I mentioned, at the end of my previous installment, that my husband was out of town on urgent business, coinciding with my participation in an elimination diet (he assured me it was coincidental). My friend Keith asked, with some comical concern on his face, if my husband ever came back to town. Yes he did come back, and he tries to show concern for my pitiful plight, while avoiding me. There must be a back staircase on this house that I didn’t know about because he disappears into – I swear it – thin air. I am left to wander alone, munching my rice cakes with a dour expression; as my youngest said, “Mom, your diet makes me sad.”
But have you noticed that no matter how miserable your petty, first-world problems are, someone always has it worse? I was telling a friend about the elimination diet and she said, “Wow, you get to eat fruit huh? That’s nice. And only for a few weeks? Huh…” She trailed off, but the implication was clear. Her diet had been three months and strictly meat and vegetables. Yes well, I had to concede she had it worse. Then my neighbor told me she was once on a diet of rice and turkey for three weeks. Okay! She’s the winner! I am not even very good at being sufficiently pitiable. My friend Jesse had to swallow some gravel-sand mixture on one of her regimens. Maybe it was ground-up mirrors? I can’t recall.
I have to admit, despite my extreme, vocal skepticism about the diet, I did think I might experience some increased energy, mental clarity, perhaps a youthful spring in my step once my entire body wasn’t beset by poisons. Here I am on day 22 and…still waiting…cakeless.
I really want to write about the chocolate mousse I made for my friend Kirstin for her birthday. She assures me it was top-notch. I couldn’t try it, but I could tell, just by looking, that it was perfect. I have already planned to make it for myself on my next birthday. It’s out there in the near future, spurring me on.
marycakeless (for now)
P.S. I don’t like these all-text blog entries. I want pictures! Here are some from the archives to cheer us, Eaters.
P.P.S. Looks like we have our “before” pictures all set for the wall of fame at the orthodontist’s office.
I don’t talk about diets here, mostly because I have been lucky enough to avoid them. I have a list of bodily insecurities a mile long, (Why are my eyes freakishly close together? A nasty boy in first grade always called me “Cyclops,” which seemed excessive) but I haven’t experienced much of a weight struggle. Following my two pregnancies, I decided I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, but that I also wouldn’t fight very hard. I settled for facing the fact that I would never be my pre-pregnancy weight, but it would be a cold day in hell before I wore mom jeans. So I suppose I settled for pretending, and that has worked pretty well.
I don’t think I have to treat my body like a temple. It’s more like a well-kept municipal park that occasionally gets overtaken by skateboarders. But my naturopath disagrees, (they always do) and has insisted, for years, that the whole place is a toxic waste dump. Ok, I’m offended, yes, but also curious. I am beset by foggy fatigue and allergies – could my brain and body be mired down in dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts, gluten, grains of every stripe, plus tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers? Also citrus fruits? Oh, and refined sugar and alcohol? So, mired down in fun and joy then.
I like to think of myself as open to new ideas, (not really) so I decided to go on this month long hell-ride of an elimination diet (the name alone…).
After Dr. Meanypants got through the list of foods I couldn’t eat (this took way longer than telling me what I could eat) I said, “I am just not used to…um…how can I say this? Not used to…” “Not getting what you want all the time?” she finished my thought. “Yes!” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! Ya, I don’t like that.” She made her “get used to disappointment, Princess” face. It’s built into the cost.
I have quoted George Bernard Shaw here before: “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” To that I would add: and the love of drink. I realized that popcorn, treats, beer and wine were like special friends to me. But they are all gone now, to the houses of other people they like better.
My daughters agreed to release me from my morning baking duties since I am not inclined to churn out cream scones that I can’t eat. They are doing fine on Dave’s bagels so far, but it’s only been a week – poor things. They are sweetly sympathetic to my plight.
I assured them that the diet is not for weight loss, because it’s important to me to raise girls in an environment that doesn’t assume everything is wrong with the way our bodies look and that they are in constant need of tweaking and deprivation. “Oh Mom! We know!” I was pleased that they found the very idea of a weight loss program absurd, (this seems the best way to feel, at their ages) but I sensed something else in their tone. It was this: “We certainly hope it’s not for weight loss, because we all know that is never going to happen.”
Okay, fair enough. It’s no secret that I can murder a cauldron of popcorn. But not today. Today I am doing this. I am going against everyone’s (especially my own) conception of me as a person devoid of willpower. Oh, I am doing this. Stay tuned. Send flowers – I can eat those.
Given the depth and longevity of my feelings for watermelon – and this recipe in particular – it is strange that I have never written about it. I don’t know of any other food that has brought me so much joy without saturated fat, trans fat, (see my complicated, abusive relationship with donuts) or added sugar. Eating outrageous amounts of it is never a cause for regret. There are not many foods that can boast that. Plus, the sight of it, so green and bursting, is emblematic of summer and all it’s fleeting pleasures. I actually don’t like having it available in stores year-round. This is like having a Christmas tree lot open all year, or roasting a Thanksgiving turkey every Thursday. To everything its season!
When I lived in Colorado, my friend Ken and I ate remarkable amounts of watermelon and he’s one of the only people I have met who can match my enthusiasm for this food. Around that same time, I was living in a graduate dorm with a roommate from Nepal. She was in an arranged marriage to the owner of several Burmese ruby mines, though she repeatedly professed to have no interest in money or gems. I repeatedly professed interest in both, but she never gave me any. She did make me some fantastic rice pudding (it was mostly cream with some fenugreek and a little rice).
Probably the closest I will be getting to Burmese jewels is this remarkable recipe. It is from the June 2010 issue of Oprah’s magazine that is in my summer rotation of is-it-a-salad-or-is-it-a-main-dish-do-we-really-care standbys.
I like to construct this in generous layers as opposed to a tossed pile. There is so much going on in this dish (too much, my older daughter asserts): The herbalicious greenery! The richness of the peanuts and coconut! The juicy sweetness of the melon! BUT WAIT, there’s more! Fried shallots and gingery, limey, salty dressing! It makes me glad that exclamation points are an endlessly renewing resource(!).
This dish has it all; it’s a jungle on your plate. That is why I have selected it as my desert island dinner. Marooned in a remote but paradisiacal locale, I would live on it until, well, death. Or I would eat it until my eventual rescue by handsome navy seals, possibly bearing Burmese rubies. And I can’t even guarantee I would be willing to set down my plate (presuming my grandmother’s china made it through the shipwreck, though I would eat this off the back of an armadillo) to follow them back to bejeweled civilization. It’s that good.
Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
2 Tablespoons unsweetened finely shredded coconut (or as much as you want)
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/4 cup peanut or neutral oil, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 limes)
1 1/2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons flour
kosher salt to taste
3 cups melon (cantaloupe, honeydew and/or watermelon) peeled, seeded and cut into cubes or rectangles (I have been known to use way more melon here)
1/3 cup (again, or more!) chopped peanuts, toasted
1/4 cup (or lots more) mixture of chopped basil, cilantro and mint
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add coconut and toast it, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
To make the dressing, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add sesame seeds to skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until golden, about two minutes. Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and ginger; Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and whisk in lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar.
In a medium bowl, toss shallots with flour, shake off excess flour. Heat remaining 1/4 cup peanut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, about 30 seconds. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to plate and season with salt to taste; set aside to cool.
To assemble salad in the fashion that I favor, layer melon pieces on platter, drizzle with dressing, peanuts coconut, herbs, and shallots; salt to taste. Then repeat one or two more luscious layers.
The blackberry bushes are ever upon us, their profligate vines grasping our legs, snagging our clothing, encroaching on what’s left of our backyards. They bramble their way into any unclaimed – or claimed – space, fairly knocking down other plants, so rapid is their growth. The canes thrash about in the air a bit then actually plunge into the ground to take root, creating a bulbous tuber that you can’t remove without a pick-axe, blood, tears, and your lifetime quota of profanity. The vines can grow at a rate of 20 feet every year. Yes, that’s right. But for a brief moment in that year of unchecked advance, they offer us berries. They are a member of the rose family, so they will mercilessly cut you as you harvest; but nevertheless, we are grateful. It’s Stockholm syndrome, but we want pie.
Blackberries show up right as summer is poised to fade, (even earlier this year, since it’s been about 145 degrees) so unlike the promising salmonberries of June, these fruits always make me feel a bit wistful and desperate. But it doesn’t take much to inspire that feeling in me – it’s my superpower.
I corralled the daughters into picking with me, using my standard rallying cry: “Three people for ten minutes equals a pie!” It was one of our don’t-tell-me-there-isn’t-major-climate-disruption sizzling hot days, so morale was waning before we even began. But we got our haul, despite #2’s desultory harvesting.
“Come on honey,” I enthused perkily, acting against type, “Let’s abolish the stereotype of lazy child berry pickers!”
“That stereotype exists because of me!” she said. Okay, that’s pretty good. She can’t pick berries worth a darn, but she’s funny. Humor could stand her in better stead than competent foraging, unless there’s an apocalypse.
I am starting to think you can make a topping for berry crisp out of anything. I am confident I could bash one together with twigs. I have never made the same one twice. This time I dumped 1 1/2 cups of cashews in the Cuisinart with roughly 3/4 of a cup of oats and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. I whirred that around, adding a couple pinches of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla (almost the last of my precious, real vanilla!) and 3 tablespoons of butter. This formed a crumble to cover the berries, which I mixed with honey and a pinch of salt. We like a tart crisp around here, since we are given to eating it for breakfast, but you can add more sugar/honey/maple syrup to suit your own household of not-great berry pickers.
This crisp was scrumptious, and everyone descended on it with much more vigor than they had for the actual berry acquisition. I reproduced it the next day, and it wasn’t quite the same, but such is the uncertainty of life – mine, anyway. Whatever summer offers you, I suggest you go out and grab it now. Even if I live a very long time, I have passed the midpoint of all the summers I will see. I find this so unbelievable and sad – yet what can I do? Brave the thorns, pick the berries, bake the crisp, eat it with gratitude, forgive myself for past failures in the kitchen and countless other rooms, and start again – as long as the season lasts. If I am lucky, (I accidentally typed “plucky” first, and that’s applicable too) I will machete my way through a few more bramble patches, and desserts, before I am done.
I read the gentle, but firm, reminder of Scandinave Spa’s no talking rule: “Welcome,” the sign read, “to our haven of silence.” Ah, what a relief! I was stealing a few hours away from the nonstop bonding of our family vacation.* I planned to get scalding hot, dunk in a cold plunge pool, and then wrap up in towels to read my mystery novel. Scald. Freeze. Read. Repeat – all in blessed tranquility. Trust me, it’s why Scandinavians are thin and don’t hate their children.
But I did speak aloud a couple times, “It’s so clean,” I whimpered to a perfectly maintained hosta. “It’s so tidy and smells of eucalyptus,” I practically wept to the lemon wheel floating in my water.
I have trouble keeping order and creating beauty in my life. My house is a constant, wailing metaphor for the unfocused mind. When I try to flee inward to escape the toppling laundry cairn that is my living room, I crash into the Sanford and Son junkyard of my brain, complete with the requisite bellowing dog, Entropy.
I try to form little oases of beauty and intention in my home, but these days, they end up coated in dog hair (real dog, not the one from that scene in my brain). Okay, so clearly, I have some mental and domestic work to do. But – here comes the bright spot – I usually manage to get a meal on. The forethought and execution involved in coaxing ingredients into dishes is my way of giving shape to the day, and finding an orderly spot in my home/life.
This spicy kimchi slaw recently brought me much eating joy, and appeared in several iterations on our table over the course of a week. Though the Bon Appetit recipe is lovely as it is, it benefits from a grated apple, toasted peanuts and/or grilled tofu. Once I grated on some beets – fantastic – and also added slivered snap peas. And I used red radishes for more color than daikon provided. I left out the kimchi once, and went for lots of lime juice and sriracha.
So set yourself up with some serenity slaw, and stop glancing around at the chaos that threatens to flush you down a toilet of unopened mail, forlornly single socks, and aspirational books you will never read. Focus solely on the slaw. Fork, Crunch, Repeat. There…see? Now isn’t that a healthy, pretty little haven of order? All silent…save for the munching.
*Yes, I was back in Canada! I should write for their tourism board. My motto: “Canada! If there’s anywhere else to vacation, I don’t want to know about it!”
My sister and I were descending the hill from our rented tiny house (50$/night!!) above Nelson, B.C., when an indecipherable symbol lit up on my dashboard. It was either telling me that the car had to be tumble-dried on low, that this was a unisex bathroom, or that my wi-fi was still loading. A perusal of one of the six Harry Potter-size manuals that came with the car revealed that it actually had something to do with tire pressure.
I stopped at an auto repair shop and told my troubles to Glen, who looked like you could tell him your hair was on fire and he would remain unruffled. As he meticulously checked my tire pressure – even spritzing my rims with soap and water to detect leaks, I told him that I loved his town. He paused reflectively, then said,”You ever see that movie…oh in aboot 1987 with-” “YES!!” I interrupted him, “About a hundred times!!”
I knew the film ginger-haired Glen was referring to: Roxanne, the romantic comedy written and starred in by Steve Martin. The title character, played by Daryl Hannah, with her wavy, man-trap hair and slouchy boots, launched my lifelong desire to have a denim vest. I wish I could say my lifelong desire to be an astronomer, like her character… but no, no, just to wear a denim vest. By 1987, I had already earned a couple Cs in math, and I knew which way the wind was blowing. If you are going to dream big, you better pass geometry.
“I was in the barn scene,” Glen went on, “But they fuzzed me oot.” I love Canadian accents, because I love everything Canadian, except poutine. “Should I watch it again and look for you? Or for the place where you were?” “No, no,” he said, with resigned good humor,“They fuzzed me oot, ya know.” Here it is, three decades later, and not just Glen, but the owner of the health food store, and everyone else I talked to, remembered the glorious months when the film crew was in town, putting their charming burgh – once a silver rush boom town – on the map for American moviegoers.
If that sounds sad, or like the town is in a state of faded glory, it isn’t. Nelsonites know they are in a stunning corner of the world. I don’t know what it was like back in 1987, (when Steve Martin came into the health food store in search of a vegetarian hot dog – true story) but right now there are breweries and eateries a plenty. Going north? I recommend Cantina del Centro* and Yum Son, for delicious food, friendly staff, and attractive, fun, atmosphere. (It’s rare to get 3 out of 3 don’t you think? Oh, were you hoping for inexpensive too? That’s funny). But let’s talk baked goods.
The Kootenay Bakery Cafe is a buttery chunk of heaven. The interior isn’t fancy, or particularly hip, but the ingredients are fresh, organic, and often local. The energy was pleasant, and the workers were very matter of fact when their wi-fi went away, leaving me unable to pay for the armload of pastries I had hoped to make off with. They were kind of like, “Hey, you are in the most beautiful place on earth, plus you don’t look like you are starving. I think you are going to be just fine,” but without being jerks about it. And I was! I was just fine! But only because after a fruitless search for a cash machine that spoke American, we came back the next day with credit cards again, the wi-fi was humming, and we had a redo.
Chocolate croissants! Savory pies! Potato frittatas! The frittatas were such a perfect size, (about 5 inches in diameter) that I had them show me the ingenious silicone pan they were made in. When kitchen staff bring out specialty pans for me to look at, I hear angels singing. There are so many choices at this bakery, you may find yourself wringing your hands. If I ever stay in Nelson again, (please!!) I will eat there twice daily for several days, until I feel I have sampled the bulk of their wares. As their city motto exhorts, “Forge Ahead!” I take that mandate seriously.
Eating the chocolate croissants, a favorite of my youngest daughter’s, made me decide that once I returned home, (for I would have to eventually) we would make them together. I wasn’t planning to attempt homemade pastry dough – heavens no! I would use frozen dough, cut into triangles and wrapped around my favorite chocolate bars. Years ago, I was in a big hurry and just bought croissants, implanted the chocolate and stuck them in the oven. Were they homemade? Well, they were homewarmed. But more importantly, were they good? I think you know. I recommend making them, anyway you can. If you make your own dough, please have me over, But don’t bother trying to teach me; I would be there solely to eat, which is my reason for going most places. “Forge Ahead,” is an excellent motto. But so is “I’m Here to Eat.”
P.S. It just occurred to me that Steve Martin made chocolate croissants in It’s complicated. In this romantic comedy, he stars opposite Meryl Streep, whose character is a successful pastry chef and patisserie owner. On their first date she takes him to her shop, after hours, and tells him she can make him anything he wants. Their pairing may be complicated, but unlike his with Hannah, it’s more age appropriate. I do still love Roxanne though, in spite of the predictable May-September match-up.
*Thank you to the front desk manager at the very cool, recently renovated Adventure Hotel, for the tour, and the recommendation for Cantina del Centro. And thank you Uncle Frank, for seconding the recommendation.
I know I am prone to gush about our neighbor to the north, but Eaters: look at the scenery! Oh Canada!
Oops! I mean: Eaters, look at the scenery!
My sister and I went on a mini-tour of the Kootenay region of B.C. and, just as I suspected, it’s a woodsy and mountainous wonderland with gobs of fresh air. The lakes are deep and chilly,* the residents are friendly, and there are lots of hot springs. Sadly, the gasoline and beer cost three prices, and we always seemed to be in dire need of both. But otherwise, it’s paradise.
The Canadian border guard who eyed our passports and asked us if we had guns, gin, or cocaine** that we needed to fess up to, noted our last names and inquired if he sensed, “Sister trouble headed north.” Oh yes.
Cut to our return from three nights in an adorable tiny home in Nelson, (more on Nelson next time) as we paused in postcard pretty Rossland, a ski town an hour north of the border. We asked a local where to get pastries and fortifying hot beverages, and she recommended Alpine Grind. I complimented her lovely town and she sighed happily, “We drove in 27 years ago and never left. I raised children in this town, and now my grandchildren are here.” I was tempted to do the same, but then remembered I was 47, with a family waiting back in the states. Too late for another life, but not too late for a pastry.
The Alpine Grind was a cafe of surpassing deliciousness with a menu including a vegetable frittata pressed (Yes! PRESSED!) bagel sandwich that fairly groaned under the weight of so much cheese. Served with salsa, it was exactly what we needed at the outset of a 500 mile (804 kilometer!) journey home. After that filling breakfast, my sister and I each ordered a baked good to go, something we were unable to resist doing on this jaunt. “I am on vacation!” I kept telling myself, from deeper and deeper within my chins. It’s a good thing I don’t vacation more often.
On my way out the door, I was doctoring my coffee at the creamy (milk from local, grass-munching cows!) embellishment station, when I looked around at upwards of six new mothers with babies. I was impressed with the level of lactation, human and bovine, in the area. “What’s the deal with all the babies?” I inquired of the rugged man who was also tarting up his coffee. He looked like he slung refrigerators around for a living.”That’s what this town does,” he replied. “I am just trying to get out of here without getting pregnant,” I said, letting out my signature, self-conscious cackle-honk. And then, because I never run out of stupid things to say, I topped it off with: “I’m kidding; I am only here for ten more minutes.” Marycake! Shut up! He looked at me circumspectly, “You never know. You may meet the man of your dreams here.”
Yes, well, the man of my dreams was, at that very moment, back in Olympia with a congested and coughing daughter, and a similarly ailing dishwasher; I knew he was mightily weary of my wanderlust. Forget possible impregnation, I needed to get out before I used up my husband’s store of patience. I grabbed my scone and took flight, my sister on my heels, clutching her cinnamon roll.
I will have more to say about baked goods and Canada – I usually do. So stay tuned to see if we made it back, or decided to stick around and stalk Justin Trudeau while bakery-hopping.
*I asked a local where I could find a good place to swim and she said, “You can’t. By the end of summer the lake temperatures will be just up to…freezing.” That right there, is all the encouragement I require.