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The good: I've had a lot of progress with my veggies these last few weeks. The tomato plants look so big now compared to the last time I showed them to you. They're in the process of being hardened off and will be transplanted in another week or so. The snow peas are still doing well, and a few of my spindly broccoli seedlings even started to strengthen up. Oh, and garlic! Did you know you grow garlic simply by sticking a clove into the ground? Pretty cool. But it does take many months until it's ready for harvest.
The bad: I think my radishes have bolted (the leaves are growing, but there's no radish to be found when I've gently pushed aside some dirt to check). I'm going to give them another few weeks and then maybe pull them up... or let them flower and grow some seed pods instead. Have you ever grown radish seed pods? They sound delicious.
(pictured above: carrots, garlic, broccoli, lettuce, snow peas... and cherry tomatoes, a bit wilted from a few hours out in the sun.)
Four recommendations for you, if you're looking for something good to read: a book of poetry about work, a book of lectures about poetry, a gothic classic, and a coming-of-age novel. Here's a taste of each...
1. What Work Is (Philip Levine) — from the poem "Fire":
He would raise his shaking right arm
above his head, and with his palm
open sweep it toward me again
and again and speak without grammar,
sometimes without words, of what
had taken place. I knew it was true.
Now in the cool of the evening I catch
a hint of the forest, of that taking
of sudden breath that pines demand;
it's on my skin, a light oil, a sweat
born of some forgotten leaning into fire.
2. Madness, Rack, and Honey (Mary Ruefle) — "As I speak, blood is coursing through our bodies. As it moves away from the heart it marches to a 2/4 or 4/4 beat and it's arterial blood, reoxygenated, assertive, active, progressive, optimistic. When it reaches our extremities and turns toward home—the heart—well, it's nostalgic, it's venous blood (as in veins), it's tired, wavelike, rising and falling, fighting against gravity and inertia, and it moves to the beat of a waltz, a 3/4 beat, a little off, really homesick now, and full of longing. When we first write our poems, how arterial they seem! And when we go back to them, how venous they seem!"
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) — "Drearily I wound my way down stairs: I knew what I had to do, and I did it mechanically. I sought the key of the side-door in the kitchen; I sought, too, a phial of oil and a feather; I oiled the key and the lock. I got some water, I got some bread: for perhaps I should have to walk far; and my strength, sorely shaken of late, must not break down. All this I did without one sound. I opened the door, passed out, shut it softly. Dim dawn glimmered in the yard."
4. Brooklyn (Colm Tóibín) — "The first house, he explained, would be for the family; his mother longed for a garden and a proper house of her own. And then, he said, they would build three houses and sell them. But Maurice and Laurence had asked him if he wanted the fifth house and he had said that he did and he was asking her now if she would like to live in Long Island. It was near the ocean, he said, and not far from where the train stopped. But he did not want to take her there yet because it was winter and it was bare and bleak with nothing but waste ground and scrubland. The house would be theirs, he said, they could plan it themselves."
I spent the last few days enjoying Vancouver—it's been years since I visited! Some highlights from the trip: taking a picturesque train ride along the coast, exploring Stanley Park and Granville Island, spending the morning at the aquarium (the sweet, smiling belugas were my favorite), braving the Capilano suspension bridge, and watching the sunset at Sunset Beach Park. And, of course, seeking out good food: stinging nettle gnocchi and roasted cheddar pan bread at Forage, salmon linguine and pizza ai funghi at Zefferelli's, a delicious breakfast at Medina, and a few sweet treats from Breka and Thierry. Whew. What a full and delicious few days.
(photos from instagram.)
Do you have a favorite way to start seeds indoors? Since this was my first time, I used a seed starting kit (like this) but the peat pellets have tended to dry out pretty fast. I like the idea of making pots out of newspaper, so maybe I'll try that next time. I've been eyeing this tool that would make it even easier.
Of the seeds I've started indoors, the snow peas and the tomatoes have done the best. I repotted the tomatoes once their second set of leaves showed up, and spent last week hardening off the snow peas and then transplanting them into the garden. But my broccoli seedlings are spindly and weak; I'll be happy if even one of them turns out well.
Other progress, from seeds sowed directly outside: the radishes are doing well, and carrot and lettuce seedlings are just starting to peek up, and so is a stalk from a buried garlic clove. It's starting to look like a garden instead of just a barren box of soil, and that's a wonderful thing.
(pictured above: snow peas, pink beauty radishes, and cherry tomatoes.)
Enjoy any good books lately? Here's four I've recently read and would recommend: a dystopian novel, a strange and luminous collection of short stories, and two books for writers: the first because it contains a superb collection of excerpts, and the second for all of its advice from great writers. Snippets from the four books:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) — "We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious."
2. Jesus' Son (Denis Johnson) — "The next room past that was dim and blue-lit, and inside it, through the doorway, we saw a loft, almost a gigantic bunk bed, in which several ghost-complected women were lying around. One just like those came through the door from that room and stood looking at the three of us with her mascara blurred and her lipstick kissed away. She wore a skirt but not a blouse, just a white bra like someone in an undies ad in a teenage magazine. But she was older than that. Looking at her I thought of going out in the fields with my wife back when we were so in love we didn't know what it was."
3. The Making of a Story (Alice LaPlante) — "Flat characters are also called stereotypes, and the hallmark of flat characters is that they are incapable of surprising us; they act in a prescribed way, and are utterly consistent, without complexity. [...] A round character is the opposite of this: he or she is capable of surprising us—with unexpected fits of anger or an uplifting sense of humor or a snide remark about a presumed friend. But a round character also convinces us. As E.M. Forster says, if a character never surprises us, then he or she is flat; if they surprise but do not convince us, they are only flat pretending to be round."
4. The Modern Library Writer's Workshop (Stephen Koch) — "Every writer must be taught how to write every book she or he writes, and the teacher is always the book itself. Writing becomes good by accretion. It builds on itself; it picks up its own cues, it takes its own suggestions. You rarely if ever start out knowing exactly what you are doing or what is to come, and by the time you reach the middle, you rarely know how you are going to get out alive. The project must be your guide, and it will not be finished teaching you the job until the day you type the final page. Then, if you're lucky, it will let you go."
as a child, I ambled
through the overgrown pines
spreading rumors into the knots in trees—
because why should they care?
they were just trees.
you can lie to a tree and nobody will berate you
you can lie under a tree and nobody will wake you—
except for the whippoorwills
or the faraway calling of your mother,
standing at the back door, wondering where you have gone off to.
don't wander too far, she always said.
don't go so far that you can't hear me call.
and how far was that? the boundary of an acre,
the all-way stop at the end of the street,
the black edge of the sky?
I could always hear her. even with the duvet
yanked over my ears, and the bedroom door shut,
I heard her calling my name.
Last summer I grew a handful of tasty tomatoes but failed at my other vegetable attempts. I'm more hopeful about this year. Ever since the first hints of spring, I've been weeding, sowing flower seeds around the yard, and planning a garden. The raised bed garden I built is only four feet by four feet, but I'm using the square foot gardening technique (from this book), which stresses organized dense gardening. I could potentially grow sixteen different things just in this one box. (And, of course, the designer in me appreciates the grid.) I'll share more as it progresses.
I've eaten my fair share of dense, dry scones, and I've always felt indifferent about them because of it. But these? These are soft, flaky, and may just convert me into a scone lover. I made only one tiny tweak to the original recipe, using turbinado sugar on top instead of regular sugar. (As soon as I did, I realized that I nearly always top desserts with either powdered sugar or turbinado sugar... but I can't help it. It's the little things that count.)
Simple Scones (makes 8)
recipe from All Recipes
2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted chilled butter
1/2 cup raisins (or any other type of dried fruit)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 large egg
turbinado sugar for topping
Preheat oven to 400°F. In a medium bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Grate the stick of butter into the flour mixture (ideally using the large holes of a box grater) and then use your fingers to mix. The mixture should have a coarse texture. Stir in raisins. In a separate bowl, whisk together the sour cream and egg until smooth. Use a fork to stir the sour cream mixture into the flour mixture. Work the dough with your hands until it starts to come together into a ball. The goal is to get it to hold together, but not be completely smooth (you want to retain some of that crumbly texture). Place the dough onto a lightly floured surface and press into an 8" circle approximately 3/4" thick. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Cut into 8 triangles and lay the scones on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Enjoy!
Inside the oiled oak dresser, in the top drawer, was a great deal of lace: swaths of black and nude, but nudged underneath was a tangerine chemise that, when hugged against her freckled skin, caused her to appear anemic. She should get rid of it, she knew – but what did you even do with something like that? Surely you didn't donate it. Stacked deeper in the drawer were towers of jewelry boxes, constructed from swirled gold boxboard (in one, a tangled knot of necklaces, and in another, a twisted-chain bracelet passed down from her great grandmother, tarnished to a deep copper, which she imagined was probably the color of heartache). There were stockings stippled with clear nail polish, a cruise pamphlet her sister had sent to her last winter, chock-full of gleaming photos (among the ship's amenities: a surf simulator, a planetarium, and butler service...!), linen sachets that at a previous time had smelled strongly of lavender, a crumpled grocery list, an empty prescription vial, and a number of threadbare shirts she wore when running or gardening or scrubbing the back of the shower curtain. How alarmingly light it all felt after being deposited into a cardboard box. How insignificant. It was taped, labelled ("Bedroom. Dresser.") and transported down the stairs and stacked among the others. "You emptied this out?" the movers asked later in the day, before hefting the dresser up, revealing depressions in the carpet where the legs had stood for years. "You didn't have to," they said. "But that's fine." The taller one nodded to the other, and they went around the corner and out into the hall, leaving her alone in the quiet room. There she waited while they emptied the rest of the house. She listened to the shuffling of boxes and shouted directives and squeaking of sneakers, rubbing a toe over the indentations in the carpet to fluff up the flattened nap, until one of the men peeked in, smiled tiredly, and said they were all set. ♦
Recently I ran across a video of Mark Bittman making chocolate tofu pudding, and I was delighted because I used to eat a similar version of this dessert all the time when I was growing up. Why tofu? For its smooth, silky texture. This isn't as decadent as regular chocolate pudding, but it still hits the spot. As Bittman says in the video, "You have to try this. I'm serious." (And no, it doesn't taste like tofu.)
Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding (serves 4)
recipe by Mark Bittman
3/4 cup sugar
1 pound silken tofu*
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp chili powder, or more to taste
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
chocolate bar for shavings (optional)
Dissolve sugar in 3/4 cup hot water. Cool slightly. Add the tofu, melted chocolate, vanilla extract, and spices. Blend until very smooth, scraping down sides with a spatula if necessary. Pour into 4 small containers (I used 6 oz ramekins) and chill for at least 30 minutes. Use a peeler to make chocolate shavings from the chocolate bar and sprinkle them on top of the pudding before serving.
*make sure you buy silken/soft tofu and not firm tofu (which is "meatier" and meant for stir frying)
Inside, it was not at all what you would expect. There was none of the rain or thunder or howling as in the simulations we'd been disciplined with for weeks. How to explain? The ground, the air: it was all yellow. A wash of it, on every surface, so that to navigate within the space I had to feel my way around, grope the landscape blindly and backtrack whenever I ran into a barrier. I radioed the station. I asked, are you sure I'm in the right place?
Yes. Coordinates are correct.
Is it supposed to be...
Sorry? Repeat that?
Hold on, I said. I'd stubbed my toe on something. A rock, no—a handle. It lifted up and over, and I slipped down into the cavity below. Underneath, it was warmer and just as bright, and the air was tinged with the scent of burnt cotton. Of molten metal. Of decaying fruit. Maybe we'd gotten there too late. But I heard something then: the muted warble of a whippoorwill, as if muffled under layers of cloth.
Report your status, please.
I blinked and there she was, crouched in front of me. Her tiger-striped feathers were ruffled. I had been mistaken, but not far off. Come here, I whispered. She hopped backward. My radio crackled and the little beast hopped again—and though they never believed me later on, she looked me up and down and laughed. Nice try, she sang, and flew away, until she was only a speck high in the yellow horizon. ♦
love, just imagine the boat you could build
if only you had the time,
the peace and quiet, and reassurance
from someone with nothing to gain.
if only you knew the anatomy of seafaring vessels.
take out your thread and twine,
your chisel, your spade,
your notebooks with incoherent scrawlings
accumulated over the years.
beg the dog to stay quiet,
even if he has to sneeze.
tell him all you need is an hour today,
and another tomorrow,
and so on, until
the landscape before you
is coaxed into being,
until the fog curls back,
and the boats can be unmoored.
he will stay quiet for you, will sleep soundlessly for you,
and will be at the door
when you emerge
from your locked room,
his sable colored tail thumping the oak floor
in the language of dogs.
A quick recipe for you today: crispy, flaky, buttery palmiers. I had no idea how simple these were to make until a few days ago. All you need is sugar and puff pastry. That's it. (My local grocery store only stocks Pepperidge Farm, but I always hear that the all-butter versions by Dufour and Trader Joe's taste better... so I'll be trying those soon, too. As if I need an excuse to buy more puff pastry.)
Palmiers (makes about 20)
1 puff pastry sheet
1/2 cup sugar, plus more as needed
Thaw the puff pastry sheet. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar evenly on a work surface, unfold the puff pastry sheet on the sugar, and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on top. Add more if needed; you want to evenly coat the front and back of the puff pastry. Use a rolling pin to gently work the sugar in and to slightly thin the puff pastry (increasing the sheet's size no more than an inch or so).
Fold in the left and right edges so they meet in the middle, then repeat, folding the edges in again. Bring the two sides together as if closing a book. Slice into 1/4" thick pieces and spread on a baking sheet, leaving room between each cookie. Nudge the tips outward (like bunny ears). Bake at 400°F for about 15 minutes, flipping as soon as the bottoms start to brown/caramelize, about halfway through the baking time. Keep a close eye on your oven – the caramelized sugar is what makes the cookies tasty, but the sugar can also burn if they bake too long. Enjoy!
Have you read anything great recently? I read the tome everybody's been talking about and completely loved it too, savored more Mary Oliver poetry, got around to a French classic, and read a book I have no idea how to describe besides telling you that it involves apricots and Iceland and illness and fables. Here are tastes of all four:
1. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) – "I remember a few weeks before she died, eating a late supper with her in an Italian restaurant down in the Village, and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles being carried in procession from the kitchen, a faint circle of light wavering in across the dark ceiling and then the cake set down to blaze amidst the family, beatifying an old lady’s face, smiles all round, waiters stepping away with their hands behind their backs [...] I thought about it again and again after her death and indeed I’ll probably think about it all my life: that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace happiness that was lost when I lost her."
2. Dream Work (Mary Oliver) – "Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing / kept flickering in with the tide / and looking around. / Black as a fisherman's boot / with a white belly. / If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile / under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin / which was rough / as a thousand sharpened nails. / And you know / what a smile means / don't you?"
3. The Stranger (Albert Camus) – "At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer's ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie's body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn't in a hallow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman's ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything."
4. The Faraway Nearby (Rebecca Solnit) – "A pie might be eaten warm from the oven by the cook and her companions but a book is read many months or years after it’s written, out of sight of the writer, who never knows quite what she’s done. Ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short—used to be a popular saying, and cooking is usually on the side of life, but making preserves is an art of stalling time, of making the fruit that is so evanescent last indefinitely. [...] I wish that I could put up yesterday’s evening sky for all posterity, could preserve a night of love, the sound of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen again, line them up in jars where they might be admired in the interim and tasted again as needed."
What is it about baking a pie that is so satisfying? It is, I guess, the way it warms up the house, the meditativeness of rolling out and weaving the pie dough, the surge of accomplishment that comes with pulling a golden pie out of the oven, the ritual of slicing and sharing it. I've had my fair share of pie mishaps, but recently they've been turning out better, thanks to some tricks I've picked up. So, I thought I'd share them along with a yummy apple pie recipe. (Be forewarned: this ended up being a very long post! The next recipe I share will be a lot simpler, I promise.) First, here's how to make the pie crust...
Double Pie Crust (recipe from All Recipes)
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
ice water (I throw a couple ice cubes in a big measuring cup then fill it with water)
The secret to a good pie dough is to (a) keep the butter cold, and (b) keep the mixture coarse. Start by slicing the sticks of butter into cubes and place them in your freezer for at least 15 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour and salt. When the butter is chilled, scatter it over the flour mixture.
Cut in the chilled butter with a pastry blender or two knives until it's pea-sized. (Lumps of butter = flakier crust; air pockets are formed when the water in the butter turns into steam.)
Drizzle ice water into the dough a little bit at a time, mixing well. I use almost 1 full cup of ice water, but you might need less or more. The goal is to get your dough consistently damp enough for it to hold its shape if you pinch some together. When you get to that point, divide the dough into two balls, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight. (I always make my dough the night before baking.)
Once chilled, roll out one ball of dough to a circle 3-4" inches wider than your pie pan. The dough should be about 1/8" thick. Use flour as necessary to prevent sticking, but don't go overboard – my technique is to roll the dough out a few inches, dust it lightly with flour, flip it over, and then repeat those steps until it's the right size. If the dough cracks, wet a fingertip and press it back together. Transfer the rolled dough to a pie dish (gently roll the dough around your rolling pin, then unroll it over the pie dish) and carefully press the dough into the bottom and sides of the dish. Use kitchen scissors or a knife to evenly cut off the excess, leaving at least 1" overhang.
Crack the egg and separate the yolk from the white. Set the yolk aside. Whisk the white with a fork until lightly foamy. Poke holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork and brush the crust with the egg white – use enough to evenly coat the dough but not so much that it pools. Doing this helps seal the crust and prevents it from getting soggy from the filling. Place the pie crust in freezer/fridge.
While the pie crust is chilling, prepare the apple filling. My personal preference is to have a higher crust-to-filling ratio, so if you prefer a thick, layers-and-layers-of-apples pie, just increase the amount of filling. (Keep in mind, too, that the apple slices will shrink a bit when baked.)
Apple Pie Filling (recipe adapted from All Recipes)
7 cups peeled and sliced apples (5-8 apples, depending on size)
3/4 cup white sugar
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp butter, to dot on top
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl (sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg) and set aside. Peel and slice the apples 1/8" thick (thickness is a personal preference, of course – slice them thicker if you'd like). I like using a mix of sweet and tart apples: granny smith, fuji, and jonagold.
Add the apples to the dry ingredient mix, add the lemon juice, and toss thoroughly until the apples are evenly coated. Let sit for about 15 minutes, to let the sugar draw water out of the apples.
Remove your chilled pie crust from the freezer and place the filling into it. There will be a pool of liquid in the bottom of the bowl by now. I don't recommend pouring that liquid into the pie crust, because you risk ending up with a soggier/soupier pie. You can reduce the liquid down on the stovetop to a thicker consistency, though, if you want to. My preference is to omit the liquid altogether and just lift up the apple slices in handfuls, shake gently to let any excess liquid drain, and then place them into the crust.
Cut the tablespoon of butter into small cubes and scatter on top of the filling. This isn't a crucial step, but it's little things like this that add up to a great pie.
Set your pie dish aside and remove the other ball of dough from the fridge. Roll out the same way you did with the bottom crust – a large circle about 1/8" thick. Using a pizza cutter or a knife, slice it into even strips (I cut mine about 3/4" wide, but again, this is just personal preference). Using a ruler helps a lot with achieving straight lines.
Now the lattice: there are different methods, and I think the easiest way to learn is by watching someone do it... but basically what I do is first lay the two middle strips to establish the center, then work out from there. Before each new strip is laid down, you have to lift back every other strip in the perpendicular rows, so that when those strips are laid back in place, it creates an over-under-over-under weave. If that's completely confusing, youtube has plenty of examples you can watch.
(Also – unless you make a really tight weave, you'll have leftover dough. Either discard it or roll it back into a ball and make something fun like a mini pie.) Pinch the lattice strips to the bottom crust to help seal them; trim away the excess dough. Finish your edge by folding the overhanging dough under itself...
... also crimping the edge if you'd like to. (Here's a video how to.) I love a really pretty pie crust, but, you know, it doesn't really matter if your crust is a bit lopsided or funny looking. If it tastes good, it's a good pie.
To finish the pie, mix a little water in with the egg yolk that you set aside earlier and brush this mixture on top (just to evenly coat, don't let it pool anywhere). This helps you get that beautiful golden color, and it also acts as a 'glue' for the turbinado sugar (now's the time to sprinkle it on). The turbinado sugar is added for texture more than sweetness.
Throw the pie back into the freezer/fridge for one last chill. Don't skip this step – it helps prevent the crust from shrinking. While the pie is chilling, place an empty baking sheet in your oven on the rack below the one you'll be baking the pie on (to catch any drips). Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Place a crust shield on your pie, or if you don't own one, make one with foil (video tutorial here). Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes. Reduce temp to 350°F and continue baking for 30 min. Remove pie shield / foil and continue baking (still at 350°F) for another 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. I let the crust get very golden brown and crisp; if you prefer a softer crust, the baking time will be shorter. And also remember that these times might vary depending on your particular oven, so peek at your pie often and adjust as needed.
Let the pie cool for at least an hour before serving to allow the filling to set. My favorite way to eat apple pie is to reheat a slice and then add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Mmm. So good.
Do you have any pie tricks or favorite recipes? (I can't wait until cherry season...)
In the beginning there was a crackle, a spark, phones that never stopped buzzing, an extraordinary kiss while passing through a covered bridge, parties at which several of her old friends cared to comment, "Look how happy you are! What a change from last year," which embarrassed her, though not as much as when her mother took him aside on Labor Day weekend – God knows what she said to him – despite that, months later, there he was kneeling on the frozen leaves at Carson Park, and after that day every conversation somehow ended up being about the cost of flowers, and who would be offended if they weren't invited, and kidding-but-not-kidding about scrapping the whole thing and booking tickets to Cabo, where it could just be the two of them on the beach. And yet. There was a suspicion, a revelation, one deflating night getting him to admit his wrongdoing, then a lunch at which her oldest friend told her, "We all secretly could tell he wasn't right for you," and a slew of slow, indistinct mornings where she woke and boiled water for tea and considered the sparrows through the window as they pecked the soft grass, watching them until she was alright again, which took both less and more time than she expected, because there was always something that reminded her of him – certain idioms, his brand of shampoo – but, finally, it had been long enough, and she said yes to a man who asked for her phone number, missing his call that night, calling him back the next, talking late, laughing at a coincidence they had discovered; they had grown up half a dozen blocks from each other. "So, this Friday?" he asked. In the end it was only one date; they would be friends, they saw, and that was all. It was alright with her. There would be another. When she drove home she took the long way, passing through the covered bridge and easing up off the gas pedal to stretch the seconds out, the resounding echo carrying her forward. ♦
I think this year I'm going to forgo the 'monthly' part of this series and just share books whenever I have four new great ones to share. Sound good? (It always feels like I read a bunch of great books all at once, then go for stretches of time where none really move me, then the pattern repeats. Is it like that for you, too?) Here are the books that have most recently swept me away...
1. Someone (Alice McDermott) – "I deployed all my excuses in a rush: the water was too hot, the house too cold, I'd had a bath last week, I had a stomachache, I was sleepy. But my mother had a grip on my arm, and my thin legs were all obedience. They raised themselves against my will, up over the cold rim of the high tub and into the steaming water, where the pain from the heat became a chill in my spine and my thin body – bright red to my calves but pale white, nearly blue, through my chest and my arms – became no more than a scrap of cloth, a scrap of cloth caught and shaken and snapped by a sudden wind."
2. Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (Dani Shapiro) – "Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed."
3. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) – "You may not agree, you may not care, but / if you are holding this book you should know / that of all the sights I love in this world — / and there are plenty — very near the top of / the list is this one: dogs without leashes."
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey) – "The Big Nurse is able to set the wall clock at whatever speed she wants by just turning one of those dials in the steel door; she takes a notion to hurry things up, she turns the speed up, and those hands whip around that disk like spokes in a wheel. The scene in the picture-screen windows goes through rapid changes of light to show morning, noon, and night – throb off and on furiously with day and dark, and everybody is driven like mad to keep up with that passing of fake time..."
If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them, too.
once more i am hunting for le mot juste,
upturning my pillows
and the cups in the drainboard; i've checked
the mailbox, the keyhole, the washing machine,
the dark slender gaps between the books on the high shelf,
and the backs
(and middles and fronts)
of drawers. i have even
turned my pockets inside out,
peered into the splintered pile of firewood
and carved away the hard wax
from the necks of half-burnt tapers.
it is three in the morning now
and still, the small thing eludes me.
when i go hunting again i find:
an earring i thought was gone for good,
an hour to nap while the moon rises,
an unopened birthday card
you sent me after all –
and i forget,
i am looking for.
I haven't taken ballet for something like fifteen years. When I stopped, exactly, is fuzzy; all I remember is trading it in for piano lessons, and feeling some regret because I had just gotten demi-pointe shoes and it probably wouldn't have been too much longer until pointe shoes came along. But anyway. I was young and I quit, and I've been wanting to go back for years. I've missed it.
Maybe you have a similar story? In the last month, it seems that every friend I tell about my plan to start taking ballet again replies with, "Oh, same here. I'd love to get back into it, too." So, why not? Time, money, worries that you'll be the worst in the class? I guess I had those excuses too. But eventually my desire to dance outweighed all of that. I stopped caring that I wasn't as graceful or flexible or in shape as I wish I was. I wrote ballet drop-in on my calendar, and I counted down the days.
I took my first class today. There were five other women there, and I liked our instructor instantly. She was kind and encouraging, and maybe most importantly, she was enthusiastic about teaching us. Class began. We warmed up at the barre, we moved to the floor, we did a short combination from one corner to the other. Most of it came back to me, but it wasn't easy; by the end of the hour I was thirsty and hot, and it felt good to step out into the cool winter air in leggings and a thin sweater. When I came home I said hello to Rufus, and warmed up a bowl of homemade soup, and I laid my ballet shoes back on top of my dresser. I hope I will keep reaching for them for a long time to come.
I came galloping over Strawberry Hill in a fit of anger. Those dopes had gone on without me again (how many times did I have to tell them that I slept standing up, that I often looked awake when I wasn't?) but when I crested the hill I could see them out there belly-high in the bowing grass. The Palomino was still out in front, his body golden in the warm light. He had tried to get the rest of us to call him Captain and failed; the only reason we were following him at all was because he said he knew where the Great Field was, or at least he had heard of the landmarks one follows to get there. Who were we to argue? We didn't know any better. We just knew we wanted to get there.
Among our group was a Clydesdale who, it was rumored, could haul eight times his own weight; a handsome but temperamental Thoroughbred; a sarcastic pony from the petting zoo upstate; and a few Appaloosas, one of which I thought had a particularly lovely coat, and thus far she had been the only one to make conversation with me, to ask about the stable I had come from. She was sweet, you know? Okay. Okay. So maybe I had a crush on her. Maybe that was why I wasn't breaking from the group and trying to find the Great Field on my own.
What we had heard – what we had all been told from foalhood – was that if you could find it, you would never have to leave. In the Great Field there was uninterrupted land that stretched so far you would always tire before reaching the edge of it, there were songbirds that came twice a week to report the news of the world, there were occasionally young children who wandered into the field to offer apples from the nearby orchard, the fruit hacked in half, the juice so sweet and fragrant. The horses back home had warned each one of us not to go. It was all equine lore, they said. It was the stuff of movies. What do you say to that? All you can do is shrug, I suppose. When I left, I left before dawn, and I left deep hoof prints in the dry earth.
early in the year
I start jogging again
cleaning the caked mud
out of the soles of my shoes
breaking off the old earth in continental-shaped clumps.
the route I like to take
dips downhill very suddenly
and then gradually climbs back up
winding through blocks of cape cod houses
and past front windows with sleepy dogs resting their chins
on the backs of couches –
one, as big as a bear and white as milk,
opens an eye to observe me huff and puff past.
at the end of the third mile
my heart may just
punch out of my chest
but I can see the street sign at the top of the hill,
Bloomer, it says, and if I can just
make it to that sign,
touch its perforated metal post,
I can make it the rest of the way home.
Things I'm looking forward to this year: finishing writing my novel, going on some adventures (maybe Victoria, BC, maybe the Oregon coast, maybe somewhere a bit further away), losing track of time while gardening, discovering more fantastic books, in particular reading more poetry, and taking ballet lessons (more on this soon).
This is the third time I'll be kicking off a new year by making pad thai from scratch – the first year it was mediocre and the second year it was pretty good but not, you know, that amazing. When I finally get it right, I'll share the recipe.
Happy 2014 to you.
We were in Los Angeles part of last week and it felt like zipping forward into summer. Sun! So much sun. Who knew I'd be slathering sunscreen on my shoulders the day before Christmas. During our stay, we caught up with my extended family, hiked from my grandmother's house in the Hollywood Hills to a lookout point for the Hollywood sign, walked over the footprints and handprints at Grauman's, ate dinner the first night at Pig N' Whistle and brunch the last day at Alcove, watched the sunset at The Getty, explored Griffith Observatory. On Christmas day we brought flowers to the cemetery where my grandfather is buried, and we had tamales for dinner, and some of us played music late into the night and some of us just listened.
I haven't gone on vacation in the last two years, and I had sort of forgotten how restorative it can be. You start to get numb to your surroundings when you stay in them too long. But leaving, spending four days with family in the sunshine, sleeping in a house that isn't yours, eating different food, forgetting what day it is, watching the world shrink back through an airplane window: what a good thing.
Every time my husband bakes, I say to him: we should totally open a bakery. And he usually says: but think of how early bakers have to get up. To which I reply: well, we wouldn't be a typical bakery. We could open at noon and target the afternoon crowd. We could be the rare bakery that stays open in the evenings! I'm not serious about this utopian daydream of mine, but still, it's a fun one to imagine. Whenever one of us bakes something that's really good, I mentally file it away for our future pretend bakery.
We recently learned from a friend that one secret to making amazing cookies is to use brown butter (aka beurre noisette). Brown butter yields a more complex, nutty, magical taste, and it's completely worth the extra few minutes of prep. After learning that, my husband took a recipe for ginger molasses cookies – it is the season, after all – and gave it the brown butter treatment. What came out of the oven was pretty great.
Ginger Molasses Cookies (makes about 4 dozen smallish cookies)
adapted from Joy of Baking
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/3 cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
large grained sugar (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Brown the butter by heating the sliced butter over medium heat, whisking frequently, until it starts to brown. (Here's a more detailed guide to browning butter.) As soon as the butter browns, pour it into a heatproof mixing bowl and beat with the sugar until creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Mix in the the oil, molasses, egg, and vanilla extract. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix well. Roll the dough into two logs – these logs can be round, but if you give them a rectangular shape, the cookies are especially well shaped for dunking into milk or coffee. Wrap each of the logs in plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm. You can store the dough in your freezer for several days before baking.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease or line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice the chilled dough in 1/4 inch thick pieces and place on prepared baking sheets, leaving some space between each cookie. Sprinkle with large grain sugar, like turbinado, if desired. (This is more for texture than sweetness.) Bake for about 10 minutes for chewy cookies or 12 minutes for crisp cookies – it's a good idea to bake a test cookie first to see what works for you. Remove and cool on a wire rack. Keeps for up to a week in an airtight container.
baking chocolate crinkles for friends...
lighting up our christmas tree...
...and stopping by anchored ship to warm up on a chilly day.
and some other good things:
(photos from instagram.)