Cheese is Bad For Me and I Should Eat a Lot More of It, Says the USDA

November 7th, 2010

Reading a New York Times article on the USDA’s mixed signals about cheese made me think about my own conflicting cheese emotions. The USDA, like a person with the two hemispheres of his brain separated, tells us “Eat less fat—don’t have so much cheese!” and at the same time encouraged Dominoes to boost sales by adding 40 percent more cheese to their pizzas. Apparently, after convincing the American public to lower our fat intake, there’s a surplus of dairy fat. I went through a militant low-fat phase in my teens and twenties, but I have since rebounded, recently serving a French onion soup that made a serious dent in our national dairy fat glut.

In weak moments, pondering the saturated fat I’m eating in dairy products, I consider going vegan. I wouldn’t miss milk too much since I don’t drink it and rarely eat cold cereal; olive oil would do instead of butter most of the time; I’d definitely lose summer weight if I stayed away from ice cream; and I guess I’d learn to live without yogurt or honey. But would life be worthwhile without cheese? I mean real cheese, not the abomination known as soy cheese.

Sorry vegan friends: soy cheese is not cheese any more than are American cheese-flavored slices or Nabisco Handi-Snacks Crackers-n-Cheez. Soy cheese, like other processed cheese-food-products is not even food. I say, either eat cheese or don’t. Why buy a rubbery, vaguely cheese-flavored pretend cheese—filled with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, maltodextrin, potato flakes, guar gum and carrageenan—and then melt that onto your otherwise appetizing food? Maybe those ingredients are not necessarily bad for you, but neither are they food.

Real cheese is generally made out of milk, salt, enzymes, microbes and rennet—a product that I just learned traditionally comes from calves stomachs, so not all cheese is vegetarian. Who knew? Cheese can also be made with vegetable rennet, though.

I didn’t used to love cheese, but that’s because I used to think that American cheese and fat-free cheese were kinds of cheeses. Once I let go of those notions, I discovered the sinful pleasures of crumbly sharp cheddar, stinky blue cheeses that smell like feet, mild manchego and fresh mozzerella, which could not be mistaken for a bouncy ball. I still don’t like Swiss cheese, but Gruyere melted over French onion soup is transcendent—and must amply cover the entire surface of the soup bowl, preferably spilling over the edge. I went to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy crocks for my French onion soup but all I found were white ones (not the traditional brown ones in my memory) with a photo on front that was a deal breaker: a light sprinkle of cheese topped the French onion soup. Heresy!

The French know what they’re talking about when it comes to cheese. There’s a great scene in the PBS documentary “The Persuaders” when marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille discusses the difference between French and American attitudes towards cheese:

“I know that in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.”

A French company had trouble marketing cheese in America because they could not understand that for germaphobic Americans, safety was more important than taste.

I’d like to lean towards the French side here, because I see our obsession with sterile food as ridiculous and takes away from flavor and enjoyment. But then I stick the cheese into a Ziploc bag in the frig because I’m afraid of mold. I’ve been known to throw out gorgonzola when it gets too blue. Maybe that’s normal. Rapaille says that more French die from cheese than Americans; it’s a question of priorities.

That could apply to cheese eating in general. In 2003, the French consumed 24 kg of cheese per capita, while Americans trailed at 15 kg per person, according to a post on Ranking America (data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations). And the French are certainly not fatter nor more afflicted by coronary disease.

So I’m not becoming a vegan and I’m not stopping the cheese habit. In fact, there’s some aged cheddar in the frig calling my name.**

Watched Pot

October 29th, 2010

It’s not true that a watched pot never boils. What happens is it hovers on the edge of almost-boiling for so long that after a long stretch contemplating the quiet liquid and floating vegetables you sigh and turn away and get involved in something else so that by the time you remember the pot and run back into the kitchen it is churning so violently it has already filled your house with steamy vegetable-essence and almost sprays hot liquid all over the stove.

1 Tip of a Preposition

October 29th, 2010

It’s at the top of my browser window again: the line drawing of a pudgy woman in a bikini promising, “1 Tip of a Flat Belly.” It’s annoying to be subjected to the same ad over and over again, and particularly an ad nagging me about losing pounds, but that’s not the worst part. What I can’t stand is that bizarrely constructed phrase. What is up with the preposition? “Tip of?” Who says that? They mean a tip for achieving or a tip about. Or maybe they really mean this is just the tip of the iceberg.

People whose native language is not English frequently confuse English prepositions, which is understandable because they are so quirkily unpredictable: we look up advice and track down the facts. We’re scared of belly fat and irritated by advertisements for telling us what we should care about.

I’m not going bemoan our collective descent into grammar anarchy, or even that it now seems socially acceptable to end a sentence in a preposition, as I did in the previous sentence. (Did you catch it?) I’ll leave aside the questions of dangling prepositions as well as “free” internet resources which come at the expense of being exposed to such nonsense. Instead, I just have one piece of advice for the flat-belly ad-men: if you want to use a single-phrase pitch and mercilessly subject us all to it, try my new preposition diet! Learn how to sound literate simply by choosing the proper prepositions! It’s easy! Click here for the complete free presentation!

Vegetarian French Onion Soup, Julia Child Style

October 29th, 2010

“Vegetarian French onion soup? How do you do that?” everyone wanted to know. I wasn’t exactly sure, but I had a plan: use Julia Child’s method for the onion part of the soup and for the “French” part, that is, the browned, melted cheese suspended on toasted bread, which then stretches from bowl to mouth when you go to eat it. The only substitution would be vegetable broth for beef. My friends were skeptical. Brenny admitted afterward, “I figured it would be an experience, anyway…that it would taste good, just not like a traditional French onion soup. I thought it would taste like it was missing beef.”

I should explain here that I have some rules about my mostly-vegetarian diet, the first one being, I don’t eat fake meat. I like to say, if I wanted to eat meat, I’d eat meat. My anti-fake meat stance applies to soup stock as well, which is one reason I didn’t run out to the store to buy beef-like bouillon cubes or packaged imitation beef stock. The second reason is that pre-made stocks are often filled with salt, and sometimes “natural” flavors and colors. Plech. The third reason—the real one—is that I was going to follow Julia Child’s recipe, and her recipes depend upon using homemade, fresh ingredients and, of course, ample butter and wine. When I watched Julia Child earlier that week slowly browning onions in butter on the classic “French Onion Soup” episode of “The French Chef” (from Netflix), I realized that step was the key, rather than the beef broth. I resolved, though it might take some time, I was going to attempt her recipe. And then I planned to subject our friends Brenny and Dale to my experiment.

Most of my soup stock began life on a local farm (see previous post). From Pleasant Valley Farm (CNG) I also bought and additional seven yellow onions, about two and a half pounds for the onion broth.

I figured since I was putting so much effort into this soup, and so much cheese, I wanted excellent cheese that we could feel good about. You can use ordinary Swiss cheese, of course, but at the farmer’s market, Homestead Enterprises has homemade, naturally produced Gruyere, which they call High Rock cheese. I have bought cheese from Liza Porter, owner with her husband David, for a number of special occasions and never have been disappointed. (You can taste for yourself at the booth.) I told Liza of my plan and asked how much I’d need for four servings. She found the perfect sized block, and she was absolutely right about the portion size. This is something I love about the farmer’s market; the vendors are knowledgeable, and most are really friendly and interested in helping customers figure out how to use their produce. It was an $8 block of cheese for four people, so it was a splurge, but I would absolutely do it exactly the same way again. It was that good.

At home, Julia Child style, I pulled my homemade vegetable stock out of the fridge to reheat it as I made the rest of the broth. I had made it the day before, which was a good idea. Broth requires little attention, but to wring every bit of flavor out of those vegetables and spices, it took about four hours (simmering unattended on the stove—very easy—see previous post). Thus concluded the healthy part of the recipe, the interlude with no fat and no salt. On to the Julia Child section.

An alarming amount of butter goes into the onion preparation and, I confess, I had second thoughts. (I didn’t have Julia Child’s actual recipe in front of me, just my memory of it from watching and Food Network’s interpretation that I found online to remind me of quantities.) I did a little mental calculation and consoled myself that when all is said and done, it turns into one tablespoon of butter, less than a teaspoon of olive oil, and two ounces of cheese per person. Urged on by my husband Wayne, I plunked the half a stick of butter into the stockpot, and began to brown the onions. The resulting soup was incredibly rich, and while I think I could probably reduce the amount of butter and increase the olive oil, for a special occasion soup, I really wouldn’t want to change a thing.

The whole soup took a while to come together, but cooking the onions is the only part of the recipe that requires slaving over a hot stove. (Most of the other steps can happen while one is in a different room, writing.) After turning the onions translucent on medium-low, you have to stir frequently for the 25 minutes or so as the onions take on the famous rich brown color and caramelized flavor. Julia Child suggests browning the onions while working something else on the stove so you can attend to the onion constantly to keep them from burning. (I read one recipe on the internet which blithely suggests stirring once during the entire browning process. Yum: scorched onion soup.)

It’s really quite easy from there. I whisked in flour, added the vegetable broth, cognac, and wine and let the whole shebang simmer on its own for an hour and a half. I made Wayne buy good wine and brandy for the recipe, assuring him that he could drink the cognac afterward. He balked at the price, but commented later that if you use poor wine and liquor in a recipe, you end up cooking it down to super-concentrated bad wine and liquor in your food. Not pleasant.

The last steps were quick and turned the already fragrant, rich soup, into the bubbling, cheesy entrée I’d been dreaming about since I saw Julia preparing and serving it up (and the soup I’ve been missing but avoid in restaurants because it’s made with beef stock). I ladled out the savory onion soup into oven proof bowls, floated the pre-toasted slices of crusty French bread, covered them in cheese, and set them under the broiler for a few minutes. Voila!

Minutes later at the table, the four of us cut through the cheese and bread with our spoons to the deep brown broth below. Brenny said, “Wow!” a feeling echoed by everyone at the table. And since you can’t taste it for yourself this moment, I’ll boast that it was probably one of the best French onion soups I’ve ever had, with the zing of sharp melted gruyere contrasting with the darkly sweet onions nearly melting into oblivion. No one missed the beef. As Julia would say, all you need to make it a meal is a green salad. Bon apetit!

Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”


  • ½  stick butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6-7 medium-large yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 2-1/2 pounds)
  • ½  teaspoon salt
  • ½  teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 8 cups homemade vegetable stock (or good quality store-bought)
  • 1/4 cup Cognac, or other good brandy
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 12 (3/4 inch) thick slices of French bread, brushed with olive oil and toasted
  • ½  pound coarsely grated Gruyere


If you are using homemade vegetable stock, make this in advance, and then reheat it as you are preparing the onions.

In a 6-quart, heavy sauce pan, melt the butter with the olive oil on medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until they are translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sugar and salt and turn up the heat to medium high to brown the onions, stirring frequently for about 25 minutes or so, until the onions are uniformly dark brown. Rapidly stir in the flour, cooking for a few minutes to make a thick paste. Remove from heat.

Add a few ladles of the hot broth and stir briskly. Add half the stock and stir again, returning the pot to the heat. Then add the remainder of the broth, cognac and wine and stir well to combine. Bring the liquid to a simmer. Continue simmering, loosely covered, for an hour and a half. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.

Ladle the soup into four 16-oz ovenproof bowls. Julia Child says to sprinkle a little cheese on top of each soup before floating the toasted bread slices on top of each portion. Then cover each bread slice with cheese, being careful not to leave naked edges of bread, which can burn. Place bowls on top of a baking sheet under the broiler and watch closely. When the cheese is bubbly and golden brown, the soups are ready. Serve immediately to your awe-struck guests.

A Gift for Myself

October 8th, 2010

For years, ever since I moved into this house, whenever a recipe called for oil to be brushed onto bread, vegetables, or a dish, I’d pour some onto my fingers or onto a paper towel and attempt to spread it around that way. It works in a pinch, but a lot of oil ends up soaked up into the towel or running down my fingers and the result is never an even coat. I’d end up with streaks or barely any oil on the surface it was supposed cover, and plenty high quality oil dripping down my arms or lost to the paper towel.

I don’t know why I didn’t admit to myself for so long that I needed the right tool. We always had a pastry brush in my kitchen growing up, so it’s not as though I didn’t know what I was missing. Some bizarre sense of frugality made me think there was some value in making do. Sure, other people had a special brush for this technique, but I have fingers! After any particular recipe reminded me that my improvised solution was not a good permanent tactic, I’d promptly forget by the time I went food shopping again.

Over the years I accumulated most of the kitchen supplies I needed. The expensive or high quality cookware and gadgets were wedding gifts, but I managed to buy most of the handy small tools and measuring devices myself. All except for the simple pastry brush.

When I made French onion soup, however, I finally snapped. Julia Child said to use a pastry brush to lightly coat the toasted bread with olive oil before covering it with cheese. The paper towel didn’t want to transfer any of the oil to the bread. Using my fingers just left little fingerprints. I tried pouring a light drizzle directly onto the bread, hoping to spread it, but of course it sank right into the toast in wavy stripes. The good olive oil was going to waste, and the finished product was ugly.  After all this effort, I was thwarted by a missing utensil which was only a few bucks and surely available in the baking aisle of Hannaford.

“I need a pastry brush!” I yelled from the kitchen, as if my husband Wayne had been withholding the missing implement all this time.

He came out of the study to see why I’d lost my mind this time. “Just use a paper towel,” he said, logically, only making me feel more misunderstood. How could he not know that all my future cooking suddenly depended upon this vital utensil?

“No, it’s no good! I need a pastry brush!” I said, appalled that he could not sense the gravity of the situation.

“Ok,” he said, clearly wondering what the big deal was. He may have been thinking that I apparently made it for about the last nine years without the pastry brush, and didn’t see why this had turned into an emergency.

I tried to get him to buy me the missing doo-dad on his next excursion, but he, sensibly, wanted to know if I needed it right away. Of course not, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I didn’t want to go another day without a pastry brush, even if it were to sit unused in a drawer for a month. He was unimpressed, so I had to find it myself at the grocery store the next time we went shopping.

I picked up the pastry brush and Wayne, a silicone basting brush. He was very excited. “This one should clean off easily!” As he does most of the cleaning, I deferred to his choice. Besides, it had springy rubber bristles and a clear handle. “Heatproof to 450 degrees,” it said. It was, I had to admit, a pretty neat tool. Wayne was right, too; I was able to coat my next set of toasts bound for the remaining serving of the French onion soup with a perfectly even thin coat of oil, and it was easy to clean up. That’s how I ended up with a basting brush as my new favorite kitchen utensil, despite the fact that as a vegetarian, I don’t actually baste foods.

Homemade Vegetable Broth: A New Challenge

October 4th, 2010

My husband, Wayne, and I disagree on broth. He claims that the key to excellent broth is long simmered chicken bones and parts. Or those of beef or pork. I’ll admit that plenty of world culinary history backs up his contention. Still, because I don’t eat chicken, beef or pork, I have incentive to prove him wrong. I knew vegetarian soups can be just as fabulous as their meat-based counterparts, even if it’s sometimes hard to get them at restaurants. (Dear well-intentioned waitstaff I have met over the years: vegetables in chicken or beef stock might be called “vegetable soup,” but that doesn’t make it vegetarian.)

I don’t know what seemed so overwhelming about making my own vegetable stock, but I’d been using boxed vegetable broth in all my “homemade” soups. In the back of my mind, that always felt like cheating and made me wonder what was so virtuous about using all those fresh farmer’s market vegetables when half of the volume was taken up by broth made in a factory.

Then again, let’s face it: broth takes a really long time. In the past I’d boiled the aromatic basics of soup—onions, carrots, celery—with water and spices in a stockpot for an hour, and ended up with a very faintly yellow hot water with the barest whisper of vegetable flavor. I realized I might as well use pre-made—or water—if I only had an hour to devote to broth. Besides, the next steps of soup would take me hours in addition. (That’s at least partly because I am world’s slowest cook.) Now that I’m home all day writing and reading for my MFA program, however, I told myself, there are no more excuses.

My first stop was the Saratoga Farmer’s Market. Sure, it costs more than Hannaford or Price Chopper (and is not as convenient) but the Certified Naturally Grown produce is comparable price-wise to the organic produce at the supermarket and “fresh” from the supermarket just does not taste like fresh from the farm. I used to think if I could become clever enough with preparation and sauce, that whatever was under the sauce wouldn’t matter. Not until I started cooking with farmer’s market produce did I realize how different vegetables could taste, even hidden inside a soup.

A brief note about Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) versus USDA Organic: CNG fruits and vegetables, like Organic ones, are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides or raised with artificial fertilizers. The major difference is paperwork, I learned from the helpful folks at the Kilpatrick Family Farm and from the CNG website. In short, when the USDA developed its paperwork-intensive certification process in 2002, small farmers already using these practices who had diverse crops were not able to comply. They created their own alternative system, which relies on peer review instead of government review. The net result for me is that as much as I can, I try to buy CNG produce from the farmer’s market, which is fresher-tasting than trucked-in organics and is still healthy to eat and for the environment. Even better, it supports local farmers.

Thus, the stock happily began with CNG onion, carrot, celery and garlic from Pleasant Valley Farm (which is tied with Kilpatrick Family Farm as my favorite stops for vegetables). By the way, there is a lot of conventionally grown food at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market, and few CNG vendors. Maybe if more customers insisted on CNG produce, others would make the (considerable) investment.

After trolling the internet for vegetable broth options, I had decided to keep it simple; I didn’t want to use soy sauce, miso, or instant coffee, which recipes of varying credibility suggested to make the broth beefy. Because I wanted it to have a dark, mysterious, earthy quality in the French Onion Soup for which it was destined (see next post), however, I did decide to include mushrooms. The temporary absence of New Minglewood Farms from the market this season meant no locally produced mushrooms, so I bought two organic portobello mushroom caps from Hannaford.

At home, I hacked up the onions, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Soup stock is a good recipe for me since it requires no fussy cutting. (My lack of speed and precision is why I’m pretty sure no one is about to give me my own cooking show unless they were looking for The Mostly Vegetarian, Slow, Inexact and Klutzy Chef. Well, it’s sort of catchy, isn’t it?) I threw in a big clove of garlic, whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, a whole clove, and dried parsley—because those were the seasonings I happened to have. Soup stock is not an exact science, also good for my style of cooking. I filled up my eight-quart stockpot about ¾ full with the vegetables and water, turned it up to high to reach a boil, and then reduced it to a simmer and put a lid on.

An architectural happy accident: If I stand up and turn from my computer in my writing room, I can see the stove through the kitchen window. I could see the pot was not boiling over, and there was no hurry since the onion soup preparation wasn’t even going to begin until the next day, but curiosity kept driving me out of my seat to inspect—and taste—the broth at various intervals.

More than one recipe I found online claims that one can make a vegetable stock in 20 minutes. I wonder if these directions can be attributed to a lack of accountability for recipes posted on certain websites, because after 20 minutes I had blanched vegetables in water. Sure, I could have added soy sauce or other flavor enhancers, but I had faith that eventually those vegetables would yield their own veggie-essences.

Some recipes from reputable sources like the chefs on the Food Network suggested roasting vegetables first. I didn’t try this method for several reasons. 1) I had never roasted vegetables before so I felt uncomfortable with the technique and I can only overcome one mental hurdle at a time; 2) That would mean two steps, the roasting and then the boiling. I only bargained for one step; and 3) I didn’t think I wanted roasted vegetable broth.

At about an hour, predictably, the barely colored liquid tasted essentially like the excess water used to boil vegetables. Another hour later, the broth had turned a subtle tan and had a hint of flavor. It seemed that with some salt this broth might be slightly preferable to diluting one’s soup with plain water, but only slightly. The vegetables themselves were still surprisingly intact and I had a sense they were still withholding most of their true flavors—stubborn vegetables!

Sometime between two and four hours, the vegetables resigned their vegetarian marrow to the broth and the bubbling liquid went from clear subtle broth to opaque stock. There was not a grain of salt, but after four hours of relentless simmering, I had made a flavorful stock. I danced around the house declaring that I’d make a new batch each week as a basis for all my soups. Wayne just raised his eyebrows; one never knows which of my resolutions will stick. I remained triumphant and hopeful. I had entered a whole new phase of cooking. No longer would I have to shake my head at recipes that seemed to imply that I should have some homemade broth just hanging around at my beck and call. Who knows—I may even try a roasted vegetable broth. My next step, however, was to use my broth in the French onion soup, and you can read my next post for the outcome of that experiment.

Flavorful Vegetable Broth


  • 5 medium carrots, chopped into large chunks
  • 4 stalks celery, cut into large sections
  • 2 medium yellow or white onions, coarsely chopped
  • 1-2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • For a darker broth: 2 large Portobello mushroom caps, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 whole peppercorns
  • several pinches of fresh or dried herbs such as parsley and thyme
  • 1 whole clove, if desired


Put all ingredients in a large stockpot and fill ¾ full with water. (I recommend filtered tap water for better taste.) Bring contents to a boil and then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cover loosely and  simmer for about four hours for maximum flavor. Strain out vegetables and spices. Add salt and pepper to taste, unless the stock is going into a recipe like French onion soup, in which case you might want to wait and adjust seasonings later.

Store broth tightly covered in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for up to two months.

My Superpower: Closed-Eye Reading

August 25th, 2010

A recent episode of This American Life revolved around superpowers and this morning I was reminded that I do have one of my own: I can read with my eyes closed. Most of the time I read the usual way, but sometimes, reclining in my easy chair, my eyes grow heavy and I lay the open book down across my chest. The conditions are: the book must be open to the page where I left off and I need to be in direct contact with the book. I cannot lay it down beside me on the table or leave it in a whole other room. It helps for the reading light to remain on, but this is not necessary. The pages pressed to my heart, I close my eyes and continue to read.

Now, I don’t mean I fall asleep and have a dream about the book I was reading. Anyone can do that. I am not, in fact, asleep. I close my eyes and through my lids continue to scan words into my brain. The superpower comes from a psychic connection I create with the author, so that I know what she meant to write. My closed-eyed reading occurs in a pleasant state between unconsciousness and wakefulness, and I am grateful to be able rest and read at the same time. I don’t remember contacting a radioactive book or some other common way of acquiring this superpower. I think I inherited it. The only other person I have met with this ability was my mom, and I think it worked pretty much the same way for her.

Super power associated with reading seems like an appropriate gift for an English teacher and writer, but I admit I have found its usefulness slightly limited. What the author meant to say, those words transmitted through my lids, turns out not to be the same as the physical printed edition. I am not sure if what I receive is the mental inspiration before the words actually made it to the page, an earlier, unedited version, or the words that, after publication, the author wished she had published. Because of this mismatch, when I open my eyes I feel the need to re-read the same section I’d just absorbed, so I haven’t actually saved any time.

Nor have I made an honest effort to cultivate my power by, say, opening a book across my chest before bed and seeing if I could read it before morning. I am afraid I might not wake up refreshed, having been only half asleep all night, and not giving my brain a proper chance to rest. I simply appreciate these moments of communion with authors who are inconveniently dead or otherwise uninterested in contacting me by conventional means.

Please, No More Fish

August 19th, 2010

My dear and accommodating friends and family always check before I visit, “Do you still eat fish?” They want to serve me food I can eat and not just side dishes, which is very kind of them. They want to make a meal everyone will enjoy, something special, and if they can’t serve me meat, they are pleased to prepare an elegant fish or shellfish entrée as the pièce de résistance. I really do appreciate these meals and how much concern and effort my friends and family show me. Yet the ungrateful side of me keeps thinking, one of these days I’m going to lie: “No, I no longer eat fish.”

People tend to feed me a lot of fish. By the time we return home from an extended trip visiting anyone, I feel like I am starting to form gills behind my ears and I’m exuding fish oil from my armpits. I am so filled up with fish and seafood that the first thing I want to tear into at home is a big bowl of anything but fish: veggies, pasta, beans, tofu, yogurt, and whole meals devoid of protein. I can go away from home for six days and consume fish and seafood more than twelve times, especially if I stop at my dad’s house and eat lox with breakfast. At home I eat fish about once or twice a week, depending on whether or not I’m at the supermarket with my husband Wayne and can steer him away from the fish department. If left to my own devices I would eat fish only at restaurants where the specialty is fish and nothing else on the menu is appealing.

The truth is, I don’t like most fish. Fresh lobster, spicy tuna rolls, and occasionally a particularly well prepared fish, scallop, or shrimp dish reminds me that I don’t want to give up food from the sea. For instance on our last trip, our friend Patrick served scallops that made me grateful I hadn’t forsaken fish. Most days, however, the real reason I still eat fish is because some restaurants don’t have anything I’m willing to eat that’s vegetarian and I can’t bear to say to people who are cooking for me, “no fish.” Some of them just wouldn’t know what to do.

Someone recently told me I was an easy-to-eat-with vegetarian. I felt warm and accepted for a moment until I realized that the only reason he said this was because he didn’t know me that well. In addition to meats and animal fats, I also cross of my mental list of possible entrees those that contain high fructose corn syrup or fake sugar, involve some kind of fake meat, are served in a creamy sauce, have an undue amount of cheese, use potato as a main ingredient, contain asparagus, or have prominent egg yolks. I am a hard-to-feed vegetarian who also happens to eat fish, and only sometimes and certain fish. That makes me a lacto-ovo-reluctantly-pesco-vegetarian.

I also realize that my excess fish consumption is at least partly my own fault. Last week my dad visited and I went food shopping with him before preparing dinner. I was thinking of creating some sort of veggie stir-fry or bean dish. At the farmer’s market I paced up between vendors, fretting over what to make. Dad suggested that since we also had to go over to the supermarket, we should pick up some fish. I felt my face turn into a half scowl before I remembered to politely pick up the corners of my mouth and say, “I guess we could do that.” I was actually thinking, “Plech. Anything but fish.” I reminded myself that sometimes I like fish. In fact Wayne makes a grilled mahi mahi that I actually enjoy. Dad likes fish, and this dish would be tasty, healthy, and I wouldn’t hate it. Also, I wouldn’t have to expend all the energy in figuring out a vegetarian dish that doesn’t have too many beans for Wayne, too much cheese for Dad, or too much effort for me.

At the fish department, my face went into full scowl before I noticed myself turning into my petulant teenager persona, the one who twenty years ago had no compunction about repeating aloud, “but I don’t like fish.” There was no mahi mahi in the grocery store. The tuna was big brown bricks that looked like they tasted fishy and were probably full of mercury anyway. I don’t eat bivalves except for scallops and those looked a bit yellow. The various whitish filets glinted slimily at me and a fat orange piece of salmon taunted me. “Don’t say salmon,” I told my dad, reverting back into whiny teen. I can’t stand cooked salmon with its salmony flavor that everyone else inexplicably loves and how tough and endless the wad of dry flesh feels in my mouth.  Smoked salmon I love, but that’s an entirely different food experience.

The lack of mahi mahi was my opportunity to say, “Dad, let’s have vegetarian something-or-other!” He probably would have been just as pleased. Only, I couldn’t think what that something-or-other might be. I didn’t want to suggest pasta which he prefers not to eat or Mexican bean burritos which he doesn’t like, and no other possibilities came to mind whatsoever. It was as if I hadn’t been eating mostly vegetarian for the past five years. I had vegetarian cooking amnesia. For most Americans, dinner, and especially a dinner that we feel is worthy of company, revolves around a meat or occasionally fish. It occurs to me that if I can’t think of another way to do it when I’m cooking for guests, no wonder most of the time my family and friends want to serve me fish. My usual solution is to avoid fish when I can, and then put on a brave face for the people who cook for me. Still, dear reader, not to be totally ungrateful, but if you are planning to invite me over to dinner, may I suggest a lovely vegetarian chili?

How to Cook Like Rachel

July 11th, 2010


Step 1: Inspiration. You are restacking rice noodles, dried mushrooms, and rice crackers, trying to find room in your kitchen cabinet for soba noodles you just bought at the Asian market. Sorting through all the strata, eventually you get all the way down to the shelf, where you unearth the flat plastic cylinder, still surprisingly full of dried rice paper wrappers. The artifact brings you back to your Platonic ideal of Vietnamese fresh rolls: served room temperature with two different dipping sauces at the Saigon Grill. I should try making those again, you think.

During grad school in NYC you used to walk just a few blocks for another order—the chewy rice paper wrapper enclosing crisp mung bean sprouts and salad vegetables, one tender shrimp, and the zing of Thai basil inside the roll playing against the dipping sauces, the spicy and fishy sweet-and-sour and the sweet peanut sauce.  You’ve had other fresh rolls since you moved four hours north to the Adirondacks, but not like Saigon Grill’s, not with those two perfectly balanced sauces. You have Thai Basil in your own refrigerator right now. You could recreate Saigon Grill fresh rolls for the party you will be attending tonight.

Step 2: Steel your resolve. It occurs to you that the delicate Thai basil you bought and imported all the way from the Asian market in NJ is rapidly wilting. It’s now or never. Yes, you remember this project took three hours last time and yielded five misshapen rolls, barely hanging onto their innards, impossible to dip in the both too-bitter and too-sweet sauce you made. Nor have you forgotten that after all that work, your guests bit into them tentatively, sampling only out kindness, and discreetly pushed them to the edges of their plates. This time, however, you are confident the rolls will be more appealing. Today you are prepared to wrestle those pesky rice paper wrappers, which are no match for your perserverence.

Step 3: Research. Go to your cookbook shelves and pull out the two likely candidates, Asian Noodles and Wok and Stirfry. Find at least two recipes. Leave the books open on the dining room floor, their authors calling out to the emptiness, and then go into your study to Google “fresh rolls recipe.” The results are posted by one-name authors of dubious credentials. One calls for pre-made peanut sauce.  Print out up to three additional recipes, anyway; they’re just for ideas.

Step 4: Fret, mull, pace. Don’t rush the anxious planning phase; this is part of your creative process. Contemplate which ingredients and which procedures you might take from each recipe. Perhaps other people view recipes as self-contained sets of instructions, and therefore follow one recipe at a time. This linear thinking doesn’t work for you. Maybe it’s your ADHD brain, which is wired in such a way that refuses to follow a set of directions as written, or perhaps it’s your creative temperament which views recipes as stories in the conditional tense: how one might prepare a dish.

Step 5: Envision. Spread out the cookbooks and printouts on kitchen counter. Imagine the completed rolls, the combination of crunchy sprouts and cucumber contrasting the soft rice noodles and wrapper, the taste of pungent basil playing against the two sauces. Get out a pen to mark your improvisations on printouts, and a pencil in case you want to write directly on your glossy, full color cookbooks. Your husband will raise his eyebrows when he sees you doing this. In the end, you will mostly pay attention to the recipe in Asian Noodles, and your own imagination.

Step 6: Prepare. Take out all your ingredients, including cucumbers, which are not in the recipe but you seem to remember from Saigon Grill. This is when you will also realize which ingredients you don’t have or are not in good shape, like the Thai basil, drooping and splotchy, past its prime and possibly should be thrown out. Don’t panic. You could use sweet Italian basil or mint, passable second choices. Maybe a mixture of the two would yield close to the right flavor notes. There are some salvageable Thai basil leaves, though. Use these first, worry about later rolls, later.

Step 7: Organize. Retrieve every small bowl, container, and cutting surface in the kitchen. Cut, chop, peel, measure, or soak each ingredient you have deemed worthy into a separate vessel. Now you are starting to feel like a chef on T.V., except for the pile of dishes mounting in the sink and shrinking counter space on which to work.

Step 8: Create the Sauces. Dipping sauces are key to the fresh roll experience. At Saigon Grill there was a sweet and sour one, which seems like it might be recreated in the cookbook recipe, with fish sauce, sugar, lemon or lime, sugar, and chili peppers. More or less follow these directions, to taste, but add rice vinegar and substitute Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce for crushed red peppers, because this is what you do every time a recipe calls for spiciness. Then there is the sweet and spicy peanut sauce. In other restaurants you’ve had fresh rolls served with a peanut sauce contaminated with the taste of Hoisin. This is exactly what all your recipes want you to do! Set to work making up your own recipe using peanut butter, soy sauce, agave nectar instead of sugar, Sriracha sauce, and water. Add, taste, add until you are happy.

Later, in order to justify your horror at the blasphemous version of the peanut dipping sauce, you will look online to try to prove that Vietnamese do not use Chinese Hoisin sauce. Instead you will find a Wikipedia entry claiming Hoisin is traditionally used in Vietamese cooking. It’s your recipe, now, though.

Step 9: Next Time, Trust Yourself. Toss the bowl of drained noodles with spicy lime marinade and cilantro as unwisely directed in the Asian Noodles cookbook, even though you know this is a mistake. The marinade is tasty, but will make the rice noodles slippery, preventing them from adhering to one another and creating the structural integrity of the roll. As a result, when cut into rounds, the insides will immediately slip out, making the finger food require fork and knife. Still, you follow the recipe because you are afraid guests around the pool will not dip in the spicy sweet and sour sauce. This way at least the rolls will be flavorful, if ungainly to eat.

Step 10: Arrange. Create an assembly line to construct the rolls. Place rice paper wrappers next to a bowl of warm water, and a cutting board covered in one paper towel, and other towels standing ready to dab the wrappers. Line up the slick noodles in sauce. The marinated tofu will follow. Then, the heaping bowl of fresh mung bean sprouts from Asian market, to use as many as possible since they are close to the end of their useful life, and when will you again be able to get this kind of sprout—larger, whiter, more delicately flavored than the ones in the regular supermarket? Put the sliced cucumbers in the queue, those beautiful knobby pickling cucumbers in the farmer’s market which are so flavorful, though not seedless like the ones traditionally used in Asian dishes. Next, the bag of lettuce also from the farmer’s market.  Don’t worry about the carrots you forgot to buy.

Step 11: Assess. Call out to your husband, “I’m almost done” to reassure him, because it is 6:00 already and you had told him that’s when you wanted to leave for the party. This is a gross underestimate, but he’s used to it by now.

Step 12:  Assemble. As you dip the first rice paper wrapper into the warm water, you remember why you vowed last time to never try this again. You have come too far to give up now, though, even when the first and second wrappers rip before receiving their insides, the third, which comes out looking like a bundle of sticks inside a transparent sleeping bag, doesn’t adhere at all, and the bean sprout pokes right through the rice paper wrapper. Quickly you also discover that the bottom of the bowl of warm water has to be at least the same diameter as the wrapper, so you swap for a different bowl. Two rejected wrappers are wadded up on the edge of your cutting board. There are plenty more wrappers left, however, and technique is coming back to you.

You remember, each wrapper has to be soaked about 25 seconds, and as you immerse each disk, you keep your fingers lightly on it to gauge it’s progress. This requires you to slow down, wait, breathe. It’s kind of Zen-like, you reflect. You gently hold the wrapper under water until it just begins to get flexible, and you can still feel the strange criss cross pattern, muse about why it was made this way, but do not wait until it suddenly goes limp like a sheet of silk. It will feel like it is too stiff to possibly work, but you must withdraw it already, trusting the process. You blot excess water with a paper towel before flopping the wrapper onto the cutting board. It continues getting softer and becomes more resilient. Now it wants to adhere to itself. You become hopeful.

You lay the ingredients inside, regretful about the slippery noodles, but gaze optimistically at the photo in the Asian Noodles cookbook. Apparently she did it with slick noodles; so can you. The ingredients go on the edge closest to you, then roll one turn towards the opposite edge, flip the ends over to seal them and roll the rest of the way. The rolls end up looking like laundry bags of various lengths and girths, with the innards like wadded up clothing jutting out at various angles. You don’t pause to reflect on the orderly insides of Saigon Grill’s fat, cylindrical fresh rolls. It is far too late to worry about that; it is nearly 7:00. Try not to think about whether or not the Thai basil came pre-washed from the Asian market, either. You are used to pre-washed organic produce from the farmer’s market. Surely they washed off any pesticides on the Thai basil before wrapping it in plastic and shipping it across continents. It seemed clean, anyway.

Step 13: Cut, Arrange, and Serve. At the party, people will enjoy this batch of fresh rolls. The peanut noodles, which took you only half an hour, were the big hit, however. You tell your husband that you already know what changes you will make to the fresh rolls next time. He is silent on the issue.


June 7th, 2010

Old_suitcases Yesterday I was pondering my huge duffel in the guest room/staging area. The bed was covered in smaller bags with toiletries, a blanket, towels, bathrobe, and an egg crate mattress cover. A fan and a desk lamp presided over the whole pile. “That’s a lot of stuff for ten days,” I said to Wayne.

“Yes, it is,” he said helpfully.

“You think I have too much,” I said, waiting for him to contradict me.

“It’ll be a good conversation starter,” he said.

I considered that. It is probably good for a writer to arrive with emotional baggage. When they see all I’ve packed, my new classmates will see how messed up I am inside and totally want to be friends with me.

“Will this even fit into the room?” I wondered aloud.

Wayne shrugged.

In my defense, the Bennington Writing Seminars residency booklet suggests the towels, blanket, bathrobe, lamp, fan and mattress cover. Also, they say to bring slippers and various athletic equipment, though from the schedule, it looks like I’d be lucky to sneak in half an hour a day of recreation, including weekends. Yet, here is my yoga mat, hula hoop, hiking boots, and hiking pack. In the duffel are all the outfits that go with these pursuits, even though I haven’t exercise in months, but I think it’s likely I’ll start again at the residency.

I look at the toiletry basket with all it’s mini bottles and travel sizes and muse that I’ve cut them down to a pretty reasonable amount. Except for the two huge bottles of sunblock. I mean, can your really ever have too much sunblock? There’s the sunblock 70 for my face and the 15 for the rest of me.

What seems ridiculous, even to me, is this mammoth duffel. How will all those clothes even fit into the dresser? (And I wonder if there’s a closet and perhaps I ought to bring hangers.) I’m imagining a small dorm room, and me tripping over all my junk. Aloud I say, “These are dorm rooms, though. People fit a whole year’s worth of stuff in them.”

For a weekend yoga retreat, once this year, I packed really light. In the email the leaders suggested that packing light is freeing. They were right. I managed to bring only what I really needed, and I was able to use the same clothes and shoes for multiple purposes. For two nights, I packed everything into a small duffel. My friend Evynne, who was my roommate asked how I managed to pack so light. I smiled with pride and shrugged. I have never been able to repeat that, though.

When I’m packing, I try to think of every possible scenario. It’s summer in Bennington, VT. That means it might be hot and I might want to wear a tank top every single day. Then again, it might be cool enough for a short sleeved shirt. Or, I might start with the short sleeve and change into the tank top. Most days I’m sure I’ll wear shorts, but in the evenings, for the readings, I’ll probably want jeans, or pants. Maybe some nights I’ll want a sweatshirt or a long sleeved shirt. I packed laundry detergent and some quarters I scared up from around the house, but I don’t want to do laundry. That means I packed ten tank tops and ten short sleeved shirts. Not to mention twelve pairs of underwear. (What if I am working out?)

I guess that means my problem is primarily with the clothes and shoes. This is particularly weird because it’s not like I buy a lot of clothes and shoes compared to a lot of women. Okay, there are a lot of items in my closet, but that’s because I have issues with throwing things out that are not threadbare, stained, and way too small, preferably all three. In my mind, each item represents something I might be looking for at some unspecified time in the future. Packing is the same. What if I really wear a tank top each day? It’s true that it is embarrassing to be seen in some of those items in my closet and if pressed, I might admit that in the past five or ten years perhaps I haven’t found a time when I needed those particular garments. Really, I’m planning to go through my closet again. It’s just that if I really threw out all the things that I don’t wear and don’t want to wear, I’d have to go shopping, and I hate shopping.

Which brings me to another packing issue: I don’t want to leave anything out, because I don’t want to have to go out to buy it. I won’t have my car with me anyway. And, since Wayne’s driving me, there’ll be tons of room to bring everything!

Then again, I think of other trips when I go to pack to return, and the pile of clothing at the bottom of the drawer, or still in the duffel bag, that I never used. It dawns on me that maybe 20 shirts is too many for ten days. Maybe I could get away with 12.