Monthly Archives: May 2013

Talk fat to me

This week, the New York Times Health section ran a blog post about the phenomenon of “fat talk:” women (and, rarely, men) cruelly and specifically critiquing their own bodies in casual conversation. Talking this way gives us no pleasure, observes the author, but we feel compelled to do it. It’s grinding, and unthinking, and a hard habit to break.

I read the post. I wanted to write about it. About how familiar I am with the “fat talk” reflex. How I learned it as a preteen, how it became part of my everyday talk–effortlessly, eagerly, like coughing or laughing. How it felt like the most natural thing in the world, as a fat (and growing) teenager, to fill pauses in conversation with tiny cuts at my own figure. How it never quite gave me the release I was looking for, the open acknowledgement that my body truly was the lumpen monstrosity I thought it was. How instead, it sparked my friends to hush me, to tell me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t that bad, I was just imagining it, that they were the ones with real ugly-problems. How none of us ever believed it, and were left quietly convinced that our flattering reassurances to each other were lies.

How I finally made up my mind to stop, to go silent whenever the “fat talk” began and re-enter the conversation when it ended. How I don’t engage anymore, even when I am clearly the heaviest woman in the conversation circle. How good it feels to have conquered the reflex, and taken myself out of the self-shaming pool.

And then I stopped by Walgreens on my way home from work today. There was a display of infant tank tops, and this was the most prominent one:


And suddenly it clicked. This is where “fat talk” comes from. This is why it matters.

“Fat talk” isn’t just a habit. It’s a social script. Because we live in a culture that teaches girls, from the moment we exit the womb, to be unsatisfied with our bodies. There’s always something unsavory, offensive, or disturbing about our figures, and it’s our job to take notice. We enter the world swimming in criticism, and we don’t know how to climb out of the pool–because we’ve never been shown that the ladder exists. This is a culture that makes girls start “fat-talking” before they can actually talk.

It’s there, briefly, almost offhand, in the New York Times piece: “…not how the speaker actually feels about her body, but how she is expected to feel about it.” And there’s something else, too: it’s a “bonding ritual.” It’s the one thing women can almost always find in common.

We’re all swimming in it, this enforced self-hatred, and voicing it shows others that you’re normal, you’re relatable, you’re like them. Get into a room with one or two or four or eight other women, and chances are, they’ve learned to nitpick themselves just as effectively as you have. It’s a conversation that’s easy to join, and assumes participation from everyone. You may not like the same music, or agree on politics, but you all have body complaints, and can articulate them with military specificity.

That’s why, as the New York Times writer observes, a woman liking her body out loud is perceived as arrogant–because she’s violating the code. She’s speaking unauthorized language, from a realm we don’t know.

I mentioned that I’ve stopped the “fat talk.” It’s no longer my knee-jerk reaction. But here’s the thing: it took me the better part of 25 years to unlearn it. It’s not so much breaking a habit as it is stifling a reflex. Even now, when the “fat talk” begins around the table, when my friends start taking out the tiny knives–I’m too hippy, too limby, too cylindrical–I don’t call it out. I just sit. I keep my mouth shut. I wait for the conversation to run out of fuel. Because I know if I open my mouth, even to derail the conversation, I’ll be drawn back in. And sometimes I am.

If “fat talk” starts when we’re in diapers, no wonder it’s as easy as laughter by the time we grow up.

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Strawberry pie and strawberry berryoska

Yesterday my friend Molly and I threw a Memorial Day weekend party. We went to the farmer’s market beforehand. And ended up going a little strawberry-crazy.

It’s certainly the time of year for it. Citrus has all but disappeared from the markets, and stone fruits are still a few weeks away from being great. But strawberries are at their heady best right now, and our local market is crowded with berry vendors. We sampled from all the stands, and zeroed in on the really good fruit–not too big, not too squishy, deep Valentine red, strong-smelling. Strawberries this good deserve star treatment, and we came up with two glorious ways to show them off: a pie and a cocktail.

Initially the plan was strawberry-rhubarb pie, but for some unknown reason there was no rhubarb at the market. So we decided to forge ahead with an all-strawberry pie, based of course on my go-to rye crust. We stuck with an old-fashioned berry pie filling: fruit, a little sugar, cornstarch, a big glug of balsamic vinegar, and a healthy grind of black pepper (my favorite strawberry spice). Although the recipe we adapted was for a lattice-top pie, we decided to make it with just a single crust, to keep the fruit-to-crust ratio as high as possible. The strawberries on top dried out and singed slightly in the heat of the oven, so to make up for it, I melted a little honey in the microwave and brushed it over the top. (Next time I’d turn the oven down partway through to prevent burning; I’ve amended the recipe below to reflect that.)

It’s not often that my baked goods turn out beautiful, but this one was a stunner.

strawberry pie whole

This was the fruit pie that other fruit pies aspire to be: jammy fruit suspended in a light cornstarch jelly, with a subtle shine from the honey glaze and red juices bubbling over a dense buttery crust. We let it cool for an hour, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time, leaving the pie just warm in the center but still firm enough to slice. Even after a rich pasta lunch, we had no trouble devouring it in about 10 minutes flat. After finishing his first piece, one of our friends said, “Now I’m racking my brain to think of where all the other pies in my life went wrong.”

strawberry pie slice forwards

While we were slicing strawberries for pie, Sam decided to steal a few for a cocktail. A quick Google swipe turned up something called a “strawberry berryoska,” a muddled mix of strawberries, lemonade, and vodka. In Sam’s creative hands, the berryoska morphed into a sweet, lightly fizzy affair, thick with strawberry pulp and laced with a touch of Grand Marnier. It was dangerous, to say the least, and perfect for a spring-to-summer party. The only thing that would have made it more perfect was crushed ice, which we didn’t have. But no one really seemed to mind.

In fact, once the pie went into the oven and we realized we had no more strawberries for drinks, Molly was so devastated that she called her late-arriving boyfriend to bring us more. He showed up with a full half-flat of strawberries. Looks like we’ll be strawberry-crazy here for a while yet.

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Giant spinach ravioli

These started their lives as egg yolk ravioli. I had leftover egg yolks from a baking experiment, and wanted a non-custard way to use them up. A few pokes of The Google turned up a Martha Stewart recipe for egg yolk ravioli, paired with two fillings: a ricotta-based one and a spinach one. I quite liked the idea of a ricotta-free spinach filling, and decided to try combining the filling and the egg yolk into one tidy package.

But then I ran into trouble. I wasn’t about to make my own pasta–I have neither the time, nor the counter space, nor the equipment to make homemade pasta dough without a lot of hassle. So I bought wonton wrappers. Perfectly cut, perfectly thin, and just a wee bit too small to hold both egg yolk and filling. I broke one yolk. And then another. And then another. Until I had no more yolks. Just a bowl of delicious-smelling spinach filling, flecked with translucent bits of shallot and garlic, and some lonely wonton wrappers. So I said screw it, and made spinach ravioli instead.

As it turns out, the round wonton wrappers from the supermarket produce aisle are too small for an egg yolk, but they’re the perfect size to make enormous ravioli with less-delicate fillings. Wonton ravioli are not quite the same as ravioli made from fresh dough; they’re floppier and more delicate, with a tendency to puff as they cook and then wrinkle and ruffle as they come out of the water. With a filling like this, subtle and loose and unweighted by ricotta, the lightness of the wonton wrappers was actually perfect. You can call it cheating, I suppose, but I prefer to think of these as a lightweight first cousin of fresh-dough ravioli. They’re terrific as a warm-weather first course or light lunch.

Because these are such delicate wrinkly things, they don’t need much to finish them for serving. I have a pretty little jar of black truffle salt–a gift from a generous friend–so I sprinkled a tiny bit over each portion and finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. You could use truffle oil instead, or skip the truffle altogether and just use olive oil. Or lemon oil. Or brown butter with sage. Or just about any sort of light and fragrant sauce-type substance. Really, the only requirement is plenty of fresh-grated Parmesan on top.

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Avocado crab salad

When it comes to flavor combinations, food people love to talk about “matches made in heaven.” There must be thousands of them–pairs of foods that, when combined, produce something mysteriously greater than the sum of their parts. Some pairs are well-known, shouted from rooftops, loudly and eloquently beloved. Peanut butter and banana! Strawberry and rhubarb! Mushrooms and sage! Pumpkin and cinnamon! Chocolate and chili! Chocolate and hazelnut! Chocolate and coffee!

Then there are the pairs that we sort of forget about, until they saunter up side-by-side and slap us on the chin. Like crab and avocado.

Every time I eat avocado and crab together, I’m freshly amazed at how well they get along. Something about the creamy, fruity richness of the avocado makes it an ideal pair for sweet stringy crab. Not long ago, I had a salad at a business lunch that reminded me, again, of how great they are together. Like most of my crab-and-avocado encounters, it kept the two separate: a pile of crabmeat, a fan of avocado slices, lettuce, and vinaigrette. No more than that. I ate, and my eyes rolled back in my head a little, and I made up my mind not to let the combination slip my mind again.

From there, I started thinking about a different kind of crab salad, the picnic and barbecue kind, bound together with mayonnaise and flecked with tiny vegetable bits. What if I replaced the mayonnaise with avocado? Would that even work?

The short answer is, yes. Absolutely. A perfectly ripe avocado, mashed ferociously with a whisk, makes a fine mayonnaise substitute, and infuses every bite of the crab salad with buttery flavor. I tossed in the chopped-up leftover vegetables from my gazpacho experiment, and spiked the whole thing with plenty of hot sauce. (Next time, I think I’ll use a green pepper rather than red, for more of a bitter bite against the rich avocado and sweet crab.) The salad tasted like a crabby guacamole, and cried out to be piled onto tortilla chips. I can only imagine how terrific this would be at a backyard barbecue in the summertime, with plenty of cold drinks and good friends close at hand.

avocado crab salad

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Baked feta in tomato sauce

I am not a very good photographer. I just don’t have It, that thing that allows people to capture the essence of their subject in a photograph. Most of the time I’m at peace with this. But sometimes it frustrates me.

For example. I made baked feta in tomato sauce. There’s a photo of it in this post. This photo does absolutely nothing to illustrate how delicious that baked feta was. What looks like a few unidentified bits and bobs floating in a pool of tomato sauce is, in reality, one of the most mouth-watering things I’ve made in quite some time. It’s a one-two-three salty sucker punch of feta, olives, and capers, tickled with Mediterranean seasonings and swaddled in tomato sauce. Feta is one of those cheeses that doesn’t really melt under heat, but holds its shape until prodded, then slumps into a creamy cloudlike mass. Bake it for a while, especially in a pungent tomato sauce base like this, and it’s perfect for smearing on crusty bread or crackers.

I got the idea for this from Emmy’s comment on my tomato sauce post. She mentioned it offhand, and gave no details. But it lodged itself in my head, and when the first of the year’s sheep’s milk feta came available at my local farmer’s market, I decided to give it a whirl. It’s an indulgence, this cheese–expensive, and worth every penny. I love the slight acrid muskiness it has, a clear reminder that it came from an animal. But really, any reasonably good-quality feta would do just fine here. It’s the salt and the lush texture that you want, muscling out from under the acid-sweet tomato sauce.

Just on its own, as a dip for bread or crackers, this is pretty phenomenal. But to make it a bit more of a substantial treat–say, for a Mother’s Day brunch–crack four eggs over the top before adding the shallot rings and oil. The egg yolks will set to a creamy, not-quite-runny consistency, and you can then mash the whole thing together with a fork or hunks of bread. I’m actually salivating just thinking about it.

baked feta in tomato sauce

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Cherry tomato gazpacho

Sometimes, it’s better to run up the white flag and admit defeat. This is one of those times. After many years, many attempts, many perplexed spoonfuls, it’s time to face the truth: I’m just not that crazy about gazpacho.

It’s a raw-tomato thing. No matter how delicately it’s flavored, or how finely it’s blitzed, there’s always that sharp, sweet undertone of raw tomato that stops me cold. I don’t know why it bothers me so much, but it does. It always spoils the soup for me. I’ve had–and loved–gorgeous gazpachos based on almonds, or bell peppers, or watermelon. Gazpacho itself doesn’t bother me. But the old-fashioned tomato-based salad-in-a-bowl gazpacho? The one people think of when they think of gazpacho? Not my thing.

It seems bizarre, not to like gazpacho. Almost everyone I’ve met thinks it’s a treat. So I keep trying, thinking that if I make it myself, I’ll like it better. Years pass between attempts, and I forget how unimpressed I was, and start wondering. That last batch I made wasn’t terrible. Maybe I’ll make it right this time, and teach myself to love it. There’s always one more attempt, leading to one more bowl of disappointing soup.

This latest effort was no exception. I thought, maybe if I base this one on cherry tomatoes–which I can sometimes convince myself to eat–I’ll fare better. I left the gazpacho chunky, in deference to Sam (who hates pureed soups), and it was…not pleasant. That tomato tang was there in spades, and every squishy crunch of a tomato hull reminded me of what I was eating.

But Sam seemed to like it. He cleaned his bowl in record time. So, all things considered, this is probably a reasonably tasty gazpacho; I’m just a terrible judge.

cherry tomato gazpacho

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Chili-lime shrimp

Here’s an easy one for Cinco de Mayo: chili-lime shrimp.

Not much to it, really. Start with big shrimp, shell-on but deveined. Mix a simple marinade of lime juice, chili flakes, garlic, and scallion. Let the shrimp mingle with the marinade for a few minutes, just long enough for the lime juice to penetrate the meat without turning it ceviche-mushy. Cook. Eat, preferably with fingers. It’s one of those deeply satisfying party foods, a reminder of how much shrimp and chili and lime adore each other.

I’ve recently gotten into cooking shrimp with the shells still on. There’s an obvious flavor boost, for one thing–the shells make the shrimp taste sweeter and sharper and altogether shrimpier, and they help hold some of the marinade against the surface of the meat. The shells also protect the delicate flesh, keeping it tender and moist and preventing the surface from picking up that odd rubbery stiffness. The shells are edible, if they’re cooked right–lightly charred and crisp all over, giving the shrimp a light papery crunch. But even if you overcrowd your shrimp, like I did, and end up with floppy pink shells, you can just peel the shrimp as you eat them, licking the marinade from your fingers as you go. The shrimp will still taste better than if the shells were never there.

Once the shrimp are marinated–if you can even call it that–there are a couple ways to cook them. Here in California, where we’ve been sweating through an August-strength heat wave, grilling is the obvious choice. Just wiggle the shrimp onto skewers, slap them on a moderate-hot grill, and serve with plenty of cold Mexican beer. In other places, where I’ve heard tell there’s still snow, grab a cast iron skillet and sear the shrimp over medium heat, then mix up a pitcher of margaritas and pretend you’re somewhere warm. Eating chili-lime shrimp will make that much easier.

chili lime shrimp

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