skimming addict: confessions of a former bookworm

I’ve forgotten how to read.

I could qualify — “Oh sure, there’s a stack of books next to my bed” — or I could name drop a couple pieces bound to pop up on year-end lists and make big bright eyes and serious-face about them. “Unbelievable,” I could say, along with other explosive and reverent adjectives. Easy ways to say “I’ve read it, I get it,” while doing neither.

But it’s all a ruse.

As a bookworm child, I saw skimming as a cardinal sin, and as with all cardinal sins, I embraced it in my early 20s. My first office job turned me into a media addict. Years of carefully downing bulky texts were washed away by a text diet that made it seem like I was reading English-major mandated Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded (c.1740) every day — if Pamela was shellacked in ads and broken down into blurbs delivered by a narrator who seemed either overjoyed by the universe or in the throes of mania:

50 BEST ALBUMS EVER! 100 BOOKS YOU HAVE TO READ! THE 200 WILDEST POLICY POSITIONS ON THE ACA COMPLETE WITH KITTENS YOU GUYS KITTENS!!?!?!?!

I spent years in writing programs and literature classes. I loved exhausting, formal poetry courses where every syllable of every word undulated on my tongue, demarcated, and dissected into macrons and brevs.

Now a page feels impossible.

No longer a margin scrawler, I’ve become a binge and purge reader, consuming relentless content yet somehow walking away empty-headed. Everything I consume is tinged with deprivation — 20 skipped words, sentences hacked roughly and interpreted into their simplest forms, tidal waves of too-much. I have this conversation a few times a week:

“Did you read _______?”

“Well I saw the headline. I’ve heard about it.”

Most of the time it feels like we’ve all read the bolded text and moved on, ready to announce this non-accomplishment to whoever is willing to pat our backs.

All the readerly care and thoughtfulness is gone and I can’t seem to get it back. Reading gets increasingly willful — I’ll take it page by page until, late at night, I’m sick of waiting for the book to unfold, and skate through 20 pages to get to the point — when isn’t the point the full experience, not a series of plot explosions? The next day I skim: “TOP 20 PLOT POINTS!” or “TOP 50 FICTION TWISTS!” or “100 DOBBERMANS READING MADAME BOVARY, WITH THEIR REVIEWS!”, and promptly Tweet it so the world knows that I get it, whatever “it” is today.

“Reading slowly has been pathologized in the U.S. in the past half-century, while reading speedily has been glorified,” says Wall Street Journal writer Cynthia Crosen. But as with all things that were aspirational three years ago, exhaustive bulk reading, where zippy consumption is necessary, is starting to feel passé. “Think” pieces on the pretentiousness of “media diet” literature are becoming their own trend. I’ve started dropping websites and magazines, attempting to find some kind of balance in the hopes that my ability to be a reader and not just a consumer will return. No such luck. As with all those early 20s vices, excess is easy; slowing down is painstaking.

Originally published in The Snack Bar Collective: Issue 1

old friends, young and fed.

My parents’ friends Georgie and Patrick were rich. This was uncomplicated to me, even as a child. Enormous modern art paintings covered the walls of their large, airy house. Their kitchen boasted every gadget, tastefully—-silver, chrome, understated shine. They ate organic before anyone knew what that was. One day, when I was babysitting their kids, Georgie described to me how the family went to a farm once a week and got a box full of crisp, fresh produce, just plucked from the grounds. She was describing a CSA; I didn’t know what it was because it was 2001. They were different, and yet, we were all the same at the table, where we shared meals and grew, with each passing year and milestone, more familial.   

One night, Patrick was cruel and vocal about the soup at dinner. He hadn’t made it, Georgie had, so it was flawed. He was the star chef in the house—-a Georgie dish on the menu was such a rarity that this is the only one I can remember. I thought it was delicious, a funny thick vegetable soup full of carrots and tiny pastas, perfectly cooked and shaped like stars. All of the grown men in my life were openly critical of their wives—-the soup incident is only noteworthy because, in all those years, everyone seemed mostly content. 

We were frequent guests at Patrick and Georgie’s table. My parents went to their catered New Years Eve party, no children allowed, but my sister and I ran rampant and stuffed our faces from their overflowing refrigerator for the rest of the year. When we had dinner at their house, they made wild salmon and thick steaks on their grill, a grill that inspired awe in anyone who could be awe-inspired by grilling. My father and Patrick hovered around it in the dark snowy recesses of football season through the summer’s outdoor dinners, watching the meat grow dark and smoky.

All around us, the garden buzzed, verdant and thick with the hum of summer insects. Their little porch, one of many, sprouted out of the side of their house. Georgie covered the center of the table in tea-lights. Outside it smelled like citronella and sizzling coals. Summer was almost over. We ate so many things, meats and salads, tall cold glasses of something, but all I remember is grilled bread with tomatoes.

All year long we ate slices of mealy, lifeless tomatoes on top of hamburgers or tucked into sandwiches, a mushy obstacle teetering between bread and deli cheese. For a few weeks, though, in the summer, tomatoes sang. They became something else entirely. At home,  I ate them off the vine in our front yard, sun-warmed; their skins popped between my teeth. 

Patrick sliced bright red tomatoes and covered them in fresh basil and good, golden olive oil. It was on this porch that I learned that basil is best if you tear it with your hands; never slice it. That olive oil can be the thing you want to taste, and not simply a means to a cooked end. That bread, rubbed with garlic and grilled, is the very best food to eat, so good it makes everyone fall silent, happy and sated.

******

Patrick and Georgie’s guesthouse at the beach smelled perfect, an olfactory cocktail of warm driftwood and sunshine and children’s sunscreen. Because it was the summer, I was allowed to drink sweet iced coffees, practically milkshakes, that we bought from a stand every morning. There were big crepes served next door, full of cheesecake and Eastern Shore blueberries, or Nutella heated until it could drizzle, then drizzled on summer-sweet strawberries. 

One night, while babysitting Patrick and Georgie’s kids, I ate all of their jellybeans. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. The next morning Jake wanted a jellybean and so did Tabitha, but they were gone and no one knew why. Ashamed, I cowered in the living room and pretended to clean off the coffee table. Georgie and Patrick paid me handsomely, kept me in good food and coffee, and I betrayed them by devouring their kids’ candy.

I was 13 and I constantly felt bizarre, especially there, surrounded by so much beauty—-beautiful Georgie, who wore soft linens and eased into yoga poses mid-conversation, beautiful beach house full of beautiful glossy magazines, beautiful family. When Tabitha told me about their other babysitter, I imagined that she was slim and small-hipped with a head of thick blonde waves. I was certain that she was in possession of everything I wanted and couldn’t have—-a pastel Aeropostale bikini, a deep brown tan, the approval of adults and adoration of little kids. I imagined this mystery babysitter sitting on the back porch, confiding in Georgie about a boy she liked as she bounced little Tabitha on her lap, everyone cocooned in the warm glow of belonging.   

Thick around the middle, in an old blue one piece, my hair in two tangled braids that I was afraid to undo for fear of what my coarse hair might do next, I was, in my mind, wrong. Wrong all over, inside and out. 

I ate the jellybeans because I had one and then had to have another, had to pair a few flavors together, then colors, and before I knew it the slick plastic bag was emptied except for pale purple Tropical punch and black licorice, the unlovables of the jelly bean world. I ate them with a kind of rapid, compulsive self-loathing—-nervous, twitchy, a bottomless pit. Afterwards I lay on the couch in a sugar rush, my little stomach poked out over the top of my khaki shorts.  

My family joined us the next night. I was relieved that I could transition back into a kid and spend my days lying on the beach with my little sister after sleeping late in our twin beds.  I was terrified of small talk, awkward with children, embarrassed by my body in my swimsuit, and ready to run in to my parents’ open arms. Even though I was too old for it, being one of the kids felt natural, better than feigning adulthood when I so clearly couldn’t.    

That weekend I was privy to the secret thrill of Patrick’s family’s rollicking dinners. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles filled their plates and chatted loudly around fold out tables in the sunroom. Multiple generations of competitive home cooks turned out homemade bread and good butter, fresh sweet corn on the cob, little potatoes roasted with rosemary and salt, platters of steak—-oily and bloody and marvelous. Fresh torn basil and good tomatoes, everywhere, in the salads, in the pasta, on the crusty hand torn bread. The lights were low and everyone bustled, feasting and serving, feasting some more.

*****

Those dinners are locked in my mind, so vibrant and present they could’ve happened months ago, not decades. Now our families are full of adults. They’ve been unstitched and rewoven—-houses and tables filled with new people, children grown up and far away. In four weeks, I’ll be married.

I try to imagine where we all could eat together again and it’s only one place—-at Tabitha or Jake’s weddings. I imagine the small talk, the white china, the catered food. A towering cake. Rich meats. A strange new dream connected with fine threads to a long ago time, when we all sat and ate at a table outside, all various degrees of young and fed.

Too Tired to Cook: Gochujang Meats, Caramelized Onion Greens

I am so tired. Bone tired. Taking unexpected naps tired. I’m not a fan. 

Possible culprits:

  • The data entry/ blind panic phase of wedding planning: Everything needs to be done. Everything needs to be done now. Oh also here’s a spreadsheet, go nuts.
  • Insta-Seasonal-Cold! The seasons have barely shifted, but something about the bizarre weather (hey week of San Francisco heat, how’s it going?) is making everyone around me get sick simultaneously.

I’m also tired of ordering delivery (slow, expensive, never terribly good delivery), and am interested in cooking dinner regularly, even if that interest isn’t paired with very much time or energy.

Enter: Gochujang and a Caramelized Onion.

I’m pretty obsessed with Gochujang,  Korean “red pepper paste,” which is both spicy and a little sweet and has a wild florid red color that makes all meats look more glamorous and decadent. It’s also a winner because you can smear it on top of chicken or fish, top it with some black sesame seeds and salt, and voila—-delicious. I can’t remember to marinate anything right now. Even mixing ingredients in a bowl feels like a step I’d like to skip. I’ve tried this on salmon and chicken thighs, and its been very tasty and stupid easy both times. 

Gochuchang Chicken Thighs 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover two bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with Gochujang—-about a tablespoon each. Top with a teaspoon of sesame seeds and a pinch of flaky salt. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

The truth is, a caramelized onion elevates everything. It makes scrambled eggs more special, it makes pasta more luxurious, it makes homemade tacos more delicious. A caramelized onion lets you take the most thrown together, basic recipe ever and bring it to the next level, with almost no work. Greens with caramelized onion are a side dish staple in this house. It’s easy, healthy, and so good.

Rainbow Chard with Caramelized Onion

This is barely a recipe, it is so extremely lax.

Chop one onion, however you like. A red onion is nice, but not essential. Place in a small pot with a lid, and top with a teaspoon of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. You can also use champagne vinegar or red wine vinegar here, or skip the vinegar entirely. Cover the pot and turn the burner down to low heat. 

Wash rainbow chard. To cook it very quickly, remove the cores and tear up the leafy parts. For a slower, more nutrient dense version, chop the cores into small pieces. 

Let the onion cook down for as much time as you have—-the more time, the more caramelized the onion will be. Less time, it’s more sautéed, but still quite good. Agitate the onions with a fork every five minutes. Five minutes before serving, cook the greens with the onions in the covered pot. When the greens have fully wilted into the onions, turn the heat off, stir, and top with salt and pepper to taste. 

Dark Chocolate and Reese’s Pieces Biscotti

And then, the imperceptible shift. The weather, a degree cooler, maybe half. The sun setting a minute or two earlier, or did you just imagine that? The fresh, crisp smell. One day, all of the sudden, it’s Fall. Just barely, but it’s here. 

When I was a kid, Fall was when my mom started baking again, after keeping the oven cool for the summer. In Northern California, with our cool foggy summers, I never have to follow those kinds of rules. But a warm, sweet smelling house is downright autumnal to me, and so are these festive candy flecked biscotti. 

This recipe is a little more involved than my usual fare, but fairly easy and really fun. There’s something meditative about a multi-step recipe where you shape and mold and slice. The dough is intensely dense, like butter-scented-Play Dough, and trying to move a spoon through it is a challenge. Consider this a mini work out, one that ends in a ton of biscotti.

This makes a lot of biscotti. I doubled Mark Bittman’s biscotti recipe from How to Cook Everything and made some slight alterations. But the great thing about having a lot of biscotti is that, unlike cookies or other baked treats, they don’t get stale. They are stale. They’re created to be sort of stale so you can dunk them in coffee and get away with eating cookies before 9:00am. If this is too much biscotti though, cut the recipe in half and will still make a sizable but more manageable amount. 

Dark Chocolate and Reese’s Pieces Biscotti

Adapted from How To Cook Everything 

  • 8 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups of white sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 4 1/2 cups of all purpose flour 
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 cups dark chocolate chips
  • 3 regular sized bags of Reese’s pieces (around 1.5 cups) 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine butter and sugar with an electric mixer, then add one egg at a time, followed by the extracts.  Mix flour, salt, and baking powder in another bowl; add slowly to wet batter. Add chocolate and Reese’s pieces. 

Butter and flour a baking sheet. Shape dough into four loaves and bake for about 30 minutes, or until loaves are golden and cracked on top. Turn the oven down to 250 degrees. Remove loaves from the oven. When they’re cool enough to touch, slice into 1/2 inch slices with a serrated knife. Bake slices for 15 minutes, flipping them once halfway through. Cool on wire racks. 

apartment kids in the summer.

The summer before fifth grade, neighborhood kids started showing up at my door. I jumped rope all day outside of the apartment building, I was easy to spot and track down. Kids would ring the buzzer and show up sweaty and bored, looking for a playmate.  

That’s how I met Vera. We sat on my bed and traded important details—-Babysitters Club vs. Sweet Valley High, preferred Nick at Nite block, favorite cereal. Friendship confirmed, we got to work on being apartment kids in the summer.

*****

When we slept over at Vera’s house, we woke up to her dad’s spicy curries, full of the bright herbs her mom brought home in sandwich bags from her annual trips to Delhi. Vera’s house was stocked with transcendent snacks, the kind of processed contraband my mother wouldn’t allow in our pantry—-French Toast Crunch, cereal bars, every kind of potato chip. At slumber parties we would watch hours of “Bewitched” or “I Love Lucy,” and snack ourselves into sharp stomach aches

We chased the ice cream truck, then the snowball truck, even though neither of us ever had any money (“A sample?” an incredulous ice cream man once said to us. “You want a sample?” If it worked at the grocery store, we thought it might just work everywhere). We stole snacks and juice boxes from our pantries, quarters for sodas and honey mustard pretzels from the vending machines, and brought them to the pool so we could stay all day. We showed up at my upstairs neighbors’ apartment. They were a young couple in their late 20s with a yappy dog. Sometimes they made brownie batter and let us lick the spoon.  

*****

Katya, Yulia, and I picked blackberries from a bush next to Dumpster Hill, a steep hill that started with the apartment complex dumpsters. It was the universal kid- meeting-spot for running fast in the summers, and sledding faster in the winters.

We filled a bucket with blackberries, which we shamelessly cribbed like everything else—-furniture and fabric from the dumpsters, candy from the cut glass bowl at the apartment complex office, water from the outdoor tap (which we opened to create a homemade waterfall).

Katya ran upstairs to ask her grandmother how to make juice, and came back with a cheesecloth and a coffee mug. She strained the berries into the mug until it was full of sweet, seedless berry ink. We drank it on the front stoop, passing the mug back and forth, then slowly ate the dark pulp out of the cheesecloth.  

******

In the mornings, we ate free day old donuts, bacon, and hot coffee at the new Safeway.

In the afternoons, my dad made us fried egg sandwiches with ketchup for lunch, the eggs edged with a crisp brown lace of fried bits. He was out of work that summer, and every few weeks he took us to the dollar movie theatre. Vera always brought a whole bag of salt and vinegar chips, and we spent each movie smacking our lips and licking sharp vinegar and salt off of our fingers.     

There was a flood one afternoon. The next day, the Whole Foods gave away their enormous supply of day old focaccia for free. Everything day old is just as good. Everything day old is practically better.

We picnicked on the living room floor for dinner. Sliced tomatoes and cheddar cheese were baked into the top of each round loaf of bread. Focaccia, focaccia, I repeated on a loop. I tried to make sure I remembered the word, so I knew what to answer the next time someone asked about my favorite foods.

*****

Katya, her mom, and her grandmother slept in one enormous bed, but on her birthday, her apartment seemed like pure glamour. The dining room folding table was covered with bowls full of Russian candies—-chocolate covered marshmallows and jellies wrapped in bright, crinkly silver wrapping, and we could eat as many as we wanted. Katya sometimes got to sleep on the sofa in the living room, which seemed terribly grownup. We drew her pictures to hang over the couch so she could feel like it was her bedroom. We listened to the Grease soundtrack and doodled beautiful girls, Technicolor models composed with crayons, girls with boyfriends and meticulous dresses and big flippy blonde hair.

***** 

Vera and I could stay out until 9:00pm on summer nights, sometimes even 9:30 if neither of our parents remembered to poke their heads out of our bedroom windows and yell out our names.

We lay on the pale green generators outside of our apartment buildings and watched fireflies and the occasional enormous wasp spin around the street light at the end of the sidewalk. We made decisions:

  • Keeko couldn’t be our friend anymore because he pulled the wings off of fireflies for no reason.
  • The first week of school we would order pizza to the pool, just like the lifeguards.
  • And most importantly, we would not spend next summer here. We would go to new and interesting places—-Vera would visit her family in India, I would go to Quebec with my French class.

We practiced our pitches, trading who got to be the parent who said things like “You’re too young!” or “We don’t have the money,” but eventually, always succumbed to our genius and instructed us to pack our suitcases.  

Vera always brought a bag of sweet cereals mixed together for nights on the generators. We lay side by side and listened to the hum of our neighbors’ television sets through the open windows. We licked our cinnamon sugar fingertips and swatted mosquitoes and plotted our adventures with sugared mouths. 

friends in the city.

When Nina and I visited Jane in college, we saved our money to drink underage at her favorite bar, manned by her favorite salty bartender who responded to tips with “Not enough, children,” demanding an extra dollar before he poured another illegal drink. Hungry and broke, we pawed through her canned soups, ate a free brownie at a Hungarian coffee shop, drank several very cheap drinks in quick procession, split a falafel three ways. Not enough, children. At the end of the night (an early end brought on by dancing too hard on a stomach full of rail whiskey and cheesecake brownie), we went to the store. The night is bleary, but in my mind the store is golden, warmly lit, like an upscale bodega, and we bought a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese, something gooey with a tough skin. We bought silky black olives, the kind that taste like good salted fat, and deep aubergine colored olives that spent the day in oil, with little coarse herbs stuck to their skin. Jane had just moved in to her dorm room. We lay on the bare mattresses. We tore the bread with our hands, smeared it with cheese, sucked the olives fast and spit out the pits. We fell asleep in our makeup and clothes and woke up with headaches.

*****

In our last year of college, I visited my childhood friend Annie, who’d fled to the city for arts school. We bought the tiniest, cheapest dresses to wear to fancy clubs where we stayed conspicuously sober to avoid burning through twenty dollars on a drink. We ate hot McDonalds fish sandwiches out of waxed paper from the good McDonalds. We split a black and white cookie slowly, leaving neat teethmarks in its dense frosting. We sat in the sun and dressed well and decided against a second cookie. We called this experience “brunch.”

*****

Jane didn’t know where to take us; this is the thing about visiting friends in New York when you’re fresh out of college. They want to take you everywhere, but you show up with the last scraps of your nonprofit paycheck, and they just had their fourth roommate move out unexpectedly, making the rent on their half-a-bedroom impossible.

It was the first time Dan and I had been to New York together; we were skipping  “living in New York in your 20s,” but we were East Coast children. We didn’t have to live there to keep showing up, dipping into the lives of our friends. It was January and Jane finally said “I know!” and took us to a neighborhood restaurant, practically candle lit, where we ate warm bowls of cous cous and Moroccan spiced vegetables. The city was so cold and we three sat in the cous cous steam and shadows and etched out our night. Dancing maybe, meeting her boyfriend, but first pitchers of mead at a bar down the street—it was an odd happy hour, but we took it, and it tasted like honey and sweet fruits.  

*****

“Everything is better with foie gras,” Kate’s mother said, spooning the rich caramel colored velvet on top of a bowl of roasted string beans. When I was older—not much, but enough—I went to the most beautiful apartment I have ever seen. Elevator doors opened into it—-it was only faint embarrassment that stopped me from exclaiming “Like in the movies!” The New Year would be rung in here, with sweeping views and crisp cold wines from their vineyard, with warm bowls of fresh pasta and Kate’s homemade pesto. There were loaves of Kate’s banana bread, speckled with dark chocolate and brown banana, cracked on top. There was soft cheese and hard cheese and two fine baguettes, that Kate and I braved the New York cold to get (we were by now such San Francisco girls that the snow suspended in the air was magical, the raw cold made our teeth chatter).  But most of all, best of all, there was a silver tin of caviar pried open and served with sour cream, chopped onion, chopped hard boiled egg, and little blintzes fit for an upscale doll house.

I can’t tell you much about the wine. Knowing Kate, the pesto was delicious, the banana bread dense and not too sweet. I remember fireworks on the roof and my blue lace dress. I have to believe that I made friends and told jokes, that I laughed and maybe danced, that I learned people’s names that I’ve long since forgotten. I have to believe that because if it’s not true, the truth is that I planted myself next to the caviar and pummeled the platter with tiny teaspoons until someone said “Fireworks on the roof!” and half the caviar was gone. I fell asleep in my blue lace dress and woke up with raw onion on my breath.

*****

We didn’t have friends in New York City for years. They kept moving to Boston, and then they kept moving to DC. Now the next set begins—-friends with girlfriends at fancy colleges, friends with jobs in Brooklyn, friends flooding back into the city again. I look at jobs online and wonder if we’re supposed to be there, even briefly. I wonder if I’m missing something, and I am. I’m missing getting off the train and walking into the arms of good friends. I’m missing the moment where the doors swing open and you’re out on the street, and the city is painfully alive, and you feast and laugh and fall in love with it all, you dip in like a tiny teaspoon and enjoy a small rich taste of a life you don’t have. I miss a three day sample, or a week long stretch. I miss friends in the city and I wonder where these friends, new to it, will take us when we arrive with our bags and bleary eyes, starving and ready.  

"Company" Foods: Za’atar and Sweet Paprika Roasted Green Beans and Chickpeas

My parents had great parties. They entertained, and often, periodically in outlandish and fantastical ways—-a homemade towering Croquembouche for a New Years Day open house at our old apartment, my father’s meticulous chili full of slow smoky heat for football games, my mother’s smooth topped French macarons at Seder. For a few years, New Years Eve was a culinary bacchanal that left me and my sister’s mouths watering all day in anticipation of fresh baked Cuban breads, chocolate mousse, crab cakes. 

But these were special occasions, and the beauty of the way they entertained was that guests felt special and were served special foods, sure, but having people over wasn’t special. It was folded into our lives. People came over for dinner, people came over for BBQs all summer once we had a backyard. People came over for football games and people came over for bagels on the weekend. People were always around and when they were you played music and put out the good tablecloth, you ate well and maybe a little too much and went to bed tired and happy and full.

Some foods were clearly special, but some foods were special only because we served them when company came over. Very thinly sliced zucchini sautéed in olive oil, topped with lots of parmesan cheese and black pepper, served alongside bowtie pasta cooked the same way. A certain sweet salty, crunchy rub my dad put on pork loin. A mashed potato dish baked in a pie pan so that the outside was crispy (a beloved food that I only remember as “Potato Hat.”). We could’ve eaten these things every day but we didn’t, and so they became like my grandparents’ water glasses or the teak candle holders—-treats reserved for “company.”

Last year I came home from three months in Asia ready to get into the holidays in serious way. I showed up to volunteer gigs armed with raspberry banana bread and sugar cookies, I invented a made up holiday combining my parents’ winter birthdays into one epic family dinner, I produced pans of stuffed mushrooms and multiple pumpkin cheesecakes with gingersnap crust. It was a festive time full of good company and good “company” food. My favorite recipe from that season was a mess of roasted green beans I made for Thanksgiving with lemon, sliced almonds, and lots of Parmesan. Simple, elegant and addictive, these beans were a hit that leapt from dinner party menus into our regular rotation (and gave me my first ever permanent kitchen burn, a mauve splash that looks like a paint brush stroke across my forearm). Green beans are back in season, and I’ve been craving this dish for months. This recipe is a mashup of roasted green beans and a thoroughly non- “company” snack: heavily seasoned, roasted chickpeas, which I only ever make late at night when we’re accidentally hungry and watching movies, or for dinner when I’m by myself.

Za’atar and Sweet Paprika Roasted Greenbeans and Chickpeas

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse three cups of raw green beans and snap off the ends. Rinse and drain one can of chickpeas. Toss green beans and chickpeas in a quarter cup of olive oil (you can also do half olive oil, half sesame oil). Spread out on a foil lined cookie sheet.

This is where you discover that the title to this recipe is half a lie. You want flavor here, through serious seasoning—-lots and lots, bordering on too much. The za’atar adds some necessary texture, while paprika lends a warm, appetizing color to the dish, especially the chickpeas. But don’t stop there—-really pile on the seasonings.

This is the seasoning consistency you’re looking for before you bake. Make sure to include salt—-I like about three large pinches, scattered over the top. Then I use a combination of za’atar, sweet paprika, cumin, coriander, chili powder, black and white sesame seeds, and black pepper. It’s got the spicy smoky flavor burst taste that reminds me of Old Bay, which I’ve sadly run out of. You can take the girl out of Baltimore, etc. 

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. 

Fun activities for you and that leftover spice encrusted foil:

Rub bread on it.

Pour olive oil on it and then dip bread in it.

Leave it out and run your fingers over it, licking cumin and sesame seeds off of your fingertips for the rest of the day.

Your choice. 

Melbourne Eggs and Breakfast Salad with Preserved Lemon Goat Cheese Dressing

image

A good day starts with two poached eggs on toast. The toast is white, or the spongey wheat bread that may as well be white, and comes from a long plastic bag. The eggs are balanced on top, their golden bellies split and punctured with a shard of butter. Yolk and butter soak the crunchy bread. Eggs and toast and plate receive a light sprinkle of salt. The toast is cut into squares that you can spear and briefly drown in slippery salted egg. This was my mother’s meal for birthdays, holidays, weekends. Special occasions were marked with two poached eggs on toast. In sixth grade I was officially the weirdest kid in my health class when my answer to “What’s your favorite food?” appeared next to a list of beloved pizzas, French fries, and ice cream cakes. Poached eggs and toast forever—-made by my mom, with whatever magic she infuses into two eggs, two slices of bread, hot water and salt that makes it taste like heaven. 

Poached eggs were always a home food until we lived in Melbourne. This wasn’t the first time that the dishes of my childhood kitchen appeared on far flung menus. I once spent a misty eyed Thanksgiving morning eating cold spaghetti with thin tomato sauce out of a bento box in Tokyo, as logical of a restaurant food as mixed bowls of cereal (half Crispex, half Frosted Mini Wheats), or salad dressing toast (a terrible and delicious after school snack I made in secret that involved drenching bread in oily vinaigrette, then making it crispy and fragrant in the toaster oven). In Melbourne I ate poached eggs on top of chewy slabs of bacon and halved avocados in the backyard of a Greek restaurant. I ate them on thick cut toast, rubbed with olive oil and charred, on noisy streets in the CBD. I ate them balanced on a golden rosti and topped with minced herbs and feta. I ate them, relentlessly, because the eggs in Australia were so good

I’ve never learned how to poach eggs—-the process frightens me, with its potential for rubbery, broken yolk-ed failure, and my mother’s high bar of poached egg perfection. But during my two month long egg feast in Australia, I learned a good egg needs nearly no love to be transcendent. At our first apartment in Melbourne, I mastered the owner’s fancy espresso machine in a few minutes, but I could never get the burners lit without help. Since I was by myself until 8:00pm every night, and was on a tight budget, I had to improvise. This mostly meant buying a kabob and making it last two days, or calling a sleeve of Tim Tams cute new names like “breakfast” or “lunch.” One day, desperate and shaky with caffeine, I cracked an egg in a coffee cup and microwaved it for a minute. I was sure it would be awful—-microwaved eggs were a staple of my often misguided college diet. But it slipped out of the cup, neat and rich, the yolk soft and golden. I smashed it on a piece of stale bread and happily munched.

I don’t microwave eggs at home. But when I come into possession of some very good eggs, I hard boil them carelessly, and the results are like those Melbourne apartment eggs—-effortless, and outrageously good. This weekend was full of long brunches in the sun, bowls of mussels with loaves of bread, late night bar food on the one night of the year when San Francisco is warm enough to sit outside without a coat and sweater. I woke up Monday morning with a nearly empty fridge, the desire for some raw vegetables at breakfast, and a few good eggs. I got to work.

Breakfast Salad with Preserved Lemon Goat Cheese Dressing and a Goat Cheese Truffle

Zest half of a preserved lemon (you could also use a regular lemon here). Combine with two tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon goat cheese, and a splash of white wine vinegar. I mix my dressing at the bottom of a large salad bowl and build the salad on top. This salad was about two cups mache (or lamb lettuce) and a cup of halved cherry tomatoes. Toss salad in the dressing 

Carelessly hard boil a good egg. This is the only way I know how to get that picturesque yolk. I use very unexceptional eggs most of the time, especially when I’m baking, so this is a rare treat. I submerged the egg in water, let the water start to boil, then boiled the egg for about three to five minutes. I drained the water, filled it with cold water and ice, let the ice melt, filled it with cold water and ice again, and cracked them once the second round of ice was melted. Put this on top of your salad. Slice it with a sharp knife so that it quickly splits on top of the salad greens—-a sharp knife ensures that the yolk won’t have the chance to stick to the blade. Keep all the yolk for yourself.

Roll a tablespoon and a half of goat cheese into a ball. This is so simple that it shouldn’t feel delicious and special. You know it’s not really a truffle. It’s just a restaurant cheese plate trick to con you into getting excited about cheap goat cheese. But it’s still fun once it’s on your plate and you get to cut into a soft, salty chunk of molded cheese. Place it next to your egg. 

Top the whole operation with black pepper and flaky salt. Dig in. 

Crowd Pleasers: Party Rules, and Snappy Desserts

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I have two rules when it comes to answering the question “What I should I bring?”

a)    I always bring dessert.

b)   You always bring bread.

I used to answer “What should I bring?” with a cheery “Whatever you like!” The results were incongruous salads, mismatched wines, or nothing. A little direction goes a long way—-people know what to bring, and they also immediately have a job once they get to the house. They start slicing bread, you start pouring drinks, everyone starts chatting, everyone gets bread, and the requisite 15 awkward minutes at the beginning of a dinner party never happen. Put out some butter and cheese. 

I always offer to bring dessert because everyone else brings booze, someone who doesn’t like to bake can happily bring bread, and it’s one less thing for the host to think about. People like it and it’s a fun conversation starter—-people want to talk about what you made, stuff they’ve made, what’s the recipe, etc. Before you know it, you’re in a conversation and you’re eating cookies. Win win.  

Also people like dessert and no one has time to bake, and you might be one of those people who has no time to bake, but listen—-I’ve got you covered. These are three recipes I make over and over again. They’re easy, they’re super delicious, and they’re bonafide crowd pleasers. Try these out if you have limited time to make treats, and lots of time to collect compliments. 

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Chocolate Swirl M&M Cookies via Crepes of Wrath 

Every time I eat these I get confused and think that I played soccer as a kid. It’s the powerful influence of other people’s memories—-wherever I bring these (or the Oreo filled version pictured below), people exclaim “They’re after school cookies!” and tell picturesque stories about the very popular playground mom who showed up with the best cookies after soccer practice. Basically, they’re kid cookies for grownups (or, you know, kids. Share.). It’s fun to eat candy or Oreos inside of a cookie as an adult, because you’re definitely not supposed to. They’re also melted butter recipes—-no forethought or room temperature dairy products required. 

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Blondies via Smitten Kitchen 

Buttery, chewy cookie bars with caramelized edges and a crackley golden top—-and all you have to do is throw a couple things in a bowl, bake for 30 minutes and POOF! Magical treats. You can add anything to these—-two of my favorites are chocolate chips and candied ginger, or (in the late Fall/ early Winter) chocolate chips and fresh cranberries. You can also make my Too Many Blueberries Blondies, which are another riff on this same recipe and a nice way to pretend to be healthy. 

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Chocolate Chip Currant Almond Butter Cookies

These crunchy, chewy gems taste like almond butter toffee flecked with sweet bits of chocolate and dried currant. They’re also gluten-free. And they’re big; no matter how little dough you scoop, these really spread. Big cookies are ideal for parties—-like an abundant table or a fully stocked bar, people feel cared for when there’s a little more than usual. A little more cookie is a good place to start.