doin’ alright.

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It’s hour thirteen that I’ve been on my feet in a stuffy kitchen.

So far, I’ve eaten two eggs. A little bit of spinach with some tomatoes and cucumbers, and a bite of really sweet bread pudding from the “leftover pile”.

I’ve washed dishes more than I have cooked, and I begin to lose myself as my glasses fog with steam from the barely scalding water. I have a cup of hot, black Community coffee sitting on the ledge to my left, and I pause every few minutes for a hot sip. I’m tired and need a little jolt.

I lose myself for a while, as I rake off uneaten bits and unclog the drain. Hunched over a three-compartment sink, sweat beading off my balding head. My back, on the occasion of lifting a stack of plates, pings a nerve and I squint my left eye.

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I’ve found myself in some weird places recently. Mostly in my head, and of course, intertwined with some heart things. I’ve been asking myself some terribly hard questions.

“Is this place working out for me?”

“Shit man, what was that all about?”

If I’m honest with myself, I’m still having trouble fitting into place. I want to cook food for people. I want a place that I can live my passions, and up comes some article about how you’re never going to work your dream job. Whatever. Anyways.

I’ve been finding myself a little quiet and distant, because a person tells me they think what I write is too sad and heavy. That’s fair. But you tell me that, I’m going to find ways to not to write like that, and I need to. You see?

I need to be angry at the times when I am angry. I also need to be sad and people need to see it. Well, I need to see it. Because I cannot allow myself to dwell in a place where I do not feel authentic.

I am okay.

I am doing all of this now, so twenty years from now I can say I felt everything, and worked through as much as I could. I know you want me to at least seem happy.

I can tell you, this is the best I’ve felt all year. I may not be jumping up and down and screaming, but I am feeling good.
(what is happy, anyways?)

What I mean, is that I write what I write here because it is true to me. Sure I’m a little different in the kitchen, or sitting in a pew. I will make jokes about sausage and also sing a gospel song. Because my life is a wonderful, deep, and challenging thing.

Ya know, those dishes can be therapeutic.

And my couch feels like heaven right now.

I just ate two leftover Labor Day hot dogs on a fluffy white bun with mayonnaise and mustard and ketchup.

Oh. And a cookie.

And you know what?

I’m doin’ alright.

pork ragu

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Food is a lot of things to a lot of people.

Survival. Entertainment. Money. Community. Romance. Nourishment. Celebration.

I suppose if I’m honest, I dabble in all of those things.
If I’m not careful, I could go on and on and bore you to death. I will try not to do that today, but I’ve been wanting to process some stuff for myself.

When I get to cook, I get to explore a place and a people and I also explore my own story. So much of cooking for me now is motor and sensory memory. I know how to chop onions and taste for salt and balance a dish. What I love more than getting to cook, is to sip on something nice and process chunks of life.

This past week, I cooked dinner for a friend’s birthday. He’s been great in letting me have the freedom to do whatever, and it’s been so good for me to create and explore and to feed people who really love to eat.

pork ragu. 

It was all I could really think about. Pork something, at least.

So we went out and bought a big pork shoulder and the ingredients to make said dish. Growing up in my world, ragu came in a glass jar and tasted like spaghetti sauce. That was until I started to learn more about food and realized it is much more complex, and deeply satisfying. Even just hearing the world ragu gets my mouth all tingly.

The air conditioning was down, but I told him I liked it hot in the kitchen. Feels right to sweat a bit when you’re cookin’.

After I deboned the shoulder, I cut it up into pieces. Dried said pieces with a paper towel and seasoned them liberally with sea salt and fresh black pepper. Brown them with a little bit of oil in a stew pot. I mean, get some nice color and caramelization on those babies. Work in smallish batches so you don’t cool the pan off too much.

Once all the meat is seared off, I add the onions. I let them cook down a bit, and I use their water to scrape those brown bits off the bottom of the pot. (That’s where some magic is.)

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This is not my actual ragu, but it looked just like it. Come on, you know you want this for dinner now.

Then the diced carrots and celery. Ya know, the basics of starting a proper stew.

About four minced cloves of garlic pulverized into a paste. Throw that into the pot and let it smell up your house for a second.

Throw in your meat, along with a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary and oregano. Go ahead and throw in a bay leaf too, if you have one.

Now you start adding the sexy reds. tomato and red wine. oh gah!

We had some special tomatoes for our ragu. It was my buddy’s last jars of his granddaddy’s tomatoes, who has recently passed away. They were tangy and rich and perfect. Add about a cup of red wine, and enough water to cover the top of the meat. Toss in some more salt and pepper, and let it go low and slow, simmering for about an hour and a half.

I found some mushrooms, so I decided to throw them in there as well, because, umami.

By now, this pot of bubbling stuff just looks right. If it looks right, it probably tastes right. Unless you accidentally use salt instead of sugar for a gorgeous apple pie, which has happened to me before.

Anyways, the meat should be tender enough that you can shred it with forks, because that’s what you’ll need to do, eventually. The liquid should also be reduced by at least half. Be careful on adding salt though, because as it bubbles away, the more it reduces, the more it is concentrated. You can always dilute with more water or stock, but just keep tasting and you’ll be fine. At this point, once your ragu is done, and after the pork is shredded, you can add in some greens if you like. I used kale, and tossed it in and let cook for another five minutes.

Cook up some pasta a bit al dente. Reserve at least a half cup of your pasta water (that I presume you have salted a bit) so you can use its starch to help coat the pasta as you toss it with the ragu. Use butter, too. Adds some extra sheen to the over all dish. Add your preferred ratio of ragu to pasta, and toss, plate and serve. Grate some good hard cheese on top, too.

Yeah. Seriously.
Oof. Delicious, hearty and personal.

I think, one of those soul dishes for me. It’s how I like to eat.

Perhaps I am just an old soul, and I’m okay with that.

I like these dishes because they take a little time. They remind me that there’s a process to things, and that an extra ten minutes can change something from being good, to great.

I suppose I needed that. Some reassurance that time has the ability to transform and nourish. When I get ahead of myself, that’s when I cut corners. If I’m honest, I cannot allow myself to cut any more corners. I crave to live my life with intention, and the same goes for how I cook.

Slow and steady. At times, hard and fast.

But all having their place, especially in my little world, where a simple dish can change the outcome of an entire day.

And I never want to lose that.

 

a few bits on cooking.

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Let’s talk about cooking for a change, shall we?

And look, I’m not too far into this cooking thing. You may have 15-20 years on me. I get asked a bunch about cooking, and I love being able to have an answer. I like answers. I don’t have many of them in other areas of my life. But with cooking, there are some things that are just plain right. (Or are at least ‘a’ right way…)

Yeah, there’s intuition. Repetition.
(In my head, I can still hear my babely french professor *swoon* as she would say, “Ok, alors, repetez avec moi!“)
Repetez, repetez, repetez!
Then there are tricks of the trade.

They are not tricks. (Nor are they illusions, Michael…)
They are just plain old things, really, that we pick up from cook to cook. Kitchen to kitchen.

Let’s start with heat.

Kitchens are hot. They are hot because there is fire generally going all the time. It looks different. Some kitchens these days have wood fires in them. Mostly, they are in the form of gas burners, ovens, etc.

When you cook food to order, a lot of times, you’re trying to get it from either cold or room temperature to HOT, or at least to the temperature you need to serve it at. This means getting your pan super duper hot. Sometimes smoking hot. I’d say if your meat is sticking to your pan, it is not hot enough. Metal expands and contracts, as you know. When your pan is hot enough, the metal is expanded. Your pan is technically gripping your food when it’s not heated properly.

Same with roasting. Hight heat is great when roasting vegetables. It adds good color (in the form of caramelization of sugars). Getting color on vegetables is a good thing. There’s so much sugar there, especially in carrots and onions. Which is awesome because they also benefit from slow and low cooking as well.

Yes. Cook at hotter temperatures. Don’t listen to me if your baking sweets. I’m mostly talking savory whole foods here.

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Fat, fat, fat.
You can watch Dr. Oz these days and he’ll tell you the same thing. It’s true. Fat is good. Obviously, fat is flavor. Use it, please. Your vegetable/canola oil spread is not saving you any health points. Cook your vegetables in good olive oil and/or butter or other animal fat. Your body benefits from that, and fat actually helps your body absorb nutrients from ‘said’ vegetables. I read that in a book once, and my doc told me so as well. Your kids might eat em’ if you go ahead and sauté that broccoli with a little pad of butter. If they don’t, then invite me over. I will certainly eat your kids’ vegetables.

Shallots. Use them more.

Herbs. Yes!

Garlic. Lemon or orange zest. They add so much to a dish. Get a microplane and keep it close.

Let food sit overnight before eating and/or cooking it.
Give meat some time to absorb salt and seasonings.
Let the air evaporate some of its water.
Your soup will taste better the next day. I guarantee it. And, you’ll have a peace of mind knowing dinner is already made!

Buy one good sharp knife and cutting board.

Temperature is texture.

Freshly ground black pepper. All the time.

Learn how to make béchamel. Or as southerners call it, “Gravy”.
This is a mother sauce. The matriarch of comfort food.
It is the beginning of macaroni and cheese. Chicken pot pie. Sausage gravy. Mornay (which is béchamel with grated cheese melted into it.)

2 tablespoons butter melted in a pan. 2 tablespoons flour whisked into melted butter for two minutes. Add 1-2 cups of milk. Cook low, stirring, until it starts to thicken and bubble. Boom. You’re a hero!

Try fermenting a vegetable or two. Create your own ingredient with your own flavor. It’s great, and it’s yours. Start with sauerkraut and work your way through kimchi and then go wherever your heart desires. Good for ya, too!

Last thing:

TASTE YOUR FOOD. Taste, taste, taste. All the way, taste. That is the best way to learn how to season a dish. Develop your palette. How will you cook better tasting food if you don’t know what to aim for?

I could go on with another thousand words, but I will spare you.

Instead, ask me a question if you’d like. I realize this is the internet, so you can ask anyone, anything, at any time. But I’m always here to help. It is my day job, so I do like to do my part in this world.

(And seriously, if you have a plate for me, I’ll be over soon. I’m always hungry and will wash your dishes.)

coming back.

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I wake up every morning in a bed just big enough for me, that used to fit two.

I roll around for a bit. Back. Side. Stomach. Other side.

Taking deep breaths, I realize I am waking up. Officially. I have the luxury of sleeping in most days, due to my night time work hours. But alas, there is nothing like a restful morning, sitting in my big brown chair with coffee, catching up on the world, and at times, looking deeply into my own.

There was something missing.

Thanksgiving was kind of shitty.

And my birthday was last Monday. I arranged a few things, and some other friends invited me into their plans, which was just what I needed. There wasn’t a way I could weather my birthday alone, and I’m thankful that I didn’t have to.

A co-worker recently asked me if I was a Scrooge, or if I enjoyed the holidays. Very quickly, I responded, “Yeah! I just got a tree! Well, a 3-ft fake tree from Fred Meyer, with sad lights, but it’s beautiful! And it was 20 bucks!”

And so now I sit, with this warmly lit Christmas tree that looks like it got into a fight with a cat, and lost. Maybe two cats.

But that doesn’t matter. In the words of Mindy Smith, “..it makes my holiday feel like Christmas.”

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Behind my tree are four paintings. They all represent seasons. Summer, Fall, Winter and onto Spring. As it goes. They make a big beautiful tree. I cherish these paintings because they were a gift from my little sisters, Willow and Olivia, who live in Georgia. My dad also helped in their final touches, and he brought them with him when he came to visit not too long ago.

Some days it takes me a long time to snap out of a funk. I’ll dig myself in too deep, knowing in the back of my mind I’ll be okay. I’ll get out of it. It’s a little disheartening to feel myself slipping into it, though. I know when it starts to happen. Bad ideas pile upon themselves and I’m left feeling like I did when I was a kid stuck under all those plastic balls at Burger King.

But like I said, I get out of it.

And days like today, I head into a kitchen, I put my head down and I chop onions.

I know, that if I put them on a low heat with butter and olive oil and salt, they will caramelize into this magnificent, sweet and savory brown sludge. A delicious sludge, albeit.

Also, I’m feeding people I do not know. I fed a gal tonight who was a southerner and said my gumbo was the best she’s ever had since living in Portland.

My sadness feels more like a hangover, at this point. Still sort of there, but on the outro. These good things, these things that make sense in my head jolt me out of it.

That kitchen, has saved me far too many times.

Maybe, it is my love of stainless steel. Big refrigerators. 1/9 pans and hotel pans, the hum of the dishwasher. It all sort of makes sense. Kitchens makes sense. Food makes sense.

All this other stuff, can be messy.

But I’ll take messy. Maybe not so much in a kitchen, but in you, I love messy.

And so my day, as the seasons come and go, will grow and fade and die and come back.

That is life.

Growing.

Fading.

Dying.

coming back. 

A Letter to My Kitchen on Bryant Street

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I miss my tiny kitchen off Bryant Street. I think about it often.

When I said goodbye to you, and that entire apartment, I collapsed in the tiny hallway and cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life.

When I sat up, all I said was, “I’m tired. I got nothin’ left.”

It was the first night I slept in my new room, in a house full of people I barely knew with a sweet dog that would bark at me, only because I was unfamiliar.

It should be obvious now that this is about more than a kitchen.
Leaving a space (and a life) that had been so sacred to me was hard. It’s still hard. I only live down the road, and pass it quite often.

But the kitchen.

The tiniest kitchen ever. It could barely keep up. But it did.
The dishes. The broken down sink. The awful 50’s tile work. A window where I would watch our neighbors fight, and their kids run around, as if they were part of their own resistance to a world they didn’t ask for.

It’s where I learned how to cook — where I spent hours leaning over pots and pans, tasting and tasting and tasting.
Where I fed many people.

Heart and hearth of a home.
(Though that sounds like something you would find on a pillow at Kirkland’s…)

My home.
And I had to leave it too soon.
I knew I had to move.
This is what a separation means. There’s no perforated line that can be easily torn. When you separate from another human being, there is weight and space and memory.

It was one of my worst days.

A few weeks after we moved out, I took a walk and ended up making a pass to see if you were still there.
I saw the landlords had decided to tear you out, as it probably needed to be done.

But I stood their, with my arms draped over the fence. I lost it as I saw our old cabinets and shelves tossed, getting soggy in the rain. My kitchen. Torn to bits.

I walked back to my new home, taking deep breaths, knowing how loosely these things are regarded. And I regretted not hopping the fence, and taking a piece with me. But I knew I didn’t have to.

Because it will always be with me.

The place where I found a world that made sense to me. A place where I added salt and time and frustration.
I knew I’d be able to have a kitchen again, someday. Though not now, I imagine a place for my things. Where my metal pots will clang and sit dirty in a sink and be renewed for their next task.

Where my knives will sit. Sharp. Shiny. Steel.

I will mourn my Bryant St. kitchen. I will remember all the goodness that flowed because you allowed me to grow into a cook. You allowed me to explore and concentrate and spoil other people.

You gave me the means to feel strong about my intuition, and to nourish the bones of the Beloved.

And for all of that, all I can say is,

thank you.

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the kitchen.

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the kitchen.

where things make sense to me.

temperature and heat;

the science.

that’s one of the best things about cooking.

there are facts and absolutes.

there are recipes and ratios,

reductions and water.

salt and spice,

sugar and vinegar

or is it the other way around.

 

Dirty dishes can become clean.

New again. Fresh platform.

Clean slate. Ready to please again.

Cleaning. Cleaning. Cleaning.

That’s mostly what cooking is about.

 

And then, there is everything else.

Which usually doesn’t make sense.

Intuition and emotion.

Passion.

Anger and fury.

Love.

 

Throw all of this in a pot and watch it.

You have to watch it.

You have to take care of it.

Tasting of it always.

Skimming.

Adjusting.

 

Giving it the space to do its thing,

and coming back to it when you think it’s ready.

 

Then and only then can we give it to you;

to inhale or breathe in or take pictures from far away.

 

All we know is that we give it to you.

And you do with it as you please.

 

But know deep down that the kitchen,

is not just a place where metal is scrubbed

and meat is seared.

 

But where things move.

Here to there.

And to you.

For you.

 

is where it has always been.