In My Lunchbox: Lox and Avocado

Lox and avocado, you say?  Sounds kinda yucky.

More for me then.

For a quick breakfast in the morning, I lay out half of a sliced avocado over two pieces of toasty pumpernickel bread, then top each one with an ounce or so of smoked salmon.  If you think about the avocado as cream cheese, this should make more sense.  But it's tastier, not to mention prettier.  Three ingredients, a couple minutes for the bread to toast, and you're good to run out the door and forget everything you meant to pack last-second (nah, I don't need my sunglasses anyway, it's not like I wanted to avoid staring straight into the sun on the drive to work).

But wait, there's more!

In my lunchbox, behold one of the most yummilicious salads of all time.  For some reason it occurred to me to call this the Big Green Fatty Salad because it's amusing and has a lot of ingredients with healthy fats.  But mostly because it's funny.  Okay, now that you've rolled your eyes, and I've had a good laugh, let's talk ingredients.

For one serving:
Couple handfuls of soft/buttery lettuce (I used a baby lettuce mix with herbs, but you could use bibb lettuce instead)
Half of an avocado, cubed
2 ounces smoked salmon, torn into bite-sized pieces
Handful green grapes (just trust me, okay?), if they're pretty large go ahead and cut in half
2-4 tablespoons shelled pistachios
Freshly ground black pepper
Squeeze of lime juice
(Drizzle of olive oil if you want, I thought it was just delightful without any extra oil though)

You may notice that I haven't included any pictures.  Turns out, I don't have my life together enough in the morning to take nice pictures of my breakfast/lunch, and the lighting isn't so great at night for pictures.  I will try to get my act together so you can have stellar visuals of my Big Green Fatty Salad (hehe, so funny, gets me every time) and other goodies.

Other meals I've made and packed for my lunch over the past couple weeks:
Udon noodle soup
Roasted beet salad
Spinach and eggplant steamed buns (post forthcoming)
Lime and soy chicken
Baked beans

Pastries I've been bringing to work so I'm not tempted to crush a pan of brownies by myself or something:
Maple cake
Fig and mascarpone tart (post forthcoming)

Otherwise, I've been bringing Amy's brand frozen meals on the days when I don't feel like toting tupperware all over Hyde Park.  The Mexican Casserole Bowls are actually scrumptious.  For the meals I do make myself, most of the prep work happens over the weekend, usually on Sunday.  That way, all I need to do is pack up what I want for the next day, rather than having to make it when I get back to the apartment at 8, pack it up, and clean the kitchen before watching another episode of The Wire and going to bed.  Whew.  It's too much.

So, for example, with the udon noodle soup, I knew I was going to make 4 portions.  I brought ~4 cups of water to a boil, added in ~4 tablespoons of white miso paste, and boom, broth done.  I set that aside to cool, then brought more water to a boil and cooked the udon noodles separately from the broth.  After draining them, they were tossed in just a smidge of canola oil and sesame oil, and also set aside to cool.  I portioned my block of soft tofu into 8 thin slabs for marinating (more surface area = more flavor).  In a long rectangular tupperware, I zested and squeezed the juice of 2-3 limes and 1 lemon, and grated in ~1 inch of fresh ginger.  I laid the tofu into the marinade, and once the udon noodles were cool, I put 1/4 of the noodles into each of 4 plastic baggies.  The miso broth was divided into 4 different tupperwares also.

All I had to do to pack my lunch at night was a) take out 2 slabs of tofu, cube them, and put them into the tupperware with the miso broth and b) stuff a handful of snow peas and spinach into the baggie with the udon noodles.  Done.  When lunch time rolled around, I heated the broth and tofu for 1 minute in the microwave, dumped in the noodles and veggies, then heated for another 2 minutes.  I even tried putting dried seaweed (wakame) in with the noodles, and they rehydrated perfectly in the microwave.  For the beet salad, I just roasted them on Sunday, peeled them (they skins come off so easily after they've been cooked, just push them off with your thumbs), and stored them in baggies to be chopped up and tossed onto some greens.  The baked beans were more of a challenge to put together - I soaked the dry beans overnight on Saturday, then boiled them and made the sauce before combining them and baking - but were readily available for a quick trip to the microwave.

So, as you can see, all you need is a little prep work to make weekday lunch-packing relatively easy.  Or just keep an avocado and some lox around, and you'll be all set.

Chocolate Mousse

Where to begin?

Two finals due tenth week, two due finals week.  A flight home, and a flight back to Chicago, with a celebration for my brother's graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and for our last Russian Easter in my house in between.  My parents accepted an offer on the house.  I'm 20 years old now, too.  I started my full-time position at the same place I've been working part-time since February, and began my summer rowing with Lincoln Park Boat Club.  And I made chocolate mousse.  John and I ate the whole bowl of it ourselves in one sitting - well, he ate most of it, but I helped.


Now I'm in Chicago, living in the guest bedroom at my dad's apartment.  We're out in the town of Worth, southwest of Hyde Park, in the suburbs.  There's not really much else for me to say, even though so much has happened since I last wrote.  I haven't really digested the fact that on July 19 my house won't be mine anymore, that I can now call myself a twenty-something, that I'm halfway done with my undergraduate education.  It just feels like a matter of course.  I feel like I'm floating, not like in some pleasant dream, but in a fragile, untethered way - walking in a mirage, not really sure where I'm going.  I go to work, I row, and then I go back to the apartment and watch Game of Thrones or The Wire.  I pack my lunches, I clean my room.  What else is there to do?  I'm thinking about applying for a Fulbright, to do psychology research in Russia, but other than writing that application I don't know what sense of purpose I'll have for a while.  Friends, I am restless.  Terribly restless.


Chocolate Mousse
from Bon Appetit 

3/4 c chilled heavy cream, divided
4 large egg yolks
1/4 c espresso, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 large egg whites, room temperature

Beat 1/2 c heavy cream until stiff peaks form.  Check for stiff peaks by turning off the beaters, pulling them out of the whipped cream, and turning them upside down - the peaks of whipped cream at the ends of the beaters should stand straight up.  Cover and chill.

Set a large glass or metal bowl over a pot filled with 1 inch of simmering water.  Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water - the point is to cook with indirect heat.  Combine the egg yolks, espresso, salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar in the bowl.   Cook, whisking constantly, until the color of the mixture has lightened and it has almost doubled in volume.  I did this by eye, but if you want a more exact measure, the mixture should register 160 degrees Farenheit when it's done.

Remove the bowl from the pan, and whisk in the chocolate until smooth.  Set aside and let the mixture come to room temperature, whisking occasionally.

Beat the egg whites in another bowl on medium speed just until foamy.  With the beaters running, gradually beat the sugar into the whites until stiff peaks form (check the same way as with the cream).  Wait until the chocolate mixture has come to room temperature before you beat the whites, since you don't want the whites to sit once they've been whipped.

Take 1/3 of the whipped egg whites and gently fold them into the cooled chocolate mixture.  Fold with a rubber spatula by cutting a line through the center of the mixture, scraping along the bottom of the bowl to the left, folding this half of the mixture over the rest, and continuing to scrape down along the the right side of the bowl.  Fold this half of the mixture over, and repeat. Turning over the mixture gently like this will make sure the egg whites don't deflate.

Add in the remaining 2/3 of the whites and do the same thing, until only a few streaks of white remain.  Add in the whipped cream, and fold in the same way as the whites.  Cover and chill the mousse for at least 2 hours, and up to 1 day, before serving.  Serve with the remaining 1/4 c cream, whipped just before eating.

Little Bites: Thoughts on Shared Meals

Introduction

I’ve eaten many pieces of Chicago, in diners and burger joints, upscale restaurants, and corner cafes.  The city offers almost endless places to eat.  As someone who enjoys food for its own sake, I’ve made lists and maps of restaurants to visit before I leave here.  Some of them are a bus ride downtown, but others are far out in the western suburbs or way up on the North Side.  I’ll explore as many as I can.  But the most important meals I’ve had haven’t been for the sake of food, but for the sake of people.  There’s something poetic about sharing a lovely meal with a loved one – I don’t have other words to describe the experience, but I’m sure you know what I mean. 
The meals I’ve written about here follow from one another as courses do, from small plates to dinner and then dessert.  I didn’t include names, because I figured anonymity would be better for the people described here, and it also may help you connect better on a personal level with the piece.  If you know me, you’ll know whom I’m talking about.  I wanted to write about these memories to reflect on how these people have shared their lives with me, and to share them with you, too.

The Purple Pig

3 Cheese Tasting with fig-grape jam and crostini
Chorizo Stuffed Olives
Peas and Bacon with spearmint
Porchetta with Salsa Verde

A long, rectangular plate slides across our table, with three cheeses and a small, curvaceous dish of fig-grape jam.  The plate and dish are a crisp white, the cheeses tinged with different muted shades of cream and beige; but the jam, at the far right of the arrangement, catches our eyes with its jewel tones.  The slumped fruits themselves seem to be a bowl of precious stones, with the figs broken open to reveal their brilliant quartz interiors, crimson-brown with veins of tope and tiny blips of yellow, the seeds, some of which have cascaded out from the fruit and studded the glistening sauce.  And the grapes are richly purple orbs, pearls that grew too large to be contained by their oyster shells. 



The imagery is broken by the way the fruits have melted and collapsed into one another at the edges, rendering the burgundy sauce surrounding them.  And so we plunge our spoons into the dish, and spread the sweet jewels over our grilled slices of bread, barely charred and brushed with olive oil.  Faint pepper and citrus notes rise up from the warmed olive oil and intertwine with the deep, caramelized flavors of the stewed fruit.  The whole bite is soft and subtle, rounded out by the toasty bread and interrupted every so often by blackened bits of crust, where the fire was burning a little too hot.  These shards of black accent the otherwise subdued bite with a welcome and surprising bitterness.
The dim, burnt lighting casts a golden glow over everything. The quadrello is pale, almost luminescent, standing in slight contrast to the pecorino noce, creamier in color from a longer period of aging.  Bluish hues from the streaks of mold in the piquant gorgonzola seem to have seeped out into the cheese itself, draining the warm milk tones from its flesh.  The cleanly cut wedge resembles a marbled stone; but the scents wafting up from the plate breach this imagery, too.  The cheeses to the left of the jam progress in pungency from the mildly sweet quadrello, to the salty pecorino noce, and end with the heady stink of the piquant gorgonzola.  The aroma is pungent, but not unpleasant – it’s like the smell of wood after a strong rain, that’s been put over a fire and begun to breathe a spicy smoke. 
I slip the knife down through the tangle of blue veins that stretch across the gorgonzola, and break off a corner.  The cheese gives way easily, and I spread the ragged knob across another crisp slice of toast.  This bite is bright and peppery, almost smoky, with the tingles of the cheese’s tang concentrated on the front of my tongue, and the olive oil’s peppery notes farther to the back.  The gorgonzola and olive oil come together and cover my palate with a smooth, almost buttery texture, only to be washed away by a sip of effervescent lemon soda.
Between bites, he and I talk about all the little pieces of our lives we’ve missed.  It’s been months since we last spoke – but we always just seem to pick up where we left off.  We’ve met here before, at The Purple Pig, as a halfway point between us.  We’re sort of regulars now.  It’s our spot, we say.  There’s a parallel between the small plates of food and these conversations we share that makes it a lovely meeting place. 
I crack the pecorino into shards and pop one into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully, listening to him describing his apartment next year.  In Evanston, he says, there’s a law that no more than three people can occupy an apartment; since at some point in the town’s history, apparently, it was full of brothels.  Thus, the law was created to abolish them – but for some reason it’s still in effect, centuries later, as a college town.  There aren’t any brothels around anymore that I know of, he jokes, and giggling with him I describe my own apartment for next year.  Five people will be living there, oh the scandal! 
We burst out laughing when our waitress is coming by with our stuffed olives.  At the same time, the bus boy whisks away our cheese plate, empty if not for scattered crumbs and sticky streaks of jam.  The two move together as continuations of one another, with one arm sweeping down to set the small cobalt bowl upon the table, and the other swiftly scooping up the plate behind her.  My eyes wander away from my friend for a moment, as I watch them both leave in unison, and then return to his face. 
We each pick up an olive with our fingertips, making sure to sweep it through the garlic aioli.  I taste the aioli first, redolent with garlic and savory olive oil, before I break through the fried crust.  I feel the crunch, then the firm olive beneath.  Its strong brininess compliments these deep, rich flavors, and is an extension in flavor of the salty chorizo inside.  The paprika and subtle spiciness of this filling creates a cohesive, delicious bite.
We went to high school together, and our friendship has grown even deeper since we came to Chicago for college.  Even though we see each other far less often than we used to, I feel like I know him better now than I did before.  We both ended up in Cambridge last summer for internships, too.  Somehow fate manages to bring us together, if only for the occasional cup of coffee or dinner.  And we talk about everything: old friendships, new enemies, personal drama, breakups, my adventures to Starbucks without him, the compliments he’s gotten on the shoes I helped him pick out the last time we were together.  We reminisce about high school, and how different Chicago is from New Hampshire, or even how different Evanston is from Hyde Park.  We gossip and joke about our classmates, our families, and ourselves.  We dream about the future, about what we want to do with our lives – or at least the things we want to do next quarter. 
It’s not hard to dream with him, or to lean on him when I need support, or to discuss the deep dark secret things with him.  That’s a wonderful, happy kind of freedom to share with another person, and the reason why we have these meals.

Tesori

Agnolotti duck confit, foie gras, truffle butter
Rustic lasagna wild mushrooms, tomato, smoked mozzarella
Goat cheese cheesecake fig jam, meyer lemon, pine nuts, fresh mint gelato
Rhubarb Tiramisu mascarpone, rhubarb mousse, roasted rhubarb, candied fennel

Two white porcelain bowls are set down quietly before us.  The faint clatter of glasses against tabletops, and twittering of women’s voices a few tables away from us, sparkle in the background while we converse softly.  In the darkening grey light, floating in from the windows that stretch high above us up to the ceiling, the bowls seem to become grey themselves, and almost transparent.  The softness of the lighting renders a kind of mirage at the edges, blurring the distinctions between bowl and tablecloth, tablecloth and napkin. 
Gingerly my fingertips unfold the napkin, with its perfect creases pressed into the fabric, and lay it across my lap.  I brush the hair from my face and tuck the loose strands behind my ear, twisting one section round and round my index finger until it bounces away, and my hand falls into my lap again.  I pick up the pristine fork and pierce the first layers of the vegetable lasagna in my bowl – sauce, pasta, mushrooms, ricotta cheese – and sink the tines further into the flesh. 
Each stratum is delicate, so thin like sheets of paper, and seemingly held to its neighbors by the mere chance that some breeze would sweep them up, and nestle them together this way.  The forkful is light and lush at once, with the silken ricotta cheese whipped into ethereal clouds among the toothsome layers.  The ricotta’s simple, pure flavor of cream rounds out the tangy sweetness of the tomatoes and the deep earth tones of the mushrooms, barely caramelized at the edges and redolent with oregano and sage. 
He offers me a bite from his bowl.  I take up one of the tiny, plump pillows of agnolotti and place it carefully in my mouth.  The sauce of black truffle butter that clings to the pasta slips away and onto my tongue, with an overarching earthiness bolstered by sweet, herbaceous undertones.  My teeth tear open the pasta and plunge into the smooth filling of foie gras and duck confit.  This is the height of richness: specially fattened liver, tasting faintly like butter, folded into duck meat that’s been poached in its own fat until it falls apart under the lightest pressure.  Despite the very nature of the dish’s principle elements, my bite is impossibly light, and the flavors dynamic, not simply a single note of richness. 
I wish I had a whole big bucket of this.  He extends his arms out widely and laughs.  I’m sure that if they’d brought him a vat of these agnolotti, he would’ve eaten them all, too.  He was practically beaming – I haven’t seen him this happy about a meal in a while.  I cook for us often, and well I think, but never a dish so decadent as this.  It’s a pleasure to eat a meal that I don’t have the resources to make myself, since it takes away some of the joy of eating out. 
Still, I start to imagine how I could recreate this dish for him if I could afford all of the ingredients, how I could make a whole big bucket of them for him to munch on.  The truffle butter spurs my memory of the pretty little jar of black truffles that he bought me for my birthday last year, and how overjoyed I was.  I remember the first upscale restaurant we went to together, in Boston last summer, but I can’t recall its name.  We hadn’t been dating for very long, and being in a place like that had made me a little nervous to be impressive and funny and not to spill food all over myself.  I didn’t need to be nervous. 
I gaze at him across the table.  We hadn’t planned to eat somewhere fancy like this, so he’s wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans.  He’s pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, which are planted against the table to support his chin that’s resting on his folded hands.  He gets lost in thought like this, and I hate myself for breaking the quiet of it – but I become curious, I want to know what’s holding his attention, and I selfishly want to know if it’s me.  Or else, I want him to share it with me. 
Tiny pricking butterflies tumble around in my stomach when he looks up at me again.  Even though we spend so much of our lives together, the butterflies still wake up sometimes like this when I look at him.  What are you thinking about?  The answer is often the same, nothing, and I often wonder if it’s true.  But I inevitably decide that it doesn’t matter, really – it’s his mind and I don’t have any right to know, and I love him anyway.

Little Goat Diner

Hash Browns shredded on the griddle, grumpy goat cheese
Reuben smoked corned beef, kimchi, kraut, cheese, special sauce, pretzel rye
Pork Belly Pancake scallion pancake, house hoisin, bok choy salad, ginger maple dressing
Blood Orange Meringue Pie

I lap up the remaining streaks of hoisin sauce and slivers of bok choy salad before leaning back and patting my tummy satisfactorily.  The dish had arrived at our booth minutes ago, with the crunchy scallion pancake flayed out across the wide plate and piled high with succulent strips of pork belly and an impressive pile of confettied salad.  The pancake was just the right thickness to add a toothsome, but not heavy, textural element, and its golden brown exterior crunched pleasantly between my teeth.  The surface was slathered with sticky-sweet hoisin that boldly balanced the fatty pork belly with its fermented tanginess, and intertwined with the bright sparkling flavor of the salad’s ginger maple vinaigrette.  Balancing the deep, rich flavors below it, the nettle of bok choy, carrots, and scallions was a cold contrast to hot pancake. 



He sliced it in half down the middle and slid my portion toward me.  We both picked up our half-moons like tacos, folding the side inward to contain the other components, and we held them down low to our plates to prevent the juices from running down our arms.  When the waiter came over to check on us, he seemed surprised that we’d eaten them this way: Wow, I’ve never seen anyone hold it like that before!  That’s a really good idea.  We chuckled with him as he whirled away from us to the next table.  How else were we supposed to eat it?
Now our forks descend upon the miniature blood orange meringue pie between us.  Its crust is a rich brown that compliments the peachy-pink curd, flushed with orange, and finished with a flourish of white meringue.  The thin edges of the cookie crumb crust crumble as I cut away a small wedge and raise it to my lips.  Its incredibly bright tartness rushes over my taste buds, my mouth puckering in surprise before the sweeter citrus tones emerge to assuage it. 
The honey notes of the crust and its crunchy texture break through the luscious, thick filling; then the springy meringue comes through, too, with a sensation of airiness.  A pleasant chewiness from the meringue creates an interesting textural effect, highlighted by its toasty peaks that attracted too much of the blowtorch’s flame.  We mutter some praise about how good the pie is as we both dig in for another bite, but we don’t talk much more until only cookie crumbs are left.


I get my weakness for dessert from him.  In the back corner of the local grocery store, next to the swinging doors marked For Employees Only, there’s a section of shelves for reduced price bakery items.  Oftentimes he’d return home from grocery shopping with one of the reduced price lemon meringue pies, or with a blueberry one if he were lucky.  I’ve never been sure why he only bought these things from the reduced price shelves – we could afford the extra dollar or whatever for a fresh one, or I could certainly make one if we got the ingredients.  Maybe it was the initial enticement of the bargain, a justification to buy the pie at all. 
Now, when I see lemon meringue pie, I think of him setting his prize out on the corner of the counter where we all could see it.  But putting it in the corner made it seem as if it were hidden, so the rest of us knew to leave it alone.  Although, I won’t say there weren’t occasional finger marks visible across the bottom of the pie tin.
It’s hard not to reminisce when we have meals like this, just the two of us.  But there’s a lot of talking about the future, too: where I should be applying for internships, the kinds of work experience I should be getting now as an undergrad, how we’re going to need to pack up the house once someone finally buys it.  I don’t particularly enjoy planning for near-future events – I like to dream about the things way off into the future, because it’s not really planning, it’s just imagining – so these kinds of conversations generally stress me out. 
So we don’t stray very far from the topic of food, the recipes I’ve made recently that I didn’t write posts about, or restaurants we should go to some other time.  While he’s more of a meat and potatoes person than I am, he’s had a pretty significant effect on my food preferences, especially comfort food-wise.  He’s also the one who taught me how to cook. 
            When I was little, I used to sit at the counter while he cooked for Russian Easter. He plucked the Joy of Cooking from our bookshelf and leafed through its pages, in which Grandma Z’s recipe cards were tucked away.  Sometimes he explained his methods to me while he cooked.  Heating the milk and butter together keeps the batter from getting lumpy. 
I nodded and furrowed my eyebrows.  Most times he didn’t say anything at all, and I would just watch him moving about the kitchen.  The blintz, crepes stuffed with a sweet cottage cheese mixture, involved the most interesting and tedious process.  The pan he makes them in, too, is something of a family heirloom, handed down from my grandmother. 
One night, he brought me over to the stove.  The first four crepes always turn out wrong.  The pan has to come to temp, and you have to get the amount of batter just right – just enough to coat the bottom, but not so thin that the crepe rips.  Make sure you have plenty of butter.
I dropped a pat of butter into the bottom.  He handed me the bowl of batter and a measuring cup, saying, Use this.  It needs a little less than a quarter cup.
I poured batter into the blintz pan.  He held my other wrist, teaching me how to tilt the handle just right.  We coated the aluminum with a thin, even layer of batter.  It’ll only take a minute or so.  You can’t walk away.   You have to watch it.  See how it doesn’t stick?  He swirled the crepe round and round.  They don’t make pans like this anymore.  He picked up a corner of the crepe and peaked at its golden brown bottom.  You have to feel when it’s done.  There’s no more loose batter, and it didn’t get too brown.  You’ll know from experience.
I’ve since taken over some Russian Easter duties, when I’m able to make it home for the celebration.  Someday, I’ll host it, when he doesn’t want to do it himself anymore.  But until then, I’ll be around to take fingerfuls of his lemon meringue pie when he’s not watching.



A Look Forward

Three.  Weeks.  Left.

AND THEN A CAREFREE SUMMER OF FROLICKING IN FLOWERY FIELDS AND SIPPING DAQUIRIS POOLSIDE.

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).