Writing Recipe Headnotes for the Heart

Writing Recipe Headnotes - Words as Honey

Words can stick like dried honey to a countertop, catching any stray bit of paper towel. They can swirl and fuse into a person like stirring a spoonful of honey from a jar into a hot mug of tea. Sometimes we can be so carefree with our words, forgetting this quality they possess that rivals the handiwork of honeybees. Sometimes, we linger on words spoken a long time ago, letting them marinate within us that our response might tenderize until the right time.

One evening this past winter, a chill pierced the air that could penetrate even the thickest Ugg boots or puffy jacket. I had set out cross-town in San Francisco to attend a poetry reading and arrived early knowing the race might be on for the metered parking spots, free after 7 p.m. It had been months, since I had attended a reading. It didn’t help that I was a walking ball of influenza, all half-used tissues and sniffles, wrapped in layers of black outerwear. I kept to myself until I couldn’t keep myself from seeking out people to talk to, visually apologetic for my sorry state but not so disapproving of my health that I would let it keep me from indulging in listening to some favorite poets inflect their poems with their voices. To read a poem aloud is to give it new breath and life, to discover another side of it like unexpectedly catching someone you love doing something kind for a stranger. We crave igniting our aural capabilities. In that way reading a poem on the page and hearing the author pause in different spots than the line breaks on a page which stop the eye is akin to releasing the poem anew.

What pulled me out of bed and into the bookstore reading that night were the poets lined up to read from recent collections and getting to see Chard de Niord, who with Jacqueline Gens, had co-created the MFA Poetry program at New England College, of which I am an alumnus. The evening’s reading began. Peter Everwine read softly, his vowels long and his consonants clustering around each other. I craned forward then, determined not to miss one word and surprised as my eyes glistened as if on command when he finished reading a poem that caught me in its net and held me in the quiet space just after a poem finishes and before people begin clapping. The imagery kept me cornered in his mother’s kitchen, my eyes fixed on her rag rug that served as a striking symbol of grief. Chard de Niord stepped forward and read with tenderness, leaning ever so slightly on the podium, caught in the current of words he had penned but had taken on their own life. Alejandro Murguía spoke of finding love in Paris, even as the listener knew early on that this love would not last, even as the listener ate the clues of foreshadowing that would take the beloved back to Caracas. Forrest Gander told a story describing the human need for connection with such fluency it left me breathless.

When the reading ended, I sat there, still soaking in the words and truths relayed in the small span of an hour, feeling changed. With glassy eyes and still sniffling my way through a purse-sized pack of tissues, I introduced myself to another poet in this room made up mainly of poets. As we navigated our introductions, I described the food poetry that’s kept my attention the reading regimen of cookbooks and poetry books. He scoffed, not meanly, but said, “What good writing can there be in cookbooks?”

It’s been many months since that poetry reading and the scoffing poet’s words continue to bubble up within me like a tomato sauce that simmers for several hours, letting the ingredients concentrate. What I think the scoffing poet was missing that night, is that cookbooks possess their own possibility for weaving a good narrative or lyrical play of language if done well. What I think the scoffing poet was pointing to that evening is an innate need to push the Word forth. As someone who jots recipes down on scraps of paper pocked with sauce in my kitchen and occasionally shares them in this spot of the internet, I, too am perplexed by the formulaic qualities of recipe-writing, but then, just as quickly, I can be dazzled by a writer who displays a sense of voice with clarity of instruction and the right choice of evocative detail. I think that might just be as hard as writing a really good humorous poem. The key is to not muddle the method with so much self that it is cloying, but instead, to also not be afraid to step out of the norms of recipe diction (within the parameters of a publishing house style guide).

The scoffing poet’s words pushed me forward to consider what good writing looks like in a recipe, while adhering to a recipe’s particular requirements. I can certainly attest to the necessity of tightening language even after it seems like a belt that’s been cinched one rung too snug before Thanksgiving supper. In my own experience, crafting a cookbook reminds me so much of sitting among sheaves of poems strewn on the ground, determining how they thread together into a chapbook and in which order. Writing a recipe requires the concision of language that poetry already understands. The heart of the writer and their personality often come out in head notes.

If I could continue the conversation with the scoffing poet, I would underscore the opportunity in head notes. They can give explanation for any oddities that might throw off a home cook in the instructions. They also sometimes tell a story that threads the recipe into the larger narrative of life. Poetry and poetic devices with their keen eye of economy can disturb the status quo of the ho hum head note. Is it be possible for a cookbook to win a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award? It is a question I brought up to a friend that elicited a guffaw for my bravado. I look forward to clapping aloud for the food writer who clinches that golden apple, if it is one that can be extended to members of the cooking community. That it hasn’t been done yet is impetus for cookbook writers to set writing goals as high as recipe testing limits. There is much yet to excavate.


Baseball Poetry and Anniversaries

DESSERT RECIPES- Orange & Black CookiesLet’s set the record straight. I didn’t grow up in a baseballer family. Far from it, my dad would root for soccer teams and instilled the love of football in me from a young age. For reasons unknown (voracious reader, hated to go outside), I never tried out for soccer. Many years later, I found my inner sweeper while playing indoor soccer and was fearless in making sure the ball stopped with me.

Peer pressure or namely Deborah pressure most likely convinced me to try out for the girls’ softball team. Somehow the Dolphin Dazzlers let me join. While others excelled at fielding balls and smacking them straight on with the bat, I shot a blind mitt into the air as an outfielder, determined not to catch a glimpse of the ball as it careened toward my face or the space around me. I approached home plate with caution, again, aware that a fast ball could narrowly avoid hitting my arm, my hand, my face. I was what Deborah’s dad called a “go-fer,” in that I would go for any pitch. Where I shined was the dugout. I could yell and scream and root and holler. I secretly harbored hopes of being sidelined but still on the team. Athletic prowess was never in my genetic make-up but a loud voice was.

baseball poetry - bruce bochy 2010 world series parade san francisco giants

Getting married during a World Series year changes you. I’ve written about my junior high fan girl moment upon seeing rocker Steve Perry aboard a San Francisco Giants trolley during the 2010 victory parade. I passed all the people lined up in 2012 who had taken off from work to get a prime spot on the street curb, anticipating the Giants in another World Series victory parade. Heck, I jumpstarted my blog four years ago from “la vie en route” where I had chronicled the delectable morsels discovered while living my life on the go into a place to talk about food and poetry, believing they both possess an ability to pull an emotional response out of each of us. If we must all eat, let it be good food. If we must all eat, let it sometimes be the food of the soul.

Four years ago, I desired to celebrate our World Series champs with Orange & Black Cookies. And so, on this fourth anniversary of the food poet, even as I root for the Giants to sweep the Cardinals in the city by the bay, I leave you with a timeless poem, one that makes me think of the endless text messages of frustration and elation spirited back and forth between my husband and his father as I know they are both listening to Johnny Miller comment while the game plays on. In my head I hear my father-in-law read this poem aloud and all is right with the post-season world where time stops and baseballs fly into the stands of roaring fans.

Read Baseball Poetry, “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. 


In Praise of the Small Kitchen

small kitchen ideas

When we began looking at Oakland apartments, we found one that was not listed as a studio and went for the asking price of our San Francisco apartment. After that, I began color-coding listings on an excel spreadsheet by interest and neighborhood. Like a boss, I reached out to each contender, as if sending out cover letters for possible job interviews. The building manager of one unit left a voicemail message inviting us to check out the apartment and a few hours later, we signed.

I took for granted my long San Francisco galley kitchen where the smooth countertops were perfect for rolling pie dough or letting bread dough sit in bench rest. When writing my book, I had space to outfit an entire gigantic shelf full of tea for me to pluck as I developed recipes. Everything fit in our previous kitchen. Our new kitchen asks me to make some choices lest we be squeezed out of its square footage. My optimism with the apartment extended to the much smaller kitchen.

Amanda Cohen writes of running the small kitchen for Dirt Candy, her restaurant in the East Village in New York City. I visited Dirt Candy a week after it first opened and became a fan right away for its creative interpretations of vegetarian cuisine. Their kitchen is notoriously small for New York standards and she describes working in it with three other cooks. While I can’t imagine three cooks in my kitchen unless we win the opportunity to host Thanksgiving, it reminds me of the fine art of the cooking dance and choreography of speech necessary in a working kitchen.

She reminded me of the practicalities of running a small kitchen, even as I began contemplating rummaging through my spatula collection to hold onto the very best one (or maybe two). Does a person really need five whisks? I can’t imagine not having three sets of measuring spoons (and luckily, their  small footprint will allow that to happen).When you are about to move, you purge through everyday items for ones destined for Goodwill. When you move into a new place, you purge again.

A small kitchen provides the answer to the question before it is asked: Do I really need this? Perhaps the follow-up question could be, Would someone else use this more? That small kitchen juts open shallow drawers as if playing the role of candid advisor, offering a visual cue of just how much room you really have. It defines what really matters and makes decisions about what to give away startlingly clear. By clearing out extra gadgets, it opens up space, and space opens up ideas.

Some things have moved out. A cabinet in the dining room has been consigned to house all of our loose and bagged tea. A piece of shelving holds baking pans and mixing bowls. Already, I am embracing the spirit of the small kitchen, letting its optimism and structure inform the food of our days.


Tea Poetry: Announcing My New Steeped Recipes Book

Tucked into a kitchen cabinet, a tin of tea

Aspires to what it one day may be—
Will it be iced, slicking a glass with cool condensation

or will it be brewed into a bracingly hot cup—if you ask me
what to do, I will suggest brew it into broth for a warming stew.

You see, I just finished writing a book
for tea lovers who also like to cook,

called Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea.
If you plumb its depths, you will find something

sweet, something savory, and something to make,
if you’re feeling neighborly. There are so many things

a person can do, using tea for cooking and baking too.
So preorder your copy and help my chances

of this tea cookbook taking off—let there be dancing!
Tell a friend about it over a cup of Earl Grey

or buy a few copies as gifts to give away.
Any way you steep it, the end remains the same—

infusing flavor, gaining tableside favor.
Join the journey with me and let’s get busy

starting to cook and bake with tea.

 

Steeped Recipes Cookbook Tea Poem

 

A Few Words about Steeped Recipes

Thanks for humoring my somewhat silly tea poem sharing my big news! I have been working feverishly and behind the scenes for over a year pulling together this collection of recipes, squeezing recipe testing into evenings and weekends, and then letting the book’s completion consume my days too. My obsession for teas, and notably, cooking with teas began many years ago while heading up marketing at a tea company for almost eight years. Since then, I’ve been experimenting and playing with tea, pushing its limits in the kitchen to find new ways to use it in everyday cooking. Over the coming months, I’ll share tidbits on the process of writing a cookbook and talk about tea in fun ways that you can expect from being a reader of The Food Poet. If you are a tea fan, lover of literature (and tea), passionate home cook, or a cooking adventurer, please tell your friends about Steeped and preorder it for friends and family (available in stores, April 7, 2015). I’m starting to plan my book tour, so if you want me to come to your town and give a cooking demo or read from the book, send me an email (click me). Let’s Get Steeped.


Leaving San Francisco: A Love Letter to the Richmond

Home. It can be such a malleable thing. Within the period of several weeks, it became evident that we needed to move—something we have been emotionally and mentally preparing ourselves for quite some time to fully realize, even as our physical selves coordinate the arranging of movers, the buying of boxes. In the wake of the upcoming move, I am holed away in upstate New York where the sun warms my arms and the bees buzz past my ears. Only in this third space- at once familiar and still revealing new corridors can I really consider what I am losing and what I am moving into in six short days. And so, it seems fitting to share a piece I wrote for the now defunct, but once brilliant site, I Live Here, a collection of stories of San Franciscans and the neighborhoods they cherish. As I move out of dwelling in one City by the Bay and into another city by the Bay, I will continue to unpack this identity shift and the role that living in the Richmond has engrafted for eight excellent years—where I could “bask and purr and be at rest?” as Sarah C. Woolsey describes in her poem, “A Home.” Let us begin.

leaving san francisco

Love Letter to the Richmond

If you walk down Clement Street on any given Saturday you will find it bustling with activity. Outside famed Asian grocery store, New May Wah, bins of fresh prickly Durian fruit sit next to Hawaiian papaya with mesh bags of lychee and plastic-wrapped almonds resting in the crevices below. You will surely happen upon family businesses like Golden Gate Liquor, the only place we’ve found within 10 blocks that carries cans of Ranger beer or Stein’s with their hearty goulash and big-screen TV’s as you continue your stroll. Fantastic dim sum is yours for under two dollars whether you go to Good Luck with its dumplings or down to Lung Shan for sweet barbecue pork bao.

While I have flirted with other neighborhoods like living so deep in the Outer Sunset that the air we breathed smelled of the ocean or dwelling in NOPA before it had a hip nickname, no place has transfixed me quite like the Richmond. Perhaps it’s the proximity of Baker Beach with its crisp climes and jaw-breaking beautiful backdrop that people drive long distances to visit. Some call it “the Avenues” with either a tinge of derision or indifference in their voices, but we call it home.

It’s easy to eat your way through 15 countries without leaving Clement Street. People like me think about these things when considering where to set down roots. My interest in other cultures emanates from a father who spoke seven languages and a mother who speaks two. This cultural hodgepodge of overlap makes sense to my insatiable craving for bridging the gaps. There is so much here to learn!

Here, in the Richmond, I attempted my first Beef Rendang with little success as the pot smoked and the beef crisped beyond imagining. Here, too, I found recompense in trying Beef Rendang as it should taste from take-out at Malaysia Singapore. Here, I learned how to decipher the bulbous galangal from ginger and found kaffir lime leaves with the ease of locating ketchup or mayo in a big box grocery store.

llama and pete from green apple

It’s easy to eat your way up and down the street without ever having the same kind of food twice. People like me think about food and relish the variety found on a street like this. After working over a decade in food, I seek out creative culinary expression. My penchant for creating food poetry finds fodder during visits to Asian fusion bistro, B-Star or among the stacks at beloved Green Apple Books. We have watched two rounds of World Series play-off games with locals bedecked in black and orange at Pizza Orgasmica, or huddled around another screen, at Toy Boat while licking Double Rainbow chocolate ice cream threaded with peanut butter ribbons.

The Richmond may not offer the hipster appeal and warmer environs of the Mission, but you can warm yourself over a freshly pulled shot of Blue Bottle at Village Market and watch neighborhood residents practice tai chi in the park. With the Presidio on one side and Golden Gate Park on the other, the Richmond calls to weekend warriors who take on the back roads with their bicycles for Crissy Field or long jaunts walking through the woods just to get a whiff of Eucalyptus. All this natural beauty within the city makes this neighborhood unforgettable.

leaving san francisco

Here, I have found a friendly, family-oriented neighborhood where you can be easily known by shopkeepers and neighbors whether from slipping into Angelina’s before the morning commute or reading poetry on a Thursday night at the Bazaar Cafe’s open mic where the owner, Les, and I might commiserate on art, music and sometimes politics. Then, of course, there’s Lee Gray at Thidwick Books, whose book savvy and helpful suggestions keep my bookcase well stocked. People in our neighborhood tend to stick around. I may have continued moving, but never out of the Richmond.

Even still, it’s hard to imagine how a neighborhood can be both familiar and full of wonders yet to discover (welcome, Grindz Hawaiian). I am growing more into the person I will become as a result of living here. If you can, as the song says, leave your heart in San Francisco, you may just find mine residing in the Richmond.

leaving san francisco

Apparently, I’m also not alone in my appreciation for the Richmond, as I discovered in this piece from chef Marcus Samuelsson about his favorite place in San Francisco. Don’t miss the video of him traipsing through some of my personal haunts, strolling through the stacks at Green Apple Books or snagging an egg sandwich and coffee (Jacob makes the best lattes) at Village Market. My only beef with his article is the assertion that the Richmond is undiscovered. One of the reasons we are moving is that it is quite the hot property right now. But, we look forward to being frequent visitors.


Bulgur Salsify Salad

Over the course of one’s life you meet people with whom you find a deep camaraderie. It can come about as easily as an introduction between two people, both far from home and overly jet lagged. Mercedes had flown in from Alaska, and I, from California. Both of us had arrived in Massachusetts on red eye flights, beleaguered, and began introductions over pizza before attempting to meet our new classmates at the beginning of our stint in poetry school. Small details, shared in common began sewing a thread to bind our two swatches into a friendship that has deepened over its eight year run.

Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder’s friendship started from a mutual friend seeding them each other’s work, and then, correspondence ensued between both poets. I’ve been reading selected letters of theirs, gathered and published in the book, Distant Neighborsand thinking of my own distant neighbor, Mercedes. Where Snyder and Berry comment on each others’ work through publication and even through criticism, Mercedes and I used to set aside time to swap poems and then workshop them on the phone. This practice began shortly after school ended and even when I could still easily call myself a newlywed. We charted those workshop waters while moored or even when paddling through brackish waves. Our phone workshops always reminded me of Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin‘s practice too.

Yesterday, we reconnected again after a year of both of us pulled by our personal lives and projects. How good it was to hear her voice and word of her progress! She has been a cheerleader of my work and I, of hers. With two small children in tow, it pleases me to no end to hear how she has been carving a writing life that aligns with her growing family. It gives me hope that it’s possible. Like Snyder and Berry, when we see each other, we resume old conversations and begin laying stonework for new paths of productivity and topics to plumb.

Some ingredients may not seem like they could be neighborly, but end up working together surprisingly well. Bulgur is most commonly associated with parsley and tomatoes for the Mediterranean salad, tabbouleh, but bulgur is so much more than a one-note actor. It makes an easy whole grain side dish that cooks in 10-20 minutes that I particularly like with sweet sultanas, crisp verjus and savory celeriac and salsify.

A good recipe is like friendship. For the whole to work, the various parts mesh together and impart what they are best at contributing. I draw comfort from seeing the date stamps on the letters between Berry and Snyder, reminded again that the writing life is a solitary one that comes together in community as possible. For now, I anticipate our full schedules and look forward to the phone calls best reserved for nap time when silence is the soundtrack to our conversation. Until then, I’m left wondering which poem to send her and awaiting the poem she sends me.

bulgur salsify sultana salad

Bulgur Salsify Salad with Sultanas and Verjus Vinaigrette

Whenever I read salsify, my eyes do a double take because at first glance it appears to read, “satisfy.” I’m beginning to think this is no coincidence. This root vegetable looks like a stick and, when peeled makes me think I’m preparing kindling for a fire. But the flavor of salsify offers an unexpected oyster-like flavor. This recipe comes together easily for a deliciously different side dish.

SERVES 6 side salad portions

SALAD 
2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
1/2 celeriac, peeled and minced
1 salsify root, peeled and minced
1 cup coarse bulgur
1 3/4 cup water
1/3 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
1/4 cup pecans, chopped and toasted
1 tablespoon basil

DRESSING 
1/3 cup Verjus
2 tablespoons shallots, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1. Preheat oven to 450F.

2. Place the celeriac and salsify root pieces on a roasting pan and drizzle grapeseed oil over them. Jostle them until coated. Roast  for 30 minutes or until soft. Let cool.

3. While the celeriac and salisfy are roasting, place the water in a pot over medium high heat. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add in the bulgur and turn the heat down to medium-low. Cook for 10 minutes uncovered.

4. Whisk together the verjus, shallots, garlic, oil, and basil. In a large bowl, stir together the bulgur, celeriac, salsify, pecans, and sultanas in the dressing until coated.

 

SALSIFY SATISFACTION

Rich & Creamy Salsify Gratin on Food + Wine

Black Salsify Fritters by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Salsify Tempura with a Spicy Dipping Sauce by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Jerry Traunfeld’s Root Ribbons with Sage

Salsify and Roasted Garlic Soup from Eat Like a Girl