A Blur Of A Week.. and a Goat

I’m just back in Brooklyn, and still recovering from the past week in the Valley. Trouble, Sally (our friend-cum-my agent), and I hosted a Oaxacan-style goat roast and spring feast (and Trouble’s 34th birthday party) for 65 of our nearest and dearest last weekend. The whole thing turned out to be a splendid success…and left us all totally knackered.

It’s quiet, almost too quiet, here in my apartment. I’m not prone to loneliness, but over the past week or so, I became almost accustomed to the constant planning, preparations, and comings and goings of friends. It felt strange to leave Trouble’s house this morning after spending so much time there over the past week and a half, getting to know the lawn, barn and corners of the kitchen in a way I hadn’t before. But sadness aside, I managed to savor the drive South with the windows down, taking a detour to my step-mom’s house in northern Westchester to take a swim, my first of the season, in the lake. What a wonderful sensation after so much bustling, to slip into the cool of the water and allow it to buoy my weight, and then lie, slowly warming, on the dock in the midday sunshine.

Last week started off with a Monday drive in the pounding rain to our friend Bernardo’s Mexican grocery in Corona, Queens where I picked up tamarind, manteca, pineapples, panela, cinnamon sticks, and a few bags of fresh produce. Then I headed north to Millerton, New York, where I was picking up a family friend’s dog, Charlotte (who was formerly mine… long story), for a last-minute week of dog sitting. Then, six hours later, I pulled into Trouble’s driveway.

For the beginning of the week, I was on double deadline– finishing the recipe testing for my cookbook proposal and getting everything in order for the party. My days were full. I spent my mornings hiking with Charlotte, then settled in at my computer to make calls and lists for the party, and then gave myself over to a few frantic hours of translating and testing manioc recipes (like the deliciously chewy “cupcakes” de macaxeira pictured over there).

Mid-afternoon on Thursday, I hit “send” on my proposal (it’s funny when the recipient of that email, your agent, is also your party’s co-host… and coming over that very evening for dinner and yard cleanup).

That evening, We roasted asparagus, portabello caps and steaks and nibbled our way through a quart of fresh strawberries while Trouble, Sally and I talked logistics.

Friday, we picked up tables and had our rental chairs dropped off and the kitchen and bathroom cleaned (by someone else, thankfully). Sally and I, both fastidiously organized and something of neat freaks, spent a couple of sweaty afternoon hours out in the yard, tidying up, and then downed a bottle of rose (we were just testing the case we bought for the party, obviously) while we chatted, dirty and exhausted, on the couch.

Saturday morning dawned with a buzz of excitement. We spent the morning at the farmers market picking up our goat (smaller than expected, which induced a moment of panic), veggies, and flowers for decor. Then back to the house, where a small army of friends began to arrive with more ingredients from Queens (like our favorite masa and fresh tortillas from Nixtamal and huge, gorgeous agave leaves, tomatillos and pork for al pastor from Bernardo’s market).

Saturday and Sunday were a blur of activity– cleaning and sorting through dried corn and beans, cleaning out the cooking pit, peeling garlic, seeding chills and making salsas and the rub for the goat. I won’t go into all of it, but here are some photos.

Trouble with agave leaves, courtesy of Jessie

husking tamarind for agua fresca
sorting black beans 

Tepache fermenting

Sunday morning, Trouble was up at 4:30 am to build a fire to heat the oven.

Trouble at the fire at the break of dawn

I couldn’t fall back asleep, so I padded outside to help and offer coffee. With time on my hands and not much to do in the early dawn, I ended up stewing a pot of rhubarb. Then off to pick up last minute supplies in the thin morning light, with the sun rising into a flawlessly blue sky. We picked up the Sunday paper (Ha! As if we were going to have time to get past skimming the front page!). Back at the house, our friends and a certain very famous food writer began to arrive. I made French toast for Trouble, his son, our wonderful photographer, Ilana, and early guests, and held down my post at the sink, washing a steady supply of dishes so Trouble could cook and shmooze with the writer, who had come to interview him. The goat was rubbed with guajillo paste and wrapped in agave leaves. The whole package, along with a giant pot of masita was in the ground by 9 am, and the pit covered with corrugated iron, blankets and soil.

I can’t remember much about the time between then and when the full flock of guests arrived bearing sides, desserts and booze. I do remember heating stack after stack of tortillas for grilled chicken and pork, and that the goat wasn’t quite ready when the dramatic digging up occurred. I remember drinking too much rose out of a glass jar and nibbling at plates of food brought to me by my best friend from college. I remember the spectacularly delicate rhubarb tart and a jammy peach blueberry pie that friends brought for dessert. I made round after round of the party in the late afternoon sundays, laughing with our friends as our chickens pecked away at dropped crumbs and tried to run away from toddlers’ sticky, grasping fingers.

It was a terrific party, if a completely exhausting one. As the sky faded into a twilight blue, a small crew of us lingered over Mezcal, Bourbon and wine. We finished off the remaining two tarts and ate second rounds of goat.  When no one was looking, I cleaned the kitchen. Again.

The next morning, we slept late and woke with heavy eyes and leaden limbs. Stumbling outside to let the chickens out of their coop, I took stock of the wreckage in our yard. Flies circled the leftover tamarindo agua fresca, the stripped goat carcass lay on the prep table, chairs lay strewn in small circles, empty bottles covered the round table where we had finished off the night. Usually, a mess like that would immediately cause my throat to constrict and my blood pressure to rise. But all I felt was a warm relaxation and contented exhaustion. There aren’t many afternoons in my life I can recall in which I have been surrounded by so much good taste and love, and with perfect late May sunshine tickling the back of my neck to boot. Our three essential needs (as listed by MFK Fisher, as much my guru as anyone)– love, food, and security– were all present in abundance.  Perhaps that’s why it all felt so good.

I wouldn’t dream of having chickens
that didn’t like pie!
Post-Party Mess

Maybe next time we host a big gathering the farmer will get our meat order right, and the cooking time in the pit will be be spot on. Maybe our tables will be the perfect height for our chairs. But probably not. Flaws are a part of the game, and good friends never mind hanging around over a few drinks and good company to wait for a tremendously satisfying meal.

As I pulled on my rain boots in the muggy morning heat and tromped around back, past the mess, to answer the hens’ morning beckoning (and feed them some leftover pie– thank goodness our hens aren’t too discerning to eat the ones that our foodie friends rejected!), all I felt was gratitude. For great friends, great food, and memorable occasions. I’d gladly accept these lingering tired days in exchange for a fiesta like that any time.

Still in Brooklyn, Minus a Brother

See that? That’s a breakfast table, set for one. It’s 7:58 on a Saturday morning, and it’s the first time in a week that I’ve woken up or eaten breakfast alone in my apartment. Yesterday after lunch at Chavela’s, my big brother, Pete, hopped the 2 to the B15 to JFK, bound back for San Francisco.And it feels oddly quiet around here.

I remember having this same sensation when Pete moved away from Brooklyn in the summer of 2009. The whole borough felt strangely vacant, and I began to wonder what it means to hold family together when you live on opposite coasts.

You see, a year before that, I moved to Brooklyn for the first time. Pete lived in Boerum Hill at the time, and he was a big part of the reason I came. We had lost our mom to pancreatic cancer in 2008, and I was feeling the need to be near him– the only person who’d been through the four-year fire of caretaking and grief with me.

So I packed up my Carhartts and traded my muddy boots for presentable walking shoes and a 21st floor office.  I found a bright apartment in Kensington, just a few stops beyond Pete on the F.

Pete and I had a fine time of it that year, with brother-sister dates pretty much every week. We took long rambling walks, ate a lot of pizza from Lucali in Carroll Gardens,  experimented in our respective anomalously large City kitchens, and blew too much money as we checked Brooklyn restaurants off our “to try” list, often sharing a bottle of wine between us (I used to think people mistook us for a couple, but if they were paying any attention at all, there’s no way they could have missed the family resemblance).

Having Pete close proved an incredible reassurance. And as we rounded the one year anniversary of losing Mom, it felt like our family was beginning to take some sort of shape again.  (I’ve since decided that being separated by a couple of subway stops is the ideal separation for a successful sibling relationship– enough space so that you don’t kill each other, but no planes, cars or commuter lines involved.)

But of course, things change and people move on, especially when the parties involved are both in their twenties. Pete was restless, and ready to move on with his life. For him, that meant law school.  And though I rallied hard for him to accept a scholarship made by a local law school, a perfect storm of feeling stagnant in New York and a girlfriend beckoning from the Bay pulled him across the country.

He’s been out there, living in the Mission, for three years now, and Brooklyn hasn’t felt the same for me since. So I relish when Pete comes to visit. Often, I only get to snatch him for an evening or two between family obligations. But this trip, he planned to stay the whole time with my in my new place and spend most of our time together.

We packed it full of signature Brooklyn doings– we ate at Franny’s his first night in town (I introduced him to the perpetually packed North Flatbush restaurant when I gave him a homemade Brooklyn restaurant guide I had researched and compiled when he first moved here); spent Mother’s Day morning strolling down a magnificent stretch of Washington Avenue in Fort Greene to pick up my bike under the BQE; had lunch in the Village with Pete’s childhood best friend (and a sort of second brother figure to me), Jordan; and took spinning classes at the gym like we did when we used to be home on break in Westchester together. We had a dinner at an old red-sauce joint in Little italy with Nan and Jordan’s parents, walked to my alma-mater Four and Twenty Blackbirds to eat slices of pie and buy a gift certificate for some friends moving to Brooklyn, hauled soil up to my roof so I could re-pot my flowers and herbs, and started watching Friday Night Lights (we quickly got wrapped up with much the same vigor we used to harness towards The West Wing). We hosted a dinner for my oldest friend, Theo, and my closest Brooklyn friend, Molly. (There they are. Aren’t they good looking? Theo’s the most dapper human being I know, and Molly rocks the Ohio farm girl easy-peasy thing like no one I know. Molly passed her boards to become a nurse practitioner that morning, so I made this chocolate cake. I told you I developed a serious a crush on Orangette last time).

nearing the end of the night, after 2 bottles of wine and bourbon
beginning of the evening…

Pete and I even jumped in the car to leave the Borough a couple of times. On Wednesday, a glorious spring day, we headed out to Forest Hills in Queens for a strikingly memorable meal at Wafa’s, and then continued out to Flushing for a Mets game at Citi Field. From our seats above the third base line, we drank IPA while munching on Cracker Jack (a mighty combination which you should absolutely try if you haven’t already) and Pete’s signature piercing baseball clap had me covering my left ear all night long. Thursday night we drove up our old stomping grounds to commemorate the retirement of our mom’s longtime boss and a dear family friend, an extraordinary man named Bill Barnes– a towering gentle giant who taught me to garden, study and drink whiskey– from the Clearview School.

The week was full of the kind of easy, intimate conversations only siblings can have about love, loss, and nostalgia. We fretted over our futures (who else will do it for us now?) and we remembered my dad a lot, as we often do here in New York (He was born in Brooklyn, as were both of his parents, and when I first moved to this side of the Park, he used to tell me how he was mugged on Grand Army Plaza as a kid on his way home from school. Having been part of the great urban exodus in the 60s, he was both amused and tickled when both Pete and I landed here after college).

Sure, there were annoyances, too. After all, we’re siblings, and we know how to needle each other and get each other’s goat like no one else.

Yesterday, after Pete left, I spent a couple of hours quietly pounding away at my keyboard in a neighborhood coffee shop, catching up on work I’ve been neglecting and rather enjoying the quiet. Then I came home and scrubbed the bathroom floors. But when I was done, I found myself looking up, half expecting to see Pete rolling in from yet another gym visit or to hear him ask, “Okay, so what’s our plan for the rest of the day?” But I was met only with quiet.

With Pete around, this place felt, unmistakably, like home. Like family, and past, and memory and warmth. It’s not that friends and lovers don’t count– they do, immeasurably. But this was something else, the minutia, wreaking of growing up and coming into our own side by side, that did it– doing the dishes together, making and unmaking the bed together, serving each other oatmeal in the morning and tea in the evening and one another’s familiar mannerisms. Sometimes, for all the searching and wandering I’ve done in the last few years, and all the unmooring that’s rendered Pete’s and my senses of family and place fractured, it’s important for me to remember that finding home is much more about gathering around you the people you love than it is about finding some “perfect” place or returning to an imagined “perfect” past. Though I’ll still never forgive San Francisco for stealing my brother away, and though I’d prefer a mere subway ride than a day-long trip on a plane, family is always worth the trip. 

Ode to an Exceptionally Good Read

I’ve been up late reading. Well, I thought it was late. I decided I wanted to take a break from reading to write (I must admit, these are the joys of nights in the apartment alone, endless hours getting intimate with words). I got out of bed to retrieve my laptop and, when I pulled back the covers to get back in, glanced at the clock– only 11:48. Not as late as I thought. But then again, when it comes down to it, I’ve never been much good past 10 o’clock.

Anyway, it’s been a while since a good book got me into such a frenzy that I stayed awake reading. Not surprisingly, the last time was a food book, as is this one. Last time it was Adam Gopnick’s The Table Comes First, a heady, intricate volume that whirls you around in the head of one of today’s finest, and most hedonistically oriented, minds. I was in school in Portland, Maine at the time, and my nights looked one of two ways: I was either seated on a barstool at Empire, the dive bar next to our classrooms, with my indescribably phenomenal classmates at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies drinking bourbon and cheap beer, or home early, tucked into my Queen sized bed in my rented room in the blue house on O’Brion Street, half a block from Casco Bay, drinking mint tea and reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Well, until my first date with Trouble in early November. Then I more often had my phone pressed to my ear until one of us drifted off.

Those months in Maine were made for reading– I was studying and practicing storytelling, and surrounded by a group of people who practically oozed a soulful kind of love for interesting characters and for one another. But these days, I can barely make it through a book, or even a magazine article for that matter (I’m ashamed at the pile of Saveur issues that’s piling up, unread, under my new desk (This is perhaps my #1 reason belong to a gym. I used to only allow myself to read magazines while working out. The mounting pile of periodicals was always great motivation to get me to the gym, in order to have designated time to read glossies. Note to self: consider re-joining.). But on Tuesday I picked up a book at the library (I LOVE libraries, and am especially fond of the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Note to self #2: fodder for later post. Must talk about my unabashed obsession with the smell of musty paper and the glee that finding someone else’s pencil notes in a library book’s margins brings me). It’s Thursday now, and I’m about to be done. When, exactly, depends on whether I can make it past one A.M tonight.

There it is, the morning after. I did stay up to finish it last night after all.

It’s this book called A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette fame (I know, all the foodies are groaning about how that’s such olllld news! But somehow, I missed the boat when it was hip and current. Maybe it’s that I haven’t ever been much of a blog reader, though now that I’m writing one– and rather loving it, I must say– I’m beginning to think I should start laying eyes on my peers’ ramblings from time to time. I do remember that Pam, a friend of a friend, from whom I now happen to live half a block away, was excited back in 2009 when the publishing company she worked for was getting ready to release Wizenberg’s book. I didn’t take much note of it at the time. And I don’t know what made me stumble onto Orangette. But… well, it’s time to close these parentheses and start that thought properly). A few days ago, up in Massachusetts, I found myself perusing Orangette for the first time. There was a post about a bun in the oven, and a charming thank you note to her readers. There was  a recipe for a pistachio pound cake that a certain magazine editor called “the best cake I’ve ever had”, and how excited Wizenberg got about testing the recipe after reading that. That’s all I remember. Well, that and being absolutely smitten by the author’s voice. I immediately went to the Brooklyn library’s website and put a hold on the book.

It’s a delicious thing to spend a night reading (especially if I’m reading good food writing) in bed. It’s even more delectable, for me, at least, when I find myself practically howling with how much of myself I see in the author. In this case, most of the similarities are a little painful. Writing about losing a parent young, and the complete incomprehension of what grieving should or could look like (I’ve worked on these types of musings many times in the past few years, most recently in an essay I wrote for Leite’s Culinaria); the necessity of having a place to go when you need to be both lonely and deliriously happy (for Wizenberg, it’s Paris; for me, a friend’s house in Millerton, New York or Rio de Janeiro), and the cringe-worthy mistakes we made with our early-twenties relationships (both of us, apparently, when living with our exes, were so tightly wound and methodical that, immediately after grocery shopping, we would inventory the receipts to the cent, then divide by two, to make sure accounts were leveled out– I almost crawled under the bed with the shame of recognition when I read that one tonight).

Needless to say, I’m LOVING this book. Like, don’t want to do any work or hang out with friends because I’m busy reading kind of love. What a treat. (The other day, when Trouble and I were unpacking books in my apartment, I looked up at my groaning shelves and the motley collection of colorful spines– most of which I haven’t seen in a couple of years, as they’ve been keeping my step-mom’s attic company– and said, “I love books. I’ve missed having them around.” Trouble put on that irresistible half-smile-half-pout and asked, “You love books more than you love me?” I didn’t answer. And I maintain that’s a mean and unfair game to play!) Apparently, I’m not alone in my admiration for this book– it was a New York Times bestseller (cue envy rising in the belly), and Ms. Wizenberg got herself a second book deal out of it as well. If I wasn’t so taken with her and her writing, I might let the jealousy preclude my growing affection for this person that I’ve only encountered in print. Fortunately, that’s not the case. I can’t wait to read her new one when it comes out. I might even try to chase her down for a face-to-face meeting if she goes on book tour.

But more than anything, reading A Homemade Life has got me thinking about writing again. Generating ideas for posts, essays, pieces, the memoir proposal that’s been sitting dormant in a folder on my desktop since October (that was right about the time school got busy… and then I met Trouble. Yup, there he goes again, interrupting the safe, dull routine. Twice in one post. He won’t mind. He loves to poke fun at me for my penchant for routine and planning anyway.). Come to think of it, I’m so bursty with ideas at the moment, I might just start working on another post right now. Or get back to reading. Sometimes, I hate having to choose.

First (real) Supper in the New Digs

I’m feeling like a bona fide adult today… well, except for the fact that I am, at present– 5:26 pm, that is– , eating a generous slice of lemon chess pie (see, the glorious thing’s almost gone!) at my friends’ shop (and my former workplace), Four and Twenty Blackbirds.  But aside from the fact that I am almost certainly spoiling my dinner, I’m feeling grown up. My woodworker-cum-contractor finally finished up installing my new shelves and furniture while I was up in MA last week, and so Trouble and I drove down to Brooklyn together on Sunday to take care of some home improvements and finally unpack.

I won’t bore you with the details. They involve a lot of sawdust, styrofoam padding (the only reason that’s any fun to talk about is in order to mention that I got to unwrap the buttercup colored Kitchen Aid Pro mixer that my brother sent me as a housewarming present– he definitely inherited my mom’s prescient and overly decadent gift giving gene), lots of banged elbows and box-induced paper cuts, trips to Ikea and Target and a very weary credit card.

The grown up-hood, certainly, stems partly from unpacking all of my things into my apartment. No roommate, no hand me down mattress from a previous tenant, no attempting to come up with a formula to measure the degree of reasonableness of bringing my entire cookbook collection with me in relation to how long the sublet is for. No subletting, no lease. My apartment.

But what really felt nest-y was more about the quiet moments, what actually happened in my apartment in the short 36 hours Trouble was here with me. On Sunday night, we ate out at a great new neighborhood joint called Bar Corvo (courtesy of the folks who’ve been running the wildly successful Al di La in Park Slope for many years now), sharing first aperitifs, and then splitting a bottle of Moltepulciano. We walked the two blocks home, a little stumbly but perfectly functional, then changed into sweatpants and headed up to my roof with nips of Whitle Pig Rye (another gift from my excessively generous brother, this one for Christmas– it is sooo good). We only lasted a little while in the chilly evening, lazing on lounge chairs and gazing off at the Manhattan skyline. Back downstairs, with the clock nearing midnight, Trouble pulled a book of Neruda from my shelf and we began to read– first I would read a poem in English from the downy surroundings of the bed, then he would take the book, stand, and animately recite the same poem in Spanish, his native tongue.

We passed the book back and forth until my eyes wouldn’t stay open any longer, then nodded off to bed.

The next night, Monday, after 13 hours of unpacking, cleaning, drilling, shopping, organizing and repeated runs to the hardware store across the street, I decided to cook. The apartment was still a mess, and my compulsive side said to clean, clean, clean until everything was done. But Trouble was sleepy, and he had been working his tail off all day to help me without complaint. The kitchen, at least, was in workable shape (that’s it, to the right there). So I pulled a pound of shrimp I had bought at Fairway when we were in Red Hook to make an Ikea run earlier in the day, and set to making Mexican shrimp in garlic and chipotle sauce, a blissfully simple and deeply satisfying meal consisting of a sauce made up of 2 heads of sliced garlic, half a can of chipotle peppers, some fresh tomatoes, lime juice and salt all pureed together, served with sautéed shrimp and white rice. We whipped up a quick salad of jicama, avocado, red onion and lime juice and opened a bottle of wine. It was red, and didn’t pair very well. It didn’t matter, though.

We peeled the shrimp with our fingers, tossing the shells into a metal mixing bowl I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on since I packed up at my first (and longest) Brooklyn address two and a half years ago. We brought the rice to our mouths with the forks from the gaggle of silverware my mom and dad were given as wedding presents (long before their divorce and each of their subsequent cancers and deaths were visible through even the most powerful of crystal balls). The placemats and napkins were deep red and burnt orange, a set I picked up in the early days of my domestic leanings.

After licking the plates clean, we washed up together, talking about love and radio as we went. Then we shared a bowl of caramel ice cream and sipped whiskey in bed while I read a magazine article aloud to Trouble.

I woke beside my love this morning, rested and with a sense of settledness in my belly that’s been gone so long it was almost startling to notice it hanging out there. After a stretch of time in my life that’s been marked by all too many lasts– last words, last breaths, last meals, last good-byes– it seems a terrific act of defiance to be marking new beginnings. No more nomadic living– begging couch space from friends for weeks a time, constantly packing and unpacking. No more big “what’s” or “where’s nexts”. At least not anytime soon. For the first time in a very long time, I know right where I am and the building blocks of the next few months. And with a little more stability beneath me– and a careful, if humorous eye on the god of surprises that can always upset our best laid plans–  my goal is to spend more time both pondering and reveling in the little things for a while. To focus on making smaller decisions… like what to do with the two dozen eggs in my fridge from our chickens up north or the first Jersey strawberries of the season, sitting, sassy in their spring blush, on my new kitchen counter.

I guess this needs a title…? How about (the wildly uncreative): List #1

Listen, I know I already posted earlier today, but, seeing as I’m up in the country, in between deadlines, it’s in the 40s outside (the 40s! It was 90 here two weeks ago!), Trouble is off at work (and, honestly, I don’t quite have enough to do with myself these days. I can only check on the chicks so many times before they start following me around and getting underfoot). So I thought I’d take a few minutes to write a list. A list, that is, of the fabulous springy things I’ve been eating recently. I mean, allegedly, this is something of a food blog. At least I think it should be, given that food– reading about it, writing about it, studying it, thinking about it, interviewing people around it, cooking it, selling it, eating it– takes up the vast majority of my waking hours.

Ramps got their own shout out, but other than that, I’ve been sorely neglecting the early bounty of the Northeast. So, in no particular order, a list of 10 memorable eats of late (some local, some not so much so).

  1. The ramps. Oh, the ramps. First, I had them up here at our friends’ house (see the ramps post). Then there was a simple dinner at my friend’s house in Millerton, New York, for which I made a lovely side of simple Asian mushrooms (I didn’t think to look at the name on the packages, but they’re the kind that are sold in clumps, the ones that look like, excuse me but it can’t be helped, tiny penises) sautéed over high heat, with a handful of ramp leaves thrown in at the last minute and a few drops of tamari. Yum!
  2. Maybe it doesn’t count as a gourmet meal, but I’ve been making green smoothies with early spring kale, yogurt, fruit and honey every morning. Kale is soooo sweet this time of year, especially if you buy it when the leaves are still small and tender.
  3. We had a beautiful meal with our friends Tim and Caroline of The Kitchen Garden Farm, along with a few other food and farm pals. Tim, a pretty extraordinary self-trained cook, made a riff on green papaya salad by subbing green cabbage for the papaya, and grilled up perfectly spicy chicken thighs. I remember chiles and lemongrass and fish sauce… the rest is lost with the rest of the rosé-blurred memories. 
  4. I’ve been consuming insane quantities of a particularly beautiful red-veined spinach that our friend Kristin grows up here in Western MA. Simply wilted down over a pan full of garlic lightly browned in a few glugs of olive oil– yum!
  5. Tons of granola from Trouble’s bakery, El Jardin, in South Deerfield. I keep a bag in the car for the schlep between Brooklyn and The Valley
  6. When the weather turned cold again this week, I started craving heartier fare rather than light salads and slaws. Like Trouble’s frijoles magicos (well, that’s what I dubbed them). They’re simple– black beans that have been pureed, cooked down with a bit of manteca (that’s lard for you vegetarians and vegans– BEWARE!… that you’re missing out on something really, really delicious), lots of garlic, a whole chili or two and (the secret ingredient) singed avocado leaves. They changed my world the first time he served them to me. They have, since, become my happy food.
  7. Asparagus. Need I say more? Grilled, roasted, steamed, eaten raw right off the stalk… I mean, come on.
  8. Red ale (do I get to count beer?). The medium body and only so-so hoppiness seems just right for this mercurial weather– big enough for chilly evenings, but refreshing enough to take edge off after a hot early spring afternoon of gardening.
  9. This morning, when hunger struck before the lunch hour, I used a few tender young hakurei turnips to scoop up garlicky homemade hummus from…
  10. … another amazing meal with the Kitchen Garden folks– their spring lamb roast farm dinner. Oh god, it was so good. A spread of olives (that I toted up from Titan Foods in Astoria– another “falling back in love with New York” experience early this past Saturday morning), Greek spreads, hard boiled eggs, wild greens dandelions and ramps, spanikopita made with a whole mess of greens  (my favorite of which was the stinging nettles), and a delectable spit-roasted whole lamb. Tons of crisp white and mellow red added a warm continuity to the evening, and we capped it all off with a delicious baklava made by my enormously talented best friend/college housemate, Anna Feldman (who I desperately wish had a website so I could link it here!)
When I think about the fact that it’s only the second day of May, and the eating’s already this good, I shudder with pleasure thinking about May, June and July. The glory of Indian summer and October (my favorite eating month)? Don’t even get me started!

New York, a Love I Just Can’t Shake

I admit, I’ve been a little cranky with New York lately. Well, okay, these past few years. As anyone who has ever lived in New York knows, she can mess you around. She always has a way of kicking you when you’re down. But when you’re riding high, she can make you feel, oh… I don’t really have the words. I could quote writers and poets past and present, from E.B. White’s “Here is New York” to Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” to all the fabulous nuggets that came out of the (at times, admittedly, quite dark) documentary film, “The Cruise“.  But nothing seems to do justice to the incredible sensation of feeling like you’re in lockstep with this enormous breathing, writhing metropolis. It’s like she’s courting you, putting you in the limelight, and sending a lot of luck your way.

But the roller coaster of highs and lows has gotten to me over the years. And they say if you love something you should let it go… So I’ve taken a few long breaks from New York over the past couple of years. But this most recent one was by far the longest. For over nine months, I was without an address of my own in Brooklyn. And man, did I miss it. Waaaaay more than I expected to. It was like that lover you think you’re so over… until you say goodbye. And realize that, despite all the torment and bickering, you’ve built something, and you just can’t shake the damn thing. For me, New York has always been like that.

So, after a stint living and studying in Portland, Maine last fall (a lovely town, but not quite gritty enough for my liking), I bit the bullet and decided to take New York– flaws, frustrations and all — and really make her my own. That is, I bought an apartment.

It’s been an experience so far. Mostly great– I have a simple, bright little place of my own. I’ve even got high ceilings replete with skylights, a washing machine (if it ever gets off backorder at Lowe’s), and a gorgeous view from my amazing roof deck. But there have also been the inherent move-in headaches– contractors, movers, thin walls (luckily all of my neighbors have, thus far at least, been pretty forgiving of my novice blunders like setting the fire alarm off with steak smoke the first night I lived in my new place!). And alway, ALWAYS, factoring in the four flights of stairs.

The other day, sick and tired of trying to get any work done in a room filled with sawdust (my contractor has been taking his sweet ass time getting his work on my apartment done), chunks of drywall and unpacked boxes, I headed out in the late April drizzle for my brand of New York therapy– a long walk and an afternoon spent with a book, a journal and my computer in a cozy cafe. I needed to remember how, just when you feel like New York is causing you tear your hair out, just when you’re ready to leave her (yet again), you just need to take her out on a date. Break out of the rut. For me, that means heading– ALONE– to a neighborhood with which I’m not too familiar. It’s like magic every time– suddenly, I’m seeing the City with fresh eyes, appreciating her beauty, her quirks, her vulnerable soft spots and, of course, her sass.

I rode the G train up to Greenpoint. On McGuinness Boulevard,  I passed open garage doors, revealing ironworkers hidden behind safety glasses. Polish grandmothers walked the avenue, cloth shopping bags in hand, doing their daily marketing. Dusty old record stores beckoned me. But the weather was too dreary for window-shopping, so I continued north toward Queens. Somewhere about halfway across the Pulaski Bridge, red umbrella huddled close in a futile attempt to keep the raw wind and damp off my cotton sweatshirt (poor choice of outerwear, Sara), something caught my eye. I looked down off the bridge. There, parked alongside a nondescript brick hotel, was an antique yellow cab! Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen one of them since I was a kid, desperately trying to keep up with my dad as he tugged me through Times Square for our annual theater date. But there it was, just waiting to be spotted. Elegant, classy, and all too forgotten.

A huge, goofy grin spread across my face. And, just at that moment, as I was looking down through the chain-link fence, a 30-something man walking in the other direction passed by, turned his head toward me, and said rather emphatically, “Beautiful!”. (Some of you may find that skeevy, sexist even. I’m not going to get into the politics and nuances of when I like a random compliment on the street and when it falls into the ick category of dirty catcall. Suffice it to say, this time– when I hadn’t showered in a day and I was dressed in a gray hoodie, rolled up consignment jeans and decidedly unsexy but oh so happy making yellow clogs– it was the best. The absolute best).

I hurried on down the bridge to the Queens side where, just at the bottom of the ramp sits one of the best cafes in all of the five boroughs, Sweetleaf on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City (a favorite neighborhood of mine, one I secretly hope to live, or at least have an extended stay, in someday. Don’t tell Brooklyn). I settled in with a mug of spicy ginger tea and a decadent hunk of their dangerously rich carrot cake, and whiled away the afternoon. Beside me, artists, retirees and techies sat reading, chatting and working. Folks came in to order with their dogs happily panting beside them. A local construction worker came in to do his daily 20-drink order for his entire team. Unfairly chic baristas steamed milk and pulled espresso.

I sighed, sunk deeper into my leather club chair, and tucked my socked feet underneath me. New York and I were back together again. And though I still think her venom is some of the deadliest in the world, when we’ve just made up, it’s pure bliss.

A string of haikus from the day:

G train in the rain
Only time I like to ride
It’s cozier when it’s wet.

From Pulaski Bridge
saw an antique yellow cab
in the Thursday rain

We’ve been on bad terms–
Stranger called me beautiful–
Forgave New York, again.

Cities are like girls
Lovely and vicious at once
But still you swoon anew.