A few things: May 2021

There will be recipes.

Is that enough to keep you reading until you find them? Excellent, because there are a few things to cover beforehand.

(And, to be clear: there are multiple recipes, all in one post here, all together, because I am too lazy to write about and publish each one of the separately.)

Here at the end of May 2021, it’s possible that your calendar is starting to look a bit different from how it looked a few months ago. It might now include one or more in-person gatherings (meaning: multiple people together, physically, in one space) at which the people who are gathered, including you, are finally, at long last, unmasked.

Haven’t yet had the experience but know that it’s coming and wonder how it will feel (because you’ve been reading that it might feel strange)? Remember middle school dances, where nobody really knew what to do, and everybody stood around nervously looking around and shifting uncomfortably? That’s kind of how it has felt, for me, and for a few other people I’ve been with (or talked to).

Sitting in a room last week for a meeting, gathered together with people I know fairly well and a few I’d never before met in person, I was thinking about middle school uncertainty and about Talking to Strangers, and all of the research Malcolm Gladwell compiled in that book (a terrific book, if you haven’t read it – and it’s even better on audiobook). In short, we’re not as good as we believe ourselves to be when it comes to “reading” other people, using facial expressions in particular as our guides. But we do it all the time – or we used to do it all the time, when we were in person together, without masks. We’ve been doing it since adolescence, when we started making our own decisions about how to act and interact with other people, based on our observations of their expressions, body language, and behavior.

Now we have to figure it out all over again.

I’d offer that, for many of us, the experiences of the past year+ have encouraged a resurfacing of the middle schoolers who still live in our now-adult forms. Middle school/adolescence is the time of both establishing independence and beginning to find one’s tribe. And, in the words of a former middle school administrator/teacher I know: Everyone in middle school thinks they are the only one feeling isolated, the only one who’s different, the only one struggling and friendless. Everyone is looking around, trying to read the room, and often getting it wrong.

That shifting uncomfortably, looking around for clues from the faces of other people? That’s search mode: Who’s my friend or enemy? How will I know if I look stupid? Who can I trust?

So now, just like at the middle school dance, gathering with other people in real life might feel fresh, awkward, and scary. If we take that perspective, that we’re re-living a past experience, looking out like pre-teens from our now-grown bodies, then maybe our wiser, softer, sturdier selves can draw on our decades of lived experiences, guide that adolescent uncertainty in new ways, for deeper and more meaningful encounters and relationships ahead.

It’s going to be a transition, for all of us. As we jump into the fray together, the middle schooler in me honors the middle schooler in you.

Onward.

A few other things…

#ArtHarder

Yes; still.

This (the big cyanotype print) is recent work, part of a series I made after a friend commissioned a large piece for a client. The tiny houses? They’re from last year. I call them my pandemic houses, because I’m slightly nuts.

Reading

I’ve been focused on my work-work, talking with our staff, board, and colleagues about what’s ahead and how to take what we’ve learned from the past year into a better future organization. If you’re thinking about that for your workplace, too, then here are some articles you might enjoy:

“Resist Old Routines When Returning to the Office” (Harvard Business Review, May 2021)
“What we’re getting wrong in the return-to-office debate” (Fortune, May 2021)
“Remote work is the cruel new ally in the War on Working Moms” (Fast Company, March 2021)
“Flexible remote-work schedules make a big difference for working mothers” (McKinsey, August 2020)
“Charting the path to the next normal” (McKinsey – a new chart is posted daily)
“Are Working Mothers Bearing the Mental Burden of Coronavirus?” (Forbes, January 2021)
“Returning to the workplace after COVID-19: What boards should be thinking about” (PwC)

Other things of interest:

2020 Was the Year of Lost Friendships” (Harper’s Bazaar, May 2021)
What We Learned from a Year of Crafting” (New York Times, May 2021)
Is Rewatching Old TV Good for the Soul?” (BBC, April 2021)
Who Really Created the Marvel Universe?” (The New Yorker, February 2021)

Cooking

(See? I told you there would be recipes….)

First a magical cheese sauce and French taco recipe, then what I made for my recent book group dinner (the one I wrote about). Deal? Deal.

Quick: What’s something easy and versatile that you may not be making and using regularly? This cheese sauce. I pinky swear. It’s super simple (so simple you’ll wonder either why you haven’t been making it this way the entire time or why you should bother trying). It’s heavy cream and cheese. That’s it. You can add more, do more, etc. But the basic recipe is just boiled cream and grated cheese. Here goes:

This started, you might recall, when my daughter came home needing to cook something for a French class project. I was so excited that we were going to make a cheese soufflé together. But no. She wanted to make French tacos – something I thought she was making up on the spot. She was not. And while we were studying how to make French tacos, we (I) discovered this way of making cheese sauce. I’ll never go back to the formal way.

Easy Versatile Cheese Sauce

Boil cream (about a cup); stir in cheese (1.5-2 ounces, grated). That’s it. That’s the entire recipe.

One big advantage of this preparation is that the sauce firms up nicely when refrigerated and can be used as a spread. Blend in some fresh herbs or spices, and it’s even more useful. Use a variety of cheeses, if you like, to change the flavors. Just make sure to use heavy cream and a cheese that will melt (young, high-moisture cheeses are the ticket) (though not mozzarella because it will be stringy).

And the French tacos? Here’s how we make them:

Ingredients

Large flour tortilla (the really big ones make this easier)
Mayonnaise
Harissa (mild or not, prepared at home or not)
Chicken or beef cut into small pieces and cooked in a spice mix that includes cumin, oregano, chile, salt, and whatever else you might enjoy along those lines
Onions and peppers, sautéed in a fair amount of oil or butter until they’re good and soft (think: Philly cheesesteak topping)
Sliced cheese (Swiss is my go-to, but white cheddar also works well)
OPTIONAL: French fries/oven-roasted potatoes (no, not kidding; that’s the original idea, that the fries go INSIDE the ‘sandwich’)
Magic cheese sauce

You’ll cook the tacos on a grill pan (or actual grill), so go ahead and heat that up.

Instructions

  1. Warm the tortilla to make it easy to fold (I do this over a stovetop flame)
  2. Spread a thin layer of harissa mayonnaise (just those two ingredients, mixed together to your taste) in the middle of the tortilla, leaving an inch or two border around the edge (this layer is an important step to keep the liquid from the meat and vegetables from making the tortilla soggy and fragile)
  3. Tear the slice of cheese into strips and lay them in the middle of the tortilla, on top of the harissa/mayo
  4. Spoon warm meat and vegetables over the cheese
  5. Scatter potatoes, if you’re including them (I do not)
  6. Spoon some cheese sauce over the top
  7. Fold the tortilla into a square-ish packet, bottom first, then sides, the rolling it over the seal the top to overlap and close.
  8. Place the folded packet on the hot grill pan and press lightly; keep it there until there are nice light brown grill marks, then turn to do the other side. Return to the original side, but turned in a different direction so you’ll get an attractive grill-line pattern; repeat on the second side.
  9. Eat.

(Side note: I dare you to find a better hangover food.) (No, you don’t have to be hungover to enjoy it.)

What else makes good use of this sauce? A variation of Jimmy Bradley’s Salad with Gruyère.

Moving on, and as a follow up to another recent post:

Linguine with Baby Clams

Hey, let’s dal back to January 2015, back when I wrote every Saturday and included a weekly menu plan (meaning: 5 ideas for weeknight dinner). REMEMBER THAT?! Anyway…

One of the recipes I shared then was the same recipe I referenced recently, the meal I made for my book group when they came for dinner on the porch after 15 months of not being together in person: “Linguine with Lemon, Baby Clams, and Parsley.”

The reason I remember posting it is because I have a friend who does not consider herself a cook but who is married to a very good cook. She wanted to make dinner for her cook, even though she does not cook. And she gave it a try, using this recipe (pasted here exactly as was written in January 2015), and she was ASTONISHED by the outcome. I add that detail to make clear that, even though what you’ll read here is more of an idea than an actual recipe (with, like, quantities and times), it actually works. I promise it works. Here ’tis (with an after-note, because I did decide, upon rereading, that additional information might be helpful):

Linguini with lemon, baby clams & fresh parsley (originally published 1/24/15)

This is an easy and delicious dish, one that tastes as good cold the next day as when it’s hot and fresh.  Cook linguini per package directions.  While pasta is boiling combine in a glass bowl: 1 can baby clams, mostly drained; juice of one large lemon; ½ bunch (or more) fresh parsley, chopped; 1 clove garlic, pressed or very finely minced; olive oil and salt.  Drain pasta, put it back in the pot; pour the clam/ lemon/ parsley mix over the hot pasta and toss well.  Top with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve with something green as a companion dish.

NEW NOTES (May 2021): 1 lb. linguine. Save the clam juice; pour it into a measuring cup and let it sit so the solid bits can fall to the bottom; pour some of the juice into the pasta. Use more olive oil than you think wise. Salt only after tasting. Parmesan is completely not necessary. I might even like it better without.

Riff on Ella Risbridger’s Kale-Cilantro Salad

I know, I know. We’ve been over this kale thing before. I heard you (one of you) when you said that you weren’t massaging anything that couldn’t massage you back. I get it; kale is easy to dislike. Having myself written it off and then given it a reprieve, I totally get the resistance. But if you’re willing to give it a try, this salad really is good, and easy, and healthy. Ready?

  1. Take a bunch of kale (washed and shaken dry) and cut it into a fine chiffonade – pretty, dainty, tiny ribbons of green.
  2. Then take a bunch (or half a bunch, to your liking) of cilantro and do the same thing.
  3. Put the cilantro in a bowl with juice from half a lime, a bit of molasses or honey or maple syrup (yes, I know these are three very different things; pick the one you like – or something else that’s liquid sweetness), and – if you like – some fruit (cherries, blueberries, nectarine slices, or the dried version of any of these things).
  4. Stir that cilantro mix and let it sit while you work on the kale.
  5. Pour some olive oil (somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon) on the kale and work it with your fingers, gently rubbing the leaves to tender them up. Sprinkle the kale with salt and toss.
  6. Add one bowl of greens to the other (doesn’t matter which) and mix with your hands.
  7. That’s it. That’s the whole recipe. Could you add feta or goat cheese (etc.)? Of course. Suit yourself.

Riff on Ella Risbridger’s “It Gets Better” Brown Butter Salted Caramel Brownies

Ah; you see a two-part theme here? And maybe you wonder: Who is Ella Risbridger, anyway? Well she’s the 20-something author of Midnight Chicken, a thoroughly delightful cooking memoir that I received a month or so ago as a gift from the loveliest friend. It isn’t the kind of book one reads cover to cover but rather in chunks with morning coffee or an evening cocktail. Reading it reminds me of my 20-something self and my attitude then (still now) toward cooking as an enjoyment, not a chore.

Anyway, the recipe she calls the most extravagant of the whole book is a brownie recipe. Yep; brownies.

I read it, thought, OMG, and promptly made a batch for my book group dinner. Only I mis-read the directions, and even though it turned out just fine, I decided to make a second batch and stick to the instructions. But it’s a U.K. publication, and the measurements require conversion (and some guesswork). So I made a THIRD batch (when you read the recipe, you’ll understand why all caps are warranted). In the book these are labeled “Salted Caramel Brown Butter Brownies.” Risbridger’s original name for them was “‘It Gets Better’ Brown Butter Brownies,” because it really does get better, and a good dose of chocolate often helps it get better faster.

OMG. These are like sweetened, chocolate-flavored butter, held together with a bit of flour and made more interesting with bits of salt and nuts (she calls for walnuts, but I used almonds all three rounds).

Give it a try, why don’t you? And, while you’re at it, make whatever changes or additions sound right to you. Because this recipe, like all of us, is a WIP.

Overview:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees if using a convection oven, 350 degrees if a regular oven
  2. Grease/butter a rectangular glass dish (9×12 ish)
  3. Make a batch of salted caramel (or a batch of toffee – hard crack – it will be close to the same, in the end) and put it in the freezer
  4. Chop 1 cup (ish) raw almonds
  5. Chop (or crack) the caramel (or toffee) into small pieces and mix with the almonds
  6. Make the brownie butter; spread half of it in the prepared dish; sprinkle the caramel/almond mix all over; cover with remaining batter (you’ll need a spatula to spread both bottom and top layers, and they’ll be kind of thin)
  7. Bake 20-30 minutes (ish) paying close attention to what’s happening; if your oven is on the hot side, turn it down a little so the chocolate doesn’t scorch

Ingredients:

For the caramel (or toffee)

1/2 cup sugar (any kind, but a nice brown sugar worked particularly well, until I ran out of it)
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. heavy cream
Coarse kosher salt or flaky fleur de sel or whatever you like for this sort of thing

Line a sheetpan with a piece of parchment paper.

Cook the sugar in a small saucepan until it melts and turns a lovely light brown color. Add the butter and cream, whisking regularly, until it starts to turn a nice copper color (the quantity of this batch is too small for my candy thermometer to work, but if you have that option then you’re going for hard crack (295/305 degrees) on the sugar (first step) then 240/245 degrees in the second stage.

Pour the hot caramel (it’s very hot – be careful) onto the parchment paper and sprinkle it with salt (be generous). Put the sheetpan in the freezer.

NOTE: If you want a slightly different end result, make toffee (combine sugar, butter, 1 Tbsp. water in the pan at the same time and cook to hard crack temp, then pour onto parchment). If you don’t want to make your own caramel, just buy some.

While the caramel is setting up, make the brownie batter.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 1/2-2 c. sugar (can use a mix of white and light brown, or all of either) (I tried both quantities of sugar and prefer less, but you might prefer more)
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and browned (don’t burn it)
4 eggs (yes, really)
1-2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 c. flour (sift if you like)
1/2 – 1 bag bittersweet chocolate chips
1 c. (ish) raw almonds

Stir together the cocoa and sugar, then add the melted butter and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Stir in the vanilla. Add the flour and beat by hand until it looks right. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Remove the caramel (or toffee) from the freezer and chop/break into pieces. Mix with the chopped almonds.

Plan A(Generally matches Risbridger’s recipe): Spread half of the batter in the prepared dish, sprinkle the caramel/almond mix on top, then cover with the rest of the batter and bake for 20-30 minutes, checking it regularly after 15 minutes to make sure the chocolate isn’t scorching.

Plan B (I preferred this preparation): Fold the caramel bits/almonds into the batter, being careful not to overmix (the caramel bits will start to melt, if you do). Spread the batter into the prepared dish and bake 20-30 minutes, checking it regularly after 15 minutes to make sure the chocolate isn’t scorching.

When you pull the dish from the oven, things might look a bit soft. Do not put it back in the oven. Instead, put it in the refrigerator and let the whole thing get cold. The waiting will feel like torture, but it’s worth it. If you just can’t wait, then be prepared to eat you “brownie” in a bowl, with a spoon. It will be just a delicious. And decadent.

It gets better. It does. It will.

May we all be well, safe, happy, and peaceful in the process.

7 thoughts on “A few things: May 2021

  1. I have no words. Like when I went to the event this week with 170 people outside and no masks and I was sort of the wife of the host and… so many awkward moments. Like I can hug you but I can’t shake your hand? Like I’m going to talk about my kids playing lacrosse because that’s all I know and also, so much of what that dude said sounds like white misogyny although maybe 18 months ago I didn’t notice? Who has changed? Me? Them?Everything?
    So thank god for tacos (which we had tonight). And your writing (which I read while my monsters cleaned up the kitchen after). They are both eternal.❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, my! The middle school analogy is spot-on. Perhaps with five decades of experience beyond that tumultuous time, I can navigate the waters with a bit more grace this time. Perhaps we all can. The recipes have set my brain awhirl. Time to make a shopping list…. Thanks, Jenny.

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  3. As we venture out, I find that dining in a restaurant where the tables are still distanced has been the easiest. Once seated, we feel like normal folks out for a meal. However, so many other things feel awkward, and I find that just because I CAN go somewhere, I’m not sure I want to just yet. The middle school analogy is perfect. Awkward, unsure how the other person(s) are acting/reacting, no one is quite sure they want to go to the dance, or dance once there.

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