook with. The piperade, I noticed, began with a soffrito of diced onion and grated tomato flesh, which is apparently meant to cook slowly for up to five hours…
“Five hours,” I said admiringly. “You’ve been cooking all day.”
“Not really,” said Mary.
When the food was ready, we all moved into the candlelit dining room and took our places around the long table, which exactly seated the ten of us. After Mary finished lighting all the candles and sat down, we lifted our wineglasses and toasted her and toasted her again, and then we began eating. The food was superb: the shrimp and cod were tenderly poached, the piperade was dense and savory-sweet, and the polenta was luscious.
I vowed to start using cookbooks more often, right then and there, because being a monkey, I am imitative, not unlike all the hordes of female moviegoers in 1991 who copied Linda Hamilton and started lifting weights and possibly taking steroids, although that’s just idle speculation. I imitate other people constantly, unconsciously, simply because it’s human nature to do so. During dinner, I admired everyone, especially all the other women, their diction, ideas, and gestures, their hair, their expressions. In groups, when I’m feeling happy and relaxed, I often find myself melding with everyone else, a willful deviation to a better norm. It’s a pleasant feeling, a kind of melting of boundaries, the sharp edges of identity blurred.
By the end of the night, many hours after the party had begun, the wine was gone and the individual ramekins of caramelized butterscotch pudding with crème fraiche had been scraped clean. Moving a little slowly, we cleared the table and put the food away and washed enough dishes so we wouldn’t have to worry that Mary would spend the entire next day at the sink, and then we dispersed cheerfully into the night, heading home in our various cars.
The next morning, I woke up still laughing at many of the things that had been said the night before, still tasting the cod, still determined to cook more with actual cookbooks.
And then, yesterday, serendipitously, a gorgeous and lavish new cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue from Ben, a magazine editor I’ve worked with frequently over the years. It’s called Yucatan. I’ve traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico more times than I can count; it’s one of my favorite places, and I am mad about the food there, but I’ve never learned how to make any of it.
I opened it at random to a recipe, which coincidentally involves poached seafood and a Mexican sofrito, and which I am going to make tomorrow night, unless hell or high water prevents me. It’s called Langosta con Leche de Coco, or Lobster Tails Poached in Sweet Coconut Milk; you can use frozen lobster tails, and its sofrito includes shallots, garlic, and chiles and only takes three minutes as opposed to five hours. But the photo alongside the recipe looks amazing. Tomorrow, I’m going to buy all the ingredients and lay in some Campari. I’ll shake a couple of ounces over ice with a dash each of grapefruit and lime juice and start chopping.
The other night, I was talking on the phone, an occurrence much rarer than a blue moon, to a brand-new friend named Melissa who lives in Montreal. It started out as an interview, which is how she got me on the phone at all, but quickly devolved into, or rather progressed to, a fun exchange of banter and stories, in the course of which we exchanged information about what we were eating right then. She, being in a big French-influenced city, had amassed an enviable spread. This included champagne, shrimp cocktail, and two kinds of fresh oysters, shucked by her husband, who is 11 years younger than she is; “my child bride,” she called him, whereupon I told her about Brendan’s and my idea of a cooking show called “Cougar Kitchen.” This led to an interesting side discussion of our respective happy marriages.
Then we got back to food. I, despite being in the middle of something like nowhere, had a couple of good cheeses, some mixed spicy olives, and a bottle of excellent $12 Rioja on hand, thanks to Brendan, who had gone shopping earlier that day. I had requested phone-friendly, non-crunchy, savory snacks, and he’d found the best Hannaford had to offer.
“So what are you going to cook for dinner after we hang up?” Melissa asked.
Swallowing a chunk of Wisconsin white cheddar, I told her: a pound of boneless, skinless fresh chicken thighs, marinated in a winning combination of harissa spices with jerk spices, baked in peanut oil. The jerk spices were sent to me by a former Iowa student, Nana, a Cameroonian-American who got them on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and who immediately became my favorite person in the world when they arrived. She had made amazing, addictive jerk chicken for our final workshop; I’d asked her for the recipe, and she had not forgotten.
“I read in your blog that you like packages in the mail,” Melissa said then, in a tone I took to be promising, whereupon I immediately gave her my address, spelling the street name carefully so that anything that might happen to come in the mail from Montreal wouldn’t go astray.
Alongside the spicy thighs, I went on, I’d cut Japanese yams into wedges and toss them with garlic powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and basil, then roast them on a cookie sheet in more peanut oil. “Japanese yams are so much better for cottage fries than the other kinds,” I said excitedly, swilling some wine. “They’re firm and starchy and just sweet enough. The other kinds are too sweet, and they fall apart.”
I was planning to serve the chicken and yams with White Trash Fancy Sauce, a highly sophisticated recipe I hit upon a while back and have never altered: a mixture of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise I find perniciously addictive and not entirely unlike McDonalds Special Sauce. And for the veg, two bunches of red chard, chopped up and sautéed in chicken broth, chopped garlic, and olive oil, which, I bragged, had come from Brendan’s family’s olive trees in Tuscany.
“You should brag about that,” she said.
“I do,” I said. “And now that I think of it, this meal is a blue plate special.”
“This brings me to an actual official question. What is a blue plate special, exactly? An old American diner term?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a cheap diner meal, some meat, a starch, and a veg or two.”
“Did they use actual blue plates?”
I considered this question. Did I really not know the answer? I really didn’t, although I had named a whole book after the thing.
“Something of an oversight, I think,” said Melissa.
“You could say that,” I said. “You know, it always felt like my family’s made-up term, something our mother made us in memory of the years when she was a poor student, living in New York, eating fried farina she made on a hot plate in her tiny rented room. A blue plate special was a big treat, and I think she would eat her friends’ leavings on their plates…”
I tried to picture the scene. Were the plates in question literally blue?
“What’s fried farina?”
“Also a good question,” I said. “It sounds disgusting. I should get the recipe from her.”
“You should!” she said.
We hung up after almost two hours of comparing the many parallels in our lives, shooting the breeze about food, and occasionally clinking our wineglasses against the mouthpieces of our phones. Then I made dinner, exactly as described, and Brendan and I set upon it like ravenous wolverines while Dingo and his visiting best friend, Brendan’s aunt’s dog, Bandito, watched from a polite but easy-access distance on the floor nearby, their eyes never leaving our forks.
While we ate, I went to Wikipedia and looked up “blue plate special” and found the following: “It refers to a specially low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a ‘meat and three’ (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate rather than on separate dishes. The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007, there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression. A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: ‘A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.’”
As for the “blue” part of the equation, no one is exactly sure, but it probably comes from those blue, segmented plates as well as Spode or Wedgewood blue willow patterned plates, both of which were popular in restaurants back then.
The entry goes on, “In contemporary use, a ‘blue-plate special’ can be any inexpensive full meal, any daily selection, or merely a whimsical phrasing.”
That’s the expression as I know it, and as my mother used it: a blue plate special is a plain, cozy, square meal, filling and cheap, nourishing and satisfying, the kind she used to serve us, our favorite kind of meal.
We swiped the last yam wedges through the Fancy Sauce and pushed our plates away, glutted, slaked, and stuffed.
I love getting packages in the mail, especially food-related items. Ordering ingredients and kitchen tools is always fun, especially when I’ve forgotten I’d done so and they arrive like surprises, but it’s even more festive and exciting when people send me stuff out of the blue. It feels like an old-fashioned treat, like Christmas, no matter when it happens.
Last spring, for example, a friend who lives in London mailed me two china plates stamped “Manhattan Blue Plate Special” and a big bag of Guinness crisps, which are insanely good and greasy (and gluten-free). If I lived anywhere near where they were sold, I would eat them all the time, so it’s probably lucky I don’t. Last fall, my sister, who lives in Amsterdam, sent me a care package chockfull of treasures from a HEMA shopping spree, including little sake cups, an apron, chocolates, and dishtowels.
And last week, an old friend, a Brooklyn writer who has a house in Costa Rica, sent me a bag of dried black peppercorns from the “winter garden” he and his wife maintain down there. Their airy house, with a cozy wraparound veranda plus a roof with an amazing view, is perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Caribbean. Just up the hill behind it, a solid wall of unbroken, thick jungle apparently goes back all the way to Panama.
Many years ago, on my birthday, I sat on their roof veranda, looking out over the lush hillside and ocean while the sun set, drinking rum and eating turtle soup that had simmered all day on their stove. It was a guilty pleasure, but it was memorably delicious, rich and flavorful and tender, and I ate two bowls of it and craved it again when I woke up the next morning.
Another time, a group of us trooped into the jungle behind their house to shoot guns at targets. We got caught in a rainstorm so intense, it was like being in a lukewarm shower turned on full force. Water streamed into our eyes, drenched our faces and shoes. We stumbled back the way we came, but now our machete tracks were obscured by mud and battered leaves, so we got absolutely lost. The wall of vegetation around us was so dense, there was no gauging direction. Somehow, maybe just dumb luck, we found the way out, but there was a tricky half hour or so during which I imagined the many miles to Panama with more than a little nervousness.
Last week, safe and dry in my kitchen in Maine, I opened the double-wrapped package that had just thunked onto the entryway floor through the mail slot. I inhaled the fresh, strong, earthy smell of the peppercorns, instantly inspired to figure out what to do with them. I thought about steak au poivre, but I didn’t feel like a hunk of red meat just then; I wanted something lighter, but satisfying and filling.
And then my thoughts turned to Asian noodle soups. A while back, I learned to make pho from a Vietnamese cook who showed me how to toast a spice bouquet, then simmer it to make the broth. I decided to tinker with that spice combination to make a broth and serve the soup with bright and spicy ginger scallion sauce. For the soup ingredients, I decided on cod, baby bok choy, and shiitakes. I used thick Thai rice noodles, but if I could eat them, slippery, hearty udon noodles would be my first choice for this soup, the perfect combination with the firm fish and tender vegetables.
Fish Noodle Soup With Ginger Scallion Sauce
In a cast-iron skillet over high heat, toast the following spices for about 5 minutes: 5 crushed cardamom pods, 2 teaspoons of authentic homegrown Costa Rican peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, and 5 star anise. Add them to 6 cups of chicken broth in a stock pot along with sea salt to taste, 1 chopped hot pepper, 8 crushed cloves of garlic, a thumb-sized piece of ginger crushed with a meat tenderizer mallet, and a quartered yellow onion with the skin on. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for about an hour.
While it bubbles away, make the ginger scallion sauce. In a Cuisinart, mince a thumb-sized piece plus a finger-sized piece (ouch) of ginger, stopping before it becomes a paste. Do the same with a roughly chopped bunch of scallions. Put the scallions and ginger into a big, tall-sided pot – the taller the better, because this is going to be a flash mini-volcano. Add plenty of salt and mix — it should taste just slightly too salty. Heat ½ cup peanut oil until it smokes. Pour the molten oil into the pot all at once, and stand back. When it calms down, stir well, let cool, and put into a serving bowl.
Meanwhile, wash and chop 3-4 heads of baby bok choy, separating whites from greens, and a box of shiitake mushrooms. Cut 1 1/4 pound of cod into bite-sized pieces.
Prepare a package of udon or rice noodles according to the directions on the package.
Pour the hot broth through a strainer into a wok over medium heat, adding couple of dollops of toasted sesame oil. Add the white parts of the baby bok choy and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shiitakes, the green parts, and the cod. Stir and simmer everything for a few more minutes till the fish is flaky and the vegetables are just soft.
Divide the noodles into 4 bowls and ladle the soup over them. Garnish with generous dollops of ginger scallion sauce.
Just as we were heading out to take our walk this morning, Tom Earle, the local farmer, came walking up the icy path across the yard to our front door, asking to tap the maple trees that line the driveway by the barn. We tagged along with him over to the barn, where his pickup truck was parked. He scrambled up into his truck bed to gather stacks of galvanized steel buckets. “Apparently now galvanized steel is no good for eating,” he said, “but I don’t know.” From the cab, he fetched a ball peen hammer, a battery-powered drill, a small metal tap, and a plastic spout.
He approached the nearest maple tree. We followed him, clambering over the hard icy packed snowdrift. They’re old, the trees here, with silvered, hoary bark, tall and shaggy.
He told us this is a good time for mapling now, cold nights and warmer days, when the sap, frozen in the roots all winter, thaws in the sun and rises hydraulically up the trunk and into the branches to feed the tree. “They have vacuum pumps now, the modern maplers, and even with the new machinery, they only get about 7 percent more than with these old methods. And that’s only 10, 20 percent of the tree’s sap. Some of them are planting maple trees a few feet apart and when they get high enough, they go through and whack off the tops and take out the sap that way.” He shook his head and laughed.
“Kind of like mountaintop removal mining,” I said, cringing a little as Dingo took a shit right by the front right wheel of Tom’s truck.
Tom politely ignored Dingo and considered the lower trunk. This one already had a mapling hole in it. “The hole always leaves a little bruise,” he said. “You don’t want to use an old hole.”
He walked around the trunk and stopped. “The sap is everywhere right now, but a good spot is usually under a branch.” He drilled a shallow hole a foot below the biggest low branch, then gently pocked in the metal tap with the hammer. “You can hear the sound change when it hits the sap.” He set the bucket’s handle into the hook in the tap so it was wedged securely just below it. A clear, thin drop welled and pinged into the bottom of the bucket. “The first drop,” he said, attaching the spout.
“I wonder who first thought to tap maple trees,” I said.
“The Indians didn’t have buckets, so they hollowed out tree trunks and set them under the spouts to collect sap,” he said. “And to sugar it off, because they didn’t have pots, they would drop hot rocks into the tree hollows. It’s 40 to 1, the ratio of sap to syrup. It takes two days in a pot with a good fire going. Imagine how long it took with hot rocks.”
“I wonder if animals like maple sap,” I said.
He laughed. “Everyone knows sugar,” he said. “I’ve got a terrible sweet tooth, myself, but we’ll have enough maple syrup left over to sell.” He invited us to visit his sugar hut later on, an invitation we accepted, and then off we went for our walk in the sudden springlike warmth. The dirt road had melted in rivulets and ice shards. The air temperature was less than 30 degrees, but the sun warmed everything up.
By the time we got back, less than an hour later, Tom had moved off to tap another copse of maples, and the trees lining the drive each had two buckets attached to their lower trunks.
It’s amazing to me, a former New Yorker who spent my entire post-school life in the city before I first came up here 5 years ago, to live in such close proximity to people who know how to DO shit, who’ve learned, and who practice, the old traditional ways. When my ex-husband and I renovated our 19th century row house in Greenpoint, we did most of the work ourselves, in part because there was no one to hire. Jon had worked for about 15 years after college as a building contractor, but when his joints gave out and he left that business, there was no one to hand it on to. All the young kids were now in I.T. and media.
Up here, this is not the case. The contractors who renovated our Portland house were our tenants’ best friends; finding them was the easiest thing in the world. I had been wanting to watch someone tap a maple tree, and he came walking up to our front door one warmish late-winter morning.
Sometimes I feel like all I have to do is ask, and I meet someone who has what I want. Last month in Portland, at the first meeting of our newly formed Scotch Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, I idly expressed a yearning to cook moose. It turned out that Bri, who lives two blocks away from us, had a freezer full that she wasn’t sure what to do with; her girlfriend’s father is a hunter.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “If you give me some of that moose, I’ll cook it for the next Scotch Club meeting.”
When I went to her house to collect it, she handed me three packages of frozen meat marked “backstrap,” “New York sirloin,” and “stew meat.” I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I took them straight home and thawed the packages in a pot of hot water. The meat was a deep ruby-purple. There was no fat on it. It smelled mineral-fresh, not gamey at all; I reserved all the liquid that pooled in the bags from thawing.
I had decided to bourguignon the hell out of the moose, so I used Ina Garten’s recipe, substituting moose for beef. I used plenty of thyme, butter, lardons, cognac, and an entire bottle of dry red wine.
That night’s Scotch club meeting began in the living room with cheese, crackers, and a tasting of the night’s first single malt, Glenfiddich, which we all pronounced smooth and tasty. Then we thronged into the kitchen and filled our plates with buttered fresh gluten-free fettucine topped with moose bourguignon and buttered peas, and alongside, a salad of herb mix and fennel with a strong vinaigrette. The moose meat was tender and savory and stalwart enough to sop up all the rest of the single malts that followed that night.