Is there a particular age where wonder leaves us? I always mused when I was younger about the idea of abandonment of art. What happens in a person’s life to give it up? Is it gradual or quitting cold turkey? You’ve seen it too? Guitar perched in a corner, collecting dust. Sketchbook long ago traded in for company-owned computer. Thatch of music pages where notes titter across the cage in silence. I started this blog in what now feels like could have been someone else’s life. How funny that a decade can bring that kind of distance from the person we were, the dreams we fed in secret. Yet, I am still in many ways the same. Still wrestling time with poetry from the maw of paid work, except now, the paid work is writing. But for the first eight months of the year, my proverbial well harbored only caked mud. And then, I opened a door. Discovered a “drink me” vial that transported me all the way to a life-changing place. I left revived and reassured.
—I read those words now—written in 2019. The world we inhabit is a changed place.
Here I am, stuck in pandemic quarantine at home, much like you.
Everything looks different and yet I tipped my hat this past August in memory of boarding a plane last year to attend “poetry super camp” as my best friend called it, but really known as Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A conference for writers with bread in its name—is that what first caught my eye? I jest when I say that’s why I applied. But, it did endear me to the conference off the bat (even after learning about the mountain range that gave the conference its moniker). The intensity of the time—that focus of intent and vision for 10 days changed me. Because I knew life would change afterwards and this was my one chance to go all in.
Vermont holds a particular place for me—it speaks to me of poetry, yes, and creameries and winding roads flanked by green trees and green fields that break into golden and copper song in autumn. I sometimes willfully don’t like to learn about a place before going because I don’t want to let others opinions or experiences color my own. I want to be awash in my own senses of the place and so it was at Bread Loaf.
Every day held craft talks in genres that might not be the one I relate to most but in having all of us in one space allowed this cool cross-pollination where poets learned tactics from fiction writers on POV and fiction / narrative non-fiction writers considered how concision of poets might tighten their work in interesting ways.
Plus! I met so many fascinating people who became friends on the dance floor, over late night conversations with gingery Vermont hard cider, from meals spent in the cafeteria, or even from spying a writer pull out their bag of matcha and whisk at the hot drink station. I found community and shared work aloud, battled on the page in edits after workshop critiques, holed up in the library continuing a story read aloud by one of the fellows.
I camped out on the cavernous front porch in a rocking chair. Set out in the meadow of many wonders across the street, stepping first through the tiny gate in the rock wall, as if playing a character from Star Dust. I cackled aloud on the hayride. Got dolled up for the book signing on the lawn. Spent moments locked in contemplation. Clinked wine glasses in a tiny impromptu reading with new friends in their living room. Hunkered in darkness of the laundry room reading and listening. We were never done sharing work. Encouraging others with snaps or claps.
I am landlocked as we all are right now. I so wish I could return once more to Bread Loaf. And so, let us go. Our imaginations can take us wherever we want to venture even if our bodies are bound and mouths masked. I’m grateful for the experience and the mighty small team that pull all the details together so it can bloom fresh ideas while creating a community of creative expression and kinship.
It’s not often that pizza can change the trajectory of your life. For Ed Levine, his search for the perfect slice brought him across a piece of wisdom from pizzaiolo, Chris Bianco setting a career shift trajectory for Levine: “I’m on a mission. I have a responsibility to do something with integrity and dignity. I’m just trying to do something—one small thing—right.” Levine’s book Serious Eater, is not your typical business book or origin story. This former music booking agent, advertising account executive, and marketing pro had a prescient sense of timing and risk-taking that paid off as he pursued his passion of finding the best food and sharing it with others through his award-winning website, SeriousEats.com.
The push and pull of artist over businessman threads this book together. His advisors stayed with him through some harrowing experiences of near shutterings. In 2007, he was a food blogging pioneer—there were no examples of successful blogs as business models. He’d pivoted from authoring two books, New York Eats and New York Eats (More) to freelancing for outlets like the New York Times and yet the writing on the wall for how media would shift is glimpsed as his editor’s budget was slashed, forcing Levine to reconsider how he might write about food and make a living. In 2012, Technorati.com listed 16,552 food blogs in existence—that’s seven years after Levine started EdLevineEats.com that would be a practice run for SeriousEats.com
A series of wins and some hard lessons led up to Levine developing the team that would bring Serious Eats to life. This part of the tale reads like pulp fiction at times—there’s betrayal (two business partners going behind his back for funding on a separate project during a work trip—spoiler: their venture got the funding, not his), the anxiety before a website launch (and the amazing story of what happened to the initial developer after being released from the Serious Eats project), all the fundraising that truly separates the business model for Serious Eats from many food blogs in existence. My stomach churned as Levine chronicles rounds of fundraising just to make payroll while the business was trying to find its footing.
At the outset, Levine knew Serious Eats would be a business—there was never any pivot from personal hobby blogging to professional. He also set out well before food magazines solidly figured out their footing on digital ground (even mentions one reporter pandering to him about how his new project is going) and it paid off. But it almost didn’t. In the book, you read how friends and family fundraising almost threatens relationships (and what it looked like to salvage them—this could be a whole sidebar column by Levine for a business magazine: Mixing business with pleasure—how to repair personal relationships dented by professional investment. There were a few instances where investors capped off their giving due to how advertising might or might not play out at the time. And this was when advertising online was a frontier of opportunity—not at all where online advertising is today. Then, once Levine is ready to sell Serious Eats, he takes us along in Serious Eater for the zig-zagged ride of near misses (backstabbing!) and final acquisition.
Full disclosure: I worked with Fexy Media, the company that would eventually purchase Serious Eats. I worked with one of their other publications on a project. I’ve also been a longtime reader of Serious Eats and somehow never considered it a blog. From the beginning it was always set apart as more universal in its scope than personal. I marveled reading about Serious Eats writers pursuing whatever culinary obsessions they had and recall a time when blogging was so nascent you could write about just anything. How different food blogging is now.
Now, there’s understanding by some of how food bloggers can be not just successful but wildly rich, amassing behind-the-scenes teams of content creators, assistants, business developers, and technical support. Recipes have become a commodity and race to owning keywords for organic search dominance. For the past year, I lost my interest in writing and pitching articles encountering the now seemingly formulaic model of keywords leading content for recipe development and writing. So, reading Serious Eater took me back to blogging before it really had found a place in publishing.
Levine has a great sense at sniffing out talent—he says so in the book and before we even begin reading, the foreword verifies that notion. Serious Eats gave Kenji Lopez-Alt a platform within which to write and develop his now legion audience of cooks interested in the intersection of science and cooking. I discovered Lopez-Alt’s writing and sage kitchen wisdom on Serious Eats (and make his spatchcock turkey at Thanksgiving). Then there’s the brilliant Stella Parks, who already had been a force for good baking and witty writing at her blog, bravetart.com before joining the Serious Eats tribe, though I would say that SE amplified her keen sense of nostalgia baking to a bigger audience (side note here, she is a friend).
You can always tell the true measure of a business based on
what happens to its employees afterwards—either once well established in their
roles at a business or after they’ve moved on. Levine let his “serious eaters”
explore their takes on food that most interested them and they have gone off to
rich careers for that early shepherding. I appreciated reading how much the
right kind of writer mattered and how Levine invested in their careers, noting
multiple times, interns who ended up writing their way up the editorial ladder.
I’m not going to deny that I read that history longingly sometimes, imagining
what it might have been like to be in a supportive editorial environment like
that. But then remembering how stressful it is to work in a start-up, how those
investor meetings can be anxiety-riddled and how it resembles the peaks and
valleys of a sometimes rickety wooden roller-coaster.
What Serious Eater offers for readers is a behind-the-scenes, no-holds barred glimpse at the business side of blogging—what it takes to make a blog profitable and sell it. The personal cost is the one that might make you continue page-turning—this company’s launch came out well before the idea of work-life-balance. But that’s true of start-ups and small business beginnings. You work hard, surround yourself with people who are good at what they do and who show up ready to do the work, and that is in its way, “doing one small thing right.”
Thank you to Portfolio Books for sending me a review copy.
I first learned about artist Ficre Ghebreyesus after he died at the too young age of 50. His wife, poet, Elizabeth Alexander penned a memoir called Light of the World and painted such a picture of her husband that I needed to see more of his art. I’ve written about Alexander’s memoir and there’s a painting on the cover of a boat (a recurring theme) painted in jazzy blue and coral stripes. The colors and the composition depict stillness coupled with an energy and movement that compelled me to search for more. Google did not lead me astray. The images it pulled up were vibrant, some like a veritable patchwork that might have seemed too busy in any other hands, but in his, it all just worked. In the way that some art moves us and we can’t quite reason the whole why, his art spoke to me of joy and peace.
One afternoon, I happened upon the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and couldn’t believe my eyes: Ficre Ghebreyesus had an exhibit! And it was in its final week, closing the weekend upcoming! I made a date and we walked the compact, well-appointed galleries the following Saturday for the first time, listening to a docent talk through his work.
The piece for which the entire exhibit was named, “City with a River Running Through” is actually four pieces and all told measures over 18 feet long. Can you imagine what it must be like to envision the still unpainted entirety, while working on each section? Unlike some artists who do pre-sketches or small paintings as a way to work out composition and color ideas, he went in wholly invested in the final outcome only he could see. I lingered in front of the painting for a few minutes, walking up to different sections wanting to see the detail work of his brush and get a sense for how he might have thought the green swatch needed to go next to the coral one with wavy lines on it. The painting is enormous and it hung well on the wall, me grateful that there was a space that we could see such a large painting displayed.
It reminded me of why I like museums, that sense of discovery and seeing the world in a different perspective that can shift our own. It also emboldens me to think how artists work in private and sometimes get to see acclaim while they’re alive, but also how their work lives on after they do, even if in back rooms and how it takes someone who believes in their work to put it out into the world and how that work can sometimes bring a needed light into the world, even after the creator’s light is extinguished.
Through this exhibit and its curated pieces of work, I saw a broader scope than what the online search had afforded. He painted scenes from his home country of Eritrea like a painting called Paradise influenced by the Adam and Eve garden of paradise, but this time offset with bottle trees reminiscent of Eritrea.
In several of the paintings, boats cropped up, both placid and yet symbols of movement. One painting that became a new favorite involved a boat on water that’s green then blue, the boat itself striped in greens and swatches of periwinkle and pale purple. Underneath the central boat there is another boat that looks like a shadow. I could stand in front of this painting for hours and find new insights it provides. The tranquil colors kept me transfixed as the subject kept me wondering, if I climbed into that boat where would I go? Or, how sometimes, when difficulties arise, wouldn’t we want a boat to just sit in or go to another part of our lives, rowing out past the difficulty. And, right now, the thing I wonder as I look again at the boat is if there is a shadow self who wants something else from life hovering underneath what everyone else can see, and yet also supported by an unseen hand that holds those dreams and hopes intact.
When Ghebreyesus was alive, he and his brother owned a cafe in New Haven, Connecticut—I remember that from reading Alexander’s account. He came to painting later in life, studying and making art until the end.
“I started painting ten years ago, but I suspect I have been metaphorically doing so all my life. When I started painting, I just did it. I had never felt a stronger urge. The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct. They had to do with the suffering, persecution, and subsequent psychological dilemmas I endured before and after becoming a young refugee from the Independence War in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa. Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.”
Even though he died of a heart attack at 50, what a prolific body of work he left behind! And, what does it say about doing the work you know you must do with urgency?
It makes me question where next he would have gone artistically if he was still alive today—what motifs would continue showing up in his work. Would he have gone through a blue period or started a new school of thought or methodology? Might this refugee offer refuge to others? Would his connecting to where he was from and where he lived today and the latent struggles of being an immigrant in today’s United States have resonated with others disillusioned by the current state of affairs. I like to think he would have continued offering joy by way of brushstroke, layering colors that at first glance don’t seem to have anything to do with one another, but when the final detail is filled in, culminates in a canvas that thrums with life.
A cookbook worth a permanent spot in an avid reader and cook’s collection can resemble the best kind of salesperson giving a pitch meeting. First, it needs to dress for the occasion— easily communicating its ethos by the cover (and so much time is spent on the publishing side of things, considering what will become the cover!). Then, it needs to woo the reader into submission, not through suave messaging but instead (and in this way so similar to its fictional / memoir brethren) making them care about the main character (in this case, a way of thinking about food), broadening the landscape for the reader whispering new secrets, recipe pages that will soon-to-be-smudged, and in the case of the Israeli Soul cookbook, the newest cookbook by James Beard award-winning authors and restaurant collaborators, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, a one-way ticket for the armchair traveler to be transported to Israel and Philadelphia by way of their kitchen.
I need to start off by saying I’m horribly biased when it comes to this book. I hounded the PR team at the book publisher (well before my husband gifted me a copy for my birthday) and embarked on reading this book with a set of suppositions. My first encounter with anything Zahav-related started with a friend who we will call the foremost expert in all things knives and kitchen knife skills dropping a hint that I should go immediately (good luck getting a reservation!), followed up by a great tip to go visit the raven of Edgar Allan Poe fame at the library. And, so on a subsequent trip to the city of brotherly love, I rang up another friend in food and we met up for one of those kinds of meals you know at the end of your life you will still look back on, salivating. It exceeded expectations and then some. I dragged my husband back to Zahav to ring in a new decade (the salatim! the lamb!) only to discover sitting at the table next to ours that evening, a couple from a small town in South Texas, also visiting the city actually knew my cousin. Small world. We continued eating our way through the Cook and Solo restaurant empire, agreeing that Abe Fisher might just be our number one favorite in Philly (get the salad—Caesar with grapes and bread pudding croutons! The savory rugelach amuse bouche! The mocktails! The broccoli kugel!) And, on yet another trip, I’d eaten at Dizengoff, scooping the smoothest hummus with puffed warm hunks of pita. If I could muster up strong feelings for fried chicken and doughnuts, I’m sure Federal would have been on my list even as I long to book another trip just to suck down a tehina shake with fresh falafel on the standby at Goldie’s. So, please know that when Zahav, the cookbook came out, I promptly read it cover to cover, cooked from it deeply (spending almost a day making a lavish spread for vegetarian friends visiting California that then prompted them to buy the book to cook from at home in Texas). As soon as I heard about the Israeli Soul cookbook, it leapt to the top of my required reading list.
But anticipation can be such a double-edged sword—can’t it? Would this book live up to the high expectations set by the James Beard award-winning first cookbook? Yes, it would. I bring up the Zahav cookbook because you can certainly just read and cook from Israeli Soul but without the Zahav cookbook nearby, you might not get the full context of some of the recipes. This is one of the things I particularly liked about the Israeli Soul cookbook—how it was in conversation with Zahav, crushing old methods that might work in a restaurant kitchen with a small legion of line cooks but could leave a home cook a bit bedraggled like their hummus. In Zahav, you soak dried garbanzos overnight with leavener (plan ahead!) and then pop off the skins like raincoats the next day before cooking. Israeli Soul updates the hummus recipe to 5-minute hummus with quick tehina sauce and cheekily states, “We believe 5-Minute Hummus to be a medium step forward for humankind,” which it is. I made the hummus, intending to scatter on one of the suggested toppings (Carrots with dukkah! Roasted corn with long hots! Broccoli and pine nut pesto!) but we didn’t get farther than ravaging it one afternoon with store-bought pita (there is a pita recipe in the book, updated from Zahav to Israeli Soul, now with process photos).
The Goldie falafel could easily be the kind of Sunday evening supper and meal prep for salads or stuffed pita throughout the week (if you can get past the fact that it won’t be crunchy in that just from the fryer way, which we could). I particularly liked them stationed atop the herb and Israeli salad, full of chunked tomato and cucumuber with fresh torn herbs, labneh drizzle, and za’atar. Next time, I’m going to try baking the falafel.
Since beginning my exploration of the book, I’ve stirred a stockpot of Opera bean soup—a slow-cooked affair of tomatoes, beans coaxed into creaminess and a touch of chile heat. Then, formed and cooked Persian meatballs with beet sauce (maybe my least favorite dish of the entire bunch, which is purely subjective since I didn’t love how the paprika played with the other ingredients. I fell hard for the freekeh mujadara (made with rice since it’s what I had on-hand, though I freak over freekeh. I couldn’t help that last one.). We feasted on Bulgarian kebabs (so well-spiced!) and need to find the thick metal slat skewers to properly cook what I’m sure will be my next favorite: Arabic-style kebabs (they had me at lamb with baharat and grated onion). We’ve made two batches of the yellow rice (something you want to keep stocked in the fridge when the craving strikes because it will).
I’m intending to make the Druze mountain bread and a host of
the vegetable salads. I’ve got bulgur in the pantry to make a pot of tomato
bulgur. For a fun weekend project, I think it would be a kick to make homemade
couscous (and have the semolina on hand to finally give it a go). Ditto the Abe
Fisher beet salad—I can almost taste the zing of the prepared horseradish. Egg
salad from Akko might be the most interesting way to train hard-boiled eggs
into decadent submission (hint: it has everything to do with baharat). I keep
grating carrots to make grated carrots with chiles (but then end up eating them
in breakfast). And, several butternut squash have almost made the cut to whip
up the Libyan squash salad, chirshi. When tomato season is in full force again,
Matbucha, a Moroccan cooked tomato and pepper salad will be on the menu. My favorite
quick lunch has easily become chickpeas with baharat, tomatoes, and brown
Will I finally make the boreka, written about in Zahav and updated in the Israeli Soul cookbook with process photos? I’m a sucker for puddings the world over, so malabi is in my near future. And, the konafi with its long strands of kataifi (fine dough threads), saffron syrup, and buffalo mozzarella, make me want to locate kataifi locally. But the zalatimo dessert awakened a different kind of hunger in me.
While this is a cookbook, it also is a kind of guidebook to Israel, and a storybook of the people whose food inspires, in the tangible way that taste memories tie us to a place and a first experience. Reading stories of how each restaurant purveyor or chef first entered their cooking experience illuminates in that universal-personal way where we can see ourselves inside someone else’s experience. The restaurant owner who failed and through advice from his mom to cook the food he’d eaten and grown up with at home, now has a thriving restaurant and is on a culinary cultural map. The owner who has made one dish all their life and is the master of that dish—with such singular focus, I wonder if in our scattered do-it-all existence, there is some sort of life truth nugget there for you and I. I’ve never been to Israel. It’s one of my top travel destinations for food, but really for spiritual reasons and to see the culture first hand, beyond what gets spit out as headlines on this side of the Pond, only when something bad happens. But, we best experience another culture by entering it, right? The Israeli Soul cookbook gave me a deeper taste of what I’m missing by making a glimpse of it available to me at home.
“Comfort food is, by definition, a link to a time or place
when we felt at ease, free of the anxiety of everyday life.” And, in that way,
I too can eat the food my hands prepare from this book and taste soul food even
if those flavors come together in my taste binder for the first time. In Israeli Soul, I can see the soul of the
place in the stories and recipes that offer a different kind of sustenance, one
in which we need each other to feed each other through food, but also through shared
experience that leads to greater understanding of what it means to be alive.
Living in the Bay area makes you a bit immune to what might be seasonal shifts around the rest of the country. October typically fans the warmth of summer with the mornings and evenings taking a dip into cooler temperatures. We jokingly tell friends and family who come visit to bring layers, knowing that inevitably, sweaters go on and jackets come off throughout the dance of the day. I gravitate toward bowls of creamy steel cut oats in the autumn months, topped with toasted nuts, fruit (either dried or chopped fresh), a drizzle of maple syrup or honey, and a splash of cold milk. This breakfast is the only one that can supplant my eggs and tortilla tradition most days and really helps me feel a shift in the season even if outside, it still resembles a long summer. I leapt at the chance to share Jane Bonacci and Sara De Leeuw’s instant pot steel cut oats from their Gluten-Free Instant Pot Cookbook because I figured that long cooking grains would be a great place to start and also because the apple compote aligned with all the apple bins at the farmer’s market. I also will admit the addition of Golden Delicious apples made my brow wrinkle in a good way–it’s not often you see that nostalgic apple variety from childhood called out in a recipe, and it really does, along with the Granny Smith apples, make this compote exceptional.
A note here from Bonacci and De Leeuw— for this recipe, don’t think about substituting rolled or old-fashioned oats–you really want the sturdiness of steel cut to stand up to cooking at high pressure in the instant pot. Also, they call out the apples as tart and sweet, so use what you like, though they provide varietal suggestions too. You can certainly use whatever milk you prefer here too– I used Califia Farms almondmilk because aside from me making my own, its texture and mouthfeel is thickest and creamiest. Also, those golden raisins are initially called out as optional in the cookbook recipe, but I wasn’t so generous and and omitted the optional element. Their sweet and tart flavor really plays off the apples and I think the compote would be lacking without them, so think of this as an oatmeal cookie deconstructed into a bowl of oats. I bet dried cranberries might work well here too, and add a pop of color, but give sultanas a chance, even if you (like me) don’t really love cooked raisins. If you also happen to be vexed with instant pot cooking or wanting to give it a go, read my unbridled The Gluten-Free Instant Pot cookbook review. I ate this oatmeal for a week and didn’t tire of it. There’s a fresh pot of steel cut oats cooking away on my countertop in the instant pot as a break-ahead breakfast for a week leaning deeper into fall.
Instant Pot Steel Cut Oats with Golden Apple Raisin Compote
Golden Apple Raisin Compote
1tart apple, such as Granny Smith
1sweet apple, such as Golden Delicious
3tablespoonsgolden raisins or sultanas
1/2cuporange or apple juice
2teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2tablespoons brown sugar
2tablespoons maple syrup
1/2teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoonlemon zest
Steel Cut Oats
For the Compote
Peel and core the apples, and cut into small chunks. Place in a saucepan. Add the raisins, orange juice, lemon juice, brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, and lemon zest. Stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are fork-tender and the liquid is syrupy. Transfer the compote to a bowl and set aside.
For the Oatmeal
Lightly butter the bottom and lower sides of the inner pot to help avoid sticking. Add the water, milk, oats, and salt, but do not stir. Close and lock the lid, making sure the steam release handle is in the sealing position. Cook on high pressure for 9 minutes. When it is finished, release the pressure naturally, which will take about 15 minutes. Turn the steam release handle to venting, releasing any remaining steam. Unlock the lid and open it carefully.
Scoop the oatmeal into bowls and top with a tablespoon or two of the apple compote. Serve immediately.
Reprinted with permission from The Gluten-Free Instant Pot Cookbook by Jane Bonacci and Sara De Leeuw (published by Harvard Common Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group, 2018).
And, suddenly, autumn arrives. Yesterday was the first day of fall and it snuck past me without any sort of fanfare. Actually, each meal yesterday included tomatoes and I’ve been hoarding what Early Girl and heirlooms I can find with the rapt attention of a dragon guarding its gold. In school and on into the working years, if I needed to get into a particular state of mind quickly, the best way to do that included dressing the part or what you could call dressing for success, and what some of you might call faking it til you make it. I may still be holding onto light lingering into early evening and perhaps also certain summer states of mind (reading early, often). But, then again, I’ve also cranked up the oven to roast winter squash a handful of times. And, this soup is one such way to fake it till you feel fall-ish. It’s too soon for pumpkin, but bring out the bushels of apples aplenty.
What is it about honeycrisp apples that make them a contender for the ultimate apple? Their sweet and tart flesh that snaps when you take a juicy bite. You can find a host of other apples at farmer’s markets but this particular varietal seems to be the apple of everyone’s eye. Their flavor adds a bright slightly acidic note that balances the sweetness of the squash. Homemade soup to usher in autumn.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil.
Toss the butternut squash with the 2 teaspoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and sage and a dusting of Aleppo pepper. Roast the squash for 25 minutes or until fork tender.
Drizzle and swirl the remaining olive oil in a heavy stockpot set over medium heat. Saute the onion, celery, and salt for 8 to 10 minutes or until translucent. Add the squash to the pot, tossing together. Pour in the chicken stock. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the butternut squash is fork tender.
Pour a portion of the soup into the blender with apple slices, removing the cap, and covering the top with a towel. Puree the soup in batches.
Garnish with a swirl of creme fraiche and perhaps a few fried sage leaves, if desired. (To fry them, line a plate with a paper towel. Heat a slick of olive oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Once shimmering, add the extra sage leaves, lightly frying them until they take on a little bit of color. Drain them on the paper towel before placing them atop of the soup as a garnish.
my dad once told me to never mess with an unripe avocado
he said if you cut it open too soon
then it will know you are not interested in its growth
so it will begin to die even if you do not eat it
that in some parallel universe
the avocado is a baby gator waiting to hatch
sometimes I watch him crack the shell open
carve out the big wooden seed
and cut its green body into thin slices
I wonder if in that distant universe
the baby gator watches us in horror
with pity for our version of hunger
Arthur Kayzakian is a poet and MFA candidate at San Diego State University. He is also a contributing editor at Poetry International. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Northridge Review, Chaparral, Taproot Literary Review, Confrontation, San Diego Poetry Annual, and Rufous City Review.
In Jewish tradition, after someone dies, it is customary to bring food to those left behind and to sit with them in a practice known as shiva. It shouldn’t be that surprising to find food associated with grief. Food is in its way a form of showing love and support that it may bring succor to the sorrowful. Named after a poetry quote of Derek Walcott’s, (“And I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”), the memoir Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander reads like a mixed media form of artwork. Interspersed within its pages, prose poetry sidles up against essay, reporting, and finally, recipes. In this chronicle of the life of Alexander’s husband, the chef and artist, Ficre Ghebreysus, his untimely death comes across as punctuation out of place.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture Alexander gave on Lucille Clifton’s poetry just after Kevin Young’s tome of Clifton poetry had been published. While Alexander describes writing World bit by bit and then threading it together as one story, I am struck by the poetic influences that she turned to during its writing, namely Clifton and Rilke. But also, the acknowledgements section names her editor’s initial suggestion to write this story.
When I first heard about the release of World, I knew I wanted to snatch it up immediately, both interested in how a poet would approach memoir and wanting to see how food wove into a memoir about loss. This book is an anthem of her husband’s vivacity to live. It also is a chronicle of what it looks like to come out of the fog of grief in hard won healing. Alexander comments that she didn’t want to give into nostalgia. She says of writing World,
“I believe that poets write ‘as poets,’ with utmost attention to each word, the rhythms of the writing, and its musicality.”
Her sections written in parts of one poem feature prose poetry so evanescent that it took a deep amount of restraint not to highlight the entire passage. Every word is essential.
For eight months, the unopened Instant Pot box leered at me from a high shelf. I acknowledged it, always with a hearty dose of optimism, When I have time, I will learn how to use it. What started out as a week became six, then dovetailed into almost a year later before I made time. I needed a reason, and it came to pass in the The Gluten-Free Instant Pot cookbook by Jane Bonacci and Sara De Leeuw. I eagerly ripped open the envelope from Harvard Common Press and ended up reading the book cover to cover in one sitting, my skepticism that I might never actually take the contraption out of the box slowly warming to another outcome.
It’s not that I’m scared of new technology, although I will be the first to say I’m not keen on adding new gadgetry to my overcrowded kitchen. I believed Michelle when she first led the charge. I trusted Coco when she first wrote about how this appliance would change the game, and maybe that’s the big secret. I didn’t want the game to change. Not really. My slow cooker and I get each other. We meet up at least once a week during the autumn months mostly and I love the idea that while I’m working, it’s working. On dinner. So, in the beginning, perhaps my tepid reactions toward the Instant Pot were actually in response to not wanting to replace my slow cooker. How sentimental! (I guess). And, I thought, maybe it would be really tricky to use.
I aced the hot water test and then moved onto something bigger. Sloppier. Lentil sloppy joes (p. 100) cooked up in a jiffy and we continued to eat them a few nights later, this time on savory creamy polenta (p. 60) Then, instant pot steel cut oats with golden apple raisin compote that I noshed on for a full week at breakfast. Early on, I stuck around the Instant Pot, checking to see if it gave any cues to the cooking going on inside. Apart from a few beeps, I didn’t hear burbles or see any bubbles popping along the top. Instead, it operated in silence except when the appliance indicates that the machine has come up to temperature and is starting to cook, or after cooking, starts timing down and staying warm.
The Gluten Free Instant Pot cookbook guided me through how to get started and then offered straight-forward recipes that I couldn’t mess up. I’ve been thinking about something a friend said recently when it comes to following recipes. They involve a silent compact of trust—that you as the reader trust the cookbook author enough to try something exactly as they wrote it. And, trust these two authors I do. Jane Bonacci authored a cookbook on making gluten-free bread in a bread machine as her first book, a feat, I can only imagine. Sara De Leeuw is a certified master food preserver, so not only does she know her stuff, but part of the certification is teaching others. I knew I was in good hands.
The cookbook delves into comfort foods like baby back ribs or mac and cheese, but with a gluten-free spin. I’m still wrapping my head around the logistics of whole baked chicken (p. 84) or double fudge chocolate cheesecake (p. 128) and while the book includes pasta recipes and other main dishes and side dishes—notably a few of them leaning toward Thanksgiving—I think where I’m landing right now with my Instant Pot is in cooking slow cooked whole grains quickly or in making stock. I’m setting my sights at Instant Pot Yogurt and very loudly nudging De Leeuw to write a preserving cookbook for my Instant Pot (goodbye, pressure canner?!). Because, here’s the dirty little secret: I like to cook and I like knowing the Instant Pot can save me time to make perfect rice (p. 64) if pressed or applesauce (p. 126) on the sly. Do I want to stir my polenta for 40 minutes—no. Do I think it will still give me a creamier pot sans cream if I stir instead of hit a button—yes. I’m willing to make trades. But, as I head into the holiday season, I have a hunch the Instant Pot will be a new pinch hitter and am grateful for The Gluten-Free Instant Pot cookbook to have been my first guide.
I love a good hack and here it is: if you make a fresh batch of jam and a tart crust you are halfway to tempting a few friends and family with a dessert that feasts on the last glut of end of summer fruit in a yogurt jam tart, which is precisely how a batch of my Dapple Dandy hibiscus jam talked its way into an empty tart shell.
Here’s something maybe sneaky if you’re not prone to turning your yogurt tub to read the ingredients. Gelatin is sometimes added to firm up yogurt for a tight consistency you can cut with a knife. Taking a cue from some yogurt companies (who will not be named!)–I wanted to pair the sweetness of stone fruit jam with the tart expression of a good Greek yogurt that could set more like a custard and work as the filling in a tart. So, I used agar agar, a Japanese seaweed gelling agent that’s vegetarian and a gelatin substitute. One word here is that the liquid combined with the agar agar need to be brought to a boiling temperature and then simmer for 5 minutes to set up properly.
One word here again on yogurts is that not all in the refrigerated aisle are created the same (and honestly it’s so easy to make your own with the help of my friend Cheryl’s trusty guide in all things yogurt that you might decide to go that route. And now that I’ve heard there is a yogurt feature on Instant Pots, I might be back in plain yogurt-making business. Plain yogurt brings pizazz to all kinds of meals.. The agar agar slurry is intended to thicken up runny yogurts like Straus Organic or Wallaby, as I wanted a more set consistency in this tart.
If you don’t have time to make the yogurt filling, proceed with spreading a decent filling of jam in the tart. Then, you can simply add a dollop Greek yogurt and perhaps fresh fruit on top. I tagged Claire Ptak’s pate sablee recipe from her cookbook, Violet Bakery primarily because I want to cook from it more and there’s no time like the present. I like the way she thinks about baking and still associate her with Berkeley even if she’s come more into the public eye for her London bakery. She makes the tart dough in a food processor and you can use any pate sablee recipe you have on-hand, intended for a 9-inch tart pan.
(such as tiger figs, blackberries, golden raspberries, red currants)
Make the tart crust: Bake and cool.
Fill the cooled tart crust with the hot jam (or if cool, warm the jam in a small skillet until easily spreadable. Set aside.
Make the yogurt filling:
Whisk the milk and agar agar into a small saucepan set over high heat. Continue whisking and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to simmer for 5 minutes, whisking the whole time. Pour the hot yogurt into the tart, onto the jam carefully. Chill for 5 minutes.
Remove the tart from the refrigerator and top with fresh fruit such as tiger figs, blackberries, and raspberries. Chill overnight before serving.
In one single question, we can self-select into unspoken groups. Would you order the chocolate dessert or fruit dessert? This over-simplifies things, sure, but it also underscores the idea that for some of us we’ve never been fruit-forward dessert eaters. Then, you have the folks who all they want for dessert is an actual piece of fruit. Or, the additions of clarifiers like paleo, gluten-free, low-carb, refined sugar-free, vegan. Some might see pitfalls in pulling together a dinner party now with all of the various eating styles, but I see opportunity.
We’re getting away from the point though, aren’t we? I never understood the allure of plums. The number one food poem (which could be contested) reads like an apology that actually tries to convince the reader that the theft couldn’t be circumvented. Stealing cold plums out of the icebox never struck me as the fodder of food poems, but I think I finally get it.
My obsession with Dapple Dandy plums (or pluots, I suppose, technically) started from a purely linguistic appreciation. Dapple evokes, in my mind at least, a grey mare with white freckles, or the kind of light and shadow-play of late afternoon sun, where tree limbs cast their impression on the ground in greys, blacks and whites. A dandy will always be the best dressed person in the room. And the combination of these two words (not to mention whatever inspired the creator of the name to conceive of the two of them together) prompted me to pluck a few Dapple Dandy pluots earlier this summer from a pile at the farmer’s market. One slice and I was smitten. Inside, their painterly flesh shimmers as if with an otherworldly light from the center out. Their color might be the envy of lipstick-makers. One taste of sweet-sour pucker, and sold.
Making dapple dandy jam might be the ultimate theft. You’re trying to steal time from the skin that’s a little too taut, one nudge tipping it toward juice. So, instead we cook down the fruit with warming spices of cardamom and piquant ginger- minced fresh for just the right bite. You’ve still got time for this jam this year. Your toast, yogurt bowl (chia pudding / chicken / pork / chocolate cake…) will be the better for it.
Stir all ingredients with a wooden spoon together in a large skillet until combined set over medium heat.
Stir occasionally. Cook for 15 minutes—during those last 5 minutes, stir constantly to monitor the setting of the jam. You should be able to swipe the spoon through the jam and leave a clear path for a few seconds (or dip the spoon in the jam and it should ever so slowly creep across the surface) as it thickens up.
Cool to room temperature before spooning into a jar, sealing and chilling it.
Look for culinary grade hibiscus in a Latin market or good spice shop like Oaktown Spice Shop. If using whole flowers, kitchen shears are the easiest way to snip them to smithereens.
I tend to get swept into a good story, head and heels first. Nothing compares to descending into this kind of delicious alternate universe. So, when I read the tale (and later saw the movie) of a guy named Chris McCandless, I couldn’t help but be pulled into the beautiful ideal of his to live off the land. But then, things went awry and anguish sets into what becomes his excruciating final days. The culprit: misreading a leaf he thought was edible and instead eating one that looked similar and is toxic. He dies. The curtain falls. His story stayed with me and activated some self-preservation switch in me. I didn’t grow up in anything you could remotely describe as outdoorsy. We never camped. In fact, you could say we were taught to regard the woods as suspicious. Untenable. Wild.
Foraging has since been something that catapults my imagination into the depths of a forest, thickets of trees and bushes that only the trained eye can decipher. From afar, I’ve marveled at the truly beautiful dishes being turned out by foraging chefs. At wild food. I’ve always thought I never could be part of that equation. The idea of foraging might sound idyllic to some, but reckoning with it has revealed I distrust myself with being able to deduce wild foods. It’s probably why I never pursued the urge to join up with the Sonoma mycological society on a mushroom hunt, perhaps even silently admonishing myself that if someone was going to pick the poisonous mushroom, it might be me. This could all be wound up in toddler-me eating glossy red berries off a bush and just as quickly being escorted into the emergency room. Can I turn a corner now, and awaken an inner forager?
The Fruit Forager’s Companion by Sara Bir isn’t your typical foraging book. That is to say, you don’t need to be a hardcore, seasoned forager to appreciate it… You could be a farmer’s market forager of the pile of plums and find tremendous benefit from it. What Companion really does is invite the reader to see the world around them in a new way. You may walk the same sidewalk to the bus stop and pass the same bushes everyday and never see the blackberries glistening within the brambles. They might blur into the backdrop of all that keeps you from your intended destination. Because that’s another thing the book does well, it invites you to slow down. That spray of tiny white flowers clustering overhead—could it be elderflowers? Just yesterday, as I pulled into a parking lot in central California, in front of my parking spot: a hedge of pomegranates. On-foot and on the way to a new neighborhood coffee shop, an over-hanging branch heavy with peaches. This book has gotten under my skin even if I’m not yet a “forager.”
Something still stands in the way of me being able to pluck the fruit off the branch—but I am seeing the fruit for the first time and that imbues my everyday tasks with a new sense of marvel. A story that’s stayed with me from Companion finds Bir behind the Wal-Mart in her town, discovering a cluster of fruit trees out back. Wonder can be found anywhere. In Companion, every fruit gets thoroughly examined as she provides, culinary considerations, but also deep harvesting and storage tips that confirm this as an essential handbook on fruit. Her passion for fruits like the pawpaw is palpable: “With pawpaws the party is inside.” Thoughtful essays occur throughout the book like one accompanying the chapter on passion fruit, where she reflects on mortality and fruit, how our fates are bound with those of the fruits being foraged. From Companion’s pages, I learned about the Fruita Gratis program and the complex relationship between fresh fruit and neighbors who might subsist on SNAP budgets. I appreciate that this book could have stayed centered on the fruit but veers into how the featured fruits factor into our past and present circumstances (like grocery store foraging for imperfect produce).
Bir’s approach to using the fruits in recipes lined up with the way I would want to experience these fruits. Sour cherry scones? I’m sold. Now how can I get my hands on mulberries to make a mulberry-strawberry shrub? This winter, I’ll be eager to slice into warm persimmon bread. This summer, I taught a host of campers how to preserve lemons and citrus herb salt using Bir’s techniques. While I may not trust my aptitude at wild food foraging, I trust her. So, maybe if I ever encounter elderberries, I’ll take Bir’s recommendations to “cook or ferment the berries for them to be safe” and then make elderberry kir royales. Next spring, I’m hankering to pick up apricots to pickle them, umeboshi-style. And while it’s still summer, I’m hatching a plan to make her Italian Plum Cake. Again.
What would it be like to visit a bog and gather cranberries bobbing on the surface? Could there be a thrill of exhilaration to find a mayhaw in its natural habitat? Might I add a visit to Ocracoke Island’s fig festival to my bucket list? Rose hips clinging to their stems before steeping into tea? Maybe one day, when I make the leap to forager of (urban) wild foods, I will take her advice to “take some for yourself, leave some for the wildlife, and leave some for the next forager.” Until then, I’ll take to the farmer’s market and keep this Companion as a friendly reference guide.
Thanks to Chelsea Green for providing a copy of The Fruit Forager’s Companion for me to read and review. All opinions are my own as is the sordid story of the holly berry incident from my childhood.
Do yourself a favor and go snatch up a pound of plums to make Sara Bir’s Italian plum cake before summer ends. Then, see if you can hold off on cutting into it until it’s set, but still warm. If you don’t have a favorite summer dessert yet, you’re about to taste it. Those are bold words, especially since I prefer chocolate always and fruit out of hand. But this cake! The olive oil and dash of balsamic vinegar really take it over the top. I bet it would be amazing with mission figs too.
Once cooled, all you need is a dollop of Greek yogurt and dig in. I tucked Dapple Dandy Pluots into this Italian plum cake, but Bir suggests you can swap in cherries, strawberries, nectarines, blackberries, or raspberries.
This recipe comes from her new cookbook, The Fruit Forager’s Companion. I made a few small tweaks to the recipe such as omitting the turbinado sugar (though I can imagine the delightful crunch it would give to the crumb of the cake) and instead of halving or quartering, I sliced the pluots wanting them to infuse a bit more juice into each bite.
This recipe is from Sara Bir’s book The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
3/4 cup(100 grams)unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4teaspoonsalt (I used kosher)
1/4teaspoonfinely grated lemon zest
1largeegg, at room temperature
1/2 cup(100 grams)granulated sugar
1/2 cup(120 ml)olive oil
1/4 cup(60 ml)milk
1 pound(455 grams)plums, pitted and halved or quartered(I used Dapple Dandy pluots, thinly sliced)
Preheat the oven to 350F (175C), and position a rack in the center. Line the bottom of a 10-inch (25 cm) spring-form pan with baking parchment. Grease the sides and bottom well with baking spray or butter. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Set aside.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg and the sugar on high speed until the mixture is creamy, pale yellow, and lighter in volume, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low, add the olive oil, then the milk and balsamic vinegar. Fold in the flour mixture with a rubber spatula just until it makes a smooth batter.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. It will look really skimpy once it's in the pan, but don't worry. Arrange the plums in a single layer across the batter, and sprinkle the cake with the sugar.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until the cake is golden brown on top, a little puffed, and set in the center (a toothpick should come out free of batter but may have a few crumbs clinging to it). Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove the sides and cool until just barely warm. You can serve it either that way, or at room temperature.
Vanilla ice cream, whipped creme fraiche, or good plain whole-milk yogurt are all very nice accompaniments to this.