A Look Forward

Three.  Weeks.  Left.


Except ha ha ha, I lied.

I'll be working 40 hour weeks with my current employer, becoming a boss at Russian, and rowing in Chicago with Lincoln Park Boat Club.  I'll be staying at my dad's apartment in the suburbs, and commuting into work with him.  I get to learn how to drive stick (!!!).  And I am determined to make jams and pickles this summer.  It will happen.

I also plan to do a lunch-box series, where I post about my brown-bag lunch for the day.  Probably not every day, but a couple times a week maybe, depending on how ambitious I am.  I thought this would be a nice thing to do because a) it'll keep me thinking creatively about my lunches instead of reverting to PB&J (Not that there's anything wrong with PB&J; I love them, in fact, but you're more interested in the weird, creative stuff, no?) and b) hopefully they'll inspire you to be creative with your lunches, too.  Your lunch boxes will be the envy of the office.

In other news, I have a final project due in a couple weeks for my creative writing class.  The course is about the American city in literature, and while our topics and styles can be as varied and creative as we want them to be, they do need to come back to the city.  Naturally, I wanted to write about food in some capacity.  Originally I was going to go on something of a food tour of Chicago, highlighting different neighborhoods and how I've become familiar with them through food.  But I've shifted focus to something a little closer to my heart, and will be writing about three meals in particular which carry a lot of meaning for me.  The project in particular will be about the act of sharing a meal with someone, and how that sharing process gives a meal life and importance.  As a whole, it will be about my relationship to Chicago through these three meals.  I will probably post the final product here, but I haven't decided yet.

In any case, instead of sharing a recipe with you all today, I'll be sharing a piece of my original project.  I had to write a sample couple pages of what I wanted to do for my project during fifth week, but, as I said, the project has changed since then.  I don't want this writing to go to waste though, so I'm posting it here.  It's about my adventure to Dat Donut, a doughnut joint on the South Side of Chicago.  

Little Bites:

I’ve never been this far south before – I mean, south in terms of Chicago… You know what I mean.  I let out a small laugh, it could’ve been a hiccup, the way it bubbled suddenly from my lips and hung awkwardly in the air.  I half-grimaced at myself, at that nervous shudder, and gazed at the world outside the car, with the windows rolled down all the way, and Van Morrison’s voice bleeding into the sound of the wind rushing by.  Whenever the car came to a halt at a red light, his voice drowned in the deep, rhythmic thuds from nearby car stereos, with the bass pulsing and accented by angry lyrics.  They seemed angry to me, anyway.  My friend and I sped off again, heading farther down Cottage Grove, deeper into the South Side, past crumbling brick buildings and ladies in dirty dresses picking trash from street gutters.  I’m not sure what I was afraid of, exactly, when my friend stopped the car for gas – afraid to be too cautious, unnecessarily sensitive to every movement, or to be not cautious enough, careless in these unfamiliar, potentially dangerous surroundings.  I slipped my wallet and sunglasses into my backpack, put my hand protectively over it and felt the contours of my camera beneath my fingertips.  To what was I reacting?  Or maybe, why did I have a reaction at all?  The immediate answer is simple – the danger of both gang and random acts of violence are real – but the underlying explanation, sensitive and complex, and maybe even disturbing, is more difficult to understand.  So I waited quietly and tried not to think about it, tried to be an objective observer, rational, running my eyes evenly over the storefronts across the street, the other cars at the gas station, the pedestrians wandering out into traffic.  We pulled away from the curb and I pushed my sunglasses back up the bridge of my nose.

The little nervous pricks dulled and melted once we went inside.  I noticed one man was placing his order at the counter, while another lounged against the long table along the opposite wall of windows.  I glanced at the case of doughnuts in front of me, down by my knees, then up behind the glass between us and the cashier, where the kitchen and its industrial metal equipment were visible.  My eyes moved again, to the small cutout in the glass, where the man ordering slipped his money into the little tray, toward the short cashier behind the glass, with her hair piled high up on her head.  As I ordered and paid for my little sample of doughnuts – one yeast with chocolate glaze, and two cake doughnuts, one with chocolate glaze and the other with plain – a tall young man pushed open the front door with a huge grin on his face, laughing with the short cashier and asking her for his usual order. 

I noticed all these motions around me, but I kept myself detached, not wanting to seem, or to be, nervous here.  My friend stood close to me while the shutter of my camera went click click click, click, click, and he laughed at me as I moved the doughnuts around, crinkled the bag a little more, finding the right lighting, contorting myself to shoot different angles.  I allowed myself to connect with the room and the people behind the glass and the young man’s laughter, once I put my camera away again and pulled the chocolate-glazed yeast doughnut from the paper bag. 

The grease had made small, translucent puddles on the side of the sack, and I admired them as I took a bite.  It was barely sweet as my teeth sunk in and my tongue felt the dough, light like threads of cotton candy; then the chocolate came, pressing gently against my palate.  The outermost layer cracked a little under the pressure, then melted down into the flesh of the doughnut with all of its sweetness and spread pleasantly over the roof of my mouth.  The deep notes of chocolate and higher ones of tooth-aching sweetness lingered on the back of my tongue as I carefully tore away another piece and pressed it into my mouth, glaze-side down.  My tongue firmly compressed the dough into a dense disk against the roof of my mouth and melted the chocolate into tiny, intensely sweet pools that filled up the wells between my lower gums and cheeks.  I tried not to eat it all too quickly, tried to savor these sweet, soft, deep moments of dough and glaze coming together between my teeth.  But the doughnut was gone before I’d even realized that I’d inhaled the last bite.  For all the anxiety I’d had, about the deep South Side and my not belonging there, it didn’t really matter in the end.  Sometimes you just need a good doughnut.

Chayote and Ramp Slaw

Are any of you control freaks too?  It's not that I crave organization in every aspect of my life; my room is a hot mess, I can never find a pencil when I need one, and John's fridge is just... I don't even know.  That one's not really my fault.  But if I were a compulsive enough organizer then I would be on that.  I mean, I've reorganized the fridge at home before, and it stayed that way for a while.  And if my world becomes chaotic enough, if the piles of clothing are too high, and a distinct layer of bobby pins and paper clips has formed amidst the piles of graded work on my desk, I will drop whatever I'm doing and clean everything.  I do mean everything - put away clean clothes, put dirty ones in the hamper, maybe even take them down and put them through the washer and dryer if I'm feeling entirely ambitious, re-sort all of my drawers and shelves, put everything from my desk back in its place, then wash said desk to remove the layer of dust and grime that somehow formed beneath all the mess...

All this is to say that I require order on some level, in certain places at certain times.  And there are certain battles that I will always fight, even at 2 AM, because I need to try, at least.  My room will inevitably become chaotic again, as I care less and less about putting my jackets away in the closet and filing my papers away in their respective folders.  I know this to be true and I accept it, because I able to trust that I myself will clean it again.  My emails and detailed packets of information I put together for crew will be ignored, but I still send them, and put effort into them, because it's what I need to do to feel as though I have some control.  Especially nowadays when I feel out of control quite often, when I feel like I don't belong anywhere, it's the little battles that are important to me.  I take satisfaction in the fighting.  Maybe that's not healthy - I feel like I've been fighting too much, in a real way, arguing just to lash out rather than cleaning to channel that aggressive energy into something I can be proud of.

I feel a little like Harry Potter, except I'm not a wizard or The Chosen One.  I just feel so angry, all the time.  But not really, I'm kind of exaggerating.  I'm still me, bubbly and making stupid jokes that no one thinks are funny until I prod them and make them feel badly that they didn't laugh the first time, trying to save the world one cookie at a time, taking pictures of my friends making silly faces, and being entirely too cuddly for any one person to stand for very long.  I s'pose I'm just feeling homesick for the home that won't be mine for much longer, maybe, depending on when the house sells, which is up in the air.  And that makes it worse, since it could happen tomorrow or two years from now.  I'm also homesick for all the time with my family I'm missing while being away, all the new things the little ones are learning and doing, how they're growing, and I'm missing all of it.  I want to be there and take care of them, I want them to feel like I'm the big sister they never had, not just their older cousin they see sometimes when she comes home from Chicago.  I don't want to be that, but that's what becoming.  I'm almost 20.  That's just... I don't even know what to think about that.

What am I even doing with my life?  I'll be working in Chicago this summer, 40 hours a week, basically doing project management and operations for a research accelerator affiliated with the university.  Which is all well and good, because, as I've said, I do like order, especially concerning tasks that are meant to be ordered - and I'm good at it.  I'll give myself that.  I can coordinate people and projects like nobody's business (Ha, pun, because this is a business... Okay I'm done.)  But it's not like I'm creating anything of my own power, my own will or body - I'm just making sure the right hand knows what the left's doing.

And all this, of course, comes back to the kitchen.  I am in control with a knife in my hand and vegetables pressed beneath my fingers.  That is where I create the lovely, beautiful bites, when the other pieces of my day-to-day life are scattered all around me, at least I can make myself a meal.  Composed, or attempting that ideal, with the promise that next time, I will be better, there'll be a touch less acid and a little more sweet, another texture to round out the mouth-feel.  Thus this slaw came into being, one afternoon last week, in my wanderings around the grocery store.  My arms overflowed with produce (And I bought a basil plant.  Say hello to Frederick Ronaldo III.).  I set my bounty down onto the counter, and let my food take shape without much conscious effort.  It's a very simple dish, but so satisfying.  That night I ate it with some simply cooked lentils, finished with olive oil and a crushed clove of raw garlic, and the next with some smashed plaintains and mustard greens.  It's a such simple pleasure to bring a meal to life.

Chayote and Ramp Slaw

1 chayote squash, sliced into quarters lengthwise
3 ramps
1 handful cilantro
1 lime
1.5 tsp rice wine vinegar
0.5 tsp mirin
1 dash sesame oil
1 dash sea salt

Once the chayote has been sliced into quarters, it'll be very easy to remove the seed (just pull it out with your fingers).  Slice into very thin slices, then into tiny matchsticks (I'd slice them more thinly than pictured - I was experimenting with a thicker cut, but I would've preferred them to be thinner).  Place in a medium-size bowl.  Cut away the roots from the ends of the ramps, then slice thinly also (you can eat the whole ramp, from the pink-white end through the leafy greens and add to the bowl.  Finely chop the cilantro, then add to the bowl as well.  Cut the lime in half and squeeze its juice over the bowl.  Add in the remaining ingredients, then toss to coat.  Adjust seasoning to taste, then allow to marinate at room temperature ~30 minutes.

Spring Carrot Salad

For all of the decadent posts you've seen here, believe me, I love a good salad.  I'm generally disappointed by restaurant salads, though, which all seem to be the same, and a boring same at that...  House salad with carrots, celery, cucumber and Italian dressing, or else some kind of cranberry, walnut, and goat cheese combo, perhaps with butternut squash, or maybe a maple-glazed something-something.  Yawn.  Don't charge me $13 for that, please, I can make it myself.

My favorite exception to the boring-salad rule is the Insalata Kimba at The Med (The Medici, a couple minute's walk from campus).  It's not the most imaginative combination, but it's simple in a really satisfying, not-boring way: gorgonzola cheese, lightly crunchy croutons (aside: I hate when you have to gnaw on a crouton for a couple minutes before you can actually eat it, it's just like, um, sir, your croutons here are a leetle stale), sliced green apples, little bits of pecan, sliced red bell pepper (another aside: this is the only addition which doesn't make total sense to me, but the rest of the salad redeems this oversight), and pesto vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette really makes it - I'm not sure I would consistently crave this salad without this component, the polygamic marriage of basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.  Sometimes I get this salad with grilled chicken too, since, you know, I'm done with that pescetarian life.

Remember when I said my mommy visited and we went grocery shopping?  And remember how I used the carrot tops for a delicious fregola dish?  Well, here are the prettiest little carrots that you ever did see, making a tasty and simple-in-a-not-boring way salad.  Think small, sweet, multi-colored carrots, simply rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and Meyer lemon zest.  Then caramelize that combination quickly in a hot oven.  Then dress some arugula and salty, crumbled Manchego cheese simply with olive oil and roasted lemon juice.  Now put the dressed greens and carrots together.  Now eat it.  Yes?  Yes.  Good.  Now you're happy.

Spring Carrot Salad

2 Meyer lemons
1 bunch baby multi-colored carrots, tops removed (and used for another purpose)
Olive oil
Sea salt
2 handfuls arugula
~2 inch hunk Manchego cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Wash the carrots thoroughly, then split down the middle lengthwise.  Rub with enough olive oil just to coat, then sprinkle with salt and zest of ~1 lemon.  Cut this lemon into quarters.  Lay out the carrots in a single layer on a sheet pan, along with the lemon quarters.  Roast in the oven until the carrots have softened but are still al dente in the center, ~15 minutes.  Rotate pan and flip carrot halves over, same with the lemon quarters, halfway through the roasting process.

Dress the arugula with enough olive oil to coat, and add salt to taste.  Zest half of the remaining lemon over the greens, and crumble in the Manchego.  Slice the other half of the lemon very thinly into rounds, then quarter them and toss with the greens (you can eat Meyer lemons, skin, flesh, and all).  Once the carrots are done, remove the pan from the oven, and squeeze enough of the roasted lemon quarters over the greens to taste.  Arrange the carrots over the salad, and dig in.

Daddy's Swedish Meatballs

My dad served as a Scout Master for as long as I can remember, and probably even longer than that. He, his brother, and my older brother have all achieved the Eagle Scout rank - I think my grandfather did, too - so it's kind of a family tradition. We Zaharchuks are outdoorsy folk. What else is there to do in upstate New York or New Hampshire?

Kidding aside though, the Boy Scouts have positively impacted my family in ways I don't think I could even begin to unravel. Beneath the grander pursuits of building character, developing discipline and a sense of personal responsibility, and ingraining lifelong practical skills, is an incredibly meaningful foundation. The Scouts teach kids how to socialize healthily and appropriately, provide a safe environment for that socialization process, give kids the academic and emotional attention they need and sometimes don't receive at home or school, and allow them to have a healthy outlet for the stress and anxiety of their adolescent years. 
Also, they teach you how to shoot a bow-and-arrow and bb gun. And you go hiking and kayaking and swimming and camping. All of the camping. I joined The Girl Scouts when I was a wee little lass, since I wanted to shoot a bb gun too like my older brother (I don't quite recall whether my motivation was to be like him or to be able to threaten him with my shooting prowess...). But all we did were arts and crafts (and I got bullied sometimes by the other girls, but that's a tale for another day). I lasted through Daisies and Brownies, and then I quit. No shooting, you say? No Holly. Bye.

But I did attend many a Court of Honor for Troop 20 (Hudson's local troop). This recipe is for my dad's famous Swedish Meatballs, which everyone loved but no one could figure out what was in them. Now you know. You can thank my daddy. He wrote the recipe and took the pictures below, and he measured everything out for once just for you (he usually just goes by feel). I edited the recipe to clean up the language, as he probably knew I would. I am his daughter, after all.
Troop 20 Court of Honor Swedish Meatballs

100 meatballs (1/2 oz each), I buy these frozen
3 tbsp oil
1/2 c flour
4 c chicken stock
1 c half-and-half
2 medium onions, chopped with a medium dice
2 lbs mushrooms, roughly diced
Salt (~4 tsp)
Pepper, freshly ground (~3 tsp)
Pinch nutmeg (~30 grains)
2 tbsp butter
1 c sour cream

Heat oil over medium heat, then add the onions and sweat them with 1 teaspoon of pepper and 1 teaspoon salt, giving them a 5 minute head-start.

Add the mushrooms over the onions and top with 2 more teaspoons salt. Cook 10-15 minutes to remove the liquid and start to cook the mushrooms, stirring occasionally.

Add the butter and allow it to come up to temperature with the other ingredients. Then add the flour to the mixture, stir, and cook for 2 minutes to remove the powdery raw-flour taste. You’re making the roux here to thicken up the sauce.

Add the chicken stock a cup at a time and STIR: you are making a sauce, so scrap the bottom and mix!

Bring to a boil, add in the meatballs, then increase the heat to medium-high until it returns to a boil. This may take 20-30 minutes, since the meatballs are cold. KEEP STIRRING.

Add in more salt and pepper to taste, then the half-and-half. Drop the temperature to medium-low and stir. Add the nutmeg and sour cream, stirring to move the bottom up to the top and incorporate completely.

Keep at 160-180 degrees F. I use a Crockpot (not too high or you will break the sauce).