Monday, December 28, 2009

MIA

MIA image courtesy of grorg.org/blorg/mia/

I have to apologize for being MIA. F always teases that when I become interested in something (like food, for instance), I devote my every waking hour to it, to the exclusion of everything else.

This is true.

I have been writing a Big Project (BF) for the last few months, and I am committed to finishing it, no matter what else suffers. I may forget to eat, my marriage may fail, I may lose my job, and worst of all, I may forget to post on High Heels. But by God, I will finish BF!

BF has nothing to do with food, so I can't really share much about it here. But I can say that much of my time has been dominated by writing. I write at lunch. I write on the bus. I write while walking down the sidewalk. I write at the gym. I write while sauteeing chicken. I've taken a few workshops, I went to a conference, I've been reading related books and magazines, I've been applying to contests and requesting grants.

I think F is correct in saying that I commit to things.

But don't worry. I'm around.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Fine" Dining

When you make a meal for your spouse, you expect him to savor it with gratitude and exclamations of delight.

Once I finish a dish and have arranged the parts on the plate in a pleasing display, I bring it steaming from the kitchen and place it gently on the cushion in F’s lap (yes, we eat on the couch). I expect him to begin eating immediately while his dinner is still hot and at its best. I join him on the couch and await his praise. He eats quickly. I wait, chewing very slowly to make my dinner last at least a quarter of the time it took to prepare.

Finally, I prompt him with practiced nonchalance,

“Is it ok?”

“It’s fine.” He says.

F is spoiled by home-cooked meals now. When we began dating, he dined every week on ramen noodles and frozen chicken patties. He grew up on meat and potatoes and had never had Chinese food or Mexican food or rice—or a bagel—until college. Until he met me, he had never tasted lamb, lobster, duck, pork tenderloin, tofu, salmon, quinoa, turnips, tiramisu, parsnips, cilantro, pesto, cumin, cucumbers, or a wealth of other culinary delights. Nor had I cooked them. My cooking had been limited to one or two chicken dishes and a failed French fry experiment. I’m still learning—which is why my recipes still sometimes fail miserably.

On our walk home the other night, O and I commiserated about the fact that men do not understand why we get upset when our cooking fails. “It’s just food,” F says when my sauce doesn’t thicken, while I hover over the pan, tears thinning already watery and smoking tomatoes. And they don’t understand why we get upset when, in response to the tentative question, “How’s your dinner?” they reply, “It’s fine.”

“Fine” is not the word we’re after. If we spend an hour chopping onions and peeling carrots, skinning fish and stirring sauce, we want our work to be considered “Fabulous,” or “Better than my steak at Morton’s” or “an exquisite blend of flavors and textures.” Not “fine.”

One recent rainy Sunday, I tried to make F a stack of divine pancakes. I always use the same recipe from my favorite cookbook, The Best of Cooking Light 1999. Apparently 1999 was a good year for Cooking Light, because absolutely every single recipe I’ve ever made from this cookbook has been perfect, and the recipe for Buttermilk Oatmeal Pancakes is no exception. But I get bored with perfection, so I cheated on Cooking Light with Gourmet, who recently highlighted this recipe:

Bridge Creek Heavenly Hots
(fifty to sixty dollar-size pancakes)

From The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

These are the lightest sour cream silver-dollar-size hotcakes I’ve ever had—they seem to hover over the plate. They are heavenly and certainly should be served hot.

4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup cake flour
2 cups sour cream
3 tablespoons sugar

1. Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and stir until well blended. Add the salt, baking soda, flour, sour cream, and sugar, and mix well. All of this can be done in a blender, if you prefer.

2. Heat a griddle or frying pan until it is good and hot, film with grease, and drop small spoonfuls of batter onto the griddle—just enough to spread to an approximately 2 1/2-inch round. When a few bubbles appear on top of the pancakes, turn them over and cook briefly.


In an effort to make these slightly healthier, and because I have a mistaken confidence in my ability to adapt recipes, I used fat-free sour cream and egg whites. I’m convinced this must have been the problem with my hotcakes, which were certainly not heavenly. Nor did they hover over the plate.

Instead, the batter leaked across the pan and burned immediately. I turned down the heat, added some flour to the mix, and tried again. The pancakes refused to bubble and the bottom scorched. I added a little more flour. By this time, my mix was lumpy and my pan was coated with burned batter.

I swore and dumped the rest of the mix into the garbage, startling F, who should be used to this by now.

“What’s wrong?” he cried, thinking I had burned myself, so uncharacteristic was my profanity.

“I burned your hotcakes!” I wailed in despair.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “It’s just food.” This was the wrong thing to say.

“It’s NOT just food!” I sobbed. “It’s your breakfast. I was trying to make you a nice breakfast from The Breakfast Book. It’s supposed to be simple and delicious. You were supposed to have a nice breakfast!”

“I’ll still have a nice breakfast,” he said. “Just make the other pancakes.” I was immediately filled with loathing for my beloved The Best of Cooking Light 1999.

“I can’t now.” I said, fully aware of how petulant I sounded, “I used up all the eggs.”

“Well let’s have oatmeal.” He suggested.

“Fine. That’s all I can really make right, anyway.” I huffed, and turned back to the stove.

Granted, I make a mean bowl of oatmeal, so my agony over the hotcakes soon abated. But the complete failure of my adapted recipe still rankles. I’m gathering the courage to try those hotcakes again—this time with full-fat sour cream and whole eggs.

And I’ll have F to comfort me if they burn again. Poor F still just doesn’t understand why I get so upset. It may sound silly, but cooking is more than just making food. It’s creating something. And after a long day in my cubicle, marketing things that other people create, I savor my hour in the kitchen when I get to make something for myself—and for F.

You can’t frame a pancake and hang it on the wall. You can’t put a loaf of bread on stage and expect an audience to applaud. And you can’t display a fish fillet on a pedestal for all of eternity. Food is fleeting. It only looks pretty for so long. You eat it, and it’s gone. And if you don’t eat it, it rots.

A meal is created just the once for a specific person to enjoy, whether that person is a customer in a restaurant, a son or daughter, or a husband. Cooking is an expression of creativity and of love. It’s more than food, and it should be more than “fine.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cubicle Lunch: Leftover Fish

Image courtesy of redfishemergingmarkets.com

Today, I'm the annoying girl who brings fish for lunch.
I hate that girl.

The fish is left over from last night's experimental dinner. To truly understand and appreciate this experiment, you must know that F loves Cheez-Its and barely tolerates fish.

I thought that by crusting a cod fillet in his favorite snack, I could trick F into changing his mind. I crushed a bunch of Cheez-Its, coated the fillet, and baked. Sounded like a flawless plan.

It didn't work too well, honestlywhich is why there are leftovers for my lunch.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Becoming More Like Julia

Julia Child dedicated Mastering the Art of French Cooking to "the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat."

This is the woman I want to be.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is such a woman. I’m not sure there is a woman alive who can put aside all of these concerns at one time and simply enjoy the act of eating.

On the rare occasion, we can splurge on a feast without counting our pennies. On the rare occasion, the stars align and we have the time to enjoy a long meal with friends. On the rare occasion, children will eat what is presented to them without complaint.

But I wonder if there’s ever an occasion when a woman can disregard her waistline and dive into a chocolate soufflĂ© without a trace of guilt.

I will admit I don’t know much about children or the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, but I can say that I wish I could be more like Julia and liberally pour cream into my soups, blend whole sticks of butter into my cookies, and beat dozens of eggs into my cakes without worrying that they will later convert into jiggly bits.

I began to cook because I had gained ten pounds. I had gained ten pounds from blithely enjoying my food in large portions and forgoing physical activity. This was not a rational decision, mind you, but an accidental, creeping phenomenon caused by a cubicle job and a long drive to and from work. In short, ten hours a day of sitting in a small space, grazing on Starbucks and snacks from the vending machine, coming home to large portions of noodles and meat. I didn’t notice the ten extra pounds I was lugging around until I visited the doctor for a yearly checkup, and the fact that it had arrived silently and stealthily filled me with horror and shame. How had I let this happen, I lamented.

I panicked. I joined the gym and Weight Watchers. I read articles about nutrients and took classes in spinning, boot camp, yoga, and weight lifting. I turned down any and all desserts, except for Weight Watchers ice cream. I gave up pizza, pasta, and French bread and turned to apples, oatmeal, and Splenda. When F came home with a steaming, crusty loaf of bread, I heated up one of my frozen wheat rolls and ate it slowly, savoring its spongy texture and cardboard tang. It was almost bread, but not quite.

I lost the weight pretty quickly, and was in better shape than I’d ever been. After all, Weight Watchers is about learning to eat right. I learned about portion sizes, I decided to give vegetables a try, and I was getting exercise. But I wasn’t happy. I counted my points and worried constantly.

I wasn’t happy because I no longer enjoyed eating. Food had become the enemy and the act of eating was accompanied by fear. When you fear something you must do at least three times a day to stay alive, it makes for a pretty miserable existence.

Cooking made me brave. When cooking for myself, I can control portion sizes and ingredients, while making dinners that I actually enjoy. I can make my own wheat rolls that actually taste like bread. I can grill my own marinated chicken that is tender and flavorful. I can make cakes and brownies that taste like dessert. I found that I when I enjoy cooking a meal, I enjoy eating it, too.

Slowly, as I learned to love cooking and to appreciate food, I started to reintroduce the dishes I loved into my menu, and to find new foods to love. I started to eat French bread again, and now I also love oatmeal. I reintroduced pasta, and have now discovered quinoa. I found that I really like vegetables and love fruits. And I realized that I can have a full-fat feast once in awhile, and it tastes all the better because I don’t do it every day.

Julia had the right idea. Life is too short to regulate our food while closely monitoring the fluctuating girth of our thighs. Life is too short to allow a fear of food to “interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat."

But I still think about my waistline. Even while enjoying a fancy dessert or a Pig Dinner, I can’t help but consider how many points I’m packing away. And that’s pretty sad. I wonder if there exists a woman who is able to snuff out these fears and completely give in to the simple enjoyment of food. Are we capable of turning off that little niggling voice in the back of our skulls that says, “That may taste good now, but you’ll be sorry later”?

I like to think so. I like to think that Julia Child was just one such woman.

And I want to be another. Here’s to becoming more like Julia.



Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Gotta Love the Pig

Somehow, F and I have acquired reputations as pig lovers. I don’t know how this happened.

Maybe it was this.

Or this.

Or this.

Or it could be this:

Or this:

Or this:There’s no denying we love the pork. Tenderloin, bacon, belly, butt. Hocks, snout, shoulder, skin. It’s all good.

Which is why when I saw an ad for a "Pig Gig" at Heritage Prairie Farm in upstate Illinois, we invited our friends L and J to come along and sped off in the little yellow jeep.

The menu:

The spread:The pork enthusiasts (F, me, L, J):
F's favorite part:
And the best part of all...

We discovered there is at least one person who loves pigs more than we do:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scary Dinners From the Deep

Up next in scary dinners from the deep...

Soft shell crabs!

One of our favorite dishes is the Soft Shell Crab at New Tokyo on Broadway, which is deeply fried and delicious.
These little crustaceans were just hanging out at Treasure Island the other day and, on a whim, F and I decided to give it a shot. How hard could it be, we figured. Turns out it's not hard at all. A little salt and pepper, a little flour, then a quick sizzle in some butter.We took our crabs out to the back patio, which seems to be the setting for our stranger experiments with sea creatures. They were crisp and salty and surprisingly rich. When I broke into the back of mine, however, I unearthed a pocket of grainy green ooze. I figured that our fish man missed something when he cleaned our crabs, and that this mysterious slime was probably some undigested crab food. Although I knew it likely wasn't poisonous, it put me off my dinner just a little. I guess I'm not really as adventurous as I'd like to think.

I definitely recommend this recipe--just make sure your crabs are clean!

Sauteed Soft Shell Crabs
From Cooking Light, April 2003

Yield
4 servings (serving size: 1 crab)

Ingredients

4 (3 1/2-ounce) soft-shell crabs, cleaned

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon butter

Preparation

Sprinkle each crab with salt and pepper. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge each crab in flour, turning to coat; shake off excess flour.

Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add crabs to pan, top sides down; cook 3 minutes. Turn crabs over; cook an additional 2 minutes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Like a Crabby Old Woman

When we were little, B and I danced in the living room for our babysitter, flourishing hairbrushes and belting out "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin" with abandon.

Many years have passed since we were that unselfconscious.

B arrived from New York City late Thursday night with two colleagues from the Jewish hipster magazine where she is associate editor. They're here in Chicago until tomorrow, ostensibly to cover Pitchfork and drum up some magazine subscribers.

She arrived on my doorstep wearing a denim jumper with suspenders, high-heeled suede boots, and a plaid blouse, and assured me she is at the height of a bizarre fashion the kids are calling "hobo-chic." Perhaps embarrassed that at the early hour of 11pm, I was wearing a matronly robe and my husband's slippers, B paused a moment before flinging her arms around me. Then she pointed to her shoulder, which bore a freshly peeling tattoo of her initials in Sanford font.

In one of our rare moments together in the last few days, my formerly shy and nerdy sister clicked through the angst-filled photos of her 987 Facebook friends to point out who among them she has dated in the last month: a bartender, a photographer, a journalist, and a documentary maker. For my belated-birthday gift, she brought me earrings made of bullet casings.

Although B's visit is technically "a business trip," I was looking forward to a weekend of getting to know this strange, tattooed person and finding my little sister again behind her navy nail polish and loops of gold chains.

This has not happened.

First, her colleague D found himself unexpectedly homeless for the weekend, so he ended up on our floor. Then, "for the sake of journalism" B had to attend random all-night parties with Pitchfork band members, so she has left the house early each morning and returned home around 2am, by which time F and I, fuddy-duddies that we are, have already been asleep for approximately five hours.

Since Thursday, our apartment has been overrun with suitcases, bedding, and boxes of magazines. I could not help feeling put-out and put-upon as I handed over my house keys and told B to have a good time at the second late-night party in two days. Our robust, OCD cat Barry kept me up all weekend because he doesn't like when strangers invade his living-room, and I spent yesterday in the waiting room of Marvin's auto repair while the car's electrical grid was re-wired--only to have it die again at 9:30 (half an hour past my bedtime!), just as I squeezed between two mac trucks in Pitchfork's VIP parking section.

As I waited for B and her colleagues, a man toting a cart of kegs yelled at me for parking the defunct jeep in front of his mac truck. So, running on little sleep and a lot of stress, I wallowed in self-pity and looked forward to this evening, when I would have the apartment to myself.

B and F will be at Pitchfork until 10 tonight. So far, I rented two movies, bought a parsley plant, visited the grocery store, and put in a load of laundry. Now begins the relaxation. I exchanged one of F's punk CDs for
Like a Virgin and whipped up some banana bread.
Note my new parsley plant and the requisite whiskey bottle among my banana bread clutter.

After such a hectic weekend--before the start of an even more hectic week--I thought I would be relieved to have the apartment to myself for a little while. But as the apartment throbs to the first unmistakable beats of "Material Girl," I can't help wishing B were here so we could dance together in our pajamas, once more with abandon.

At least she'll have some banana bread to take with her on the plane.


Mom’s Banana Bread
From Cooking Light, November 1996

Yield
4 loaves, 4 servings per loaf (serving size: 1 slice)

Ingredients
* 1 cup sugar
* 1/4 cup light butter, softened
* 1 2/3 cups mashed ripe banana (about 3 bananas)
* 1/4 cup skim milk
* 1/4 cup low-fat sour cream
* 2 large egg whites
* 2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* Cooking spray

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine sugar and butter in a bowl; beat at medium speed of a mixer until well-blended. Add banana, milk, sour cream, and egg whites; beat well, and set aside.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt; stir well. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture, beating until blended.

Spoon batter into 4 (5 x 2 1/2-inch) miniature loaf pans coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pans 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pans. Let cool completely on wire racks.

Note: To make one 9-inch loaf, spoon batter into a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray; bake at 350Âș for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Yield: 1 loaf, 20 servings (serving size: 1 slice).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Quiz in the Kitchen

Weird head image courtesy of University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Ganache. Ceviche. Panna cotta.

If you watch cooking shows such as Bravo's "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters," you've probably heard these and other 50-cent food words tossed around like croutons in a summer salad. But--hands off the keyboard!--do you know what they mean without looking them up?

Liar.

Oh, you might know a few on this list. But unless you work in a restaurant, you'll probably be stumped by the rest.

See how many of these food words you can correctly match with their definitions.

--James A. Fussell, McClatchy/Tribune News


Hey James, you've got to try a lot harder to stump High Heels in the Kitchen! I got 24 out of 25 correct (I guess I know less about raw meat than I thought I did...)

Beat that!

Click here to see if you can do better.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fish and Flowers

This is my first time making whole fish. As advised by various fish-focused websites, I looked for trout with unclouded eyes and shiny scales. These two were bright and glistening, which I found mildly intimidating. I'm used to fillets without skin or eyes--or teeth.

Although these trout did have eyes and teeth, they came all clean and gutted so it wasn't nearly as traumatic as it could have been. When the fish man handed my trout packet over the counter, however, I admit that I did have to fight the urge to gag. I could feel the fish body through the butcher paper, and the packet flopped with a rubbery heft.

Worse than the flopping was the tingle under my fingertips as I massaged gritty rosemary mixture into its moist scales.
He watched me as I rubbed.
But after a mere eight minutes on the grill pan (on which you can see he got a little ragged), we had ourselves some flaky, tender trout with a side of roasted potatoes and asparagus. It tasted much better than it looks. F and I partook of our delectable dinner on the back patio, which we really ought to use more often.

A special thank you to S, who gave us the beautiful glass-blown wine glasses in celebration of our nuptials. We toasted S, each other, and our trout. Then F ate the eyeballs.
Since I can't end bear to end this post with a photo of trout eyes, I'll wrap this up instead with some lovely nature photos of our back patio:

Recipe for Grilled Trout with Rosemary and Garlic
From Cooking Light

This simple presentation is a go-to summer recipe that allows the flavor of the fish to shine. If you like, substitute thyme for rosemary.

Yield

4 servings (serving size: 1 trout)

Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 (8-ounce) dressed whole trout
  • 4 (6-inch) rosemary sprigs
  • Cooking spray
Preparation

1. Prepare grill to medium-high heat.

2. Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl.

3. Cut 3 diagonal slits on each side of fish; rub rosemary mixture evenly over fish. Place 1 rosemary sprig in cavity of each fish. Place the fish on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 4 minutes on each side or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork or until desired degree of doneness.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Saddest Lunch Ever

Image courtesy of Walmart.com.

It's sad when the only thing left in your kitchen to bring for your cubicle lunch is a single stick of Frigo Cheese Heads Light String Cheese.

I think I need to go grocery shopping.

Drink, Don't Drool

Drool bib (complete with glaring grammatical error) courtesy of clothing.cafepress.com/.../373140574.

"How many glasses of wine did you have last night?" My dad asked when I called with the details of my open mic triumph.

"Just one before reading my essay. Then I had one waiting for me when I got back to the table," I said. He laughed.

"That was a good idea. A lot of performers have a drink to help them relax before going up on stage. Even Barbra Streisand has to take benzodiazepine for stage fright. When's the audition?" he asked, referring to my audition for 2nd Story--the reason I had subjected myself to the nerve-wracking open mic night in the first place.

"Tuesday at 7:30."

"You'll do great," he said. "They already like your story. The audition is just to make sure you're not some weird, enormous person who drools."

"Yeah, I guess so," I replied.

"Just do your best," he said. "And don't drool."

From this conversation, I mined two important pearls of wisdom: drink and don't drool. Ever a Daddy's Girl, I tried my best to follow his advice. The drooling part was easy. I have never been a drooler. Check!

The drinking was a little more difficult. F and I were meeting after work at Story Studio, a writing center tucked away on the second floor of a renovated factory building in Irving Park. We planned to hang out there until my audition, which was conveniently located in the room next door.

F and I recently became Story Studio members, which includes discounts on writing classes and unlimited access to the writing center's comfy lounge. So we have been going at least once a week to sit on the couch and write. There's no TV, no Internet access, no snacks or cats to distract us from our Important Work. We bring the bare minimum: sandwich fixins and bottled water.

It's probably not cool to bring alcohol to the writing center. But I didn't care. My father had prescribed a glass of wine. And Sunday's open mic experience was so successful that I thought it most prudent to recreate the essentials. I wore the same outfit. I arranged my hair the same way. And I bought some wine.

I felt very classy waiting in line at the 7-Eleven after work with my $2.49 mini bottle of Pinot Grigio. Behind me stood an obese man from whose unbuttoned shirt his massive, grimy stomach protruded. He didn't smell very nice, and he repeated in a guttural whine, "Someone stole my cigarette rollers! Someone stole my cigarette rollers!" I paid, stowed my wine in my lunch box with the turkey, dinner rolls, and bottled water, and stepped out into the 95-degree heat of downtown Chicago.

I was sweating before I even reached the L stop, where I shoved into a train car that was at least ten degrees hotter than the sidewalk. Wedged against the doors of the train in the sweltering heat, I clutched in one hand a horrifically heavy bag filled with my laptop, two books, a notebook, my executive planner, and God knows what else--and in the other hand, my lunch box filled with cheap wine and Butterball deli meat.

An inauspicious start.

But once I got to Story Studio and set up my laptop on the couch in the cool lounge with F, I started to feel much better. I sneaked sips of wine from the brown paper bag hidden in my lunch box, and felt almost relaxed. Almost.

Although I wasn't nearly as sickeningly anxious as I had been before the open mic, I was still nervous.

I shouldn't have been. The audition went smoothly. Sitting on a comfortable, overstuffed couch with two attentive girls, I read the essay even better than I had on Sunday. They laughed, they nodded, they made the appropriate listening noises. And when I finished, they clapped.

Then they asked questions. After countless interviews for countless jobs, I consider myself a pro at fielding questions like, "What is your greatest strength?" and "Why do you want to work here?" and "What is your proudest accomplishment?"

I realized last night, however, that I am not at all a pro at answering questions like, "What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you?" Which is what one of the girls asked, leaning toward me with an engaging smile like a best girlfriend craving gossip.

I will freely admit that at times--most times, really--I tend to think too much. Immediately, my overheated brain crowded with all the possible implications of this seemingly casual question:

Does she mean the craziest thing I've DONE? or The craziest thing that has ever happened TO me? What does she mean by "crazy"? Does she mean "strange and unexpected" or "wild and kinky" or just "insane"?

Besides the fact that I'm not really the wild-and-crazy type, my mind instantly cleared of any and all fascinating tidbits to share about myself. I won't tell you what I finally came up with. Anything you imagine is sure to be crazier than what I actually said.

Other than the fact that I'm not interesting on demand, I think the audition went splendidly. I did the best I possibly could. I breathed. I talked. I laughed. I was confident and personable.

And my dad will be proud because I did not drool.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Baby Got Balls

I worried it would be humiliating. I worried my throat would close up, or I would pass out, or burp into the mic.

I am not a good public speaker. The last time I read my writing out loud—in a short story class a few months ago—I couldn't breathe. I gasped through my two pages of handwritten scrawl, sounding like I was on the verge of tears. When I finished reading, the teacher comforted me.

The first and only time I sang in public was even worse. I thought that if I took the private singing lessons offered in high school, I might get over my fear of public speaking and become a more confident, sparkly person. Although I couldn't breathe—much less sing—in front of the teacher for the first week, I warmed up to her and was belting out folk songs by the end of our time together.

And then she said, "So what will you sing at the recital?" Um. I hadn't known there would be a recital. Had I known I would end my private tutorial with public singing, I surely would not have signed up for this. But once I’ve committed to something, I don’t quit. I couldn't back out. And I only knew one song: "I Have Twelve Oxen."

I got up on stage in an old church in front of the entire school chorus and their parents, and I sang a twelve-verse song about cows. For your edification I have found the lyrics:

I have twelve oxen, they be fair and white,
And they go a-grazing down by the dyke.
With hey! with how! with hey!
Sawest not you mine oxen, you little pretty boy?


It doesn’t even rhyme. And the other verses are just as bad. There’s one for each color of cow. I sang in a high, warbling, gaspy voice, and when I finished, my teacher comforted me.

Last night, for reasons I will soon explain, I voluntarily signed up to read a personal essay in front of a microphone in front of a room full of strangers. In the middle of my essay is a rap song. Not only was I planning to read in public, but I was going to rap—two nightmares rolled into one ten-minute performance.

What does an open mic have to do with food, you may well ask. Not much, if truth be told. Except that the essay I read aloud to strangers last night was adapted from my blog post "The Worst Meal of My Life." I reworked this post into a personal narrative that I submitted to 2nd
Story, a Chicago writing group composed of thirty writers who perform personal narratives in bars around the city. There's an application and audition process, and if you're accepted into the group, you meet three or four times a month to workshop, rehearse, and perform in public. It's intense and difficult to get into. I thought that if I could get into this group, the workshops might make me a better writer, and the performances might turn me into a more confident, sparkly person.

Long story short, I submitted my essay to 2nd Story and they called me in for an audition. Which is tomorrow. Which is why I decided to try out my essay on an audience first. Auditions are scary. But an open mic is scarier. If I can get through an open mic, I reasoned, the audition will be a piece of cake.

So last night F accompanied me to Story Club at Uncommon Ground, a coffee shop/restaurant/wine bar. We were ushered into the back room, all brick with funky art on the walls, cozy tables for two, and window seats with pillows. Another door led to an outdoor patio. If I hadn’t felt like throwing up, I would have really appreciated the ambiance.

We were an hour early, so we ordered drinks. I tried to pace myself, but downed the first glass of wine while sneaking wide-eyed peeks at the mic. No podium. No chair. Just a microphone standing naked against the brick wall in front of an entire room full of tables. At the moment, the tables were empty.

As 8:00 rolled around, the tables began to fill up. And I began to panic.

“Why am I doing this again?” I squeaked to F.

“Because you’re great,” he said, patting my hand.

“But what if I embarrass you? Will you still love me if I stink?”

“Absolutely. But you won’t stink. You’ll be great, babe!” he said. “Don’t forget to breathe.

“OK,” I said, hyperventilating.

The organizer of the event, D, came over to introduce herself and handed me a clipboard to sign in. I was the first and only name on the list.

“I’m so glad you came!” she said. “You can go first.”

Then, suddenly, it was 8:30. D took the mic.

“Welcome to the first-ever Story Club. Tonight we have three featured storytellers, and one guest writer. So let’s get started with our guest writer L, who will be reading her story ‘Baby Got Stock.’”

Without further ado, I wobbled to my feet and strode with assumed confidence to the front of the room. There was a stool tucked back against the wall, and I dragged it into the center of the makeshift stage. D helped me lower the microphone a full foot then sat down at a nearby table. I was alone.

I heard myself say, very loudly into the microphone, “Wow. I didn’t know I’d be the only guest writer...” A few people tittered, and I began to read.

I wasn’t nervous! My hands didn’t shake, my heart didn’t race, I didn’t sound like I was on the verge of hysterics. I actually sounded pretty good. And people were laughing in all the right places. Like a baby bird testing the air with its wings, I lifted my eyes from the page and directed them out into the audience. I was reading without looking! I turned my head a little to sweep the room with my confident gaze. I imagined this is what flying feels like.

“Hey, this isn’t so bad! I kind of like this!” I thought as I made eye contact with various audience members, all looking up at me, all listening intently to what I had to say. It was exhilarating to have the floor to myself for a full ten minutes. I don’t talk all that much, in real life. So it was a novel experience.

And then I came to the part I had been dreading. The part of the essay that—if I could pull off—would be really funny, and if I couldn’t, would just be humiliating. I rapped. To the tune of “Baby Got Back.” About stock.

The crowd didn’t quite get it. They were slightly older than the intended audience, so perhaps they didn’t know the song and thought I was just crazy. But there were a few nervous laughs, and I just kept on trucking.

The time seemed to speed by, and before I knew it, I had come to the end. I had done it! I wasn’t humiliated. My throat didn’t close up, I didn’t pass out, and I didn’t burp into the mic. The crowd clapped and cheered, and I sat down to F’s huge grin. I hadn’t embarrassed my husband, after all.

I tried to listen attentively to the three “featured storytellers” who followed me, but I was too full of adrenaline to make sense of the words. I’m sure they were great, but I couldn’t tell you what their stories were about.

As we were leaving, an older gentleman stopped by our table to share his own story about cooking in college:

“My roommate was going to make us his mother’s famous meatloaf. He talked about it all day, and we were all really excited. When I went into the kitchen that afternoon to see what he was up to, I found him heating up a frying pan. Then he plopped in two big scoops of mayonnaise. It started smoking and running all over the pan, and I took a look at the recipe. ‘Um, Bob,’ I said, ‘You were supposed to use margarine.’”

Then a guy at the next table leaned across the aisle,

“That was fiction, right?” he asked. “You didn’t really eat that stock, did you?”

“Oh yes,” I said.

“Ugh! What a great description.” He said, and smiled.

When I got home, I treated myself to a cupcake. After the open mic, reading my story to a handful of people tomorrow night should be much easier. I’m looking forward to it, whether I get into 2nd Story or not. And if you catch me now, while I’m still feeling triumphant, I may even sing you a few verses of “I Have Twelve Oxen.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Act of Bravery, or Public Humiliation

Microphone image courtesy of http://dylanbrody.com/blogs/?page_id=15

Tonight I rapped in front of strangers.

And I LIKED it!

I'll let that sink in. Check back tomorrow for the whole story.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ahead of the Curve

Image of asparagus with fried farm egg courtesy of The New York Times.

Mado was just reviewed in The New York Times! I'm officially ahead of the curve.

After enjoying one of the best meals of my life at Mado with my supper club in March, I took F for dinner last month, and he finally understood what I had been raving about. He has been talking about his hanger steak ever since, and chose to celebrate his 30th birthday there last night.


Our good friends and fellow
Top Chef devotees joined us for dinner. A group of talented cooks and shrewd epicures, they were smitten with the buttery pate, somehow spicy and reminiscent of Christmas; the asparagus with fried farm egg; the crisp trout that tasted like camp fire; the Gorgonzola polenta; the wood-smoked chicken that fell off the bone—the list goes on and on. We each ordered a different dish, and tried them all.

Our friend J, especially, knows food. He sends me articles about how to make homemade pasta sauce and what to do with ramps. He bakes the best scones I've ever tasted and knows everything about kitchen knives. As our waiter cleared the last plate from our table, J asked, "Can I work here?" Our genial waiter (who, in answer to our questions about the menu, earnestly mapped the cuts of pork on his own body) took J's question in jest.

But J was absolutely serious about donning an apron and heading back to the kitchen. And in that moment, I knew the dinner was a success.


In her extremely positive review, Monica Davey of The New York Times captures the mood of Mado perfectly: "On a cold, rainy spring evening, Mado offered escape without effort, the smell of a wood grill... a momentary journey to some quiet farm while still sitting in the city’s chaos."


After my third visit to Mado, I can safely say it's my favorite restaurant. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bristle, the Gristle, and the Snout: Cochon 555

The long-awaited evening had arrived. F had bought a new outfit and I was wearing makeup. We were giddy with excitement on our way to Chicago's classiest hotel, The Drake, "where the Magnificent Mile begins." Since the roaring '20s, The Drake has hosted the Royal Family, heads of state, dignitaries, and movie stars, so F and I felt very swanky as we rode the 151 bus down the Gold Coast to take our places on this hallowed list of luminaries.

No, we were not guests at a wedding, a gala, or an inauguration. We were on our way to something better: Cochon 555, a celebration of all things pig. Five chefs from among the finest restaurants in the city were selected to compete for the acclaimed title "Prince of Porc" on Sunday, May 24. Each chef would receive a ten-pound pig and create five unique dishes for a discriminating group of 200 guests and judges. The crowd would vote, and at the end of the evening, one chef would be crowned.

I was on my way to this glamorous event thanks to a contest hosted by Foodbuzz.com. Foodbuzz provided my ticket, and F bought another so we could to enjoy Cochon 555 the way any pork-centric evening is meant to be enjoyed: as a romantic night on the town.

Upon entering the elegant Drake Room at The Drake, F and I were greeted by this grotesque, smiling head right out of The Lord of the Flies.

[Caution: if graphic images of a deceased pig will bother you, please proceed no further.]

With a quiet, uncanny calm, this little cochon oversaw the competition, a corporeal reminder of where the chefs' fancy gastronomic delights had originated. He would soon help to demonstrate proper butchering technique. More on that later.
The crowd approached the cochon like a postmodern art exhibit. We circled him warily, intrigued despite ourselves. His skin was waxy and starting to cave where organs had been removed. The poor pig in his inelegant spread-eagled repose seemed all the more avant-garde when considered in the context of his surroundings:
Under the crystal chandeliers and gilt-paneled rafters, guests of all shapes, sizes, and manner of dress clustered around tiny tables scattered throughout the room. The chef tables were arranged around the room's perimeter and the idea was to buzz from table to table, sampling dishes from each chef, then cast your vote for the best chef in the ballot box in the center of the room. In the interest of space, only highlights ensue:

The chefs
:
Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO
Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot
Sam
Burman of Bluprint
Chris Pandel of The Bristol
Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.

Our favorite dishes, in no particular order:
Pork belly sandwich with mustard and pickle
Brain polenta with fried ramps (ramps! ramps!)
Pate-filled donut
Bacon-infused Maker's Mark
And my favorite dish of the night: pork-belly sandwich on a PIE-CRUST bun!

Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room / VOLO offered pork-filled tamales and a savory pork broth:

F's favorite pork-belly sandwich was created by Sam Burman of Bluprint, who also offered a stick of bacon topped with a tuft of cotton candy standing upright in a box of brown sugar (see the bottom-left corner below).
We must also acknowledge Sam Burman for his bacon-infused Maker's Mark. F and I may have visited Chef Burman's booth more than once...
As the chefs cleared their tables and the judges deliberated, F and I wandered through the room, lost and bewildered now that the food was gone. But then, on Sam Burman's table, we spotted a row of tender, juicy ribs that we had not yet sampled. I hastened over, only to be informed by Chef Burman's assistants that the ribs were reserved for the judges. What could I do? I considered snatching a rib and running for it, but I was wearing high heels. So I smiled politely and turned away.

An aproned assistant trotted after me a mere moment later. "The chef wants to talk to you," he said. Confused, I returned to the table, where Chef Burman handed me a plate of ribs, grinned, and hurried off.

"Grrr," said F. "You're every chef's dream: you're pretty and you love pork." He glared in Mr. Burman's general direction. "I wish I hadn't voted for him," he grumbled.

But he ate the ribs anyway.

Despite the fact that Mr. Burman gave me a special pork rib, he was not my favorite chef of the evening. That hard-won title goes to Graham Elliot of Graham Elliot of the infamous pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun.

As the judges conferred, Andy the Butcher of Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa, demonstrated butchering techniques using our spread-eagled cochon, who had been waiting patiently at the front of the room all night. I will let these photos speak for themselves (now is the time to look away, if you're feeling queasy).





And voila! Within fifteen minutes, our sad-eyed cochon was reduced to a neat pile of pig parts, which were subsequently raffled off to the crowd.

We didn't win anything. At the time, in the throes of pig passion, intoxicated on bacon and pate, I was disappointed to have lost out on a piece of pig. But in the sober light of morning I have come to accept that my freezer is too small to hold even the smallest cut of a ten-pound porker.

When at last all of the cochon chunks had been raffled away, the chefs took the stage to discover who would be crowned the
“Prince of Porc."
From left to right: Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO, Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot, Sam Burman of Bluprint, Chris Pandel of The Bristol, and Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.

And the winner is...
Graham Elliot! Since my vote was instrumental in his victory, I think it's only fair that Graham Elliot should send me his recipe for pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun. Chef Elliot, I will accept a blog comment, an e-mail, or a recipe card by mail.

W
hile clicking through Graham Elliot's fabulous website, I discovered just one more reason to love the chef who introduced me to the pie-crust bun. His website features a risotto with red apple skin paint, aged cheddar, pabst glazed pearl onions, granny smith apples, crispy prosciutto AND CHEEZ-ITS! If the "prince of porc" can make an elegant dish with Cheez-Its, I am completely justified in my Cheez-It-crusted cod experiment. Thank you, Chef Elliot.

I will have to try and make this risotto at home, since
we certainly could never eat at Graham Elliot. We picked up a menu, took one look, and set it back down with a sigh of regret. Ah well, I enjoyed my once-in-a-lifetime taste of pig perfection while it lasted.

And on that note,
I would like to take a moment to formally thank Foodbuzz.com for giving me the opportunity to eat an entire pig at the Drake. This was an unforgettable night on the town.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I'm a Winner: Another Pig Dinner!

I just won a free ticket to this event through Foodbuzz.com!

COCHON 555 - Chicago
“5 Pigs, 5 Chefs, 5 Winemakers”

WHAT: A group of top Chicago chefs will each prepare a heritage breed hog from head to toe for this competition. Cochon 555 is the only national chef competition promoting heritage pigs and breed diversity. Guests and professional judges will determine a winner based on creative, classic preparation and overall best flavor. The winner will be crowned the “Prince of Porc”. In addition, five family-owned wineries will showcase their wines.

WHO: Taste Network presents
Patrick Sheerin, The Signature Room at the 95th
Chris Pandel, The Bristol
Graham Elliot Bowles, Graham Elliot Restaurant
Sam Burman, Bluprint
Stephen Dunne, VOLO / Paramount Room

Wineries: Chase Cellars, Vision Cellars, Van Duzer Vineyards, Patz & Hall and August West

WHEN: Sunday, May 24th, 5:00 p.m.

Chef & Judges VIP Reception 3:30 p.m. photo opportunity

WHERE: The Drake Hotel -140 East Walton Place, Chicago

WHY: To raise awareness for Farms for City Kids, a unique educational program combining classroom study with first-hand farming experience for urban kids.

Cochon 555 began in Atlanta and is national in scope. Other upcoming cities include Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Chefs and judges from each city are selected by Taste Network to participate in the event. www.amusecochon.com

Taste Network is a Georgia-based company delivering experiential services to the artisan wine and cheese industries. The company’s mission is to provide cultured events and education focused around artisan wine, cheese and cuisine to its clients and the public at large. www.tastenetwork.org

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ramps! Ramps!

This week's CSA shipment arrived yesterday in its forbidding gray crate. This huge, horrible plastic monstrosity will squat in our tiny apartment until next Wednesday when, for a brief morning, it will wait like a stocky raincloud on our front steps for the CSA delivery man who will toss it into his truck and leave its twin, belly full of produce, in its place.

What was inside the belly of this particular crate? 1 green pepper, bunch of oregano, radish sprouts, 3 yellow onions, 2 zucchini, rhubarb, cherry tomatoes, 3 bananas, 2 lemons, AND MORE RAMPS!

What on earth will I do with more ramps? I still have three ramps left over from last week. I tried to use them, I really did. I made ramp biscuits and a ramp omelet. Both were perfectly lovely, but I'm afraid I have discovered that I'm not the biggest fan of ramps (except for their delightful name, which I have been startling F by randomly shouting in the voice of little Danny Torrance from
The Shining: "Ramps! Ramps!")

For now, the ramps are banished to the freezer, where they will remain until I figure out what to do with them. Anyone want some ramps? If you provide postage and refrigerated crate, I'll send them to you.