Tastes Like Metal

Leeks, garlic, parsley, yams, sweet potato and parsley, beautifully photographed still life.

There were many many many many and many ingredients in the Magick Mineral Broth. Of course there were carrots, onions, celery and potatoes. But that would not be very magic.

The recipe calls for leeks and garlic, too. Not only that, but sweet potatoes (preferably Japanese) and garnet yams. The spice mix included the standard bay leaf and peppercorns plus the flavor and medicinal value add of juniper berries–just don’t substitute gin. Added to the boil, just so you really had to go a fancy grocery, was kombu–also known as seaweed sheets. It adds a bit of fullness of flavor, like saltwater with fish.

You can drink it warm for breakfast. You can add noodles and an egg and eat a bowl full of soup. You can use it as a base for another soup. You can put it on your cereal.

Seriously, I might as well have.

The technique is simple enough, throw everything in a big pot of water, boil the hell out of it and add salt to taste.

I got this recipe from a cancer cookbook I ordered. The idea was to use this combo of beautiful, healthy, colorful foods to prep my body for chemo and to make myself less unwell after treatment. To be honest, I think that the real purpose was to give myself a mindless yet mindful project. Distraction from the unknown. You’ve heard about an idle mind?

You don’t know what chemo does. And different combos have different impacts. And those impacts will be different for different folks. Will you be puking? Hair falling out? Just generally feeling gross? Will your feet and hands feel like sand? Will you hurt? Get sores in your mouth? Will you be cold? Hot? Exhausted? Couch or bed bound? And, behind all those unknowns is the real question, the one you don’t want to ask. Will this poison cocktail work?

Preparing the broth, the rich golden elixir full of antioxidants and magical minerals, was a step into something knowable. I could cut and cook. I could control that part. I could calm–or at least distract–my active imagination.

So, I chopped and I boiled and I added salt. It topped off my 12 quart stock pot. I disposed of the spent vegetables. Then I strained it into a many large jars. The magical mystery broth makes a ton of soup.

Later, I used a cup or so and made the noodle bowl. It tasted very good that day. I think I tweeted about how awesome it was.

And then I never touched it again. The jars sat in the fridge for a while until I made the Spouse spill out the contents into the sink and wash it away.

To this day, three years later, when I think of that magical broth, the smell, the taste, even the color, I feel a little sick. As I’m typing the words that described me eating it, that described pouring it into tall Mason jars, my stomach is getting queasy and I’m swallowing thickening saliva.

That liquid that extracted all the flavor and benefits from the ingredients tastes like chemo to me. The drugs are pumped into a port in your chest, but the scent and the taste get in the back of your mouth and violate the tastebuds at the back of your tongue. I think of the golden soup and I think of drinking something made from cheap metals that would turn your finger green. The minerals tasted more like slate and pencil shavings and solder.

So I had it that one day and I couldn’t take it again. I decided that I hated that book, too. The Cancer Cookbook or some stupid name. It did have some great advice–to avoid eating your favorite foods on the days surrounding treatment. They said that chemo could ruin them for you. Forever.

Chemo sucked, but it didn’t ruin my taste for dark chocolate with hazelnuts–or dark chocolate anything. It did, however, turn me against that awful veggie broth. Oh, and two months ago I left the cancer cookbook in my local Little Free Library. I hadn’t opened it again. Not since I cooked up that nasty broth three years ago. Maybe someone else can use the distraction. Me? Not looking back.

Roux the Day

A worn wooden spoon on a worn wooden cutting board.

She stood over the stove stirring. Stirring, stirring, stirring. She wasn’t giving up.

She was learning to cook. It was a grownup thing to do, and she was ready to be a grownup. She outfitted her kitchen with a few pieces of mid-priced cookware to join the battered pots that had been her stepmom’s. She was addicted to cooking shows and studied the mis en place and vino in mano of her favorite chefs on her favorite shows.

Between HGTV, YouTube and prodigious brunches around town she was growing her skills, her palette and her repertoire. She fancied herself the foodie friend. She had started inviting friends to stand up cocktails with cute things on skewers and bites on those silly appetizer spoons. She graduated to hosting her own brunches filled with fancy french toasts, egg custards, salads and mimosas. Last year she did Thanksgiving for the friends who couldn’t get home. The boxed wines she served were the good ones. Everyone said she did great.

She was ready to cross into new territory. The turkey dinner was a win, but she was ready for something from her own inspiration. She decided that she’d host her alumni squad for a fun dinner party after the game. Her solution? Gumbo.

Gumbo was like chili only more exotic. Like chili, it could make ahead of time, it didn’t need extensive staging and it was hearty. She figured she’d serve gumbo, a goat cheese and pear salad with candied pecans that Giada makes and a baguette from the local bakery. She’d lay out some of Emeril’s “kicked up” olives, that fancy cheese with honey, breadsticks and beers to hold her guests while she warmed up the stew. She was hoping to remind people of New Orleans. Her idea was to have a party that was theme-y without really having a theme. She expected maybe ten or so.

She hadn’t made gumbo before, but didn’t consider it beyond her domain. The ingredients weren’t unusual–save the okra, but okra is a vegetable. She hadn’t been challenged by a vegetable yet. She felt confident. She got up early.

First up, the roux, the key to an authentic gumbo. Ingredient-wise it’s just oil and flour. Not too complicated. All she had to do was heat it and stir it until it was a deep chocolate brown. It seemed triflingly simple. Stand and stir. And stir.

After about five minutes she could see the color change. She nodded to herself. Something was happening. She figured a few more minutes. All she could hear was the spoon on the pan. Her phone should be charged by now. She grabbed it off the charger in her bedroom. She swiped around until she found an appropriate Spotify list–1,600 songs from New Orleans. That was good for mood setting.

She walked back into the kitchen to a scorched pan. The roux was burned. She had stepped away for two minutes, okay, maybe five or six, but it’s supposed to cook for like fifteen. Crap! She only had one big pot. She had to wait for it to cool before she could clean it out.

She fiddled with her playlist and made sure that her phone was connected to the speaker before she started again. She was glad she started early. She smiled and thought if it were later she’d have some cooking wine. Maybe it was better to be stone cold sober. She filled up her coffee mug, swirling in some of that hazelnut creamer. She dried the pan with a dish towel and put it on the burner to remove the last traces of water. She was ready.

Roux take two.

She measured out the oil and the flour and began the stirring process. She knew now that this concoction was a demanding master. She kept her spoon moving through the flour and the oil. It swelled and bubbled a little. She kept stirring. It went from vanilla to beige. More stirring as it passed from beige to taupe. It started to smell a little nutty. That was a good sign according to her recipe. She stirred and stirred. She swept the spoon in figure eights. She squiggled it through the mixture. She sipped her coffee from the cup held in her left hand as her right hand pushed the the darkening roux back and forth. She wasn’t stopping this time.

She had massaged the stuff in the pan for fifteen minutes. It seemed stalled. It wasn’t getting darker. It was stuck on caramel colored but she needed dark chocolate cake batter colored. She turned the heat up to make something happen. And it did. It went from a nutty smell to the stench of old fire pit. A few curse words sputtered from her lips.

Ruined roux number two.

She inhaled long. She exhaled from her nose and mouth at the same time. She needed to get this done and cooked before she left for the game, so she didn’t have time to get frustrated. She waited, again, for the pot to cool. It was a good thing, because she needed to cool, too.

She looked at the clock. She was running low on time. She googled “roux” and looked through a few of the entries. She found one from a site called BlueBayouCrazyCajunCooking that said it takes a half hour to get the right shade of chocolate and to lower the heat toward the end to avoid burning.

Well, she definitely knew how to burn it. She had two techniques for that. She shook her shoulders out and switched her coffee out for a coke. She measured out the flour and the oil and began the process again, hoping that the third time was the charm.


Blinded by Stars

A stylized DC flag with three red stars on the top and 2 red stripes on the bottom. It's u.

Oh, my babies, let’s act like we been somewhere, okay?

There was much anticipation when Michelin announced that it would bring it’s food judgement crewe to D.C. to let us know if we have good food. By awarding stars. One, two or three. Or maybe none. This anxiety started in May.

After Bon Appétit named D.C. it’s restaurant city of the year, the opening up of a series of highly priced and highly sought after dining rooms, and the encroaching hipterization of our fair city (like where do they find all those guys with the well trimmed oil groomed beards–some with black boxy framed glasses and all with plaid shirts–to wait on our tables at the laid back fine-dining halls?) you’d think people would feel confident that D.C. had made it in the foodie category.

D.C. dining is longer an afterthought of stuffy steak houses and seafood restaurants that did the fish version of those steakhouses–side of creamed spinach, anyone? The variety and quality of D.C. fare and the range of locations have definitely been kicked up a notch. Fine dining on First near Rhode Island Ave? Petworth? Brookland? And the former streetwalker circuit near Logan Circle with dozens of fun, interesting and, in some cases, delicious bistros and taverns and counters and bars?

So this morning there was even more anticipation and some anticipatory handwringing. Today was the day that we’d know who “won.” Whatever that means.

And it hit with much hoopla. One chef proudly tweeted his honor early–TWO stars! The rest seemed to appropriately hold off until the official announcement of a dozen restaurants that were deemed high enough on the spectacular scale to be included in a thin blue book. [The Doc has dined at four of these, in full disclosure.]

Some thought that the list was wrong either by exclusion, inclusion or delusion. That the secret society of inspectors just don’t get us and who we are.

But seriously, ain’t no Stay-Puft Marshmallow looking quink can put my knickers in a knot. Let’s maintain our pride. We are a town that is more than the marble buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue.

We are Washingtonians with a baseball team on the way to the World Series (fingers crossed), a football team with an embarrassing name, awesome public libraries, beer and whiskey dive bars, theatre, dance, sixteen art museums, ten colleges and universities (seriously!), a zoo with pandas and a malfunctioning subway system. Also a ton of named neighborhoods where real people garden, have cookouts, argue and fight, walk their dogs, prep for marathons, go to church and make and raise babies.

Eat where you want. Respect yourself. There’s plenty good food in town. All stars!

A Dish of Tomatoes

Yellow and red+green heirloom tomatoes.

They were special tomatoes. Heirloom, as if they were passed down in the family. But it is actually an excellent ploy to extract more dollars per pound for tomatoes that look much less than perfect–in color, shape and demeanor. They are supposed to taste extra good, but in that way they are just like other tomatoes. Sometimes they taste good. Sometimes, not so much.

These were nicely ripe. They were heavy and felt fluid-filled. The tomato would give to pressure from a finger, but return to shape almost immediately. Holding it, it was heavy. Bringing it to the nose, it smelled of itself.

It put up some resistance when I put my knife to it’s skin. It swelled slightly under my hand and then ceded with almost a sigh. Gently sawing the surface, it soon gave way beneath the flesh to a wet, almost gelatin middle, flecked with seeds. After cutting in half, I removed the top of the core then went to work, sliding the knife again and again, making irregular cuts for the salad. The cutting board was filling with juice that I tried to capture by scooping the pieces onto the knife and dropping into the bowl.

There was a big yellow tomato and a red tomato with green. I topped them with swirls of extra virgin olive oil, a scant tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a few turns from the pepper mill and coarse salt. I stirred and let it sit on the table to let the juices ooze out. The better to dip the crusty bread in and get every last drop.

Big Juicy

Tomatoes on the vine. Damn, they look good.

I had my eye on that tomato. I wanted it, but I wanted both of us to be ready.

I don’t know that I saw its flower. There were a bunch of flowers that late spring. They were little yellow stars against the deep green of the vines. I didn’t hone in on one or the other as they twinkled in the morning sun. I was just happy to see them get off to a great start.

The flowers soon disappeared and were replaced by little grape sized globs (or maybe globes?). Tomatoes-in-waiting. Where I am doing the waiting. Waiting for tomatoes. I’m encouraging them, too.

It’s funny how the flowers all appear at, or at least near, the same time, but the indivitual spheres take off on their own pace. Like a race.

So from the undifferentiated yellow flowers springs a free-for-all of vegetables. Some grow fast, some grow in clumps and some hang out by themselves. Sunning themselves, supping on the morning dew, and growing.

The tomato I am watching is not only the biggest, but it’s the one that starts blushing. As it changes from the waxy green, it first looks like a bruised face. Like it was in a fight and the fleshy part of it’s chin took a punch. The discoloration evens out, and it is orange. There is a ring of yellow at the top, near the vine, but the rest of the tomato is more carrot than zucchini.

This is NOT the time to disturb it. The contrast, especially next to its still-green sibings, makes it look red. But it’s not. It’s orange. A rainstorm moves the progress along. Now, when you cup it in your hand, the tomato starts to feel less hollow and more heavy. It passes from orange-red to red-orange. But it’s not done yet.

I very gently and very slowly wiggle the tomato against the vine. It’s umbilical cord is holding fast. Not yet.

The next day was brilliantly sunny. The tomato is definitely red. Any hint of orange is gone as is the yellow-orange ring at the top. I brush away the nub left from the dried up flower at the bottom of the orb. The green vine looks even darker and lusher next to the deep pomodoro red. I test the vine. The vine releases the fruit into my hand.

I draw the tomato to my face and breathe in the core side. It smells a little pine-y with a hint of what might be a whiff of hops, like cascades hops. The top definitely smells green, grassy green. It’s warm from the sun.

The tomato is much heavier than it looks. As I compress my fingers around it, it gives in. You can feel the moisture just inside its waterballoon self. The red walls, though, breathe back. There are no indentations left from fingers.

I bring it into the house and give it a perfunctory run under the water from the faucet. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster. I take the serrated knife and cut off a thin bottom and then gently saw back and forth to make a bunch of slices that I place on the mayonnaised bread. A twist of the pepper mill, a sprinkle of coarse salt and the frills of the outside green flounce of romaine finish it.

I bite in and the wet of the tomato spills down from the corner of my mouth and soaks my chin and my hand.

Did I tell you it was still warm? From the sun?

No Comment

I love to cook. I love to cook different things. I love to learn how to cook different things. The Internet helps me. See my handiwork above.

I am so happy to look at my mostly barren between-shopping-trips kitchen, type the words [squash], [capers] and [mint] and find something to make for dinner. And many, many times, the results taste good. Even better, I might have added to my cook’s knowledge for next time.

Another terrific thing about cooking is that you can use your learnings to make changes or substitutions to reflect what you have on hand or your taste preferences or both.  Sometimes I’ll scroll through a bunch and take parts of two–or maybe on occasion six–and concoct something. Sometimes I look for a recipe just to get a technique or a cooking approximation. The internet is a treasure trove for cooks and cook wannabes.

Yet another terrific thing about using recipes online is looking at the reviews of the other cooks. You can get an idea if people thought that there was too much salt or too much oil or if the prep-time is onerous or if it feeds an army rather than two or if you should double the sauce. If many commenters said that the results stunk, you take that caution and move on.

A non-terrific thing about cooking and the internet are people who comment and rate a totally different recipe.

Like this one for a corn and tomato salad,

I didn’t use tomato.

What the what? It’s a corn and TOMATO salad. Rule 1: You can’t review a recipe that you didn’t use.

Or this one for old fashioned spaghetti and meatballs,

I thought this was a great, old school recipe. Like somebody’s grandma. I pretty much followed the recipe exactly, except for making the following changes: I substituted salmon for the ground beef and veal because I had some leftover. I don’t really care for Italian seasonings so I used ginger and scallions. I bound the salmon together with some breadcrumbs and egg and the sauce was more soy and mirin. We served over rice with sesame bok choy. I would give the recipe 3.5 stars if I could, but will leave it at 3 since I made a few changes.

What recipe did you make? How could you review this recipe. And, most importantly, why do we care about your version of what is definitely not Mama’s Pasta? Rule 2: You can’t review a recipe that you didn’t follow, like at all. Shut up, please.

And the final one is the person who takes offense and feels compelled to share said offense because that is NOT how his family makes it. And his grammy knows! This is most entertaining when they include their own version of the recipe so that you don’t make the mistake and prepare the food wrong.

From a vegetarian recipe for healthy “fried” green tomatoes with red pepper vinaigrette,

I am from the South and no self-respecting Southerner would make their fried green tomatoes with goat cheese. My grandma would take the can of lard or bacon fat out from behind the pantry and she’d fry them up. Also, we don’t put any fancy salad dressing on them. Just eat them sitting on the back porch waiting for the catfish to cook. This recipe is an insult to my heritage. No stars!

Seriously? Your childhood is sullied because someone is making a different version of a vegetable? Rule 3: Recipe comments are not a space for your personal therapy. Find a professional.

I know that this recipe commenting thing is a part of the broader issue of internet commenting and trolling. You know, where people comment on things that they didn’t read, comment on something that they reinterpret for their own purposes or comment so they can get something, maybe peripherally related, off their chest. [As an aside, if you want to be entertained by some of the best recipe trolling ever, go here.] 

Come to think of it, I think that I just might prefer reading recipe comments over any other internet comments.*  At least there’s a chance I’ll learn something.


* except when I see your Facebook comments that say I look good. Never enough of those.

Puzzled Solution

Pile of old crosswords in the Sunday Magazine appropriately piled in the recycling basket.

Got a confirmation query. We were going to get lunch, but hadn’t zeroed in where.

FRiend: I know I said that cool new place, but I couldn’t find it. I can’t find the review of the restaurant I was looking at and I don’t remember the name.  Where do YOU want to go tomorrow?

ME: Did you really look?? Was it in the Post? Give me a clue.

FR: I went to the pile of stuff where I tossed the Magazine.  Yeah, online.  Duh.  It was in the Magazine week before last.  Local organic stuff.  Touchy feely in all the right ways

ME: The Magazine? I bet it’s over here. Spouse prolly has it since he hates to throw away the Magazine after he has completed the puzzle.

Yes, The Spouse completes the Sunday crossword puzzle at some point in the future that is not Sunday. He leaves the completed artifact laying around. He’s like some proud Tom Cat strewing small animal carcasses around like trophies. But it’s the strew that should go in the newspaper recycling bin.

If this was a cartoon–and it’s close, cuz that’s the Doc’s life–you would now see a light bulb pop over my head.

The Spouse had just triumphantly completed a puzzle not 20 minutes before.

I knew this to be true because he chortled. Really, a weird sound. Chortling. And he slapped down his pencil like a basketball dunk.

He never uses pens when he does his hallowed puzzle. He can barely conceal his exasperation with my nonchalant use of a pen. Okay, truth? He doesn’t hide that he finds my use of an ink pen in a crossword puzzle positively philistine. Also, I don’t care.

ME: Got it. If it was The Dabney. It’s not open for lunch.

FR: Yeah, that was it.  OK, where to Magellan?

28.  See 36 Across.