Monthly Archives: October 2013

Cauliflower broccoli soup

I love broccoli. I really, really, really do. Which is why I don’t understand how so many people want to muck up good broccoli soup by adding a bunch of potato to it.

Now, granted, I’ve had good broccoli potato soup once or twice, always with more broccoli than potato in it. But even then, the fuzzy heaviness the potato gives just isn’t my thing. I’m always hesitant to order broccoli soup in restaurants, because it so often comes with a sludgy, slightly grainy potato base. Which is why, when I was craving a thick, pale, slurpable broccoli soup recently, I turned to cauliflower instead.

I just love what cauliflower does when it meets hot liquid and a blender. When pureed, it turns almost starchy, but with a lightness that starch just can’t match. I’ve used it as a potato replacement in soup before, with roasted garlic and red lentils, but this might be my new favorite mutation. Broccoli and cauliflower are cousins, so it only makes sense that they would play well together–bold and brassy versus subtle and sweet. Mixing them together creates an almost airy soup, comforting yet light, perfect for sipping out of a mug.

This is a soup that evolves over time. Immediately after blending, it’s loose and flowing, pale minty green, and the flavors are bright and clean. As it sits, it thickens slightly and darkens somewhat, and the flavors mellow and blunt a bit. Refrigerate it or freeze it, and it loses some of its invigorating freshness, becoming milder and subtler.

That’s fine by me, because a soup like this is best treated as a blank canvas. When it’s freshly made and crisp-flavored, a drizzle of olive oil is all it needs. But now that I’m working my way through my freezer stash, I’m taking the opportunity to play. So far, I’ve had leftover soup with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a handful of grated Parm; with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and a squirt of Sriracha; and, tonight, with a dab of harissa and some feta cheese crumbles. All of my adaptations so far have been fantastic, and all dramatically different. I love that so much.

cauliflower broccoli soup

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Green tea chocolate chip cookies

My neighbor Jess is a total badass. By day, she’s an animator at a major motion picture studio; by night, she repairs bicycles and makes pots for her succulent plants out of concrete and old buckets. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s also a talented baker, with a particular knack for delicate and sophisticated cookies. She makes adorable bite-sized macarons that could make you weep, they’re so perfect. (She showed me how. I tried. I can’t make ’em like she can.)

I will forever be indebted to Jess for two things. First, for introducing me to matcha, or finely ground green tea. I’d heard of matcha before, mostly in the context of making green tea-flavored sweets, but Jess was the one who finally inspired me to go out and buy some. It’s certainly pricey–mine cost $8 an ounce–but a little goes a long way. Traditionally, matcha is whisked into hot water to form a frothy, intensely green tea. I used some of mine this way recently when I was fighting off a cold, and the thick forested punch it gave seemed to knock the bug right out of my system. But really, I bought matcha to use it in cookies, which leads to the second reason I’m indebted to Jess.

A couple months ago, we got together for a lazy Sunday of baking, tea, and chitchat. We made a tomato tart, baked peaches, and then Jess started gathering ingredients for cookies. “Green tea chocolate chip,” she said. “I just use the recipe on the back of the Nestle bag, but I replace two tablespoons of the flour with matcha.” The dough mixed up bright green, almost alien-like; when it baked, the cookies took on an eerie moss-toned color. At first bite, I thought I was just tasting an ordinary¬† cookie–but then the flavor of the green tea slowly took hold, blossoming grassy and slightly bitter through the rich goo of the chocolate chips. It stunned me. I thought about those cookies for days.

I’ve since made these cookies for myself several times, tinkering a bit to find a balance I like. For me, that includes a dose of whole wheat flour to offset the grassiness with nuttiness, as well as almond extract in place of vanilla. These seem like an ideal Halloween cookie, green and spooky as they are, but with enough subtlety to please adults as well as children.

Thank you, Jess, for bringing these cookies into my life.

green tea chocolate chip cookies multiple

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Portrait practice

About a year and a half ago–partly at my urging–Sam bought himself a fancy camera. Since then, he’s become an enthusiastic amateur photographer, carrying his camera everywhere and setting up little experiments in his apartment to test lenses and exposures and light. I knew he had an eye–he can make even a cell phone picture look good–but with the right equipment, he’s really blossomed. His photos are just lovely.

One of Sam’s talents has turned out to be portraits. Well, not just portraits–photos of people in their natural environment. He has an uncanny way of capturing the exact essence of a person in a moment, particularly in candid shots. His photo albums are full of snaps of our friends, frozen mid-word or mid-laugh or mid-thought, faces at once luminous and utterly familiar. In crowded party rooms, he can zero in and catch someone as they’re perfectly still, or snap the shutter just as they look openly into the camera. He’s adept at catching each person’s characteristic photo-smiles, and their broader unguarded smiles, their playful glares and silly eyebrows and deeply pensive gazes. He’s even managed to take portrait-quality photos of our friends’ dogs and cats.

Whenever Sam takes a big batch of photos, he enlists my help as editor. I scroll through hundreds of photos and identify the ones I like best. This has, unexpectedly, forced me to practice something that’s long made me squirm: looking at photos of myself.

I know I’m not the only person who hates being photographed. And I do hate it, enough that I’ve developed a photo-smile that instantly gives me away. To an untrained observer, it looks like an ordinary posed smile; but to anyone who really knows me, it’s a gritted-teeth grin, a “do I really have to?” face. It’s a reflex now, a little lift of the cheeks and a flash of the teeth. I guess, in a way, that gritted smile is how I insulate myself from trying to look good in photos, and–to my mind–invariably failing. If I’m not really smiling, then it’s easy to dismiss the photos when I don’t like how they look. Oh, I was just being silly. Oh, there’s the face again. When, really, there’s something nastier at play.

I just don’t like any photo of me. Period. I don’t like my crooked nose, or my spotty teeth, or my double chin, or my thinning hair. I don’t like how my face always looks slightly unfeminine–to me, at least. I don’t like how my head sometimes cocks unconsciously to one side. I don’t like how I slouch. In the mirror, when I’m in motion, it’s become easier to look at myself as a blur of individual features, to glance and move, glance and move; but a picture is static. I can sit and pick and hate for hours, if I want to. Everything I dislike about my appearance is on immobile display.

It’s always frustrated me, that I’m willing to overlook the oddities and irregularities in my friends’ and loved ones’ photos, but I can’t show myself the same kindness. To me, my friends are beautiful, photogenic creatures, who radiate their individual person-ness to the camera. But I’m a lump. I’m not worthy. My photos are always bad. In a photo with other people, I’ll be convinced that I’m the one who’s ruined the shot.

When Sam started his photography kick, he didn’t post photos of me online. He knew I hated it. Every time we came across a photo of me in an editing session, I’d grumble and huff and he’d say, “Okay, I won’t put it up.” It became the default–photos of me just didn’t make it into the final album. Because I hated them all.

But he didn’t stop taking photos of me. They kept coming. I kept having to look at them, to confront myself in every set. And eventually I got tired of hearing myself fuss over every photo. The whole “but I’m not cute!” routine is something I never tolerate in my friends–so why should I be forcing my boyfriend to tolerate it in me? So I started trying, at least trying, to look at the photos objectively. I made it my goal to pick photos that, even if I hated, other people might like. I looked for photos where my face was open, honest, smiling or serious, not mugging or making photo-face or subtly trying to ruin the shot.

And slowly, something’s shifted a little. I’ve gotten more objective. Instead of a mass of unpleasant features, I’m starting to see my face. I’m starting to be okay with other people seeing photos of me in a pirate costume, or me holding a kitten, or me hiking up a hill. I’m starting to see myself in the context of my friends–as ordinary people, with real-person faces.

And, over time, my photo-smile has been making fewer and fewer appearances. It still pops up, when I’m tired or sweaty or messy-haired or otherwise seriously opposed to having my photo taken. Sometimes I have to tamp it down, and sometimes I forget. But lately I’ve seen more of my actual smile. I’m actually trying to look good for the camera. I’m taking the risk.

I still don’t like photos of myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I’m starting to see why he likes them. Why he keeps turning the camera on me, even when I respond with a shot-spoiling glare or even the dreaded photo-smile. I’ve started to accept that this person, who is markedly talented at taking photos of faces, wants to take photos of my face. And show them to me. And share them with our friends.

It takes practice. But I’m working on it.

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Mizuna and mushroom salad with poached egg

You guys. How has no one ever told me to put a poached egg on a salad before? I feel cheated.

To be fair, I should have figured this one out long ago. I put runny eggs on just about everything else in my life, so why not a salad? Particularly this salad, which combines tangy greens, pan-fried oyster mushrooms, and a warm rice vinegar dressing. Add the golden richness of the egg yolk, and suddenly something alchemical happens: the whole thing becomes crunchy, chewy, sweet, tangy, gooey, rich, wolf-it-down-and-mop-the-plate delicious. This is the kind of salad that impresses people. It makes an entrance. I love it so.

The idea for this salad came from salade lyonnaise, the righteous French assemblage of frisee lettuce, bacon, and egg. I learned about this recently, and it stuck in my mind. The original salad involves a couple elements I’m not crazy about: bacon, obviously, and though I like frisee’s wacky texture, I don’t usually enjoy how bitter it is. So I made a couple of swaps–mizuna and basil for frisee, and oyster mushrooms, crisped in a pan, for bacon. It worked like a charm.

Mizuna is one of those greens that I’d heard about, but never actually sought out. Then, at the farmer’s market on a warm September Sunday, I saw a basket of lanky bunches and decided to pounce. It’s a Japanese green, supposedly related to mustard greens, but much more delicate and less aggressive. The flavor is a bit like arugula, but not quite so peppery. What really drew me to it, though, was the texture: crisp and feathery, with juicy bits of stem here and there. The greens wilted obligingly under the warm dressing, and tickled up here and there through the richness of the egg yolk. I’m sure you could make this salad with other greens, but the mizuna really worked gorgeously. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and take it from me: you’ll want to have some bread around to mop up the leftover dressing once the greens are gone. The combination of vinegar, shallot, and egg yolk–sharp, sweet, and fatty–is really plate-licking good.

mizuna mushroom salad

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Carrot miso soup with quick-pickled scallions

I love how I can know someone for years and years and years and still learn new things about them. For example.

My friend Marissa and I have known each other for the better part of a decade–almost our entire adult lives. She’s one of the first friends I made in college. We spent inordinate amounts of time together, in dorms and in common rooms, on grassy lawns and on airplanes, in classroom seats and in theater seats. I’ve shared a bed with her. She’s worn my clothes. I can tell you exactly how she’ll react to a piece of news, or who her celebrity crushes are, or what her sister’s ex-boyfriend’s name is. But not until she came to visit me from Florida last month did I learn how much she loves carrots.

It started when Audrey and I took her out for Thai food. We ordered some gorgeous elaborate stir-fry, speckled with vegetables, and the first thing Marissa did was to pick every single carrot off the serving dish and claim them for herself. She was genuinely more excited about those carrots than about anything else we’d done that day. “Omigosh, you guys, I LOVE carrots,” she gushed between mouthfuls. It took me aback. I could feel a small pang of offense–how hadn’t she told me this before? It seemed like such a fundamental character trait. Well, maybe not so fundamental. But certainly news to me.

So a couple days later, on a cold and blustery evening, when the train to my neighborhood got shut down and Marissa was stranded at a distant station wearing shorts and a thin sweater, shivering and sad by the time I picked her up, I knew I needed to make her something warm and carroty to bring her back to her sunny self. I’d had a carrot miso soup recipe bookmarked for months, and with a carrot-loving houseguest and a half-finished tub of miso in the fridge, I knew the time had come. This is a beautifully simple recipe, for a soup that’s smooth and lush and gloriously comforting. For me, it hit the same autumn spot as squash soup, with a similar pulpy orange sweetness; but it’s brighter and less sugary than squash, with a deep salty thrum from the miso.

The soup itself is clean, simple, and cheerfully sweet. I felt it needed a little bite and a touch of richness to even it out. So, going off of a parenthetical note on the original recipe, I quickly pickled some scallions in rice vinegar, then swirled them into the soup. A drizzle of dark fatty sesame oil, and we had a lovely windy-night meal.

And now I’m wondering what else she hasn’t told me…

carrot miso soup

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