A Sad Story about a Silk Shirtdress, with a Happy Ending

Saturday was a busy day. My family had to attend two separate parties. One was an event  essentially for adults, involving elegant tidbits — smoked salmon, champagne, and cake; three children were present, my daughter among them, all beautifully behaved. And then from this, my husband swept up my daughter and whisked her off to a little friend’s birthday party back in our neighborhood. When he and I picked her up at eight in the evening, she was seated happily on a bench swing in the birthday girl’s backyard. She was with two friends, they were talking quietly and happily, dragging their bare feet in the grass as they swung lazily; the party was over, and everyone was tired.  Goody bags distributed, the three of us wished the birthday girl a happy birthday one last time, and walked home talking about what a fine, full day it had been, with friends and food and cake and all kinds of wonderful things.

There were numerous bug bites involved, for me and for my daughter, as the result of all this party activity, and so on arriving back home there was much application of witch hazel and Aveeno anti-itch cream. (The Aveeno expired two years ago, but whatever.) I helped my daughter get out of her fancy dress, which is actually a size small woman’s silk shirt (trust me, it looks darling and elegant on her), and it was when I was unbuttoning it that I noticed the grease stains on the front. “Is this grease?” I asked. “Do you know what this is from?”

“I dunno,” my daughter said, frowning at her shirt.

“You had pizza, right? Pepperoni pizza? At the birthday party?” We all made some quick calculations and decided that though there was no proof, the odds were good at the numerous grease stains were pepperoni stains. It sure wasn’t champagne. And we know for a fact that our daughter is a total chazzer when it comes to pepperoni pizza.

So I laid the shirt on the kitchen counter and dumped about half a cup of cornstarch on it. I know that’s a lot of cornstarch, but hey: there was a lot of grease. “We’ll leave this to sit overnight and tomorrow I’ll wash it and we’ll see what we can do,” I said.

The next morning I came downstairs to find the shirt on the kitchen counter, lots of cornstarch on it, as expected. As not expected (but only because I just hadn’t thought it through), I also found a sweet little path of fucking disgusting white kitty paw prints. They were visible on the shirt (also visible on the shirt: a few little bits where Jackknife had evidently licked the cornstarch just to see whether or not it was poultry, beef, or fish, which it was not). The pawprints led from the shirt across the strip of dark grey counter in front of our double sink, across the counter around the jar of cornstarch (which, yes, I should have put away last night: sue me.) The pawprints meandered around my daughter’s very cool projects she made at summer camp (various do-nothing machines, some powered by batteries, some with water, some with magnets), back through the various do-nothing machines again, and then, my husband pointed out to me, there was one last pawprint — very faint — on the front of the one of the cabinet doors under the sink. “That’s where he finally decided to jump down, and he braced himself on the door for a quick second before landing,” said my husband.
“There’s no cornstarch visible on the floor,” I said. We all agreed that it was doubtless present, just in such fine form that it was invisible to the naked eye. I sighed heavily, surveying all the pawprints.
“I think the cat sneezed over here, too,” my husband said. “You can see on the shirt where the cornstarch is sort of sprayed around. He was sniffing the shirt and it made him sneeze and it blew the powder around.”

I wadded up the shirt and put it in the bathroom sink. I cleared all the do-nothing machines from the counter (along with all the other miscellaneous crap that’s accumulated there — crap accumulates like nobody’s business when it comes to kitchen counters). Then I took a dishcloth and some Dawn and I scrubbed down the entire kitchen counter. I rinsed it, and then I sprayed it with rubbing alcohol and wiped it down again. Finally satisfied that the counter was restored to a proper level of cleanliness, I took the shirt from the bathroom sink, brought it back to the kitchen sink, and began to wash it.

I suppose I could have tried to be more gentle with this shirt dress. It is, after all, a high-quality, delicate, silk article. However, I bought it secondhand for about three dollars, and life is short. So I got it sopping wet, squirted Dawn detergent on it, and started washing it. I washed and rinsed it three times. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not I’d gotten the grease stain out — the thing about wet shiny mauve silk is, you can’t really see schmutz on it, when it’s wet, because the fabric gets so dark, it’s just — it just looks like wet silk. I decided to take it on faith that whatever schmutz I was capable of removing, I had removed, so I gave up. I then wondered how to wring the water out of it without wringing it — I was worried about accidentally shredding the thin fabric — and immediately thought, “I’m in the kitchen: obviously, I will use the salad spinner!”

Five minutes later, I’d spun the shirt in the salad spinner several times, pouring out several tablespoons’ worth of water. It was sufficiently effective that I found myself muttering, “I bet people do this all the time and I’m only now figuring it out. I bet there are websites that talk about hand-washing your undies and spin-drying them in the salad spinner.” I turn out to be absolutely correct. You can do Google searches for the basic concept using a number of different phrases — “hand wash salad spinner” “laundry in salad spinner” “silk clothes in salad spinner” are good starts — and you get lots of hits. It’s clear I was way behind the curve on this one, probably because Peg Bracken never had a salad spinner.

The silk shirtdress dried on the balcony in the sun, and when I went to take it in at the end of the day, I inspected it carefully. All the grease had washed out, and the article had dried so beautifully it won’t need any ironing. Victory is mine. God bless the salad spinner: works wonders on greens, herbs, and your delicates and umentionables. (Of course, if my husband catches wind that I’ve been spinning my unmentionables in the salad spinner, he may have apolexy, so I might stick to the dryer for those. Officially.)

The Cricket on Livingston Street

Unfortunately for me I have a track record of being shat on by animals. The first time I can remember was in 1987, when I was walking down Chapel Street in downtown New Haven wearing a jacket that had belonged to my father. It was the jacket from the first suit he bought after graduating from college; the story was he had purchased it to go to his first job interview. It was a dark grey pinstriped suit. The pants were long gone but the jacket had become mine and it was, absolutely, my favorite article of clothing. I wore it every day for years. There I was, ho de do, walking down Chapel Street, and a pigeon shat on the shoulder of the jacket. I was in front of 1142 Chapel Street when it happened. It was a huge blob of white and yellow bird crap, and I remember I said, “OH FUCK” and spent a long time, when I got home, meticulously cleaning it off the delicate wool of the jacket. I tried to tell myself that being shat on by a bird is good luck, but who the hell knew. (I got the jacket clean enough that I would wear it for many, many more years after that. I no longer wear it, but I still have it.)

That was the first dramatic crapped-on-by-some-random-animal moment. There was also the time I was sitting on the deck at my father in law’s house, minding my own business, reading, and a flock of geese flew overhead. I looked up at the herd of squawking geese, saying, “Hey! Geese!” and at least one of  them shat on my back. My husband and child found this uproariously funny. I, not so much. “You never look up when geese are flying overhead,” my husband gasped through his laughter. “Fuck you,” I said angrily, tugging at my shirt carefully, trying to get it off of me without getting goose shit in my hair.

I have yet to be crapped on by a dog or a cat. I cannot even recall that my infant daughter crapped on me. Maybe she knew it just would not do; I don’t know. She certainly never minded spitting up on me, and the first time she puked, at about 18 months, I will never forget: she threw up all down the front of the pretty dress I had put on to go out to dinner on a rare date night with my husband. But wild animals seem to see me and think, “Ah, THERE’s the toilet.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was walking down Livingston Street with my daughter — I was taking her to summer camp — and a cricket pooped on me.

“Look! A cricket!” I said to my daughter, pointing to my shirt, where this cricket had just landed on my shoulder.

“Aw! Cricket!” she said admiringly. My daughter is a serious, huge friend of bugs. She is a magnet for praying mantises and likes to bring them home for me to make little houses for them. I could tell she was already thinking, “Can we take him home?”

“Look!” she said. “It pooped on you!” She laughed happily.

“Aw, crap,” I said, realizing she was right. My pristine white poplin button down shirt had a tiny dot of green cricket crap on it. The cricket hopped off me and went to find something more interesting to do. “Great,” I said, peering down at my shoulder. The little green dot of crap would be barely noticeable to anyone, but my knowing it was there made the shirt unwearable.

“Guess you’ll be doing laundry when you get home,” my daughter said knowingly.

I sighed. “I was going to do laundry anyway,” I said. “It’s no big deal.” It’s summer. There’s always laundry to do. 

So here I am, back at home, doing laundry. To be honest, it is so beastly outside, I’d rather be at home doing laundry than outside doing anything at all, unless being outside means sitting in a screened-in cafe patio drinking an iced coffee. But it’s pretty good right here: I’ve got iced coffee right here at home. And my iced coffee at home is better than any cafe’s iced coffee, because I have coffee ice cubes. And air conditioning. God bless clean laundry, air conditioning, and coffee ice cubes.

 

My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of.  There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If  you want to.

As a rule, I don’t want to.

This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?

Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.

So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.

So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.

There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.

OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.

But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.

In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic.  It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.

The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)

Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.

I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.

My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.

Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.

“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.

As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)

The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.

The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.

Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?

My Daughter is Unimpressed with the Barefoot Contessa.

I have a dear friend who used to work with me in a bookstore; our shared passion for eating and for reading cookbooks brought us together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly via Facebook of course, and a few times recently she’s posted things about Ina Garten.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I heard about Ina Garten, though no one used her name in that conversation. I was working in a shop that sold mostly rare and out of print books, and so I had become pretty well-versed in that kind of thing. One of our specialties was cookbooks. As such, I was thrown, and upset that I was thrown, when someone came in asking for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “The what?” I asked. “There’s a cookbook to do with The Barefoot Contessa?” How had I, a bit of a film buff and a cookbook person, never known that there was such a thing? It took a while before I realized that the person was looking for a cookbook that had nothing whatsoever to do with either Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner. Which was a pity: I would buy that book, I said to the would-be customer. The would-be customer had no idea what I was talking about. (Clearly, we were not going to be soulmates.) Furthermore, it turned out this was a new book the person was looking for: by definition, something I wouldn’t be obligated to have in the shop. I dismissed the whole thing pretty much out of hand: anyone who came into our shop looking for a brand new book was basically written off as an idiot. I was especially disgusted once I realized what the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook really was.

The way I felt about it: Not My Scene. Cookbooks with Pretty Pictures: Not My Scene. Cookbooks Written by the Rich Wives of Rich Yale Professors: Not My Scene.

So I stopped thinking about it.

Of course, in the decades since the 1990s, Ina Garten has sort of taken over the food world, or, at least, she’s one of the people who dominates it. People I like are obsessed with her. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (one of my favorite TV characters in recent memory) is obsessed with her. In the back of my mind, for a while now, I’ve been thinking, “I guess I should read one of these books.”

So today, the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I are at the public library and there’s a copy of Cooking for Jeffrey (the aforementioned Yale professor, Jeffrey Garten). “Oh, what the hell,” I said to myself, adding it to my pile.

I checked out the book. The lady at the circulation desk, Krista, I think is her name, said, “I think you’ll find this not too interesting. Stuff you either already do or stuff you already COULD do, if you wanted to, which you don’t, if you’re not doing it already. But the pictures are pretty.” “I don’t like cookbooks for their pictures,” I said. “I know,” she said. “But,” I added, “I’ve never read Ina Garten and here it is, so, I’m taking it home.” “Good luck,” Krista said. And we were on our way.

While my daughter and I ate lunch, I flipped through the book. There is not much to it. It’s $35, not cheap, and has alarmingly few recipes, but the photos are indeed gorgeous. They must be the reason this book costs $35, because there is really, seriously, not a lot of actual content here. My daughter ate her sandwich (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with pickle relish and mayonnaise) and I ate mine (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with mayo and sliced fresh figs), and we contemplated the book.

I said nothing as I turned the pages, at first, and then I sighed. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “But, I mean, who lives like this? Look at these pictures!”

“Maybe that’s how people feel about the Hausfrau,” my daughter said to me. I gave her a look and thought, “ouch.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said, eating more of my sandwich. It was then that I landed at Ina’s lentil and kielbasa salad, which is, I swear to god, nothing but a highflalutin’ variant of the lentil and chicken salads I’ve been serving my family for the last few days (with great success). Last night I made one, in fact, and I served it on a bed of pea shoots, with semolina bread and brie on the side. Now I want to kill myself for having done something so foofy. (Though it was a really good dinner, especially for a hot summer night.)

A few pages later I landed on a recipe that’s, again, basically something I make all winter long: roast chicken with radishes. “Jesus Christ,” I said, staring at the page. And the next recipe was a brisket. “That looks just like when you make brisket,” my daughter pointed out.

I was, by this point, polishing off my sandwich, and sagging slightly in my chair.

I kept flipping pages.

“I didn’t know that’s how you spell “couscous”, ” my daughter told me. “I thought it was “kooskoos” — with a K.”

“No, that’s how you spell it,” I told her. “Look, kasha varnishes. I used to make those, but I never do anymore. Why do I never make them, they’re good.”

Kept turning pages.

“How come you don’t have a cookbook like this?” my daughter asked me. “Your food looks like this. You’re probably even a better cook than that lady.” I laughed. “I don’t think I’m a better cook than Ina Garten,” I said, “but it’s nice of you to say.”

“Well, your food looks just like all of this food, I don’t see why you can’t have a big fancy cookbook.”

“It helps to be a big fancy well-connected person,” I said to her. I said, “Ina Garten’s not like me at all.” A quick skim of the Wikipedia bio confirms this. My god, the woman’s never even seen The Barefoot Contessa.

We discussed the possibility that we might try to make the chocolate creme brulee. “Of course, I don’t have little creme brulee dishes,” I pointed out.

“No one has little creme brulee dishes,” my daughter said.

“Ina Garten does,” I said.

Then I went into the kitchen and made brownies from a recipe by Ann Hodgman. Much more my speed.

A Late Dinner Alone: or, It Was Nine O’Clock and I Had to Do Something

My husband and child went to New Hampshire for a night this weekend. As such, I had most of a day, all of a night, and most of the next day to myself. This meant, naturally, that my usual framework for Life As I Know It went entirely down the toilet for about 40 hours. Which is fine — some of it was enjoyable, even. But one thing that definitely could have been handled better was the mealtime organization. Which is to say, there was none.
And it’s fine: if the only person who’s expecting anything is yourself, then you can raise or lower your standards as you see fit, right?
Much of my dietary intake on Saturday involved eating things that had been left behind in the fridge by the people who would normally eat them. For example: pizza. I ate the leftover pizza for lunch. Unfortunately, I ate lunch around 3 p.m., with the totally predictable result that at our normal dinnertime, I was utterly not hungry. So at six o’clock, when I’d normally be cooking, I was folding laundry and watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It got to be seven o’clock: I’d put away the laundry and was lying on the bed watching more Orange is the New Black, thinking, “Should I cook dinner? Well, I’m really not hungry, and why should I eat if I’m not hungry?”

Time went on. Another episode of Orange is the New Black. It got to be about ten to nine and I realized, with a bang, that if I didn’t eat something then what would happen would be, I’d go to sleep and wake up at three a.m. ravenously hungry, and that would totally suck.

Furthermore, if I kept watching Orange is the New Black, I was not going to sleep well, because inevitably each episode has some image or plot development that I find sufficiently upsetting that it’s just not healthy bedtime viewing for me.

So it was that at five to 9, I was in the kitchen filling a pot with water and thinking, “I’m gonna come up with a pasta sauce that might involve some chopping but will not involve actually cooking anything except the pasta.” There are lots of ways to handle this challenge, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the matter over the years. The kind of raw pasta sauce that can be thrown together quickly is a specialty of mine. I am expert in the field of Cannellini Beans and Tuna and Parsley and All Variants; I have spent years doing research into Uncooked Tomato Sauces. The Hausfrau has long advocated for the Raw Egg and Cheese sauce, which goes very unappreciated by most Americans, as far as I can tell; and there is a world of joy to be found in pesto sauces, which are great, but you have to have the ingredients on hand to make them. This evening, I did not. (Furthermore, making a pesto sauce would have compromised my rule, that moment, of “don’t dirty anything more than a knife and cutting board.” Making pesto is a snap, but you do have to have the basil ready, the nuts, etc. etc. — I had none of these things on hand — and even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with washing the food processor. However, in the summer it is totally sensible to make big batches of pesto and keep it on hand precisely so you can throw together a good dinner out of pretty much nothing.)

I opened the fridge and the first thing that jumped out at me was the bowl of fresh figs. “I am the only one who likes figs,” I reminded myself. “What goes with figs? Goat cheese. Do I have any goat cheese?” The answer was, “Yes, I have half a log of goat cheese that actually needs to be used up because if I don’t it’ll get that weird yeasty smell and be inedible and gross and I’ll be really pissed off that I wasted two ounces of goat cheese.”

The figs were sliced on the cutting board. I boiled half a pound of pasta and dumped it in a big bowl. I drizzled on some olive oil, put the figs and cheese on top, and then tossed it. The goat cheese melted, the figs warmed up, and, because I was feeling madcap, I grated some Pecorino cheese on the whole thing. Then I sat down and watched an episode of 30 Rock, which I highly recommend as an antidote to distressingly grim episodes of pretty much anything.

My family came home on Sunday around 5.30 in the evening, just in time to walk in the door and have the first topic of conversation be, “What’s for dinner?” I was glad to see them, but I have to admit, I was not too excited to cook for them. I admit, though: it was good to be back on schedule. “I didn’t eat dinner until about 9.15 last night,” I told them. “And then I was up until midnight.”

“You can’t sleep well if you eat dinner at nine o’clock,” my husband chided me.

“But I wasn’t hungry at all at dinnertime,” I said.

‘That’s probably ’cause you ate lunch at four o’clock, didn’t you?”

“It was three o’clock,” I said smugly.

Last night we ate dinner at 7.15, my daughter was asleep by 9.15, and my husband and I were out cold by ten. Today is my daughter’s last day of third grade: the beginning of summer vacation. I’ve got a long summer ahead of me during which I will have to devise breakfasts and lunches and dinners and Special Picnics and 4th of July Treats and things to bring to potlucks.

Oh my god.

I don’t want to cook dinner.

I didn’t want to cook dinner last night, either.

On the other hand, I have to cook dinner. We need to eat.

Last night, when I didn’t want to cook dinner, I thought very carefully about the contents of the fridge, and arrived at the conclusion that I had two options.

One was, Take the leftover steak and do something ludicrously clever and thoughtful with it. (We’re talking about six ounces of meat here, enough that, had I been feeling clever and thoughtful, I could have come up with something clever and thoughtful and delicious to boot.)

The second, more likely, move would be to take the steak and the various other things I had lying about and put them on nachos. This struck me as a much better idea. It would allow me to use up the last of the nacho cheese goop I made last week. This was a sauce made with cheese, evaporated milk, and a little cornstarch. It melted nicely on nachos and was, I thought, a nice change of pace from the usual grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack, though I admit my husband and child were somewhat underwhelmed by it.

Still: I had all these things that would go well on nachos, and I had that cheese sauce sitting around in a little congealed block in the fridge, and I thought, “Yes. Nachos.” I even put a tiny bit of effort into it: I sauteed the minced red pepper and the minced onion before I put them on the nachos. At my husband’s request, I did not put the sliced steak directly on the nachos, but left them to be served on the side. I laid out the chips, and put on the toppings, and I put the pan in the oven with a certain amount of satisfaction, thinking, “This didn’t take much effort and it should be reasonably good, even if we’re running low on sour cream.”

Well, things were not as I expected. The sauce — which, I now realize, I should have re-melted before putting it on the nachos (I had simply sliced up the brick of congealed sauce, optimistically telling myself it would melt back into happy goo in the oven) — had sat in its little Lego-brick-size congealed state on the chips. Sometimes the top of the Cheese Legos had browned a little, sometimes not. But nothing was gooey at all.

I pulled the tray out of the oven and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Which my family has come to learn is the sign of a really good time coming their way, if you know what I mean. “I’m sure it’s fine,” my husband said doggedly.

We all ate, but I can’t say it was one of my finest moments. Everyone had the good sense to not complain. Everyone knows that when Mama is pissed about dinner, it’s best to keep quiet.

I cleaned up the dinner dishes, ate a granola bar, and sighed.

Come the next day, I vowed I would not let this happen again. “I’m thinking I’ll make some barbecue chicken or something,” I said to my family in the morning. Everyone thought that sounded fine.

So today, in spite of my total lack of interest in doing it, I put a little thought and effort into making dinner. I didn’t want to. I just knew I had to. I cannot bear, personally, to eat two depressingly crappy meals two evenings in a row. I’m a hausfrau, for god’s sake: this is part of my job. If I don’t do it well, what the hell am I doing, exactly? It’s one thing if it happens once in a while, if once in a while dinner really sucks — I know it’s inevitable. There are, in every household, nights where things go hideously wrong and you really have no choice but to say “Uncle” and order a pizza, fast. And I know that not every evening is a showstopper — it’s not that; I’m a reasonable person — but it just bums me out so much when dinner sucks. I’m sure no one else enjoys it either, but  hate it, too. want to eat a decent meal at the end of the day. For breakfast I usually eat cold cereal. Some days, I don’t get lunch at all, and if I do eat lunch it’s almost always some random leftovers scavenged from the fridge. So dinner, if dinner is not good then Mama is not happy.

So today — as I was saying — I put a little thought and effort into it. I bought two chicken breasts and I took them home and set them up to braise in a fake BBQ sauce. Longtime readers have probably heard me talk about this before. I swear it’s nothing fancy. Saute the chicken in a little olive oil to get it started, and then assemble the sauce straight in the pan, and let it cook, slow, for a couple hours.  The good thing about this method of cooking is it gives you a shitload of leeway: it’s an accommodating technique. Today, I threw into the pot a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of onion powder. Because, ok, I was  too fucking lazy to mince actual garlic and actual onion: sue me. But it put me on the right path. The stuff in the pot smelled good and I found it encouraging, motivational: I could do this.
I veered back toward the traditional moves and poured into the pot some apple cider vinegar, about two tablespoons of brown sugar, maybe three tablespoons of ketchup ketchup, two tablespoons of French’s mustard, and a tablespoons of chili powder. I stirred this all around to make sure none of the powdered stuff just settled in lumps at the bottom of the pot — that would suck — and when things looked pleasantly sludgy and smelled good, I poured in maybe half a cup of water from the kettle. Normally I would turn on the oven and let this cook in there for a few hours. But it’s a hot day, and I knew I didn’t want this to be an all-day production. I wanted the chicken to remain intact. (Cook it for a very, very long time, it tends to start to break up, and become pulled chicken, which is great, but not what I wanted specifically tonight.) I kept it on the stove on a low flame for about two hours: it smelled great.

By this point I’d totally gotten with the program and assembled a rice and lentil salad, with a yogurt dressing. This involved boiling rice as for pasta, adding some leftover lentils I had in the fridge to the pot (because, I’ll admit it, they were slightly undercooked the first time around). I drained all the rice and lentils into a colander, let them cool spread out on a baking tray, and then made a dressing out of yogurt and the last two tablespoons of sour cream I had in the house. (Remind me to buy more sour cream tomorrow.) The dressing was doctored up with fresh garlic (see, I’m not ALL lazy — I was conserving my energy for the rice and lentil salad) and and some Penzey’s spice mix I can no longer recall. I think it might have been the Turkish spice mix. Whatever it was, it worked. When the rice and lentils were cooled I combined them with the dressing and settled the bowl in the fridge. So all I had to do, to have a respectable meal, would be to put together a little green salad really fast. Dinner might not be impressive, it might not be the best thing we ever ate, but at least I could be confident it would not be as solidly, resolutely depressing as the meal we ate last night.

*************

8.30 p.m. We have eaten dinner. The countertops have been wiped down, the coffee for the morning is set up, the dishwasher is running (which is a damned good thing because otherwise we will not be able to eat anything good tomorrow morning, what with every piece of silverware we own being in there).
The verdict on dinner tonight?
“This is really good. The sauce from the chicken is really good on the rice salad and the lettuce too.”
“I really like the chicken and the rice and lentil salad. Can you pack me some of this in a thermos to take to school for lunch tomorrow?”

Victory was mine tonight, but now the problem remains: what to make for dinner tomorrow? I’ve got about three cups of cooked lentils in the fridge. Perhaps a salad with the leftover chicken, chopped up and served over lettuce with some decadent salad dressing, some chopped scallions? I can do this. 

It’s a Good Thing We Live Near Romeo’s: The Museum of Tsuris Has Opened a New Wing

My daughter’s piano teacher, who we adore, holds a party at the end of every school year. She invites all her students to her adorable house, which is in a perfectly civilized town yet has a backyard that’s half brick patio (civilized) and half wild, wild woods (totally uncivilized). All the kids play a little mini-recital in her living room and then they eat party food and run around like maniacs. Sometimes the kids play Music Bingo. Ok, most of the kids play Music Bingo, and my kid is the one who runs around the woods like a maniac, because she thinks it’s awesome that Miss L. has woods in her backyard. We have a lot of things, where we live, but one thing we don’t have is a backyard, and certainly not a backyard that’s half-woods. So.

The deal with the party food is that Miss L. provides much of it herself — which I view as heroic (she’s got as many as twenty little student/fiends coming to these parties, bear in mind) — but the families are invited to bring things to eat as well. Some families bring snacky stuff, like chips and dips, but others bring treats like cookies or cupcakes. In my case, I always feel I should bring some wonderful cooky. It seems to me that last year I brought whoopie pies, and I had to stand guard over the tray to assure that each child only took one each, because there were only a couple dozen of them, and I wanted to have it so that each kid who wanted one could have one. One little girl took four, as I recall, and I was disgusted. But whatever. She’s her parents’ problem, really, not mine (thank God).

I did not put a whole lot of planning into this year’s effort, knowing that I happened to have in the fridge cooky dough, rolled and ready to slice and bake. We had plans for the morning, but I wasn’t worried about it. “I’ll slice and bake early in the afternoon, frost the cookies with something, and we’ll be all set to bring them to the party at three,” I told myself super-optimistically. I had good reason to think I had this beat: By one o’clock I had sliced and baked the cookies (which were nothing fancy, just chocolate and vanilla shortbread cookies) and I let them cool while I contemplated my frosting/decorating options.

I could have done something easy like make a confectioner’s sugar glaze and dumped sprinkles on top of the wet glaze and called it a day. I could have made colored icings, put them into squeeze bottles, and drawn on the cookies. But that would involve mixing things, I said to myself, and icings take time to dry. “Fuck that,” I said, “I’ve only got about 90 minutes here.” I then remembered that I had, in the pantry, bags of mini-marshmallows and a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. “Genius,” I said to myself.

So you may have figured out where this goes, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll take it step by step.

Thinking, “What could be easier than broiling some marshmallows on top of the cookies? It’ll be great! Everyone loves marshmallows.” I took the cooled cookies off the racks and laid them out on a baking tray. Then I put either marshmallows or a blob of Fluff on top of each cooky. I sprinkled colored nonpareils atop each chocolate cooky. These are expensive little things, I want to tell you, and I use them only on very special occasions. I’m not talking about those cheap waxy sprinkles you get at Stop & Shop — which are fine,   don’t get me wrong, they’re what you want on ice cream. No, these nonpareils have to be purchased at baking speciality stores or ordered in from places like King Arthur Flour. I explain all this to demonstrate that I was trying, in my lazy way, to put on the dog. I had the noblest of intentions. Furthermore, I sifted a little sprinkle of cocoa powder onto the marshmallows on the vanilla cookies. So the chocolate cookies had their pretty contrasting topping, and the vanilla cookies had their own special contrasting topping. You could tell that when these cookies had been run under the broiler a bit, they would be a) beautiful and b) little marshmallow cooky heaven blobs. So then, when the trays were ready, I turned on the broiler.

You know where this is going now, right?

I slid the tray under the broiler and set about putting away the supplies I’d just used. Meaning: I put the lid back on the jar of Fluff; I closed the bottle of nonpareils; I closed the cocoa powder tub; and I put the little tea strainer I’d used for the cocoa sifting into the sink. All this took maybe 90 seconds, if that.  I swear to God.

Then I smelled something burning.

I opened the oven and discovered that all of my cookies were on fire.

I wish I could report that I kept a cool head under the circumstances. I will be frank and say, I did not. Instead, I yelled “HELP!” and my husband, who’d been sitting on the couch watching clips on YouTube of Dave Letterman interviewing Salma Hayek, ran over. He grabbed pot holders, pulled the fiery tray of cookies from the oven, and blew out the flames. I came to my senses and turned on the vent fan over the stove. We closed the oven, and I turned off the broiler. It was all over in about three seconds (thank fucking God).

My husband was still standing there holding the cooky tray, looking befuddled and sad — I was busy spewing expletives — when our daughter, who had been playing out front, came running in. “What happened?” she asked.

“My cookies caught fire,” I said. My husband showed her the tray and carried it out the front door to let the last of their sugary smoke waft off into the apartment building courtyard. She followed him. “Can we still eat them?” she asked. I gawped at her idiocy.

“Well,” my husband said, bringing the tray back inside and setting it down on the stove for us all to contemplate. “The Hausfrau has some new material, anyhow.”

“Boy,” I said. I had moved through the stages of grief with remarkable speed. It was true I didn’t have much time for denial, but we had definitely seen anger. There was about a nanosecond of bargaining (who was I kidding, there was no way to salvage these things), and I was, right at that moment, deep in the depression stage.

It was 2.30; we had to be at the party at three. I had to face reality (final stage: acceptance). I would not have homemade cookies to bring to the party; was there anything else, ANYthing else, I could throw together in fifteen minutes? The answer was, miserably, no. Had I had a jar of roasted red peppers, I could have made pimiento cheese and brought it with a bag of pretzels; but I had none (only a raw red pepper, which would take time to roast, let alone cool, peel, and process). “I don’t know what to do,” I said miserably.

“What you do is, you go to Romeo’s and buy cookies and bring them,” said my extremely practical husband, who has always thought I was insane for baking for events like this. I wasn’t actually crying,  and I had not cried, but I felt the way you do after you’ve been crying; I snuffled and blew my nose and said, “Fine.” We piled into the car and before we went to Miss L’s house, we stopped at Romeo’s, where I bought a pound of those little ball-shaped sandwich cookies. Baci de Dama, they’re called. They’re really good. I brought them into the piano teacher’s house with a feeling of defeat, put them on the kitchen table, and sat down to listen to the children play.

At the party, the cooky box emptied out before any other tray of cupcakes or brownies did. One father, who has been to enough of these rodeos that he knows to look to see what I’ve brought, sidled up to me. “What’d you make this time?” he asked me, glancing toward the table. “I had a little disaster,” I said, “so I brought cookies from an Italian bakery.” “Disaster?” he asked. “The cookies all caught fire,” I admitted. His eyes got round, like Baci de Dama cookies. “You got a fire extinguisher?” he asked.

The answer is, We do, and it’s three feet from the stove. I think that the smart thing, though, is for me to remember to never, ever do anything like this unless my husband is at home, because clearly I am not cut out for broiling marshmallows.

My husband explained the cooky disaster. “It was supposed to be like meringues,” he said. “Cookies with a meringue topping.”
“Except that you make meringues in a low oven, slowly,” I said. “There’s no danger involved in making meringues. It’s not like broiling marshmallows at all.”
“Really?” said my husband. “Really,” I told him huffily. The other father’s eyes moved from me to my husband, watching us nervously.
“Maybe you should stick to meringue,” my husband said generously. “I think I will,” I said. “I’m not cut out for broiling marshmallows.”

The Museum of Tsuris has a new wing. I’m painting the walls with this color, which I think will be a nice contrast to this, which I’ll use on the trim .

Ever notice how paint companies never name a color “Charred Marshmallow”?

 

A Rainy Memorial Day

Memorial Day: it’s supposed to be about remembrance and Noble Americans — which it is — but also supposed to be about family and friends barbecuing, and people making potato salad, and celebrating the fact that you can finally wear your white shoes with impunity.

Well, folks, today it’s grey and rainy and cold. It’s like London in April out there. So we’ve spent the day at home. I would have spent the day feeling like nothing whatsoever was happening, except that I had the presence of mind, yesterday, to finally do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time, which is prove that I can make better ice cream than my husband. Because I made the ice cream batter yesterday — you do call it batter, don’t you? — and because we always keep the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer, I was ready to go this morning. The batter churned for about twenty minutes, and got to the thickness of soft-serve, and then I spatula’ed it into three little pint containers, and now it’s in the freezer hardening up.

However, I can tell you that this stuff is good. How do I know? Well, I got to lick the spatula, and also I ate the blobs of ice cream that landed on the counter, and the little bits that were too hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the pint container. In other words, I got to eat about three tablespoons of homemade ice cream that I’d made myself, and I am quite confident that this is good, good stuff.

My husband is in the habit of making French vanilla ice cream, of which he is very, very fond. It is a product that involves a lot of egg yolks, a lot of cream, and sugar. I never really like it. I feel bad admitting this, but it’s simply true. I always feel like it just coats the inside of my mouth, greasy and heavy. I always attributed this to the cream he uses — he uses cream which has thickeners added, guar gum or something. Whatever it is, I do not like it.

A couple of years ago, during a phase when we were consuming a lot of this kind of dense, heavy ice cream, I happened to notice an article in the paper about “Philadelphia” style ice cream. I realized that for years and years, I’d been reading cookbooks where they talked about “French” ice creams and “Philadelphia” style ice creams and that I’d never really thought about it hard enough to grasp that these were really different things. I’d never thought about it because, well, I’d never made ice cream myself. Reading the article about Philadelphia ice cream made me grasp that while it may have been that my big problem was too much guar gum in the cream or whatever, the fact remained that, at heart, I was probably someone who just preferred a Philadelphia-style ice cream.

The difference comes down to eggs.

French custard ice creams have eggs; Philadelphia ice creams don’t.

I am normally someone who would say “Eggs? Custard? I am IN.” But somehow, with ice cream at home, I’ve got this idea that it’s just not my thing. Perhaps there are other issues I’m not grasping; some sources I read online suggest that perhaps the greasy mouthfeel I’m not so into could be attributed to over churning, and that the problem isn’t the eggs but the fact that we’re eating, essentially, vanilla-or-coffee-flavored butter. This could be.

But here, for the record, is what I did, and it’s resulted in some delicious, clean-tasting stuff. I considering going the adventurous route re: flavors, but for this maiden voyage I reined myself in and stuck with a simple, plain, vanilla ice cream.

In my medium-size enameled cast iron pot, I combined the following: 2 cups heavy cream (Farmer’s Cow brand — no extra crap in it); 1 cup of milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk); just under 1 cup sugar; 2 tablespoons dry milk; 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise, most of the seeds scraped into the pot); 1/2 tsp kosher salt; 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I was using Penzey’s double vanilla, which is phenomenal stuff and worth the money).

I heated these things up enough, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar and dry milk into the liquid. This wasn’t a mixture that had to cook, per se; but the heat made dissolving the solids much easier. I removed the vanilla bean pod from the pot and set it aside to dry (it can be used again) and covered the pot and put it in the fridge, where it stayed overnight.

The next day, I set up the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment — ok, I had to have my husband show me how to do it, because it made no sense to me how the thing worked, even after watching three different YouTube videos on the subject, because none of the videos showed the same model of ice cream attachment gizmo that we have — and I churned the batter for about half an hour and then I took a spatula and filled my little paper pint containers. Three little tubs got filled — so we’ve got three pints of ice cream, here. If I were a good person, I would bring some over to a friend’s house and say, “Here, have some ice cream.” (And maybe I will do this yet; if my husband says he doesn’t like the ice cream, I almost certainly will, because this stuff won’t keep indefinitely (no stabilizers) and I can’t eat it all myself.)

If I feel, after eating a dish of ice cream tonight, that this is an unqualified success, then I am shortly going to branch out into chocolate ice cream, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m setting sail for the land of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also coconut ice cream.

Last week my family ate, for the first time, a local ice cream treat called a Downside Watson. This is something that can only be purchased at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which is our gold standard for ice cream. A Downside Watson is assembled on a frisbee (which you get to keep). It’s supposed to come with bananas, but the night we were at the store, they were out of bananas, so a brownie was placed in the middle of the frisbee, to make up for the lack of fresh fruit. Atop this were piled seven scoops of ice cream and nine toppings. This sugar monster cost $26.95 plus tax, and it took us three nights to finish it. (We ate about half of it at the parlor, first night, but I had to say “OK, everyone, STOP” before we faced imminent collywobbles; and the rest was doled out after dinner two nights running).

We will always love Ashley’s more than any other ice cream parlor. Going to Ashley’s will always be a treat. But even so: if I can make my own platonic ideal mint chocolate chip ice cream, how can that be a bad thing?

But that doesn’t mean we cannot have nice things at home, too, right?

Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.

Homemade Goodies: or, How I am Under Strict Orders to Not Make Cracklin’ Oat Bran from Scratch

This morning, out of the kindness of my heart, I slipped a few pieces of Cracklin’ Oat Bran (the finest and possibly most expensive of all schlocky breakfast cereals) into my daughter’s morning bowl of Grape-Nuts. “Almost used up,” I said, peering into the box, which I’d given to my daughter as a silly birthday present.
“Buy more,” my daughter advised.
“Nah, this crap is too expensive for me to buy it all the time,” I said.
“How much could it cost?” asked my husband.
“It’s almost six dollars a box,” I said.
“Well, that’s bullshit,” he said. “Considering what breakfast cereal is made of, too.” He spared us his traditional diatribe about pencil shavings but only because I stepped in to distract him by suggesting I might attempt to make them from scratch. This proposal was made entirely in jest — I’m not messing around with that kind of thing anymore, I’ve learned my lesson — but he was fast to say, firmly, “No! Don’t do that!”
“You should make oatmeal cookies instead,” he said.
“Oatmeal cookies are awful,” said our daughter.
“No, they’re not!” my husband and I said as one. “What are you talking about?”
“They have raisins in them!” she insisted. “They’re bad.”
It was odd, because in fact this is a child who doesn’t mind eating raisins, but she has apparently absorbed the notion (held by me, to be sure) that raisins in desserts are a real bummer. My husband consoled her, “Oatmeal cookies don’t have to have raisins. They can have chocolate chips! And that’s a really good cookie. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are really, really good.”
He did admit that he likes them better with raisins AND chocolate chips. The skeptical girl at the dining table looked at me askance: she would have no truck with this.
“This afternoon, we can make oatmeal cookies,” I told her. “Good ones. No raisins.”
“Okay,” she said gamely.
“Check Cook’s Illustrated,” my husband reminded me. “I’m sure Christopher Kimball has some ludicrously elaborate and perfect way to make oatmeal cookies.”
We can do that. Because here it is. (Though I think this is from an issue that’s post-CK’s tenure at CI; the basic premise still holds.)

1 cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ cup (5 ¼ oz.) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3 ½ oz.) granulated sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 whole egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (9 oz.) old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup raisins, optional

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Melt butter in 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, swirling pan occasionally, until foaming subsides. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping bottom of pan with heat‑resistant spatula, until milk solids are dark golden brown and butter has nutty aroma, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl, scraping skillet with spatula. Stir in cinnamon.

Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil to bowl with butter and whisk until combined. Add egg and yolk and vanilla and whisk until mixture is smooth. Using wooden spoon or spatula, stir in flour mixture until fully combined, about 1 minute. Add oats and raisins, if using, and stir until evenly distributed (mixture will be stiff).

Divide dough into 20 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange dough balls 2 inches apart on prepared sheets, 10 dough balls per sheet. Using your damp hand, press each ball into 2½-inch disk.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookie edges are set and lightly browned and centers are still soft but not wet, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheet on wire rack for 5 minutes; using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool completely.