Dispatch | 11.17.19

Raise your hand if you’re tired. That seems to be the current collective, universal state of things. Tiredness knows no creed, no political party, no religion. Tiredness is in the water, it runs to our marrow. And it shows no signs of abating.

As the world turns increasingly dark — from here in the U.S. to abroad (see Turkey, Hong Kong, Bolivia etc. etc. et al) — it’s hard to find relief from the news cycle. The impeachment hearings are must-see TV and social media is constantly alight; who even knows where we stand on Brexit? Hilarious memes and astrology posts bidding us to look into ourselves and the stars are barely a balm, but there’s so much tiredness to overcome.

And then there’s the domestic front! The dishes pile up, a mountain of laundry is never quite tackled, and my research/writing/pitching to-do lists get longer. I know it’s something of a cliche, but “adulting” is so much.

The reality is, there are some days I can’t bring myself out of bed, but please allow me a humble brag moment: When it comes to waking up, that particular morning act was made even harder when Ian splurged on great sheets, transforming our bed into a true refuge. And! The best gift we gave to ourselves this year was a robot vacuum — at least we never have to worry about our floors. I know, I know, capitalism. But! Good sheets, automated vacuuming, these things have been a boon for my mental clarity.

Also, the things below. Take care of yourselves out there.

Books

I devoured Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions in a day. I was dumbstruck by the magical thinking, the childlike wonder of each microscopic poem.

“Why is it so hard, the sweetness of the heart of the cherry?
Is it because it must die or because it must carry on?”

Pablo Neruda

Podcasts

I’ve been listening to Wild Words, by Nicole Gulotta, author of Eat This Poem, which has helped me a bit in terms of figuring out my writing headspace.

Recipes

Ever since the finale episode of this season’s Great British Baking Show, I’ve been wanting to bake a chocolate cake. Well, I finally got around to it, baking Nigella Lawson’s chocolate raspberry pudding cake, from her cookbook How to Eat, which I found years ago on a stoop and never cooked out of. Not my first Nigella recipe, but frankly, it took me too long to flip through this book. Ian, on the other hand, has been cooking from another Brit’s tome, Nigel Slater’s Eat, which is a dream for any casual cook. We’ve had the book for a couple of years, too, and have rediscovered its simple charms. Also in our rotation, Cook’s Illustrated The Complete Cooking for Two we’ve saved so much on food waste, alone.

Richard Olney’s Infuriating Recipe for Mussels

In an attempt to clean up this blog, I took a look into my drafts. Reader, the terror of this particular corner of the internet strikes fear into my heart. The constant starts and the stops alone kill me! But *sigh*, therapy has taught me “done is better than perfect,” so in that vein, I’ll be publishing some of those drafts, as close to their “draft state” as I can reasonably stomach. Here, then, an entry from June 2015: 

I’m a way-late bloomer when it comes to this food thing. I didn’t go to culinary school, teaching myself from mostly from home. And while I eat at restaurants, it’s usually because a place looks charming, not because of its star-power (though I do try to make it to those, too). My food heroes growing up were Sarah Moulton and Emeril, and then your Julia Childs, your Jacques Pepin. As an adult, I predictably gravitated toward the contessa herself, Ina Garten, like a gay moth to the brightest disco ball.

But I had no idea about Richard Olney. Then, over a year ago , I came across him twice in short order. I first encountered him in the words of John Birdsall’s essay, America, Your Food is So Gay, published in Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue. The piece shed light on the work of Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Olney, three gay men who were influential in shaping America’s food identity. With the exception of Beard and some bits about Claiborne, I otherwise had no idea, about Olney in particular.

Then there was Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, a narrative weaving of letters between Barr’s great-aunt, the storied food writer M.F.K Fisher and her best pals Child and Beard during one fateful winter in Provence. Olney — a trained painter and self-trained cook in the French tradition — makes an appearance, the book’s main source of friction. What I gleaned didn’t paint him in the best of lights: snobbish, meticulous to the point of condescending… Frankly? He sounded kinda bitchy.

But he also knew his way around a kitchen. When I finished the book and put the essay away, I only thought of Olney peripherally, until Ian bought us the 40th anniversary edition of his book, Simple French Food. 

Let’s just start by saying the title is anything but. “Simple” here does not mean a “set it and forget it” call to arms, but instead, a call for a simple list of immaculate ingredients prepped to the utmost of a cook’s ability, so that the food sings. It is a beautiful book, written in bitingly straightforward fashion with no sympathy for your lack of skills. In short, this book forces you to learn how to cook.

Ian cooked Olney’s “lobster dinner for two,” which included game hens, lobster and a raspberry coulis dessert from the French Menu Cookbook, which — duh — took a lot of work. When we picked up Simple, we thought we’d have a slightly easier time.

Not even remotely true.

Because there aren’t enough hours in a week and too many books to try, we’ve so far only really cooked one recipe: his mussels. You’d think this would be a hoot, as mussels are notoriously easy to prepare. Get your broth game correct and you’ll impart a wealth of flavors depending on your combo of aromatics, seasoning and broth-base. Folks will be impressed by the your Ina-level presentation of homey, elegant open shellfish swimming in bright, savory bath.

Let me reiterate: I. Love. Mussels. From Thai-style mussels, piquant spicy flavors of chiles commingling with creamy coconut milk and bright, citrusy lemongrass, to Belgian moules, with yeasty funky beer adding fruity, biscuity notes to the broth, or even French preparations, sing-songy with acidity from dry white wine, mussels in all forms are good. All easy to make.

Enter Olney.

His preparation of mussels—stuffed with spinach, hardboiled eggs and surprisingly, more mussels—reads simply on paper. There are very few ingredients, and the sauce is a quick preparation of butter, onions and pulpy tomatoes. It’s in the doing that you find out Olney is a real asshole.

Case in point? Bro had me stabbing open 50 or so fresh mussels, only to stuff them with their chopped up brethren, and then? AND THEN having me tie each bad boy up with twine. TWINE!

The elegance of mussels is the simplicity by which the dish basically builds itself. Got a bangin’ broth recipe you want to try? Whip it up any which way you like, add your mussels, wait until they open, and boom! Done. You’ve got a magical seafood dish with a rich liquid for sopping up with crusty, comforting baguette. If Olney were around, I would tell him to go fuck himself (not really, as I think he might be my type?) but I would argue against the merits of his prep.

It took me three goddamn hours to bring this dish to the table. By comparison, all of my other favorite mussel dishes take no more than 30 min, from shopping to slurping up the broth. And, to add insult to injury, the sauce wasn’t even in that good, and the stuffing we worked SO HARD to cram into the mussels I murdered with my knife just fell out into the broth anyway. Infuriatingly, we had the added task of UNWRAPPING our mussel packages that managed to stay open, instead of just, you know, EATING.

This recipe was an unnecessary exercise in rage.

While I respect what Olney has done for the culinary world, both as a cook and as a role model for aspiring LGBT food folks, if this was my first introduction to him, I’d chuck the book out the window.

Summer + Brown butter-poached peaches

A few weeks ago, a friend of Ian’s sent him a care package of a dozen Georgia peaches. Wrapped in thin, crinkly sheafs of white paper, nestled in individual foam nooks, the bounty of summer fruit looked just like the emoji, sun-gold, fragrant and chipper in their little homes.

Upon opening the package, I couldn’t help myself. In a moment of animal lust, I grabbed one of the plump, floral-perfumed fruit and devoured it over the sink, sticky sweet juice dripping slowly down my chin and neck.

Ripe summer peach in a bowl

Was it peach season then? Is it peach season now? A month ago, Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote a delightful piece on a debate among Southerners and writers about the perfect time to eat a peach:

“Kathleen Purvis, the Southern food writer most likely to let you know when you have something wrong, made a peach declaration on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.

Peaches, she said, should never be eaten before the Fourth of July.”

I love the charm of this easy-to-remember rule, even as others maintain a different set of standards. For me and Ian, that box of fruit lasted but a few days. Sliced over cinnamon-laced oatmeal, eaten over the sink, chopped into grain bowls — it was a bounty that brought summer home.

As the days went on, the firm peaches hinted that they weren’t long for the world, the perfumey luster dissipating in our kitchen as the skins started to dry and pucker. We didn’t have enough to bake a pie, so I did the next best thing: poach them in a pool of rich, nutty brown butter, a sultry, almost too-sensual topping for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Throw on some nuts slightly toasted in brown butter and sugar, if you want to be even more decadent.

Even now, as I write this, I’m hot under the collar.

butter poached peaches topped with walnuts

Recipe: Brown butter-poached peaches with ice cream
Serves 2, Cooking time: About 20 minutes.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, or to taste
2 ripe peaches, sliced in half (skin-on)
2 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

Melt the butter in a pan or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl the butter until it starts to bubble and smell nutty, about five minutes. Lower heat to medium low and place peach halves, skin-side up, into the butter. Tilt pan slightly and spoon butter over each peach half, about four minutes. Gently flip the peaches with tongs, so they are skin-side down in the pan. Divide one tablespoon of sugar amongst the four peach halves, spooning brown sugar into each cavity, and continue spooning melted butter over each peach, another three minutes. Remove peaches to the side. Do not clean the pan. Add walnuts and remaining sugar to the hot pan. Stir walnuts, sugar and butter until walnuts are fragrant and the sugar caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Serve warm peaches topped with walnuts with your favorite ice cream. Mine is vanilla.

Sunday Dinner: Peach and Feta Salad

Cooking Channel, food, foodporn, foodie, Kelsey Nixon, Magic Hat Elder Betty, peach feta salad, peaches, recipes, summer food, summer salad, taste of summer, tomatoes, Union Square GreenmarketThere’s nothing quite like a fragrant bushel of peaches at the Union Square Greenmarket to start the mouthparts salivating. For me, cravings are often triggered by something as simple as smelling these bright, ripe stone fruits from 15 ft. away, when shopping or even eating was the furthest thing from my mind.

Even so, I knew immediately: I must eat some peaches, and fast.  Read More

Sunday Dinner: Shrimp “Beer Blanc”

beurre blanc, shrimp pasta, roasted tomatoes, parmesan, shell pasta, Pabst Blue Ribbon, beer, butterI live in Manhattan, where life ain’t cheap. Master of the obvious, right? While I love keeping quality ingredients in my apartment, sometimes I have to *gasp* buy precooked, frozen stuff to eat, because A) I don’t have time and B) it’s cheaper. Lest I be accused of some Sandra Lee “Semi-homemade” BS, let’s come out and say: whatever, yo. I can’t afford to eat sustainably, locally, trendily all of the time. It’s too hard. It’s too expensive. It takes too much damn time.

Read More