Notes from the Kitchen

Writing Tips: The One Trait Every Writer Needs to Have

Writing Tips: The One Trait Every Writer Needs to HaveIn college, I worked as a residents’ assistant for two years. It proved to be one of the hallmarks during those four years. During the year I manned a freshmen hall, I developed a bit of a… reputation. Whenever I was on duty, my ears would perk up to the sounds of clinking bottles or my nostrils might expand at a whiff of an alien smell similar to sweet grass burning. A few raps on the door and a lot of furtive commotion and heightened whispering would lead to no admissions and skepticism on my part. Unbeknownst to me, I had developed a nickname among the community of residents’ assistants too. At one of our annual meetings, someone let it slip and it was met with knowing laughter: the bulldog…

…The rest of this story is going to be shared in my weekly newsletters. Not signed up yet? You’re missing out on a whole lot of fun. See, I manage a newsletter for one professional organization I’m a part of and managed newsletters for a company I worked with over the span of four and a half years. Newsletters, if done well, can be bright shining beacons in a crowded inbox. I see my newsletter as 52 opportunities in 2015 to inspire, help, challenge, and nudge you to join me in chasing after the creative life actively. In the newsletters, I’m sharing ideas for stoking your creative fires, food articles, food poetry, writing prompts, and Steeped book news. So far this year, we’ve covered how to pack for 2 weeks using a carry-on, the future of food is printable, as well as a lesson on creativity from the Golden Gate Bridge. I keep the newsletters pretty short and packed full of interesting tidbits. Sign up today and find out this weekend what the one trait is that all writers need to have.

Notes from the Kitchen

Kitchen Diaries: Lessons from a Sourdough Bread Loaf

Sourdough Bread - the food poetSourdough Bread - the food poet

Early Friday morning is an exquisite pocket of time. Perhaps it’s knowing that the sprint is almost over and only five hours stand in the way of what shapes weekend hours from the weekday ones. The kitchen comes slowly to life on Friday mornings, rising with the sun. Usually I am already bedecked in bits of flying flour that cling to my sleeve or adorn my slipper before breakfast.

I once tried baking bread on a Monday and ended up tossing the entire batch of dough after the rising period had exceeded its time by a full day. Tuesdays are a bit of a continuation of whatever check boxes from Monday’s list fell off and landed in the batch of next day appointments. Hump-day, better known as Wednesday might as well be Monday part two, making Thursday, Tuesday part two.

Then comes Friday: its crystalline possibility snaps out like a tablecloth floating down to cover kitchen projects that need more time, knowing that your mind can expand after a week of busyness and invite whatever cooking idea has been knocking, in. For me, Friday is set aside for bread.

Before 2013, I had never considered myself a bread baker and didn’t fancy myself much of a bread eater. Before 2013, we were bumping right along at a speed of life I could recognize, along a route that was familiar. But then, the pace became frenetic, the route detoured in a direction with little control of where we were headed. Baking quietly provided an evening answer. It became my teacher in patience measuring blessings by weight and not volume.

It’s too easy for one week to bleed into the next and to begin playing a game of hopscotch from one month into another with little to show for the time spent. I think of this and want to blink back the blur of aging without being fully present. And as sometimes happens, a contradiction crept in.

On a Tuesday morning I eyed the full jar of Salvatore sourdough starter that would soon migrate into the refrigerator for a chilly slumber. That morning’s decision was based out of a desire to use as much of the starter as I could in between switching vessels. I mixed together my ingredients casually, measuring out flour, plunging the thermometer into the warm water and played with pushing the hydration in the dough. Since we’ve moved to Oakland, I’ve baked a few tasty loaves that don’t look as lovely as I’ve aspired for them. If baking bread has taught me anything it’s to take a calculated risk, try to answer “what if?…” through jotting down notes of changes made and then wait it out to see the final offering. When we moved to Oakland I worried how my starter might react. We were leaving the 94118- would the bacteria be so very different or the air so dry that my starter might change dramatically? None of my recent loaves have set my heart into a steady state of glee until Wednesday morning, the day after I audaciously started prepping bread dough on a Tuesday. What came out of the oven was big, bouncy, practically puffy in its enthusiasm and somehow I had achieved a whole new type of loaf. On my counter, the crust crackling, sat the fine art of not giving up.

So on Friday mornings, with the light creeping in the kitchen window through the slit below the curtain, I can start crafting a small universe in the metal bowl that is big as a sled. It all starts by scooping flour into a cup. The beginnings of bread baking remind me of a great truth of living: from small starts can arise big possibilities. So, as I wait during the second rise and see my dough doubled in size, I have the heft of the thing in my hands to show for my patience, the loaf that will feed us for a week to give promise to what the future might hold.

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Notes from the Kitchen

Rick Bayless & Negra Modelo Take Us on a Mission District Walking Food Tour

Photo by Irvin Lin of Eat the Love

Anita, Jane, Rick Bayless and Me

Tis the the season of Julie Andrews singing about her favorite things. If each of us composed our own version of the song, what would be the items you might use to replace “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens?” When the folks at Negra Modelo hired me to accompany Chef Rick Bayless on a crawl with other food bloggers and writers through San Francisco’s Mission district, I leapt at the chance to work with them. I wanted to encounter some of his favorite things, discovering his local San Francisco haunts and ask him questions throughout a Mission district walking food tour. It also served as a proper place to learn what makes Negra Modelo the perfect complement to Mexican food. Because we were introduced to so much during our crawl through the Mission, I’m going to separate it into sections that are not necessarily chronological, but tell the story better.


Photo  by Vanessa Bahmani for Negra Modelo

Negra Modelo Mexican Beer

My History with Negra Modelo Beer

Before we begin our stroll through the Mission, though, let’s start by snapping off a cap from my favorite Mexican beer. Long before I met my husband, Nathan, the bonafide beer drinker in our household, I tolerated one or two beers, not yet possessing the language for flavors I loved (floral, malty, robust, effervescent) and those I’m not fond of (hoppy). On a trip to Mexico to visit family, I had tried my first Negra Modelo and it became my mainstay for what to sip when eating the foods of my ancestors and heart: Mexican food. Ever since Nathan has been introducing me to more beers, I have begun playing around with using it in cooking and even have a pinterest board dedicated to beer-infused foods. My appreciation for Negra Modelo met its match during the Mission crawl as I had a chance to talk with Katherine from the company. I learned that its smooth, caramel notes come from slow-roasting caramel malts, and that it is a Munich-style dunkel lager, that uses a technique to make the brewing process last twice as long as that of other beers. The company shared that they’ve been making the beer since 1925. And I shared that we just drank bottles of it at an Oakland local taqueria, Xolo. The timing couldn’t be more on point to pick up more ideas for pairing their beer with food.


Pairing Negra Modelo Beer with Food: Suggestions from Chef Rick Bayless

Later on in the evening when we finally ended up at a Mexican restaurant, we sipped chilled Negra Modelo and ate tacos and mini tortas. We listened as Chef Rick Bayless suggested ideas of types of Mexican food to pair with this medium-bodied dark beer. I nodded along as he described the malt in the beer as being so roasted that it gives “a soft impression of sweetness.” Yes, it does. Does it pair well with ceviche? No, but, according to Bayless, whip up a Veracruzano fish stew with guajillo chile, epazote, garlic and tomatoes, and the beer stands up to the hearty flavors. Black mole was an easy example for a perfect pairing, along with tacos of lamb barbacoa. Bayless also uses Negra Modelo in a chocolate ice cream they serve at his restaurant, Frontera, which made sense and made me completely want to try a scoop of the ice cream he described as making “the chocolate taste better than chocolate” deriving some maltiness from the dark beer. I already started eyeing that beer-braised lamb with leeks recipe that gets pulled out at this time of year and began wondering how it would taste with Negra? This might have to happen soon.


Noemi and Maria - Tortilleria San Francisco

Finding Fresh Masa at a San Francisco Tortilleria

On a drizzly San Francisco afternoon, I wormed my way to our first stop on the Mission crawl and joined a team of inquisitive bloggers and Chef Bayless at a neighborhood Mercado and tortilleria, where we were invited into the kitchen. I set myself into a pocket of space and watched Maria and Noemi slap together corn tortillas from handmade organic masa that they grind in-house. In addition to griddling the tortillas, we sampled huaraches that Maria was making. Huaraches get their name because they are long and wide, like the shoe. I contributed a huarache recipe to “Sated Magazine” a while back and like them for the flexibility of being a blank canvas for interesting toppings. So, as Maria and I chatted, she patted a green huarache, flipping it and saying that this nopal flavor is her favorite. And, I’ve been dreaming of them ever since. Plates piled high with huaraches garnished with carne asada made the rounds as did plates huaraches stuffed with zucchini and cheese. Watching Noemi make tortillas by hand, you could see she is a pro from practice. She makes them everyday and laughed when I asked her if she eats them at home, responding, not really. I was grateful for time with these two ladies and really wanted to learn more about their kitchen stories.


Rick Bayless on His Favorite San Francisco Tortilleria

Rick Bayless described how in Mexico City, at the biggest open-air market you will see huge huaraches with all matter of toppings sprinkled on. He laughed as he recounted how the hawkers yell huarache topping options. Here’s the kicker: this Mercado in San Francisco’s Mission district is exactly where Rick Bayless would head for masa when he taught classes for the week at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. He explained the traditional process of making masa: the corn gets boiled with an alkaline lime solution and ground with salt plates. “You create flavors you can’t anyway else, the old traditional way.” He continued to talk about how most masa available in conventional stores is bland. Watching Maria and Noemi making tortillas and huaraches from fresh masa at the tortilleria in the Mission, Bayless described them doing “what needs to be done everywhere.” I had wondered why Bayless settled in Chicago when he could have ended up in other hubs of thriving Latin American communities. I quickly got my answer, “Chicago has the greatest number of tortillerias in the world, even outside of Mexico. You walk into a Mexican grocery store in Chicago and there are stacks of warm fresh tortillas available.” He continued, “This is the canvas upon which Mexican food needs to be painted – good tortillas.” And as if that was not definitive enough, “Without no good tortillas, there is no good cuisine.” Bayless went on to explain that access to fresh masa and the wealth of tortillerias in Chicago was one of the reasons he settled there.


 Photo by Vanessa Bahmani for Negra Modelo

Salvador, a Mexican Butcher in San Francisco

A Mexican Butcher in San Francisco Brings Flap Meat to North America

Sal welcomed us into his butcher shop. As we crowded together he began telling us the story of how he helped bring flap meat to the United States. In Mexico, they butcher the animal differently than in the United States. He described a time when he showed a person from IBP how to cut flap meat (at the time there was no name for it in English). Three weeks later, IBP started selling flap meat. Now it is available in the Unites States, Canada, and around the world, but up until that point, it had only been available in Mexico. Sal detailed how in Mexico they don’t waste meat and cut it differently to minimize waste. Maybe you’ve never heard of flap meat before, but maybe you’ve heard the term carne asada, made from flap meat. I marveled at hearing about Sal’s experience in butchery- his family has been in business for 54 years at the helm. When I shopped at the farmer’s market in Oakland this weekend and saw flap meat on the menu for a local rancher, I thought of Sal and how far his impact had reached beyond the Mission district of San Francisco.

Rick Bayless on Mexican Butchery

Later on in the evening, Rick Bayless corroborated Sal, the Mexican butcher’s experience citing one of his own. Chef Bayless described visiting a Mexican butcher shop in Chicago where a company poster for organ meats hung from a wall. In a regular butcher shop, there was an English-speaking poster on the wall from the same company, but only showing center cuts.


Panaderia Mission District

Looking for the Sweet Life at a Local Panaderia

It can be a bit overwhelming to walk into a panaderia with its walls of pastries. I always make a beeline to the walls looking for two particular baked goods. As a child, even my sweet tooth couldn’t convince me that conchas, the pastries with the shell pattern stamped into them, were any good. No, I always had eyes only for two things: the empanada de calabaza with its mild sweet dough stuffed with pumpkin, or chanchos, little gingerbread pigs. Sure enough, both of my sweeties were in the window beguiling all who walked by the panaderia and reminding me of my childhood. We learned at this panaderia that they make all of their baked goods in-house from egg, milk, sugar, and flour. I tried to imagine what their production system looked like as Sal, the son of the owner, described making 25 different kinds of bread. One of the bloggers asked him his favorite baked good and he smiled, talking about how good conchas are when they come right out of the oven, saying they reminded him of glazed doughnuts. I thrilled to hear they are going to begin making their own jellies soon, focusing on flavors of strawberries and pineapple. Listening to Sal talk, we broke corners off of several pastries with new appreciation.

Rick Bayless and Bake Give Love at San Francisco Panaderia

Rick Bayless on Panaderias & What’s New is Old

Rick Bayless mentioned how what Sal and his panaderia are doing reminded him a lot of young chefs who he has encountered in Mexico. His newest season of his TV show focuses each episode on a different chef and restaurant in Mexico, trying to help tell their stories. These chefs are getting deeply interested in learning from the artisan bakers in the small towns where long ferments and wood-burning ovens are not “hip ways” but old-fashioned. He said he is also seeing many Mexican bakeries go back to making their own jellies in-house like at this San Francisco panaderia. When asked what his favorite pan dulce is (everyone has one), he described the flaky campechanas he would eat when he lived in Mexico City. The dough from campechana is also used to make banderilla pan dulce but uses a different method.


Rick Bayless & the perfect complement

The Restaurant as Classroom

Everything wrapped up at a local Mexican restaurant where we gathered for supper and Chef Rick Bayless spoke on several important ingredients of Mexican cuisine. Can I just say that where Rick Bayless shines is as a teacher? It’s his natural mode that taps into his background of anthropological linguistics. When he talked about the different kinds of fresh and dried chiles and how they can be used, his voice was tinged with an eagerness to share his love for the culture and these key ingredients. Don’t get him started about whether a Pasilla pepper is also an ancho… I was fascinated to hear him talk about the different kinds of avocadoes that exist and the ideal ways to use them. On to talking about onions, he shared a tip that I’m planning to impart to my Cooking Matters students that can alleviate tears when chopping onions (Halve them and then rinse them in cold water).


Rick Bayless and Going Home to Consider Cultural Change

For a few minutes, Chef Bayless and I talked about how cuisines change as cultures do. He described how his circumstance when first in Mexico brought about his education. As a young student, he didn’t have a lot of money and would go visit the markets to get food to eat. “That’s where I ate. Those were my teachers.”As we chatted, I wanted to get a sense of what he saw happening to Mexican cuisine in homes in Mexico now. He had already talked about what he was beginning to see chefs doing in restaurants, but I’m increasingly inclined to believe that if you want to see where a nation is going with its foodways, go home. As suspected, convenience foods have begun to take root. “In Mexico, people have gotten away from traditional foods in homes. They’re eating a lot of foods like in the United States but with more spice.” But even so, Mexico is a culture steeped in tradition, and he reiterated that the whole family goes to mom’s house on Sunday. The mom used to have a full-time maid and she might not anymore. “Young chefs of Mexico have become standard-bearers. What used to be made at grandma’s house is filtering into restaurants.”

Photo by Vanessa Bahmani for Negra Modelo

Rick Bayless in the San Francisco Mission District flanked by food bloggers

The perfect complement to this evening’s festivities included banding together food bloggers to help tell the stories of these food purveyors and to experience firsthand the rich cultural cuisine coming from Mexico and leaving an imprint in San Francisco and beyond. My thanks go out to Negra Modelo and their team for putting together such an educational and delicious experience, as well as to Chef Rick Bayless for letting a curious multi-culturual mutt like myself pepper him with questions along the crawl. I also had a blast getting to experience all of the offerings in such good company, seeing many friends, and meeting new local food bloggers. For other perspectives on the Perfect Complement Mission Crawl, check out the following local food blogs: Eat the Love, Brokeass Gourmet, Hedonia, Lick My Spoon, Dessert First, OMG! Yummy, This Week for Dinner, Bake Love Give, Sara Desaran, Ever in Transit, Amy’s Healthy Baking, Cooking with Amy, Very Culinary, Simply Real Moms, Cookies & Clogs, and Mom on Timeout.


DISCLOSURE: Negra Modelo paid for me to attend the event, share about it on social media and write this recap. My longstanding appreciation for their beer, respect for Rick Bayless and impressions of  the Mission walking food tour are all mine. Check out Negra Modelo on facebook, twitter and follow #ThePerfectComplement for more beer and food pairing ideas.

Notes from the Kitchen

Augustus Waters, Oblivion & Gathering the Last Bits of Thanksgiving from the Table

Augustus Waters

Not that long ago, Nathan and I set off from our coast to the other one on a whirlwind trip to New York. One afternoon at a restaurant situated on the edge of Greenwich Village, a friend and I caught up over kale salads (with tempeh bacon for me, tofu for her). Our conversation strung along easily, even though it had been several years since we had last met up. After the trip, I made an intention and plan to write a thank you card to dispatch quickly to New York but first needed to find its companion, a book that I referenced during lunch. I found the perfect card, all adages and best wishes. Visiting one store, then two, I began to grow a bit listless as a dawning reality settled upon me. This book that is among my cherished books, a book that sandwiches old comments and markings of mine in the margin next to recent ones is no longer in print. The awakening continued with the surge of thought: if this can happen to this prolific poet’s words, then what becomes of the rest of us?

A few weeks ago, on an evening when Nathan was away, I took myself on a date at home, complete with dinner and a movie. We had steered clear of seeing “The Fault in Their Stars” in a movie theater the way that I had wished someone had warned me about “A Walk to Remember.” Cancer has hit too close to our family and frankly, I can’t imagine getting invested and absorbed into a fictional story when I’ve cried, prayed, and lived it through our own family narrative. So, in the same way that I catapulted myself into seeing “The Exorcist” in junior high to confront my terror of horror films, I watched this movie. Inevitably, the plot doesn’t turn out in quite the way you assume in the beginning, but still wrenches apart something good and whole inside movie viewers. A scene that has stayed with me and even then caught my attention is when love interest, Augustus Waters is asked in support group what he most fears. His answer is simple and leaves me a bit breathless: oblivion.

And so, Augustus Waters and the Poet mashed up in my head together. What happens to a writer when their words disappear from bookshelves? The importance of oral literature and of making time to sit around and tell tales is seen in a new light. Each of us is a walking storybook that others might rifle through or read deeply. As we get ready to gather around the Thanksgiving table and a fork and knife chase the last bits of cornbread dressing into cranberry relish, there is a magical moment that sometimes happens if we catch it before it scampers off the table. And it is this: before we get up to clear the plates, before we excuse ourselves and flip on the TV to catch a football game, sometimes a story trickles out of one mouth. If you’re lucky, as it enters all those other ears, it comes out of a different mouth, similar but with a few stray details that build upon its flavor like a drizzle of pan gravy moistens the meat. These are the bits of the Thanksgiving meal that go unnoticed and are not planned into the most elaborate menu. Even so, they are the moments that give curvature to our lives, that pull us into the past, present, and future and erase the possibility of oblivion. When I share my appreciation for the Poet’s work with someone new, they come to life again. Their words continue coursing in me finding new meaning long after the book is out of print. Their ISBN is still catalogued—their work existed! They existed! And as we linger around the Thanksgiving table amid the messiness of the meal and possibly flinging together the disparate elements that can make family gatherings messy, passing platters and our stories to one another grounds us into who we are, where we’ve been, and perhaps illuminates where we might go next. In this way, we are never doomed to oblivion.

Notes from the Kitchen

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. 

Notes from the Kitchen

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.

Notes from the Kitchen

On the Plate in August: Books to Read

Books to Read in August

Hello and happy Monday! With only a stitch of summer left, I’m woefully behind in sharing some of my summer non-required reading because what do you need more of than more books to read, right?


I’m obsessed with cake right now. As such, I would be sunk without this seminal book that you probably already own or have heard about. My gratitude runneth over that just as I needed to explore its wisdom, Green Apple Books had one copy in the used section. Score! If you’ve ever wondered how ingredients work in baking, Shirley Corriher brings her background in chemistry into a very insightful and well-laid out book. Bakewise will make you wiser in the kitchen.

Chasing a rabbit can lead to parts unknown. I stumbled across a Gary Snyder poem that delighted me and ended up finding out about his new book of letters to and from Wendell Berry called Distant Neighbors. Two prolific poets and writers swap details about their similar but far apart livelihoods in this new book from Counterpoint Press. While I am still poring over the introduction, it already is a beloved book of mine. Snagging an autographed copy from both authors makes me exultant.

On the topic of letters, I also picked up the Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1892-1910. Rilke has long been one of my favorite poets- the spine is falling out from the translation by Stephen Mitchell of his Collected Works- it is the book that accompanied me to Paris the last time I visited that fair city. “Requiem for a Friend” haunted me as I wound my way through the Tuileries, Place Saint-Germain and on. While “Letters to a Young Poet” did not necessarily stir within me great attachment, I am keen to read more of what Rilke was thinking about, what he wrestled with and see more of a candid response than in the measured form of poetry.

As much as I have enjoyed working in restaurants and in the foodservice / hospitality business, the idea of opening my own bakery or restaurant gives me palpitations. It is hard work to keep things running smoothly and can be rough goings on the way to profitability. Molly Wizenberg’s writing has always endeared me to her, so when I learned that she had written a book, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage, about starting the pizza restaurant of the same name, with her husband, I knew I needed to read this and see how she wound her way through that labyrinth mostly unscathed, still happily married and serving what I hear are excellent pizzas. I expect her trademark humor and grace to be stamped on each page.

Call me a late bloomer (in some ways, very much), but when my friend Pam mentioned she had just finished a book she thought I would love called, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, I agreed that it is a book I have long wanted to check out. Five days later, a manila package promptly arrived. This is a book that will get packed in my bicycle basket for an afternoon lolling in the park reading (is there anything better?!) with me when the sun decides to pay us a visit.


Notes from the Kitchen

Star in Your Own Rock Opera

Rock Opera

If you ever find yourself in the middle of a rock opera, strap yourself in for one doozy of a ride.

Maybe you’re puzzled by the idea of a rock opera and wondering if it too has a fat lady who sings. The answer, like most things in life, is maybe. What you can count on are several interesting plot points to build the story of the hero or heroine (that’s you), a low point (or one or two), a climax and the volta or turn of the story where the hero or heroine comes out ahead. The exception here is the tragic story line where the hero or heroine dies of consumption (Mimi, La Boheme), tuberculosis (Violetta, La Traviata) or death by stabbing from a former lover now driven mad with jealousy (Carmen). On the other hand, be glad you are in a rock opera and not traditional opera. It’s safer that way.

The months of April and May should have come with instructions. A warning of what was to come might have been stuffed inside an envelope delivered with the monthly bills and mail. I would see that as a courtesy. Instead, one announcement and event prepared me for the next as if someone gave me a domino and then asked that it strike other unseen dominoes to set off the chain of events. It’s a good thing I’ve learned to grow thick skin. It’s a good thing that my skin is so porous that I soak in what befalls me that I might attempt to fully appreciate each event separately and in tandem.

Let’s go back to rock opera first because a definition is necessary. Trusty Wikipedia defines a rock opera as “a work of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections in the manner of an opera.” That sounds right.

In high school, I auditioned for and made it into an exclusive youth music choir group. One of the members of the group was a wisecrack named Michael Turner. He could make me chuckle or guffaw better than almost anyone with his quick wry responses or clever disseminations of a situation. He sang tenor and I sang alto with occasional forays into soprano territory. Some of my happiest memories of high school consisted of choir tours including one in which I clinched a solo rap that I can still recite with the right rhythm and bravado so many years later though I no longer wear my ball cap backwards.

After high school, I ventured off to college and would you believe it, Michael eventually made his way to the same college following a more circuitous route involving a get-away car, a high school sweetheart in Waco and a change of venue. But, first, he enrolled in the college’s theater program and auditioned for the lead role in their production of Tommy by the Who, the first rock opera.

Tommy was my first rock opera experience so many years ago. I watched my friend Michael transform into the lead character, a young boy who retreats into himself after a horrific experience, becoming blind, deaf, mute, finding music inside and a penchant for pinball. The story takes the expected turn with a climax of Tommy the pinball genius gathering a following of cult-like status who later revolt and leave. It doesn’t end on a happy note, but it doesn’t really matter. What I remember about Michael’s performance was his slaphappy look of joy playing pinball, oblivious, at that point of his popularity.

This story, my story does not have a sad ending, though it has a challenge or two thrown in for good measure. Recently, a mantra made its way into my head for me to sound aloud when I needed the stamina. It goes like this: “suffering leads to endurance; endurance leads to character; character leads to hope and hope does not fail.” These words became bedrock during my own rock opera.

In the span of one month plus change, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, underwent surgery to remove the cancer, and learned a week later, on Thursday, that she is now cancer-free without need for chemo or radiation. We whooped as much as one can do without raising your voice in sweet exultation in a surgeon’s office. Inside I sang a Hallelujah chorus by my lonesome. On Friday, a personal project made great strides which gave me the courage to go knock on the door of my father’s house and spend 10 minutes talking with his widow who I hadn’t spoken with for four years at her behest. I didn’t know that just two weeks later I would be laid off due to reduction in workforce.

One domino set the others into motion. The constant image in my mind during all of this is trying to find examples of what joy looks like. In spite of the more challenging parts of this rock opera, I, the heroine, can choose to sink or swim and I can see land in the near distance, so swimming is the only option. When one door closes, do you have the temerity to walk through the one that opens?

Suffering – Endurance – Character – Hope

So, the question I would ask you is how can you become the hero or heroine in your own rock opera? What change of tactic or mindset will help you see the horizon line- what will compel you to swim if you’re flailing right now? In the darkest moments of the time of my mom’s diagnosis or waiting to find out if the cancer had spread, when I found my hands gripping the knotted end of my rope, I held up a hand and tried to pull others up as a method for pulling myself up. All of us are starring in our own rock operas and the end doesn’t have to be tragic or grim. It is my hope for you that together we can muster through the tough bits to claim the glorious ones with the electric guitar solos that sing.

Notes from the Kitchen

Keeping the Eye on the Butterfly

tulips for the cancer caregiver

If Billie Jean had been a nurse, she would have had Dr. Michael Jackson as her attending. Somewhere between the jangled nerves of being in the radiology department, my mother had forgotten the name of her surgeon. When asked, she quickly quipped, Dr. Michael Jackson. Her doctor whose surname was not Jackson left her in pre-op by moonwalking out of the room. God bless him.

When we visited her in the recovery room several hours later, through slurred words she asked, When can I eat? A corporal sigh could have been heard from Texas to Timbuktu. Four meals later, my hair tousled from hospital bedhead and my favored Art Institute of Chicago hoodie slung from air condition weary shoulders, I stepped outside the hospital for the first time. It was a brave new world. In it, we would learn if the disease had spread or if the doctor had cut it out completely. We would transfer from the hospital bed to the home bed. But first, I drove to Whole Foods to start my part.

Out came the hand-scrawled list of ingredients divided in my Type A template by store sections. My hands dove into the organic produce bins squeezing and sniffing, gathering fruits and vegetables in my wake. Mist caught me unawares and sprayed on my arm and shirt as if offering a soothing reprieve. On to the bulk section, my frayed nerves caught me getting mouthy with a rogue customer who dipped her hand into the bin, plucking a prune to consume without a thought about the available scoop.

I have renewed respect for the role of caregivers. They are the unsung heroes whose work goes on behind the scenes like the light technician on a Broadway show. In planning for this trip, I had no idea that I might have bitten off more than I could chew but then again I’ve always been a graduate of the fake-it-til-you-make-it academy. Do you belong to that esteemed institution too?

For over a week we chilled out to chia pudding and got saucy with nutrient-dense smoothies. We drove by fast food burger joints and she wistfully said burger with a reverence usually reserved for Vatican City. The lentil walnut loaf with handmade “approved by Annelies” ketchup served with cauliflower mashed potatoes got cheers all around. Being a cook and keeper of the kitchen wasn’t so hard- until my normally food-friendly mom started sliding food around her plate.

Tiger moms, helicopter moms and the like get such a bad rap. They know or at least I knew what was regular for my Mom and when it started going into unexpected territory, I fretted and fussed. I began writing really bad poetry- the cathartic kind that stumbles across the screen because it does not serve the role of chasing after a Pushcart but to help suspicions and worry eat their fill of black type marching on a blank page. I began growing desperate, knowing lack of appetite had been a signal early on from what the doctors and nurses had said could be a change of course.

Not on my watch became my mantra and yet she slept as one who had walked the length of the United States from coast to coast. Her energy waned and her appetite disappeared. I took a short house break to hit the elliptical like a freight truck trammeling downhill. I focused my anxiety into downward dogs. I prayed without ceasing. And still, my tunnel vision caught my breath.

We caught the infection early. Dr. Michael Jackson gave us a prescription to help us Beat It, telling us it would take 48 hours for her to perk up. For the narrow window from the surgeon’s office to the house, she was herself again, albeit abbreviated. For the first time since her diagnosis, I caved,

Shall we get you a burger? (voice trembling. expectant. hopeful. weary.)

Our wide car swung into the drive-through line and spoke our order to the small voicebox as if this one decision would turn our ship around in the right direction. She ripped into the burger with interest- five bites worth- which gave me a short-lived joy.

Even now, I stand ready to invoke calories into her body. I banish the infection from doing its dastardly work. I am helpless to do anything other than raise my hands to my heart and my words to our Creator. The words clink into one another like an abacus counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds when she will be asking for seconds, walking around, feisty and entertaining guests.

When you become an adult, you learn to worry. You become an accountant even if you narrowly avoided flunking high school math. Disease only increases the creasing of the eyebrows. Even after good news, the kind that makes you want to jump and click your heels, it’s as if you’ve cleared one hurdle. And, in life, you celebrate each hurdle cleared instead of anticipating the next hurdle.

So, if a fast food hamburger can appease her appetite as antibiotics address this pothole, I can be thankful. Thankfulness is the thing I’ve clutched as my security blanket when no one answers the phone after cycling through the quick list of close contacts. It is what flits high over this circumstance, a butterfly catching drafts of an unseen subtle wind, a disposition of the heart against the storm.

Notes from the Kitchen

Sometimes It’s Enough

Cooking for Cancer | Annelies Zijderveld

A chill pervaded the air that afternoon, sending my husband and I to spoon hot Japanese curry over sticky white rice. Earlier that afternoon, my phone vibrated as the small screen lit up with a message from my Mom. I put off making that call until I could find the right type of quiet for the conversation.

In between ordering our food and waiting for our names to be called, my mother got cancer. To be clear, I made her say the word twice because I almost missed it the first time since it didn’t belong in the words coming out of her mouth. Cars whooshed by. I leaned against a street sign to steady me as my mind worked overtime to listen more closely to what else might come out.

Words scatter. They rip their hair out with a sharp-edged W before running haphazardly to the bay in a distracted state of Y. Sometimes, you don’t need words at all. As I stood outside, my spine surrendered to the street sign, my husband watched through a glass door, reading my body language and knew the news was not good. We ate our dinner that evening numb. Instead of hot comfort spooned over rice, we found a pool of lackluster food. Further tests transpired. Decisions on what was to be done occurred. Preparations have been made. This week, I fly home one day before the fourth anniversary of my father’s death and two days before my mom goes in for surgery.

I’m not a doctor, though I will be surrounded by one at the pre-op meeting, wait to hear from one after surgery and perhaps get to know a nurse or two by first name on schedule rotation. I’m not a nurse, though I will play one for a few weeks, which serves me right, after tormenting my mom with a bell which I rang for sport once or twice when I was sick as a child. My childhood served as a good training ground for whatever child specimen I will bring into the world one day.

I am a cook. I make a decent bodyguard and once worked as a deejay in college. Lest you think I will be fending off rogue assailants with boom boxes of death metal attempting to accost my mom in the hospital or at home, I am going to be wearing more of a spa robe. In fact, I intend to transform her home into a retreat such that Canyon Ranch would cringe. Perhaps I shall assume a new name as well, something calming like Heather. Perhaps I can whisk my fire personality into one of air or water.

Three weeks ago I began a project of scouring cookbooks by people I trust who correlate food as medicine and the farmacy as assisting the pharmacy. I started concocting menus for the Superbowl of cooking in a way that Thanksgiving can never try to take on because where my favorite holiday imbues every good and lip-smacking food into one monstrosity of a meal, this is for a longer stretch.

Jutted up against leafy green vegetables, warm fluffy bowls of intact whole grains get gussied up with spices. The intention is to assemble easy meal plans of anti-inflammatory foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, some fish, spices and tea) for the non-cook in my nuclear family.

Growing up, we ate out of a lot of cans and boxes. As someone who can’t sweep to save her life, I get that not everyone likes every household task. I fully understand that cooking can seem like a burden or chore. Whatever cooking bone I have comes from my mom’s sisters, my Tia’s, not my Mom, though she is the first to champion any culinary concoction of mine, is my original taste tester and has perfected several dishes that are part of her culinary brain trust.

The menus include ingredients put together during a dysbiosis cleanse from my previous naturopath. They take into consideration lists from my acupuncturist of alkaline non-mucus forming foods. The intent here is to help the body heal itself as Western medicine does its fancy footwork on her body.

Sometimes it’s enough to bring what you can offer to a situation. Whether it’s company, a bit of humor or stirring a pot of slow-simmered beans, I am restless to be present in the same room as my mom.  I never thought I would be saying, Happy Mother’s Day this year inside of a hospital room. Her optimism keeps me tethered to something solid when mine threatens to cave in under the rush of hot emotion. The prayers we utter nightly work as our foundation: short ones without any posturing, ones where we can breathe aloud the request for healthy cells and keep each other upbeat.

Inexplicably, the song, “Happy” claps along in my head in spite of the diagnosis. Today, she is alive. Today I can talk to her. Today, we get another chance to keep smearing the mortar along the edges of the bricks we have been laying over the years to build each other up. When my bearings begin to wobble, I can, in turn, build someone else up. She and I understand the eccentricities that make us mother and daughter. We are tear-up-the-wrapping-paper-on-packages kind of people- there’s too little time to be too careful opening the gift. It’s meant to be lived loudly now.

In my initial grief, I reached out to 10 fingerfuls of incredible cancer-free women. They are the unseen pillars I think of, the people I text or call when I want to hide in the days of happy ignorance, the days before this disease lay its finger on her body. I salute her persistent doctors. I enfold my mom in a bear hug for regular testing. I buy her yellow flowers that they may continue giving her sunny personality a visual cue.  That doesn’t make me want this to go away any less. But, I get the honor of serving her as cook, bodyguard, assistant and always, as the precocious daughter. Some things don’t change.

Sometimes It's Enough

Notes from the Kitchen

When the Bread Hits the Pan

braided challah

People in crisis do funny things. Some take up smoking. Others find their solace swirling through chipped ice in a glass tumbler. Still, many attack the elliptical with the full thrust of their being, working it out on a contraption that goes nowhere. You’ve heard of the funny bone, perhaps have wondered about the wish bone, but I tapped into something that still surprises me now- I found my baking bone.


Not that this surprises any of you if you’ve followed my escapades here or here in this plot of proverbial internet soil. I’m a woman obsessed. I’m a late nighter who finds a spring in her step to crank the oven on high and pull the slowly fermenting dough out of the refrigerator to begin its wake-up because like a lobster lowered into boiling water (which has always frightened me- let it be known), that dough will soon meet its maker, sizzling along the blisteringly hot walls of the enamel Dutch oven.


I buy bags of whole grain flours just so I can experiment. I’m scouring my address book to find the carb curious. On my bread baking shelf in the kitchen (yes, a full shelf has been consecrated for its implements) a Pantone journal’s pages are filling with sketches of bread loaves, marking down variations of crumb, crust and taste so I can keep working toward turning out excellent bread– All this from someone who, almost a year ago, had very little interest in bread at all, and yawned at droll sandwiches. What happened?

Salvatore sourdough | Annelies Z

I inherited a sourdough pet. He threatened to eat the entire glass vessel of flour and sometimes looked like his appetite could expand further, eyeing the freezer that’s become a repository of folded, rubber-banded bags of whole grain flours. Some people stash vodka in their freezers- mine would block access to any bottles of alcohol since they would have to sneak past the bouncers of millet and mesquite flour. Don’t get me started on the half-loaves or the bags of English Muffin experiments that launch at us like puck-shaped projectiles whenever we open the door. You don’t want to go there.

Salvatore sourdough | Annelies Z

Salvatore the sourdough starter lazily settles into his mason jar or cheerfully doubles and bubbles up like the blob that might ooze over the sides. I had become so enamored of this cause and effect relationship that it set my daily schedule. Each morning, I would throw away a significant amount of starter and began questioning the humanity of that action. So, like a zealot, I began sharing progeny. But until I bit the bullet and started baking loaves of bread, I didn’t fully comprehend Salvatore’s raison d’etre even as I was contemplating my own.

San Francisco Cooking School

For several weeks, on Thursday evenings, I strapped on an apron at the San Francisco Cooking School and learned how to bake bread. My partner Suminder and I made a great team- we both gathered ingredients and he laughed at my quips. Over those three weeks, we plunged our hands into kneading pizza dough, braided challah, and shaped baguettes, slashing their tops with sharp-edged razors.

San Francisco Cooking School Kim Laidlaw

Finally, the sourdough class arrived. I came equipped with questions jotted down in my notebook and tried my best to not hijack the class or push instructor, Kim Laidlaw to the edge as my hand shot up like an antennae or my questions eviscerated any silence. We watched loaf-shaping and the fast dance spritzing of the oven as the timer counted down until the next spritz to keep the oven steamy and moist for a crackly crust, just like with baguettes.

San Francisco Cooking School Sourdough

Alone in my kitchen, I fecklessly dove into baking one loaf and learning from it. As one crisis came, I measured, stirred, turned and rested one loaf. That crisis averted, and like a hydra another two had popped up, turning out two loaves to take them on. One week I made eight loaves of bread in five days. I had become a mini machine. Something about the yeast feeding off the flour and water made whatever current circumstance a bit more bearable. That the loaves would be dispatched to friends in equal straits of calamity made them hand-slashed letters of solidarity that this too shall pass and until then, you’ve got stuff for sandwiches! Never had something so mundane become so sacred. Just-out-of-the-oven bread sings, its pockets of air hissing and crackling against the metal cooling rack, and serving up a truth: that even when we’re in the hot seat, we can still find voice enough to sing.

creation versus evolution | Annelies Zijderveld-4

Notes from the Kitchen

What We Really Need

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-2

On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.

A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.

Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct  draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-3

Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?

I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.

What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-4