riserva naturale orientata di torre salsa

On Sunday, I went to the kind of beach that I was quite sure no longer existed. The path to the shore was a relatively common Sicilian landscape (the kind that continues to make me squeal with delight) — rocky terrain filled with shrubs of various forms and fields planted in blocks of wheat and olive trees. Purple thyme was blooming all over the hillsides and the sea breeze broke through the warm air.

The gentle path abruptly transformed into a mountainous descent and after an hour of walking, I found myself on a completely deserted beach. There was not a soul in site save for a small colony of seagulls. The beach was surrounded by sedimentary rocks packed with gypsum deposits which sparkled against the reflection of the sea. Who knew that a place like this even existed?

In other news, I’ve spent the week hanging out with Maira KalmanRick Meyerowitz, and a group of incredibly talented women, organizing a workshop on food illustration and laughing our way through many meals, many walks, and many interesting conversations. Of the surprising things that have happened this week, this might take the cake: Maira is quite fond of ironing — I’m talking about ironing clothes and I’m talking about hobby-level fondness — and asked if I had anything that could use pressing. I promptly produced an extremely wrinkled suitcase-weary collared shirt which the author of 18 children’s books, frequent contributor to New Yorker magazine, owner of Tuscanini’s pants, etc., etc., etc. proceeded to iron for me. Proof of her excellent work is available here.

I also saw Saturn this week, experienced my first Sirocco, learned the secret to a perfect gin and tonic (add one of these leaves!), and successfully completed my inaugural long-ish distance drive at the helm of a stick shift vehicle. My head is spinning for all of the best reasons. It’s been a crazy but really really good one.

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where i’m laying my hat

My sophomore year at university, I wrote a list of everything I could think of that I might want to do after I finished school. I still have the list, aptly title AFTER COLLEGE, and it includes everything from “USAID project in Afghanistan” to “30000 Island” (I don’t even know what this entry means — just looked it up and I’m still confused.) Anyway, halfway down the list is “live in Italy.”

Do you ever have a moment where things are a bit fuzzy and complicated and you have certain ideas but have no clue how to make them anything and then you blink and somehow the thing has come together? No? Neither do I. Except that somehow, I just have. That moment has happened to me in a really really big way and I’m still pinching myself really really hard.

In an unbelievable turn of good luck/hard work/finger crossing/etc. this magical spot is the place that I get to temporarily call home. And so, this June, instead of watching corn spring up green around me until it towers overhead, instead of gorging on strawberries, instead of bouncing around farmers markets and packing up evening picnics and going on long walks with my best friend, I am moving very slowly and cautiously in an attempt to drill into my brain every single scene. I am staring at fields of wheat and seeing them change from basil green to golden amber before my eyes. I’m watching globe artichokes rupture from tightly closed fists into the most ridiculous purple explosions. I’m taking lots of walks (often while listening to this) and constantly trying not to burst into tears over the beauty and magic and impossibility of the crazy world I’m living in right now. This June is one for the books.

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book club calendar

I really love a good book club. So much so that somehow, over the course of the past year, I have involved myself in not one, not two, but THREE of them. You don’t have to be particularly bright to realize that three book clubs is way too many book clubs and fortunately for the sake of my sanity, I’ve now whittled it down to about 1.5 book clubs. Which is probably still too many. But for now, this will have to do.

One interesting thing about these book clubs is that none of them have happened in person. I’ve spent the last year doing a lot of moving around and thus, inconveniently, the people I love to read with have not been near me. No monthly dinner party book chats shared with a glass of wine happening over here.

But fear not, because the brilliant and highly literate Tuesday has come up with the perfect and most aesthetically pleasing solution for a long distance book club in the form of my Christmas present last year: A book club calendar. AKA the gift that keeps on giving.

Last November, Tuesday and I created a list of six books we each wanted to read in 2016 and she compiled them into a beautiful calendar with quotes from the books and seasonally appropriate images. Each month (sometimes twice per month if we’re really on top of it) we have a phone call to discuss the book and it’s such a fun and special time to share ideas and to stay caught up, both on our reading and our friendship.

Five months in, I have to say it’s one our better decisions of the year. Though there have been times where I especially have gotten really behind on the reading, it’s been such a beautiful experience. Everyone should make one of these — highly recommend.

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Here’s what we’re reading this year:

  • January – The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
  • February – Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss
  • March – Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • April – The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • May – Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
  • June – The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • July – A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates
  • August -Purity, Jonathan Franzen
  • September – Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
  • October – Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
  • November – Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  • December – The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende

on creativity

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I grew up strongly believing that I was not an artistic person. Through grade school art class I came to understand, albeit falsely, that the creative kids were those who drew images of families that resembled something near to actual humans. Mine were lines connected to other lines with squiggles for hair. From this realization forward, I tried to avoid situations in which I had to physically make anything that might be judged on its pleasing or not-so-pleasing aesthetic. Some of this sidestepping almost certainly came from a fear of criticism, but it also came from entirely convincing myself that I did not enjoy making things. I’ve always liked to sing and took to cooking in late adolescence, but anything that my teenage brain classified as art? No, thank you. I wasn’t good at it and therefore I didn’t like it.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less firm in my self-classification as “uncreative”, though I still wouldn’t jump to the term “artistic” or any of its synonyms if asked for five words that describe me. I’ve also become vastly more willing to participate — and even to find enjoyment — in activities that I’m not immediately good at.

What might have been the last necessary push toward action in my years-long ruminations on creativity and my relationship with it was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic while I was in Hawai’i. I am a Gilbert fan (and not because of Eat, Pray, Love in case you were wondering; read her fiction and I think you will understand my fondness) and when her most recent title came out, despite my initial uncertainty on the topic and fear that it might be a bit too woo-woo for me, I picked it up at the airport. It’s been a number of months since I read Big Magic, but as I remember it, the mantra of the book is that each and every person alive is innately creative. It isn’t a trait that only a select few posses, but a function essential to the human spirit.

Gilbert writes, “Are you considering become a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody “a creative person” is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the sense for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it. If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers–these are our common ancestors.”

When I arrived back to the mainland in January, I started taking a pottery class. My first pieces weren’t anything to write home about, but I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have my hands around the clay. The class time was scheduled for an hour and a half each week, and I ended up purchasing an additional hour. The time felt sacred and meditative and it was so fun to be surrounded by others of all ages and skill levels who have chosen to prioritize creating. As the weeks passed, it came as a great surprise to me that I too was soon able to make things! This afternoon, as I dirtied my hands planting a succulent in a pot that I’d dirtied my hands throwing, I felt very thankful to have taken the leap into something that was — and still is — new and foreign. It is now so clear to me that each of us are makers, and what a powerful connection that is to share.

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how to make yogurt

2016 has been my year of fermented foods. If you came to my house, you’d find bottles of kraut, kimchi, and kvass in the refrigerator. Brian has had a 3 gallon glass jar of kombucha brewing since January (in our bedroom, of all places.) I also enjoyed a loaf of bread from a sourdough starter living on a shelf in our kitchen until I accidentally forgot to feed it and it died. The point of all of this listing is just to say that there are so many happy bacteria living in my house! And after watching Cooked last month, I’ve become even more smitten with the idea of all the microbes moving in with me.

I made yogurt once a few years ago in a cooking class on milk fermentation. We also made beautiful stretchy mozzarella and I learned what rennet is. (Sorry if I just ruined cheese for you.) At a farmers market about a month ago, I was talking to the lovely Genesis of Full Hand Farm and she informed me that yogurt can be made very simply and with very little effort in a crockpot! This was news to me and the encouragement I needed to start exploring yogurt making on my own. Some of the biggest advantages of making yogurt at home include being able to adjust the tanginess to your liking (I like a super tangy yogurt) and to decrease the lactose content if you have trouble digesting dairy. Who knew that these things could be so easily controlled?! So, without further ado, some instructions:

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  1. Acquire a half gallon of milk and two tbsp. of plain yogurt (these are the only ingredients.) The amount of milk you use will equal the amount of yogurt you make, so use a quart of milk and 1 tbsp. of yogurt if a half gallon seems like too much. Arguably the most important thing here (and one of the biggest reasons to make your own yogurt in the first place) is to select ingredients that you feel good about. For me, that means milk and starter yogurt produced by cows who live outside and eat grass and that are raised by a small dairy. If you’re in the Midwest like me, I’d suggest checking out Traderspoint Creamery whose products can be found in groceries throughout the region.
  2. Pour milk into your crockpot and turn to low/medium heat. Allow milk to warm for approximately 2 hours or until it reaches a temperature of 180F (you’ll need to use a thermometer to check this.) Once the milk gets to temperature, unplug the crockpot and allow the milk to cool to 120F.
  3. At 120F, stir yogurt into milk until it is fully incorporated. Put the lid back on the crockpot and cover with several bath towels. Leave the yogurt to ferment in a place where it will not be disturbed for at least 8 hours. If you want a tangier yogurt or to reduce the lactose content of the yogurt further (good thing to consider if you’re sensitive to dairy products) ferment for closer to 12 hours.
  4. After fermenting, place the crockpot of yogurt in the refrigerator for a few hours to make sure it is fully set.
  5. If you’d like to make a thicker yogurt, you can use a cheesecloth to strain off some of the liquid. I did not do this, but it is quite a straightforward process.

This entire process can also be done over the stove and in less time, but requires a bit more stirring and double-checking to ensure that the milk doesn’t scald.

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20160329_140556If you need some inspiration for what to do with all of the yogurt you just made, may I recommend a banana oatmeal smoothie? Throw all the below ingredients into a blender and blend to desired consistency. Quantities listed will make two generous servings.

ingredients:

  • two bananas (ideally frozen, but not a problem if they aren’t)
  • 1 c. milk of your choosing (I often use a nut milk)
  • 1 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 c. yogurt
  • 1/3 c. old fashioned oats/rolled whole oats
  • handful of ice cubes

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Now go get all of your friends together and eat some yogurt!

pulled pork sandwiches

If you haven’t heard of her already, Jenny Rosenstrach is a lady you should be aware of. Her blog and subsequent book, Dinner: A Love Story, were born of a dinner diary detailing what she’s eaten for dinner every night since 1998. Her recipes are excellent and varied and I perceive the center of her work to be that all relationships can be made stronger simply by sitting down with your people for a meal. YES! I agree wholeheartedly and love the authenticity of her voice and mission.

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Possibly the only thing I love more than the spirit behind her work are her Rut-Busting Pulled Pork Sandwiches. I made these sandwiches for the first time two years ago for one of Brian’s first visits with my parents. We were planning for a sunny summer afternoon meal and I told them I’d bring the main course if they handled side dishes, so we got a five pound pork shoulder from the farmers market. Since it was a pretty big guy, it took quite a long time to cook. I stupidly decided it would work well to put this thing in the oven just before we went to sleep so we were up every two hours the entire night checking on the pork roast. It felt like a preview of having a newborn baby and I would not suggest this method of preparation. Cook the roast on an afternoon when you know you’ll be home and  hanging around and then invite over a group of friends for dinner. That sounds to me like a much more enjoyable use of time, and everyone will be so impressed by your sandwich-making skills.

Original recipe here. I’ve adapted it slightly to make the sauce a bit thinner and more acidic. And I’m totally team pork shoulder. Also, this roast could certainly be made in the crockpot if that’s your thing — I assume the method there would be to throw everything in the pot (possibly halve amounts of thyme, salt, and pepper?) and let it cook for 6 – 8 hours on high or longer on low.

Before we get too far into this, shall we discuss pork shoulders? A pork shoulder is a pork’s shoulder is a pig’s shoulder. That is what it is! Sometimes butchers refer to shoulders as primal cuts, meaning they are one of the first pieces of meat separated from the animal during butchering. Typically, primal cuts carry a lower price tag than other cuts of meat since they don’t require as much intensity in carving. Pork shoulders are a hard working muscle on any piggy, so they should be cooked ‘low and slow’ to render them tender. The boston butt and picnic roast are both from the shoulder of a hog, though the picnic tends to have less fat and more connective tissue, meaning it may require a bit more cooking time than a boston butt. I find either type of shoulder roast to be a great fit for any meal you’re planning to cook for a long time on low heat.

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ingredients:

  • four pound pork shoulder roast (boston butt or picnic)
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced (or in my case, 6 small ones)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 c. barbecue sauce (I used this one from my local organic grocery, but making it yourself would be fabulous, too. Jenny has a recipe on p. 238 of her book which I’ve never tried to make because I never have bourbon which is one of the ingredients, but it sounds really tasty.)
  • 1 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 3 dried chiles (Jenny recommends guajillo chiles or a few drops of hot sauce as a replacment, I used ancho chiles. Use whatever you can get your hands on!)
  • 2 bay leaves

directions:

Preheat oven to 325F. Mix together thyme, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Rub a thawed pork shoulder all over with the seasoning to coat.

On the stove, warm a dutch oven or other heavy pot that can go in the oven to medium heat and add olive oil. Cook seasoning-coated pork shoulder in oil for 5 – 7 minutes on all sides and remove pork shoulder from pot.

Add diced onion and minced garlic to the pot and cook until onions are translucent. Add barbecue sauce, apple cider vinegar, bay leaves, and chiles. Bring to a boil. Add pork roast back to pot and ensure that the liquid comes at least 1/3 of the way up the roast. If it doesn’t, add some additional water and mix to combine.

Transfer the pot to the oven and cover with a lid left slightly ajar. Cook for approximately 6 hours, flipping the roast once every hour. Roast is done when it can be easily pulled apart with a fork. Shred the meat and mix with sauce. Make sure to remove chiles and bay leaves.

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I wanted to make brioche buns to use for these sandwiches. I mixed and kneaded the dough using a sourdough starter I’ve recently been feeding and it turned out beautifully —carmel-y and thick and warm and firm. Never have a seen a more perfect dough ball. Alas, it was a total flop in terms of timing and never made it from gorgeous and perfect ball of dough into the oven to become bread. Really really sad thing throwing that away after its fifth day in the fridge. Anyway, the pulled pork ended up on toasted semolina buns with melted sharp cheddar cheese, a fried egg, and mixed greens. Not complaining.

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vegetable soup

Part of the magic and trouble of eating real food is that real foods rots. Greens wilt and veggies that were once firm soften. All things that come from the earth yearn to return to it and often move in that direction sooner than some of us might wish they did.

So, what you, the home cook, must have are a number of devices in your emergency culinary toolbox (let’s call them screwdrivers for fun) that move products from the inside of your refrigerator to the inside of your stomach. I think meals of this nature work best when they are less recipe and more general instruction, so that’s what you’ll find here. No running to the grocery to pick up that one item you don’t have to make this type of dishes. If it’s not in your fridge, cabinet, or on your counter, it doesn’t belong in a screwdriver meal.

In my personal “oh shit everything I bought at the farmers market is about to mold” toolbox you will find a how-to for a basic stir-fry, a vegetable-heavy pasta sauce, and a greens-and-tomato-laden fritatta. But in these first weeks of spring, I consider vegetable soup the best possible way to clean out any fridge. Here’s what to do:

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  1. Round up all the produce and other items in your kitchen that are about to go off or that you need to move along to make room for your upcoming shopping trip. This time, for me, that search included some many-eyed potatoes, frozen bags of last summer’s green beans, partial jars of beef and chicken stock, and some extremely limp carrots.
  2. Evaluate your stash and add in some other ingredients to round it out. Do you have any onions, celery, carrots, or garlic? Those foods are an ideal starting place for just about any soup. What about a jar of tomatoes (whole/diced/crushed will all work beautifully)? A partial bag of frozen peas or corn leftover from a casserole you made a few months ago? What’s your dried herb situation? Pull out some parsley and oregano along with salt and pepper, if you have it.
  3. Splash a few glugs of olive oil into the bottom of a stock pot or dutch oven and allow it to warm. Dice an onion or two and throw them into the bottom of the pot. Gently stir and allow the onions to turn translucent. Add chopped carrots, celery, and garlic, if you have them. If you don’t have them, do not panic; move to the next step. (Whenever I cut up carrots, celery, or onions, I keep the peelings in a big jar or bag in the freezer for future use in making stock. Image of my peelings below.)
  4. Chop and add to the pot whatever other vegetables you have selected. Things that would work well here include root vegetables (sweet or white potatoes, turnips, parsnips), cubed squash of just about any variety, beans or peas, cabbage or other greens, corn, canned/frozen/fresh tomatoes, or peppers. Honestly I don’t think you can go wrong here with maybe a few exceptions — possibly artichokes, olives, and asparagus would not be good. But by all means, please go ahead and prove me wrong on that one.
  5. Once all your vegetables are in the pot, cover them with stock or broth or water. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer until all the vegetables are tender and flavors are combined. I left my pot on the stove simmering for a least an hour because it was a chilly and rainy Monday and it made me feel better, but it was certainly ready to eat well before then. If you are an insane person like me, you will end up with nine quart jars of soup and will be ready for visitors, natural disasters, and nuclear war.

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