Stress Baking

I am a stress baker. If I am worried or anxious I find myself in the kitchen making sweet things which we rarely eat at home but which my co-workers generally appreciate. Last night I made milk chocolate egg cookies – chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate. They are sweet and crunchy and make the world a little brighter.

So what was in my kitchen at 8pm on a Wednesday night stress baking?

Guns.

I lost 3 colleagues to an angry guy with a gun. The educator for the pediatric unit where I worked, and 2 other professors of nursing who were instrumental in my orientation to being a nurse in the USA. He was angry because he was failing his classes. By all reports he was angry, would shout at his teachers, and had an all-around bad attitude, and a strong sense of entitlement. His entitlement and anger lead to him slaughtering 3 women who he felt had done him wrong. He was not mentally ill, he knew exactly what he was doing when he shot Robyn in her office and Barb and Cheryl in front of a class full of students. He made a very conscious decision to punish, to wound and to destroy. Since that day, I don’t do well with mass shootings (although this was not technically a mass shooting because he didn’t kill enough people). I get anxious, and tearful and angry and sad.

Now I appreciate that my reaction to these things is in part colored by my being English, and being from a country where we have strict gun control. It does not mean as a country that we have escaped since 1987 we have had 3 mass shootings, Hungerford, Dunblane and Cumbria. A total of 46 people died and 45 were injured in these 3 massacres. Since 1987 in the USA there have been 17 mass shootings (defined as more than 4 victims, excluding the perpetrator) and 338 people have been killed (excluding the perpetrators). If we look at specifically school shootings there has been 1 in the UK and that was Dunblane, where 18 were killed and 15 injured in a shooting at a primary school. In the USA since 1997 (the year of the Dunblane Massacre) there have been as many as 226 school shootings. I did not count the dead and wounded because by the time I had gotten through the first 62 shootings (94 deaths and 162 injuries) I just couldn’t keep counting. I was nauseous.

Yesterday there was another school shooting in America. This was the 18th this year, the deadliest since Sandy Hook. It happened in a town in Florida that had just been voted the safest town in Florida. It wasn’t gang related, it wasn’t a random person with a severe psychotic illness, it was carried out by a 19-year-old. A 19-year-old who had been legally able to purchase a semi-automatic weapon, and ridiculous amounts of ammunition. A 19-year-old who can’t legally buy a beer could buy a weapon that has no place outside of the military. He could not by a Corona but he could by a fucking AR-15. The Ar-15 in case you didn’t know was designed off the M16 used by the military during combat. The Ar-15 uses magazines that hold 20-30 rounds. That means this weapon can fire 20-30 rounds per magazine, and apparently an experienced (not professional – just experienced) shooter could on average manage to get off 90 rounds/minute – more if they are just spraying randomly and not worrying about accuracy. Just ponder that for a moment – in close quarters, with people with nowhere to go facing 90 bullets per minutes.

Our politicians are already telling us not to rush to judgment, to send our thoughts and prayers, that its once again too early to talk about gun control. They are telling us to look at the mental health of the perpetrator, and wonder how he slipped through the cracks. We are being asked to wring our hands, and wonder what all we could have done to save him from himself. Here’s the thing though even if he has a psychiatric illness, it is unlikely that it robbed him of the ability to know right from wrong, it is highly unlikely that he was suffering from a psychotic disorder with command hallucinations. When we insist on linking this to mental illness we are stripping the responsibility from the individual for their own savagery. We are denying that in this country we have a gun problem, that it is too easy to get a gun, and too easy to use a gun to solve your problems. We are also stripping the responsibility away from law makers who have been bought and paid for by the gun lobby and who refuse to implement any form of gun control. We put the whims and wishes of the NRA above the lives of children. We must admit that as a nation we have failed.

“I Don’t Want to Change The World, I’m Not Looking For A New England” but I am looking for real New England food

We spend lots of time with “restaurant people.” We know so many chefs, bartenders and servers. We have some understanding of the blood, sweat and tears that go into developing, opening and running a restaurant. We understand how they can also just go “poof” and vanish. We also live in a very small town, with a great many restaurants. I can think of 3 that opened and 3 that closed last year. It was an experience at one of the new restaurants that has set me off on a new “sub-project.”

Ledger opened to great fanfare last year, it is owned by a restaurateur who owns a wildly popular restaurant 2 towns over from us. It is certainly a beautiful space, a converted bank that has been in Salem since circa 1818. Ledger describes itself as “a progressive New England concept, where traditional 19th century dishes, cocktails and techniques will be elevated with 21st century resources.” I had looked at the menu several times before I went for the first time, and I was mostly struck by the cost. This is not an everyday restaurant, this is “special occasion” dining.

ledger menu

Our special occasion came about with the arrival of grandparents who whisked the small one away to their hotel for the night. SO off we went to Ledger, brimming with high expectations because we had only heard great things!.

First of all Ledger is gorgeous, it is just visually stunning, all high ceilings, exposed brick, and art-deco paintings. For all it is in a 19th century bank it felt very much like high end Roaring Twenties Speakeasy.  The space is dominated by a gorgeous square bar, right in the center of the dining room We were seated at the family style table, a long table that runs the length of the dining room. We didn’t get off to the best start because we upset the hostess by asking to sit side by side and not across from each other. We were on a date! We wanted to hold hands not shout at each other across a table! LEDGER_INTERIORS_0617-30

We started with the cheese board, three cheese, some berries, some honey and some nuts. Let me clear – I love cheese – I mean seriously love cheese, being a cheesemonger would be a dream job for me. I have been spoiled by the staff of The Cheese Shop of Salem, who have developed my palate considerably since they opened. The three cheeses on this board were a semi soft, a soft and a blue. Our server did tell us their names but it was so loud in the restaurant that the only thing I caught was that the soft cheese might be very “oaky” due to the way it is processed. The soft cheese was not oaky, the blue had no bite, and the semi-soft really was nothing more than a cheese you would expect in Market Basket labelled “American Cheese.” There was no flavor progression, they started bland and ended bland.

ledger cheese

After the cheeses our server took our entrée order. I went plain and simple with the burger about which I had heard rave reviews and Rob went with the fish special a local striped bass with sunchoke puree, cauliflower and a slaw. The fish was simple, light and delicate, the plating was pretty.

ledger fish

The burger sadly was just grey. It honestly tasted grey, under seasoned, soft, I couldn’t taste the flavors in the aioli. The potato wedges were dry and I think the salt that could have been in the burger ended up on them.

ledger burger

We didn’t stick around for desert.

We were both frustrated, because Ledger has so much potential to do something really amazing and exciting. Nineteenth century New England was so much more than chicken, fish, pork and steak. Where was the game? The rabbit? The venison? The squab? The pheasant? Where were the stews? The chowders? Rob summed it up as “Yankee palate” the domain of boiled dinners and Dunkin Donuts. I wanted to be wowed, especially given the price point, I certainly didn’t want to leave and say; “We should have gone to Bella Verona.”

This experience however led me to a new challenge and a really fun research project. Can a home cook find 19th century New England recipes and elevate them in a way an actual chef could not?

Damn, life keeps interrupting…

Life has this awful habit of getting in the way, so I have really been slacking off as far as this project goes, at least from the writing perspective. The Instagram page is chugging along quite nicely and I am finding that I prefer that platform over Facebook in many ways. There is no nastiness, no fighting, not bitching on my Instagram feeds, just a steady flow of photographs.

So what have I been up to? Have I actually been cooking? Well…kind of…pretty half-halfheartedly really. I have to work on meal planning, and as a glass half full kind of gal,  I hope that with winter rapidly approaching I can start focusing on more meals at home, after all who wants to walk around in the cold, dark and damp?

These beauties were courtesy of my wonderful Anova. Seriously – if you have not tried cooking something sous vide stop what you are doing hop on over to the Anova website or the Joule website – you seriously do not know what you are missing. Yes, it takes longer to cook everything – that salmon? It took 40 minutes, but believe me it is so worth it for the way it is just so perfectly cooked. The filet? Well that took even longer, but for melt in your mouth perfectly cooked steak it is worth the time and the planning that is required. My ever so patient and long -suffering husband bought me my Anova for Christmas last year and I am seriously in love, so much so that this year I have asked for a vacuum sealer (you don’t need this there are all kinds of tricks).

ANova

 

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for my family and friends. When you live so far away from your actual family your “friends-as-family” become more important than ever, and this year in the midst of the chaos wrought by health issues and the nastiness of the local elections we found a new “friend-as family” with Gypsy and her daughters. Poppy and Lily formed an effortless friendship, and Gypsy’s support while Rob was sick was immense and I can truly never repay her for that.

Our Thanksgiving this year will be spent with Tim, Elizabeth and Vanessa, it’s going to be pretty low key, and quiet, which I think we will all appreciate.

I am thankful that as a family we have weathered the storms of the the past two years, and as I look ahead I am hopeful for a more steady, more calm and more importantly a happier future for us all. The past few weeks have reinforced why I started this project in the first place, as a way to recover what we had lost.

Thought I would Get This Off My Chest

It’s hard to be in the USA and escape politics even for a brief respite, just like bad reality TV it sucks you right back in. First of all, let me just get this out of the way first, I am still with her and no he is absolutely not my president. Every morning I wake up and wonder what new horrors await us, some days it is quiet and other days we have Nazis carrying torches marching in the streets and a known racist, unbelievably cruel sheriff being pardoned. Some days I know General Kelly has hidden his phone other days there is storm of hysterical tweets that I know he wrote himself.

The national political scene is exhausting, the racism which I knew always existed in the USA has been given permission to be more vocal than ever. The hatred of anyone considered to be “the other” is out there loud and proud. There is a vocal group in the USA who believe that women are better off barefoot and pregnant, that LGBTQ individuals are just sinners, that minorities should know their place, that all immigrants are wicked, criminal people. I can’t fix this, there is no cure for the hatred that is taught from generation to generation. I can however teach my own child that discrimination is never okay, and I hope we are doing that. We try to make our home welcome, we try not to judge others, and we try to acknowledge our inherent privilege granted by the color of our skin and (apparent) social class. It is not always easy. But we try, we try because we all have a role to play in teaching our children the importance of equality, humility and empathy. I do sincerely hope that we are raising a generation of children who will finally be the generation to move past these embedded hatreds.

Where does this fit into my run up to the BIG 5-0? I am trying to be well, and trying to remain balanced so I am cooking, I am surrounding myself with friends, and sometimes even friends who do not agree with me – because I certainly do not want to be in an echo chamber. I am listening, and I am watching what happens locally and nationally. I am of course also cooking, and getting ready for Poppy to start the 2nd grade!

What am I cooking? Last night was simple salmon, which I oven roasted even though my heart told me to use the sous vide. Honestly, cook salmon in a sous vide a few times and you will never want it cooked any other way! Tonight, will finally be the pork chops stuffed with manchego and serrano. The actual recipe in the Curaté calls for Black Forest ham but I love the salty toothiness of serrano so much! I am going to serve this with risotto and who knows maybe I will even try my hand at arancini with the left overs!  I am still struggling to find the balance to do everything I want to do with this project, but each week seems to bring a new idea and a new challenge!

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This past weekend I finally got Poppy to follow a recipe and we made brownies from scratch, they were delicious especially since I accidentally added almond essence instead of vanilla – chocolate and almonds? What’s not to love? Poppy tends to be a very “experimental” baker which has led to some very interesting bakes and has cost me a couple of muffin pans.

This weekend we are having a cook out and for this one I have pulled a favorite book off the shelf: Persiana – Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond by Sabrina Ghayour. I have had this book for a while and there are some amazingly tasty yet simple dishes that are just designed to be shared! Be on the lookout for pistachio dip, rosemary and saffron chicken and spiced beef kotlets! And maybe, just maybe I picked this menu, not to use up the many pounds of beef and chicken in my freezer, but to show that by excluding entire groups of people from our country we would miss out on so much. I can’t whisk my friends to Persia for a visit, but I can at least recreate some of the food and some of the tastes.

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A Little Slower Than I Planned

I have truly found this a little harder than I expected! The unintentional gymnastics after by birthday party certainly didn’t help. In the end I “only” tore my MCL, but as I found out today that pretty important ligament can be tricky to heel, and there are no real surgical options so it is PT and time. On the positive side I can now have some time out of the knee brace – which means (and yes this is vain) I will stop pulling threads on my favorite line of dresses. Maybe on Friday when I go to my second appointment I can tell him about my hope to run a 5K for my 50th birthday!

Summer is passing by so fast, and not taking any real vacation this summer has been weird, and really makes me feel as if I have missed out. Poppy has been in camp every week, but even she took a week off to recharge her batteries. I cannot believe that she is so close to starting 2nd grade!

Ah, but now onto food, onto my favorite part of this whole thing. I finally cracked open How To Master the Art of Chinese Cooking and took a stab at BBQ pork with simple fried rice. I cheated somewhat with the ribs by cooking them in the sous vide, so I could really just fix them and forget them for 24 hours! I use an Anova for my sous vide, and I have to say I absolutely love it. It does take some forward planning because the cooking times are long. but if you want tender, moist perfectly cooked meat and fish this is the way to go! The marinade was a little tricky because I didn’t have the bean curd paste, as I have yet to get down to Burlington to the specialist grocers, but over all it was pretty tasty. After being in the sous vide we finished the ribs on the grill to get all that crunchy and caramel goodness. I served the ribs with a simple fried rice from the same book and the only thing I would do differently with that is to increase the amount of soy and oyster sauce to give it a little more bite.

I also made the Spanish meatballs with Serrano ham from Cúrate but to be honest I am not 100% sure how I feel about them. I wasn’t “feeling it” the day I made them, and I rushed, so when i try them again I plan on taking my time and really paying attention to the ingredients and the techniques.

Baking wise it has been a slow couple of months, but we did have a small Bakers Against Humanity get together and I tried my hand at frangipane for the first time and knocked up a cherry plum tart. Again I rushed to get it done, so I think had I taken my time and shown some patience instead of rushing to get it done in under and hour I would be more satisfied with it.

Cherry plum crustless frangipane tart
Cherry plum frangipane tart

Coming up soon will be stuffed pork chops and a Maine Blueberry Pie….

Roasting chicken? Roasting potatoes? Roasting apples?

I love roast chicken. Seriously say “Winner, winner chicken dinner” to me and I am running to the store to buy a bird! The first meal I ever cooked for Chef Tim Haigh was a simple roast chicken and I have the scars from my meat thermometer to prove how nervous I was! Since then I have stuck rigidly to the same recipe – Jamie Oliver’s roast chicken from his book “Food Revolution”

Browsing through Cúarte I found the recipe for Lemon Rosemary Roast Chicken with potatoes and apples. The actual chicken itself is not that different to my old faithful, but the cooking method and the addition of the apples was a fun experiment. I misread the recipe at first and thought the chicken was roasted directly on the over rack which is the method I use for lamb at Easter, and to be honest I was worried about how this would work, quite simply because you just don’t get the amount of drippings from chicken. I took a third and maybe fourth look and realized how it needed to be cooked. I placed the peeled and chopped apples and potatoes in a small roasting pan with a wire cooling rack over it and then it was easy peasey! The potatoes and apples are tossed with olive oil before cooking, and the chicken is generously rubbed with oil and that’s all you really need. I deviated from the recipe in that I roasted the potatoes and apples for about 30 minutes before I put the chicken in, and this resulted in sweet, soft apples and crisp, golden potatoes. I added some tricolor carrots and I have to pat myself on the back for this one. The chicken was moist, and falling off the bone, I purposefully undercooked the carrots so they kept their color and their crunch. I would love to say that Poppy tried the chicken, but although she had told me how excited she was to eat it, in the end it was of course a PB&J. It was fun to share the meal with Vanessa, Elizabeth and Tim, to eat around the table with conversation and wine flowing.

Now cooking in the knee brace was a bit tricky, because I truly have to pay attention to where my knee is – although the brace is hinged I have learned the hard way that one centimeter at the wrong angle and the pain is awful. We did imbibe a fair bit of rosé so at least I was able to ignore the pain somewhat…..

I had planned to make albondigas tonight, but my orthopedist gave me vicodin yesterday, and given that I haven’t taken anything stronger than ibuprofen for a very long time the vicodin knocked me on my bum.  Seriously , I took one this morning and slept for 3 hours….The albondigas will be prepared in the morning ready to eat after my MRI…

 

Why Am I Doing This?

There are so many memoirs by women having some kind of midlife crisis but between family and work commitments I just don’t have the time, the energy or the money to head off on an adventure to India, Nepal or even Maine. I am not going “to find myself” or find some dishy young lover to fill me with new passions. I have, however just entered my 49th year and the need to do something for myself was pretty overwhelming and to be honest it surprised me.

My husband, Robert and my best friend Vanessa inadvertently gave me this idea with their birthday gifts. They both know how much I love to cook, and to try new things, so from Vanessa came Rachel Koo’s “The Little Paris Kitchen” and from Robert, Eileen Yin-Fei Loo’s “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking.” My in-laws, John and Leanne became part of the idea when the sent me a Barnes and Noble gift card with which I bought myself Katie Button’s “Curate.” With my last class of wine on my 49th birthday I decided to cook as many recipes as I can from these 3 books (and likely a few others from my collection) over the next year, and write about them here.

I used to cook all the time. When I met Rob 20 years ago I used to prepare elaborate meals for him, all made with super fresh ingredients. I would walk to Pike Place Market on my way home from night shift and pick up veggies, meat and fish. We walked more, ate out less, and were really just healthier. Even for the first couple of years after Poppy was born, I would meal plan and stick to the plan, so in ding this I am hoping to get back to that. I guess I am using the blog to keep me on track, and to hold myself accountable.

“Blah, blah, blah” you may say. Yes, I know this has also been done before, but really I am doing this for me, and in a way for my 7 year old daughter, who I am going to involve in as many of these meals as I can. She may never eat any of them, she is as picky as I was at that age, but if nothing else she will learn to cook, and we will get to spend quality time together.

When we bought our house 2 years ago we had all these great plans to have Sunday lunches with friends every week, and family meals every night in the dining room.  Instead we have fallen into a slump where we just don’t eat dinner as a family. Poppy always gets her dinner (usually chicken, inari of PB&J – like I said she is picky) but Rob and I have started just to pick, and it has really become very unhealthy. If we weren’t just picking, we were eating out, which meant we had so much food waste in our home. The worst thing about the picking, and not sitting down together is that we have become in a way strangers, the three of us moving around in our own orbits, not talking to each other.

Hindsight is of course 20-20, but I can see now that much of this was related to my own mood. I was in a job where I loved my patient population, but didn’t fit into the workplace culture. I was  incredibly depressed and anxious, and self medicating with wine. I changed jobs a few months ago, where I am closer to home, and far less drained at the end of the day. I am working in a team that is supportive, welcoming and really just generally filled with nice people. I am now taking an anti-depressant which once it kicked in made me realize just how miserable I had been. The wine has been a bigger challenge – look, I like a drink, I have never denied this and never would, however I have denied (and ignored) that I was drinking more than was good for me, which of course has had a totally negative impact on my life.

So here we go. Please follow along on this adventure with me……..Who knows maybe I will ring in 50, 50lbs lighter and being able to run a 5k (if I mange that I am rewarding myself with botox)