Posts tagged ‘herbs’
Ten days in LA weren’t enough.
As the plane lifted, I caught my last looks at California through the gauzy clouds. I was already thinking about the restaurants I couldn’t try, the neighborhoods I hadn’t seen, and the gems I didn’t discover. The state was simply too big to experience in a mere week and a half. When we’d parted, my friend and host C- said, “But you’ll get to see Seattle!” I rolled my eyes and told him, “I live in Seattle.”
During this summer, I’ve lived up north by the bluest water in Maine. In Atlanta, I embraced the heat in sundresses, the warm air dampening my skin in minutes. And in California, I rummaged through antique cast iron skillets and pearl rings at farmer’s markets and artisan festivals. I’ve visited more places in the past year than ever before. But the few days I spent at home? I sat around, spinning the dusty globe in our office.
By the time I unpacked my suitcase and fell onto my bed, I’d decided to make things different. I needed to change my perspective. What would I do if I only had ten days in Seattle?
We live slightly outside the big city, enough distance that it can feel foreign or familiar depending on my mood. I tackled Seattle with a fearlessness I’d never shown.
Downtown, I drove in circles trying to find parking before giving up and walking a good distance to reach any kind of store. I explored the U District alone, the little boutiques and second hand shops. I ducked into the independent theaters, painted seafoam green and dusty pink, outlined in bulbous lights, signs cracked with age… Somehow, the same movies come alive in a new way inside a theater with character.
My favorite sweets come from Seattle. In Boston I craved bullseye donuts from Top Pot, sticky with sugar glaze and raspberry jam, and Molly Moon’s Theo chocolate ice cream, so thick it’ll snap your spoon. I’m realizing just how much is still undiscovered. Last week I walked into a Middle Eastern restaurant the size of a closet and ordered something I couldn’t pronounce. I still don’t know what it was, but it was tangy and spiced, followed by a slice of cake drenched in honey.
If I approach summer in Seattle as an extended trip, the potential is incredible.
When I exit I-90 after an afternoon in the city, I’m filled with a strange appreciation for home. I pass my favorite old school diner, the one with the dumpy sign and the bad coffee. I like to drive slowly around the gentle, winding curves of my neighborhood.
Inevitably my eyes are drawn up to the unbelievable trees. Until I spent time out of Washington, I never knew how special our evergreens are. They tower, so tall and old, so richly green you can smell the color. In other cities the trees feel planted for decoration – but here, the houses have been nestled where the trees allow space. And when the sun is at the right angle, the light filters through in hazy planks, and suddenly my life is breathtaking.
My house is green, from the soft moss carpeting our cement patio (Mom hates this, I sort of like it) to the homegrown lettuce patch beyond my bedroom window. Our family doesn’t have the greenest thumb, but plants line our living room window, stems bowing towards the glass. My favorite of the bunch is the fragrant pot of basil.
Basil is my favorite herb. I like it sautéd with pasta, baked onto pizza, layered in sandwiches and churned into ice cream. With bunches of fresh basil at my fingertips, it’s hard to resist experimentation. When it results in something as lovely as basil olive oil, can you blame me?
We had a bag of bright lemons, so olive oil cake was necessary. I love the way this cake gently rises and falls, the way the sugar-sprinkled crust cracks, the way it perfumes the mouth. Each bite tastes like sunlight and comfort and dare I say it… green.
[Unsure about the 4th? Why not tackle my 4th of July Flag Cake? People have been making it ever since its creation 2 years ago. It's deceptively simple and always impressive. Check out the post for instructions, plus a video of me making it. Have a great weekend!]
I spent my last day in Seattle with my parents. We woke up early and got pancakes at one of our favorite dives, a run-down little restaurant near the airport. I spent the afternoon at home with Dad and the dogs, looking through old photo albums. We shared some good sushi for an early lunch, and ice cream sundaes for dessert. Even though sleet fell and dirty puddles collected, damp leaves sticking to our soles, I couldn’t have felt happier about my last afternoon.
At home after dinner, I watched my mom boil water for tea, facing away from me. I sat at the table and checked my email as she talked, only half listening. She stopped mid-sentence, and I finally noticed that she’d been crying – so quiet I hadn’t heard from three feet away.
She left the kitchen and I heard the closet open down the hall. She came back with a white cloth napkin with sky blue trim. “Recognize this?”
The last time I saw my parents before winter break was in Boston, a few days before classes started. We had dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant in the North End, a light meal before I left in near tears and caught the next train to my dorms. We didn’t say goodbye for very long because I didn’t want my parents to see I was upset.
“After you walked out, I started crying,” my mom said. I unfolded the napkin and turned it around in my hands. It was so neatly folded and wrinkle-free that it looked new.
“Your father and I left soon after you. We walked down the street and he gave me the napkin – he stole it from the restaurant. He said he thought I might need it.”
And here it was now, a seeming lifetime later, in our chipped little kitchen.
“We walked a little further and went into some of the stores. Your dad, he picked up this jar of something and said ‘Oh – Elissa would really like this.’ He just kept looking at it and finally he bought it. He said, ‘We should give it to her.’”
“The fig spread?”
I remembered this. I thought I’d said goodbye to my parents for the last time, but later that night, my dad stopped by the lobby of my dorm. He had a box of water crackers, a thick wedge of creamy brie, and a small glass jar of an incredible fig jam. It was the last real quality food I had before I settled into my routine of café sandwiches and dining hall chicken fingers. It was the last little bit that felt like Seattle as I settled into Boston.
The first week of school, I passed it around the common room and shared it with my floor. Nobody had eaten anything like that fig spread before, and I saw people right, left and center falling in love. Between my roommate E- and I, the jam lasted a few weeks. When it was gone, I washed out the jar and set it on the windowsill. That’s where it is now, catching the fleeting light that filters into my room.
When it was gone, I craved more, but I wasn’t about to buy more on my college student budget. One afternoon E- came into the room with a grocery bag. She pulled out a package of crackers. “I keep thinking about that fig spread,” she admitted. With or without it, the crackers satisfied us, and now our room is always stocked with a box or two.
Mom was smiling now. “After the hard time your dad gave me about being upset, he was the one buying stuff for you half an hour later. He said we should go to Whole Foods and get something to go with the jam. I thought he was being ridiculous but he was so stubborn about the idea.”
They didn’t know where Whole Foods was, but they took a train and managed to find it. I can picture Dad walking up and down the cheese aisle, like he used to when we shopped together, looking for the particular brie I’m so smitten with. I imagine him looking at shelves and shelves of crackers, deciding which box would go best with the spread.
As I thought about all the work behind that simple gesture, a paper bag with a last-minute snack, I started to feel sad for the first time about winter break ending. I gave my mom a long hug and told her not to cry. I folded up the napkin, following the creases, and handed it to her.
“Hang onto this. I’m serious. Keep this forever, okay?”
“Okay.” She paused, and then smiled. “I’ll use it at your graduation.”
She put the napkin back in the linen closet, Dad came and sat down, and the two of them talked at the dinner table as I finished packing.
Boston, here I come.
When I arrived at school, I came with every intention of getting super involved. I wanted to be that person – the person who squeezes in a few too many clubs and activities, the person who comes home exhausted. I honestly love being busy, and I wanted to wholeheartedly accept new experiences.
It was a valiant effort. In the activity fair my first week, I scrawled my email address onto dozens of sign-up sheets and mailing lists – social justice, poetry, photography club, the college newspaper, book publishing, even freshman government. I walked between the elms and brick buildings back to my dorm, consumed with anticipation, wondering which clubs I’d get into and which ones I’d fall in love with.
More than anything else, though, I wanted to be accepted to my school’s radio station. It’s prestigious around here, difficult to get into and fully student-run. Even though my passion is in print, in the weight of an inked word on paper, I’m smitten with This American Life and 107.7 The End (which I stream online here across the country.) I missed listening to NPR every morning in the carpool to high school. I missed radio in general.
I’d seen the students involved with the college station, and found everything about it appealing. I wanted to carry heavy headphones in my bag and hear my voice, weirdly foreign, emerge from the radio. I picked up an application.
Four weeks later, I’m even busier than I’d hoped to be, even though I slowly withdrew from most of the clubs I’d signed up for. Instead, I got a job at a bakery, which I’m so excited to start. I clung to photography club, which is one of the highlights of my week – photos will come soon, promise. Add homework, classes, a few minutes for meals and – oh, did I mention? Lots and lots of radio.
I’m a reporter for the news department. I make contacts and conduct interviews, which I edit into sound clips and adjust until the levels are right. I research. I’m learning to project my voice and breathe properly on-air. I now search for potential stories everywhere, breathing in information and exhaling headlines. I rewrite press releases and post stories to the web. And at least several nights a week, I’m underground at the station past midnight, rerecording my script over and over and over… trying to pronounce all the words correctly.
I had no idea it would be this hard, or this demanding. I didn’t realize it would take me two hours to produce a 45 second clip, and… well… a lot longer to create an eight minute one. And I couldn’t have anticipated how much I’d adore it.
To be sure, it has its downs. We were expected to hit the ground running, and my first week was rough. I’m starting to learn the terrain, but that doesn’t make it easy. I’ve had afternoons where nobody answers my calls, where I say, “Hi, I’m Elissa Bernstein and I’m a reporter with–” only to be cut off and dismissed. There have been nights where I spent more than twice as much time editing and writing than sleeping. (Which is easier than it sounds when you’re running on 4 hours of sleep.)
I remember the shift where I couldn’t figure out how to work the dashboard, with all its dials and buttons. Once, I accidentally bumped the microphone off its stand. Another afternoon, I hung up the phone after a great interview, only to realize I’d improperly recorded the conversation (in other words, hadn’t recorded the conversation) and had to start from scratch.
As a new staff member with no previous experience, everything is trial and error.
Even though I’m only seriously involved with a couple activities, they’re full of so many unfamiliar skills and unexplored subjects, my education extends far beyond the classroom itself. This radio position is more than an extracurricular, it’s a part time job and the wholehearted acceptance of new experiences that I craved. Who knows what I’ll be able to do in the future after this? Every time you acquire new knowledge, you can funnel it into the creation of something incredible.
Like smoked grape and rosemary focaccia.
My parents and I discovered smoked grapes one summer night a few months ago. We used to spend hours sitting in lawn chairs around our home-built fire pit, roasting hot dogs and watching marshmallows molt. One evening, long past sundown, when the whole world was crackling logs and faraway pinpoint stars, my mother brought out a bowl of grapes.
I think it was my dad’s idea. He skewered a grape onto a thin branch still sticky with marshmallow sugar, set it over the fire. It was smoking when he pulled it away from the flames. He popped it into his mouth, and a look of surprise took over his face. He made one for Mom, and I tried the next one. The grape was warm, but not hot, with a smokiness that caught you off guard. It was so strange, so good, so full of possibility.
We tried to brainstorm how best to showcase this miracle. I thought they would be good with anything and everything. Baked into a tart. Tossed with mixed greens in a salad. Or maybe sliced with bright, fresh jimaca and mango, served over fish? That’s when it came to me – I knew what I wanted to make first.
“Focaccia,” I said.
Last Mother’s Day I gave my mother a gorgeous book on tomatoes. The book is filled cover to cover with some of the loveliest food photography I’ve seen, and descriptions of dozens and dozens of tomato varieties. In the back, a recipe for cherry tomato focaccia, which I had mentally bookmarked from the first time I saw it. The page swam hazily to mind as I blew smoke away from another fireside grape.
I forgot that I’m not confident with bread-making. I was too excited. Instead I found a recipe for focaccia and bought a bag of grapes. I wanted to find another smoking technique, just in case not everyone has access to a firepit, or the time to individually skewer each grape. My dad said it could be done on the grill. He snipped bundles of sturdy, fragrant rosemary and burned them under the grill’s cover with a big bowl of the grapes. Soft grey smoke streamed steadily from the grill’s sides, like bubbles rising in a fish tank.
I can’t get enough of these grapes. After smoking, their color changed from deep red-purple to burnished gold, as if you could literally see the fragrant rosemary smoke swirling under the skins. My dad had to stop me and my mother from snacking on them as the bread dough rose. I spread the focaccia into a sheet pan, brushed it with olive oil, dimpled it with my fingertips and gently pressed in halved grapes.
It was an experiment, since I wasn’t sure if the loaf would be too watery, if the grapes would keep their flavor, if it would need a touch less rosemary. We pulled the sheet out of the oven. I cut the first slice, and oh, my gosh – that crackle as I broke the crust, the lightness of the center, one or two grapes nestled in with wrinkled tops… That bread was perfection. We ate it so, so quickly we almost felt sick. And it’s one of my favorite memories from this summer, keeping me warm as the temperature drops.
We don’t spend hours in the kitchen every evening.
Sometimes, I just pop a bowl of cold fried rice into the microwave for a quicker than quick dinner. On Tuesdays my mother and I steam broccoli, chop watermelon into chunks, sit down to watch Chopped and call it a night. I’ve even leaned against the fridge and eaten cold chicken salad straight out of the tupperware. Our kitchen is always stocked with enough leftovers to make us low-maintenance weeknight diners.
Weekends, though… That’s an entirely different matter. Sometimes the whole day revolves our food. My mother often wakes up before me to brush her bread with an egg glaze, and we juggle the oven so I can bake biscuits. She’s the queen of scrambled eggs and freshly squeezed juice, and I can press any berry into a special maple syrup.
My parents and I frequently head to the farmer’s market right after breakfast to shop for dinner, usually without a meal plan in mind. We pick whatever’s fresh and seasonal and bright, whatever inspires hunger even though we just ate. My family has been known to spend an afternoon rolling out pasta directly on our dinner table, marinating fish, picking through sun-warmed herbs. Then, we feast.
Don’t be fooled, though. There are plenty of awful mistakes, pain in the rear ingredients, and even the occasional temper. Our kitchen is what my dad likes to call a “two-butt work area.” The three of us barely fit inside it, and with the two dogs brushing against our ankles, it’s a very tight squeeze.
Usually, it’s chaotic frustration. As the sky darkens, my dad works from both the stove and the cutting board, on opposite ends of the kitchen. My mother can’t help but clean dishes in real time, sometimes whisking bowls off into the sink before we’re through with them. And me? I’m just trying to get to the oven, which is between the two of them. Add Tilly, who begs at your feet until you step on her, and Otis, who grunts whenever you drop a scrap – it’s an experience.
Yet once we carry plates to the table, settling down in our usual chairs, it’s calm. It’s relaxed. It’s all about passing plates and trying a bit of everything. It’s the subdued “Mmm!” at first bite. Cooking together is hectic, but it’s always worth it. There is something intangible about a meal created with your family… an hour of satisfaction, and a lifetime of memories.
Usually when I’m in the kitchen, I’m alone. Sometimes I’m even the only one in the entire house, especially now in the summer. I love baking in the serene calm of morning, with light streaming from the window above the sink and the French doors. It’s quiet, except for blue jays rustling in the backyard pines and the faint rhythm of my breath. It’s silent enough for me to sense the song of the kitchen in my ears and in my soul.
When I’m baking by myself, the kitchen is perfect for one person – spacious, even. I can’t help but feel that there’s no better way to spend life than alone with my thoughts and my Kitchen Aid. That is, until the weekend rolls around again. Then I’m weaving between my parents, half laughing and half exasperated, five minutes away from “dinner’s ready.” And at that moment, there’s no other place I’d rather be.
They’re opposite situations, and I like that. I like the contrast, and the fact that such distinct experiences can occur in the same room. The differences make each experience memorable and sweet, even if they don’t seem to complement each other at first glance.
I love juxtaposed differences, in life and in food. Sweet with salty, hot with cool, creamy with crunchy… Enter these watermelon bars, the perfect example of just that.
The bottom layer is the simplest watermelon sorbet, a snap to whirl together. It freezes somewhat hard and icy, but it’s utterly refreshing. The sorbet is spread with a basil-lime semifreddo, which is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever made. The semifreddo makes up for all the richness the sorbet lacks, whisked with sweetened condensed milk and lightened with whipped cream. It’s so thick and creamy, it should be illegal. The zing of lime and smooth, floral aroma of basil pair gorgeously with melon.
It could be a clash of flavors and textures, but I think they make a beautifully balanced combination. Together, they pack the epitome of summer in every melting bite.