Lavender Tea and ‘Season To Taste’

[On the way to work, July 2011.]

Good morning from glorious San Francisco where the sun is shining and it’s actually, can I say it?, kind of hot. I snapped that photo above as I left the house — sweet, sweet sun! — and just had a long and languorous coffee and a chat with my friend Lesli (note to Jackson Square inhabitants: the cafe closes at 1p today so if you’re like me you’ll be sure to load up on the iced coffee early), in which we sipped our beverages and marveled at the weather and discussed lunch plans. I’m all packed for a weekend out of town. I can actually walk today without being in excruciating pain (!). My guy returned last night from the East Coast and all is right with the world. My clothes are clean. I might even get in a swim sometime during the next few days. There will be a barbecue on Monday.

[Coffee, July 2011.]

But that’s all pretty everyday stuff, though lovely in its own right. Really I’m here to document that brilliant sun (in San Francisco, especially in July, we do not take such things for granted) and to tell you about my ‘friend’ Molly Birnbaum‘s book, Season to Taste, which I’ve just finished and am contemplating reading again immediately because it’s so good.

Molly and I connected … a few years ago? Longer? … through the rabbit-hole effects of the Internet. I don’t remember how in particular I came across her blog, My Madeline, but when I did I was immediately struck by her words. She’s a terrific writer, with that elusive ability to help the reader really see the stories she’s writing about, and has a beautiful economy of language I admire (and wish I could better emulate; see above for my tendency to, as my man Robert Plant has said, ramble on.). And the story she tells in her book is a doozy — months before embarking on a course of study at the Culinary Institute of America she was hit by a car. Not only was she off her feet for weeks due to a knee injury, she soon discovered she’d lost her sense of smell, and, even more frustrating, her ability to taste.

Can you imagine? A cook who can’t taste or smell? These basic abilities we take for granted — gone, in a sudden flash. I can’t fathom it, really, although she does a fantastic job of communicating just how difficult it was. Her entire life plan was altered; she had to start anew in more ways than one. Smells slowly crept back — chocolate, coffee, skunk — but they were fleeting and inconsistent. Once confident in the kitchen, she was hesitant and nervous, unable to trust herself. And yet — she forged on. She eventually started cooking again, even if she couldn’t taste what she produced, and even if it wasn’t perfect. How incredibly hard this must have been. It’s far too easy to fall down into the depths of despair and stay there, but to be able climb back up and re- fashion a life and to grow and learn from the experience is a gift. To the reader following her journey, it’s incredibly inspiring.

Molly and I haven’t quite managed to connect in person just yet (note: book tour to SF? Oh please say you will!), hence that ‘friend’, but if and when we do I have a feeling we’ll get along just great — and not only because she’s baked a wedding cake, is a careful and meticulous writer of journalism and essay alike, runs half-marathons, and cooks like crazy. It for sure will be because of all of those things, but I think it will also be because once, for a brief stretch, she lived in Point Reyes and wrote for the Light (pssst — me, too, but only for a little bit), and has a fondness for that place that as you know is my beloved place, the one that has a particular hold on my heart. People who get the West Marin thing are definitely my people.

Well also … Let’s be honest. I want to meet her to talk small newspapers and writing and running but also, um, I’d like her to cook for me. Is that wrong? I hope not. This is what I’d choose: tomato soup to start, then butternut squash macaroni and cheese, the roasted cauliflower (of course) she mentions in the book, finished off with a slice or two of plum cake. I’ll provide the ice cream and the lavender tea. And the wine. A fair trade?

So cheers to you, Molly, my to-be in-person-friend! Your book is marvelous and I am so glad for you! And I’m glad for me, too, because I hope the chorus of praise you’re getting all ’round means you’ll be writing another book very soon. We’ll all be the better for it.

I’ve chosen to share a recipe for lavender-infused tea in a small tribute to Season To Taste because it somehow feels just right. Lavender is probably my favorite herb — I wrote about this in depth a few years ago for NPR — and rarely a day goes by that I don’t incorporate it in some way into my life. I adore its scent: earthy, slightly sweet, pungent and delicate at the same time. Yet, it’s true, for all my love I also take it for granted — what would I do if I lacked the ability to smell it? With that thought in mind, I vow to slow down a bit. I shall take a moment to deeply inhale. I will drink lots of cool tea this weekend and send a silent prayer of thankfulness for this life, and all the little things.

Lavender Tea

1 teaspoon of tea, loose leaf Earl Grey, or a mild black or white tea
3 teaspoons of dried lavender flowers or 2 tablespoons of fresh flowers
4 cups water

Bring the water to a boil.

Place your tea and the lavender flowers in a tea pot or a regular pot (you’ll want one that’s good for steeping). Pour the water over the top. Steep 4 to 5 minutes and serve, or let cool and refrigerate for warm days like today, when you want something cool.

Me and Meat

[A cow I won’t be eating, on the Bolinas Ridge trail, March 2010.]

The wind was whipping about a bit the other night as I crossed over Divis (summer in the city, you continue to pain me) and ran the last few blocks along Fell before turning up the hill toward home. As I slogged on, I caught the scent of meat roasting, and vegetables — something so similar to the pot roast my mom made when I was a kid, reminding me of those sun-speckled Sundays spent outside in the field next door before tumbling back in for dinner. My stomach grumbled; I hadn’t eaten since a late-afternoon snack, and for a moment that wafting aroma smelled so good. However: I’m a vegetarian! I was going home to eat a dinner of roasted cauliflower and roasted fingerlings, corn on the cob, and faux sausage — not meat! What the heck was wrong with me, thinking meat smelled good?

(I think I was just hungry. And sometimes it does smell good.)

Meat and I have been somewhat estranged for almost half my life. I grew up eating rather a lot of it — the requisite London broils, chop meat and potatoes, beef strews, chicken and mushrooms cropped up continuously during childhood, as well as the salads, the spaghettis, the grilled cheese — but gave it up when I was 17. I’ve had a post kicking around my blog drafts for over two years addressing my vegetarianism; it’s just kind of just What I Do. Truth is, I don’t really like the taste of meat. Granted, it’s been about 14+ years now since I’ve properly eaten meat (I know the odd chicken broth-based soup has slipped in over the years, but I try not to think about it) and perhaps if I gave it a try now I would change my tune but … I still don’t have much of an urge to do so. I’m perfectly content to chomp away on beans and tofu and all sorts of vegetables. I don’t feel my plate is lacking in the least.

Lately, though, what I do feel is lacking is the act of cooking meat in my life — I’m always looking for a new culinary challenge or simply a new recipe, vegetarianism aside. By not cooking meat (though yes: I do make a killer baked halibut), I wonder (worry?) that I’m missing out on a whole world of experimentation — and in fact, I do have a strange sort of fascination with the whole cooking-meat thing. It is a mysterious — though not necessarily intimidating — world in which I’d like to delve. I am dying to cook a steak, well!, for example. Or maybe roast a whole lamb in the Greek way, for Easter. Or really do the Thanksgiving turkey this year. Or a roasted chicken with potatoes and tomatoes in the pan, the way my brother did on Spetses! Things like that. I just don’t want to eat it myself.

My quandary is, however: if I am a committed vegetarian, is it OK for me to cook meat? Am I going against some sort of vegetarian code? My morals? Should I feel guilty even if I’m not consuming it myself? For me, cooking is a lot about nourishing others, and a lot of others in my life like to eat animals. I’m certainly fine with that. Maybe I shouldn’t over think this and should simply get to cooking …

It was perhaps this ongoing curiosity that recently prompted me to roast a chicken for the first time in a few years. I had planned a little dinner party for my folks and I wanted to delve outside my comfort zone a bit (forgoing fish for once; I do often cook them a nice piece of locally caught fish but, you know, you want to mix things up every so often). I went down to the Ferry Building the night before bought a small (local) bird which I planned to roast — in the way Zuni Cafe does it, along with the bread salad — for dinner (there would be lots of vegetarian things, too). I made sure it was free range, free roaming, organic loveliness despite my wee pangs of guilt for cooking it at all. (As I rubbed it all over with salt and pepper on Thursday night, I talked to it all the while (clucking to it, really) about its free little life and what a poor little thing it was and how well I would treat it. They would enjoy it, I promised; its life would not have been lost for nothing.) Then I stuck it in the fridge to rest overnight.

[Near Jenner, Calif., July 2010.]

My mother tells a story about when I was about five-years-old: We were down at the neighbor’s house and I happily petted their cow (or calf? Who can remember). Later, at the dinner table, I suddenly asked, “Where does this [roast beef/ pot roast/ meatloaf] come from?” My parents, deciding to take the full disclosure route, said something like, “Well, it’s from a cow.” To which I replied, Like Bambina [or whatever the thing’s name was] next door? And oh, my sad face when I put two and two together!

I’d like to think that my decision to become a vegetarian was made in that instant, at such a tender age (a cousin of mine decided at six she was quitting meat, and has held firm well into her twenties), but I think that particular conversation more like sowed the seeds that would lead ultimately to my forgoing all meat and fish. Until I reached my mid-teens, I (un)happily plowed through roast chickens, steak (oh, my long-ago fondness for Cattleman’s!), ham, and whatever else was put in front of me, though it was always in the back of my mind to give it all up. Once I finally did, I didn’t miss it.

The thing is that I never really enjoyed the meat I was eating. I’ve met vegetarians who visibly salivate as they smell barbecued flank steak roasting to juicy perfection, and I know it is much, much harder for them to abstain than it is for me. I know all sorts — the ones who eat fish on occasion, or chicken only!, or only when traveling, or or or. My deep and abiding love for Gardenburger Riblets aside, I would never say I actually miss consuming meat (even though, yes, it does often smell so yummy while it’s cooking. Cheese is another story; I may cook a lot of vegan dishes but I would be hard pressed to give it up altogether. What I’m really hankering after is probably a taste of that barbecue sauce, or the herbs the chicken’s been roasted in, rather than the animal itself.). In that sense, I’m lucky.

So while my decision to go vegetarian was not an entirely political act , for as long as I can remember I have loved animals truly and wish only to treat them with respect and kindness. I think for me going vegetarian just felt right. and as with so many things in my life that turn out to be for the best, I went with my gut feeling, and haven’t really looked back. This is not to say I mind if others do; on the contrary. I do wish and hope that if possible people would seek out organic and sustainably raised beef and poultry (etc.), but I will never tell someone what to do. My choice to be vegetarian, your choice to eat meat (or tofu), or whatever. I am a huge believer in personal choice.

I have my moments when I wonder if I am ‘missing’ something by not eating meat. There are so many wonderful restaurants in my city, not to mention the world, and if I stay staunchly veg I have to skip most of the menu (small price to pay, I reckon). I wonder if ever I am pregnant I’ll crave meat (I have two friends who remained vegetarian throughout their pregnancies; I have others who went back to meat then and are still eating it). Then there’s the ‘full’ issue: I’m currently training for a marathon and am remembering anew the importance of protein consumed after a long run — though I’m pretty adept at the good old pb-and-banana recovery snack — and am always hungry. (Always.) Would meat fill me up more than quinoa + tofu? Still, I’m never truly tempted to find out for sure.

I’m not going back to meat anytime soon — probably I never will. The plant-based world fully satisfies, small occasional questions aside. But I do want to cook it a bit more just to test myself, to see if I can, even if that seems a bit weird. Then, too, I’ve been spending a lot of time with someone who does enjoy a good steak now and again (though, bless him, he also loves my Tofurkey sundried tomato ‘sausages’ and quinoa salad), not to mention that my mom truly appreciates a good roast chicken (as well as one of my girlfriends), and my brother loves his lamb …

[The Carpenter’s Boatshop, Pemaquid, Me., June 2010.]

Anyway, back to ‘my’ chicken of a few weeks ago. It slept comfortably its chilly sleep for nearly 24 hours until the next evening when I took it out of the fridge to bake. To my horror, I discovered that my damned janky refrigerator had half-frozen its legs. Woe and anguish and general gnashing of teeth ensued. Doom, in fact. Even a phone call to my sister-in-law lamenting my fate. But after clutching my head for a few minutes — and one stiff g&t later — all I could do was to laugh and shake my fist at cheap apartment fridges and ineffectual vegetarians. I ran the poor chicken under warm water and ended up cooking it anyhow; it seemed to turn out fine (all I heard was how good it tasted). So. Maybe blindly going forth is the way? Or I need a new fridge.

My friend Tara wrote a wonderful book last year about growing up as a vegetarian who later had to delve into the world of cooking meat for health reasons. She addresses the implications of eating different kinds of meat — and, in fact, if we should — and asks the questions that must be asked. But what I identified with most was her trepidation about cooking it, and her slight nervousness. I certainly questioned my sanity that night: It was a sign! Reason #1928 why vegetarians should not cook meat, I told myself. We don’t know what the heck we’re doing; we’re vegetarians! And yet … and yet.

So yeah: me and meat. We’re kind of wary with each other, and with an uncertain future as of this writing — though I have a feeling my curiosity won’t be waning anytime soon.

There’s always more to say, of course, particularly about this subject, but I’ve gone on long enough. So anyway: I made this chicken. Despite electrical semi-disasters, it all came out well. And I heard it tasted great. I’ll probably even make it again, and I’ll know more of what I’m doing this time. (Though I’ll be the one eating the white beans with basil pistou, and happily lapping up every bite.)

I do like a challenge, after all.

Roast chicken a la Zuni Cafe, and bread salad
,via, with my adaptations

Serves 2 to 4

One small chicken, about 3 to 3 ¾ pounds
4 sprigs fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage, each about 3 inches long
Fine sea salt, about ¾ tsp per pound of chicken
About ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 heirloom tomatoes, roughly quartered
1/2 lemon, sliced
olive oil

One to two days before roasting, season the chicken. First, remove and discard any giblets or lumps of fat stashed inside the cavity. Rinse the chicken, and thoroughly pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Place the chicken breast side up in an 8- or 9-inch square glass or ceramic dish. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slip a finger under the skin of each breast, making two small pockets. Slide an herb sprig into each pocket, and place the other two sprigs inside the cavity. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper, using your hands to massage the spices into the skin, concentrating more on the meaty breasts and thighs than the bony wings and ankles. Sprinkle a bit of salt inside the cavity. Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders, cover the chicken with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

To roast the chicken, preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Choose a shallow, flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken. Preheat the pan on the stovetop over medium heat and drip in a light slick of olive oil. Wipe the chicken dry with paper towels, and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Place the pan in the middle of the oven, and listen and watch for the chicken to sizzle and start browning within 20 minutes. The skin should blister a bit, but it shouldn’t blacken or smoke; if it does, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Conversely, if the chicken isn’t browning, raise the temperature by 25 degrees.

After about 30 minutes, gently turn the bird over. Roast for another 15-20 minutes, depending on size, then flip it back breast side, add the tomatoes and lemon slices, and cook for another 10-15 minutes. Total roasting time will be 50 minutes to an hour-ish.

Remove the chicken from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board or plate, and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes before cutting it into pieces.

Zuni Cafe Bread Salad

Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried cranberries
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens

Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the bottom and most of the top and side crusts from your bread (you can reserve these to use as croutons for soup or another salad). Tear bread into irregular 2- to 3-inch chunks, wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs.

Toss them with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, lightly coating them, and broil them very briefly, just to lightly color the edges.

Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Add the cranberries and pine nuts. Dribble the lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.

Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes.

Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well.

Plate the salad on your serving dish and pile the chicken on top to serve.

From the Harvest

[Pumpkin, barley and root vegetables, November 2008.]

For all of my incomprehension about just how exactly we’re right smack in the middle of November and not still ensconced on a deserted beach somewhere along the California coast at the end of July, I’m finally starting to feel that little thrill that comes along with the holidays. Thanksgiving arrives in just a week (!) and then there are cards to make and cakes to bake and all sorts of cookies to contemplate. I’m sort of getting into the mood — at last — of ‘can’t really wait.’

I wrote about Thanksgivings past last year for the Chronicle and this year I wrote about vegetarian main dish Thanksgiving options for Kitchen Window. I’ve included recipes that aren’t too time-consuming but which still make a lovely presentation on the holiday table (please note you could serve these any time — including, say, for that New Year’s Eve dinner party you may, like me, already be planning). All dishes make good use of seasonal vegetables — which, as you may know, is a concept near and dear to my heart.

Any day I have an article out is a grand one but today is especially special because it’s my (‘baby’) brother’s birthday — happy birthday Kurt! I think it fitting tribute I’m thinking not only of ways to incorporate seasonal produce into my Thanksgiving meal but into my every-day dinner plans as well. I owe a lot to him — my new-found adoration of Brussels sprouts, for example, and an undying affinity for heirloom tomatoes — but most of all I owe a commitment to eating gloriously: locally and in season. This year I wonder if we all could avail ourselves of our farmers markets this coming weekend — the very important pre-Thanksgiving weekend — what we could do! Certainly we’d come home weighted-down with many sweet potatoes for biscuits, piles of burgeoning fall/winter greens for wilting into mashed potatoes, and lots of pumpkins, for soups and pies.

[Roasted potatoes and carrots, June 2008.]

My brother and I have cooked quite a few meals together over the years — including many Thanksgiving dinners — while sometimes fighting for counter space and cheerfully making a mess of the kitchen floor. I think the one I remember with the most fondness is one we did over three years ago when I stayed a few days with him at his apartment in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I was a bit at loose ends — unemployed, not sure if I was going to stay on the East Coast or finally move to San Francisco — but I’d signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon, trained in a blind rush that fall, and landed up in Washington hungry and ready to run. I’d sublet my own apartment in between traveling, and so I was spending some time at his place right before the race. He invited over a few friends that night, as did I, and we cooked.

It wasn’t a very complicated meal: I made a sort of spinach-shallot pie with lots of cheese in a whole-wheat pastry flour crust while he sauteed green beans with almonds until the whole pan was crispy and steaming. I think there was also a spinach salad. I’m sure everything had been obtained at one of the area’s farmers markets; even after he stopped working at Wheatland he still worked the various markets and if not working at least stopped by to pick up his week’s supply of vegetables. It was a good one, for sure. And maybe I remember that meal so vividly because I felt taken-care of somehow by my younger brother, when I’d often been the one to take care of him.

Then, too, everything tasted really, really good.

In this last week before one of my very favorite holidays (I mean, how could it not be — it’s a day to celebrate the harvest, to cook and eat delicious and simple food, to be grateful and appreciative just to exist, in the smoky, sun-filled fall air) I’m sure we’re all thinking about what to put on the table. My little wish for 2008 is that your feasts include lots of things from your local farmers market or, if that’s not possible, incorporate as much seasonal produce as possible. Maybe this will be the year the traditional green bean casserole is tossed in favor of roasted Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes will be mashed with a drip of sesame oil and swirled with soy milk and sea salt. Maybe instead of pumpkin pie you’ll dig out a recipe for pumpkin ice cream — from fresh pumpkins, even — a scoop of which, slipped alongside a warm piece of spiced ginger cake, makes for an unexpected and unique finish to the feast.

Whatever your menu entails, however, I’m sure it will be absolutely delicious.

Last night in Bath, Me., the temperature sunk to 27 degrees — here in San Francisco it was nearly twice that but still chilly, and I piled on the blankets when I tucked myself into bed early (still a little worn out, alas). I drifted off to sleep to visions of salted butter caramels and applesauce and wool socks and Wildcat Camp in a warm December (though perhaps I was already dreaming when I imagined that one) and spending time with my favorite cook awfully soon. Dear brother mine, I hope today in New England dawned clear and bright for your 29th and that your honey takes — or makes — you out for a nice dinner tonight; I’m sure she will. In a week we’ll be bickering contentedly over who gets to cook what for Thanksgiving dinner, and I can’t wait. I hope this next year is better than all those preceding it (though truth be told they haven’t been half bad) and you are treated to something sweet today — like lots and lots of cake.

I love you and will see you soon.