Monthly Archives: January 2022

Down to the last crumb

Everyone who cooks knows that finesse derives from balance: a seesaw of salinity and sweetness, acid and fat, raw and cooked, cold and hot, spice and umami, flavor and texture. A mixture of red harissa paste and labneh cheese makes a lovely dipping sauce for air-fried red pontiac potatoes tossed in olive oil and salt, for instance. Focaccia topped with tzatziki, anchovies, arugula, and al dente-cooked carrot slices creates a similar harmony. Take half an avocado and stuff it with crab or lobster salad, capers, and panko, and you’ll taste what I’m talking about. This principle of balance is why things like Hawaiian pizza work, why lox and cream cheese belong together on a toasted bagel, why granola goes with berries in yogurt and caviar with boiled eggs and diced raw onions en croute. It’s really as simple as cheese and crackers: richness and depth paired with delicate lightness and crunch. But add a dollop of Mike’s Hot Honey to a smear of chèvre on baguette and everything is elevated.

Fried chicken and waffles is another example. Pepper jelly and Neufchâtel. Ricotta with fresh peaches, candied pecans, and balsamic glaze. Cheddar with apple pie, too. I detest the idea of ketchup on scrambled eggs, but there’s a reason people do it. Potato latkes, however, do deserve both sides of sour cream and applesauce, hard sauce should stick around with plum pudding, and horseradish cream cozies up to prime rib cooked rare-to-medium-rare. This is why cranberry sauce has a place on the Thanksgiving table: without that sweet/tart punch, the entire meal would lack a big bit of brightness.

I’ve mentioned time and again how little I like wasting, among many things, food. This has led to much experimentation and trial and error in the kitchen and compelled me to invent or reinvent recipes to incorporate ways to make use of what would otherwise be waste. I’ve been trying to crack the case of the “crumbs in the bottom of the bag” conundrum for years and have had middling success with a variety of solutions, including breading chicken cutlets in Lay’s potato chip bits, adding Pirate Booty powder to pizza dough, and using pretzel-bag silt to salt water for boiling pasta. Recently, though, I was faced with a Costco-sized sack of tortilla chips that had been eaten down to the dust, and I almost, almost just threw it out, but after a minute of staring at those little shards of what was once perfectly good corn, all those tiny pieces that had been brought into this home by the forces of everything from photosynthesis to factory ovens and freight shipping, it was just too compelling a challenge not to accept: how could I dignify all the details, all of the energy and money and calibrated movements, all of the logistics that contributed to the existence of this edible material?

As if that 40-oz. plastic bag of Kirkland Signature Organic Tortilla Chips were a crystal ball of some kind, a vision occurred to me. This vision wasn’t ethereal in nature, though; it was more like one of those window decals in primary colors on the outside of a Taco Bell. In fact, that’s almost exactly what this vision was like: an image of a Crunchwrap Supreme. I’ve never had one of those, but I appreciate the principle. What do you give a bunch of hungry people who can’t decide between a soft taco and a hard-shelled one? Well, you literally roll the two up together and give them both in one handy package. As a child, I loved the bologna and mustard sandwiches with Ruffles potato chips in them that my mom made us, so I’m attributing my Bag Bottom Burrito idea to this texture variation sandwich concept, with perhaps a shade of influence borrowed from that oversized sticker picture on everyone’s favorite Mexican-inspired fast food chain.

Bag Bottom Burritos

Ingredients:

1 packet taco seasoning (or make your own)
1 lb ground meat (beef, chicken, turkey, pork), browned, drained, and prepared according to instructions on seasoning packet
Grated cheese (cheddar, monterey jack, asadero, etc.)
Refried beans (or black beans or similar)
Avocado or guacamole
Whatever tortilla chip remnants remain in the bag after whoever ate the last big chip put the bag back in the pantry
Medium-sized flour tortillas
And literally whatever else you like in a burrito or on a taco! Shredded lettuce, diced fresh tomatoes, salsa, black olives, sour cream, green chiles, jalapeños, cilantro, onions, etc.

Directions: Step 1: Add meat, cheese and beans to the tabula rasa of a flour tortilla but don’t fold it up yet! Heat in the microwave until very warm and cheese is mostly melted. Step 2: Add avocado slices (or guacamole) and a generous dump of tortilla chip crumb, roll it up, and serve it quickly, before the chips have a chance to take on moisture and lose their crunch! What’s great about this is that the salt in the crumbs seasons the other ingredients, and who doesn’t like an ample dose of sodium in south-of-the-border fare? Step 3: Gaze upon the beautifully empty bag and revel in everything it represents, including all of the energy you’ve harnessed, honored, and fed to your family, starting with the spring sun that shone on corn fields.

Talk about amazing grace

One year for Christmas, my sister-in-law bought four matching bracelets, gave three to my two sisters and me, and kept one for herself. They were all identical silver circlets, each bearing a cameo-style oval charm with a carving of a flower and the word “sister” engraved on its face. We all thought this was such a special, beautiful gift from a woman whom we’d considered a sister for over a decade and who’d never had a biological sister of her own, and we all wore them with no intention of taking them off.

About a year later, one day I discovered that the charm from my bracelet was missing. We scoured the house and the car and everywhere else we could think to look before disconsolately giving it up for lost. My husband kindly went the store where my sister-in-law had bought the bracelets and came home with a replacement charm, but the design had changed in the intervening seasons, and though it was still a flower and the word “sister,” it no longer matched the other bracelets. Ah, well; it was the best that could be done.

Fast forward about two more years to when my mom gave me a white bleeding heart plant for Mother’s Day, as I was always ogling the one growing in front of her house. I planted it against the garage, but it withered there for want of light. In an effort to save it, I eventually dug it up and prepared to replant it on the side of the yard that enjoyed full sun. To this end, I had to relocate the hose reel, shifting it so close to a planter that it chagrined my husband, and he insisted that I transplant my poor plant for a second time, eighteen inches to the left. Put out but determined to find it a happy root-hole, I broke ground yet again and started shoveling, turning up the hard clay onto the yard (which compelled my husband, who was now thoroughly chagrined, to quietly deposit a wheelbarrow at my disposal). I’d dug about a foot deep when I saw something shiny just barely visible, buried in the soil. A nailhead, I thought, silently scoffing at my memory of the worksite during the years that our house was being built, the entire lot strewn with refuse and castoff construction-related detritus. Fully prepared to disgustedly pull from the earth a crushed aluminum can or mess of mangled metal moulding emanating tetanus, instead what I discovered was, yes, the long-lost pendant: a flower long buried underground.

“What are the odds?” I reiterated to my family, having gathered them to witness this incredible and happy happenstance. “Of all the places to dig a hole!” we marveled, surmising that during one of the thousands of visits I’d paid to the homesite over the course of the three years during which we awaited the house’s completion, the charm had dropped from its bangle to be buried by the dirt of many months, and there it had lain until our landscaper (a charismatic character named Ralph who has the most magnificently mellifluous Irish accent ) rolled out the sod overtop.

Once the surprise and delight of the wild coincidence had quieted, a more profound reflection began to resonate: how akin this serendipitous incident was to my experience of sisterhood. Just over a year earlier, my very own sister had moved into the carriage house apartment over our garage, a literal stone’s throw from where I’d dug that hole. Over the course of her thirty years of life, we had come together and parted ways countless times geographically, usually convening when people do things like head home for the holidays, but through the decades we had always been there, in the important ways, for each other. Though not all biological sisters are fortunate enough to share this circumstance, I couldn’t help but align the beauty of finding this buried treasure to the omnipresent value of having sisters. No matter how disparately our paths would diverge over the years, we’d always reconvene to walk alongside each other, our steps in sync during the stretches of life we could tread together. We’d each travel in separate circles, as life would have it, until we’d cross ways again and exist in the bubble formed by the two circles’ overlapping edges, a Venn diagram of togetherness.

If someone can lose a tiny silver disc no bigger than a flattened dime, only to have it turn up like a good penny years later, unearthed from the very ground where it had been buried; well, it goes to show that just because something is gone, that it doesn’t mean it’s lost. And even when one sister is in a completely different place (on the planet, in stages of life, relating to mentality, etcetera), she’s still right there in heart and soul, if not also body and mind. And while I’m completely convinced that the universe was complicit in the fallen charm’s finding its way back to me, I’m still calling this the best outcome of all of the times I have caused my husband chagrin*.

*to date

Stairway to somewhere

Mother: “Sweetheart, your Ziploc with the contents from your owl pellet dissection is still on the counter at your breakfast spot. It can’t stay there, so would you please find another place for it to live if you want to keep it?”

Daughter: “Oh, yes! I know just where to put it!”

Also Daughter:

A perfect home for literally nothing.

When a hypothesis becomes a theory

Our youngest child is captivated by nature. As his mother, my interest in the natural word and its many-legged denizens became rekindled through his passionate preoccupation, and I’ve grown vicariously and then authentically enthralled by these animals as well, often spending great deals of my own time researching them and feeding the individuals for which he’s created habitats inside our home. I’ve worried over whether his praying mantis’s diet is varied enough, I’ve stopped what I was doing to refresh a cotton ball with water to keep the grasshoppers’ enclosure adequately hydrated, I’ve researched how to overwinter an ootheca and how to help one hatch come spring. I’ve held infantile, hangnail-sized praying mantis nymphs in my palms and breathed hotly onto their incredibly intricate and miniature framework to resuscitate them from exposure to cold. I’ve left overripe grapes in a bowl to catch fruit flies, not to rid our environs of the pests, but to catch and release them as fodder into the jug full of spiders. I’ve dug countless earthworms out of the soil and offered them, one at a time, in the basin of an acorn cap with a long stem for a handle that we call “the egg-cup”, to the tongue-flickering jaws of the tiny DeKay’s brown snakes we found in the yard (yes, my son also loves reptiles). I’ve celebrated upon making the discovery that stick insects consider the blackberry leaves from our garden a delicacy, and I’ve embarked on a project wherein we cast all of the deceased specimens and instar-sheds he collects, many of which he hands me upon climbing into the car after school, in clear resin using silicone molds. To love a child means that his loves are conferred upon you in an associative sense. Fascination begets fascination.

He’s dressed up as a spider for two Halloweens so far, most recently sporting a rather involved black widow getup including a hand-painted acrylic hourglass to embellish a black shirt with that cochineal badge, the maker’s mark of his favorite species of arachnid. He’s written several books about all manner of bugs, most recently a nonfiction research journal on centipedes. His bed is full of plush insects and spiders. He has stacks upon stacks of artwork devoted to his observations as a naturalist and shelves of books featuring a beloved host of animalia and other creatures, including a beautiful volume detailing the world of microorganisms (he calls them his “microfamily”). I helped him create a YouTube channel we’ve called “Arlo’s Animal Wonders”, and he signs off each video with a signature tag line, an idea he borrowed from his current idol, Coyote Peterson. He brings his prized possession, an insect vacuum (given by a dear friend for his last birthday), everywhere and even carried it the entire 4.3 miles on our most recent hike. He’s begged me to buy whole fish and crabs at Costco so he can inspect their anatomy; the branzino fins and snapper tails from our last piscine investigation are still on the back porch fossilizing until they’re desiccated enough to join his indoor trove of treasures. On his last playdate, he and four friends each dissected two whole prawns–one raw and one cooked–with dinner knives and tweezers. That night in his bedroom, upon learning that I’d disposed of the carcasses, he cried until I promised I’d excavate them from the trash can.

One evening we found yet another infinitesimal moth flitting around on the third floor while he was getting ready for bed. Despite my imploring that he just change his clothes and brush his teeth, he thundered down two flights of stairs to fetch the empty mayonnaise container he was planning to use as a collection vessel and insisted on capturing the moth. Once he’d successfully screwed on the lid, I knew from experience that a conversation needed to happen so he’d be prepared for the probable outcome that the moth wouldn’t make it ’til dawn. (When his stick insect died, he lay for a long, long time on the hardwood floor, holding the limp body and considering it so lovingly, so wistfully, that I thought my heart might just deliquesce and leak out on the spot.)

I said, “Buddy, what happens if the moth can’t live overnight in that container? I mean, are you going to be okay if it isn’t alive tomorrow? Like, what if there’s not enough air in there for him to last that long?” And his answer, “Well, then, we will have learned something,” was the sentence that provided the final piece of evidence to confirm my suspicions that not only is this child a scientist, but a scientist can be a child.

In loving memory of Mary Oliver, departed from living but forever here for life.

Packing heat

My son has a friend who chose “Sriracha” as the theme of his seventh birthday party. Yes, that’s right; the boy turning seven loves hot sauce, and Sriracha is his personal favorite. I find this fact fascinating and impressive, and it’s always been interesting to me how people have strong feelings about particular brands of hot sauce. My uncle is passionate about Crystal Hot Sauce, my husband favors Cholula, my friend Ellen’s a devotee of Spicy Chili Crisp, and there are countless other people who swear by one of the overwhelmingly many other options. Frank’s RedHot has a strong following, and who wouldn’t recognize that iconic Tabasco bottle with its rhomboid label and octagonal redcap sitting pretty in many a refrigerator from here to Louisiana? Tapatío is a relative newcomer on the picante scene, and its popularity has enlarged over the past few decades to the point that it can be found for sale by the gallon, a generous upgrade from the original five-ounce bottle size. I feel like there are probably secret societies dedicated to specific brands, or at least scores of exhaustive and impassioned articles written to extol the virtues of one boutique pepper sauce concoction or another. I mean, predilections toward a specific admixture or another is certainly “a thing” in many a culture.

Thoroughly intrigued by this young boy’s fondness for Sriracha, I felt compelled (or perhaps challenged) to try it again and picked up a bottle the next time I ordered groceries. I tried it a few more times–with meat, cheese, and even a French fry–before deciding that my opinion hadn’t changed; though the sauce followed through as promised in delivering that arrabbiata punch of heat, I felt the spice eclipsed all other flavors potentially involved in the mouthful without adding enough dimension merit the expense. To me, it felt one-note: raw heat but lacking the kind of complexity that builds nuance or texture in a taste, and I resigned myself back into the shadows where people who don’t really “get” hot sauce hover.

And then one night inspiration struck, and I felt that it was important to take a tablespoon of Sriracha, a tablespoon of Heinz ketchup, and a tablespoon of Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard and mix them together, and that’s when a very, very beautiful thing happened. I call my creation “Trifectcha”, and it completely revolutionized how we do hotdogs over here. Still too spicy for the kids, it’s enjoyed exclusively by the adults and would pair well with anything you’d think to garnish with hot sauce. The unctuousness of the ketchup, the nuance of the mustard, and the piquant power of the Sriracha all hold each other in a beautiful balance, each flavor shining through but tamed just enough by the others to play its music at precisely the right volume. The equal-part proportions feel judicious, too, somehow, as if the conversation among the three constituents allows each fair audience on the palate, creating a flavor harmonic that uplifts each component as a result of the interaction with its counterparts.

The reason I recount this recipe story this is twofold: first, the sauce is so good that it deserves to be shared. And second, let it stand as a reminder on those hard days, when the moments of parenthood are so difficult it’s breathtaking, that there are so many wonderful things in this world that most likely never would have found their ways into our lives lest for the existence of our children. Simply put, this story began with attending a seven-year old’s Sriracha-themed birthday party, and its ending is delicious.

A helpful review by Mr. Pagan

One day recently I was reading reviews of a book that had been recommended by a friend whose taste in literature sometimes aligned with mine but diverged just as often. Whenever she recommends a book, I hit the internet to read the thoughts of others before deciding if the book in question is one I think will hold my interest enough to warrant seeking out a copy. I was on the fence about the one she’d most recently suggested, and the reviews were equivocal, so I was inclined to bypass it for the moment considering the scads of unread titles currently under my roof. But then I got to this one:

There is so much that could be said here, but instead I’ll write these lines and trust you to read in between them: You’d better believe I bought that book immediately.