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“No?” our server let out with a whimper, her eyebrows stitched. It sounded like the response of a kid after telling them they wouldn’t, in fact, be going to Disneyland after all. “But… why?” she frowned.
Jonny and I stared up at her from our table at Tanti, just as shocked by her confusion as she was by our denial. I guess it’s not every day guests pass on wine in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“We’re just really hung over,” I blurted. It was true. Though we were on a food and schnapps fueled “research” expedition through Europe, our B-sides tour involved seeking karaoke in every city we visited (as if schnapps tasting wasn’t enough of an impetus to overdrink). Karaoke had an uncanny ability to make even the foreign seem familiar; the strangeness of travel and barriers between languages were always alleviated on karaoke nights. This was our third day in Budapest, and the find of the previous night proved to be the best yet.
Our host Beni had recently moved to the city from Germany to study medicine, and while he wasn’t yet too familiar with hip underground there, he knew one thing for sure – each Thursday night, every German college student in a ten mile radius swarmed to the subterranean labyrinth of a local bar to take advantage of the two-for-one Heinekens, the sweaty dance party, and the karaoke.
We arrived at the club around ten at night, unfashionably early by European standards. Descending the stone staircase, we snaked our way through the narrow corridors, using the muted thump of the bass to locate the belly of the bar. The L-shaped room was already packed full of dancing silhouettes. Carrying two to four Heine’s per person, we pushed through the sticky throng to the adjacent room where karaoke was promised. We took a seat at an abandoned table but for a dozen empty green bottles.
“Well, you gonna sing tonight Jonny?” I inquired, skeptically eyeing the scene.
The karaoke party began where the dance party ended, at the crook of the room. This resulted in a barely audible soundtrack against an overwhelming backdrop of strobe lights and nts nts nts echoing from the space beyond. The singers, if you could spot them, were in the doorframe separating the parties, swallowed by the traffic of drunken college kids and annoyed servers.
“Nah,” he shrugged. It looked like more energy than it was worth.
As we were admitting our defeat, a group of about ten guys entered the room, each wearing matching black turtlenecks tucked into tight pants, with thick black-rimmed glasses dwarfing their faces and slicked back hair accentuating their foreheads. Lacking both tempo and pitch, they stormed the karaoke floor with the vigor of men completely devoid of ego (or, perhaps, completely influenced by two-for-one Heinekens). Their rendition of John Denver’s Country Roads renewed our faith in the power of karaoke. Perhaps we had found our alter after all.
When the song ended, Jonny approached their table. He sat down, introduced himself, and asked, “So, what’s with the turtlenecks?”.
Without missing a beat, one guy turned and, in a thick German accent, responded with, “Where’s your turtleneck? You’re slipping, bro!”
For the rest of the night, we played a game with the turtleneck guys called, Who Can Buy Each Other The Most Rounds. (Everybody won, and subsequently, everybody lost.) Needless to say, Jonny and I quickly broke the karaoke seal; even Beni – who “never” sings karaoke – got up there for Don’t Stop Believing. As the dance crowd thinned and quieted, our karaoke presence became all encompassing. I’ve never sung so much in my life.
Our final song was Time of My Life, a duet from Dirty Dancing. When the sax solo eventually kicked in I backed up to the wall, bent my knees, and sprinted towards Jonny who was sitting high on his knees with his arms outstretched towards me, anticipating that iconic lift. Turns out all of that practicing that Baby and Johnny do in the movie wasn’t for nothing…
And now sixteen hours later, here we were dining in one of the fanciest restaurant Buda had to offer. We were soaking wet due to the two-hour walk through the rain to get there, inflicted with a serious case of the hangover giggles, and had just offended our server because we denied alcohol.
“Well, okay, maybe a little champagne,” I let out, surrendering.
Over the next four hours, we dined on eight courses, each more impressive than the next. The food was incredible, the plating inspiring, the service impeccable, but the most enjoyable part of all was the equally-hungover company.
roasted romanesco and pickled cauliflower with blanched purple broccolini and arugula, on top of a caramelized onion cauliflower purée
This dish was inspired by my second course at the restaurant, Tanti. Due to the multiple steps and unique ingredients of this dish, I don’t expect anyone to fully recreate this to a tee. But, if you are faced with a rainy day, a killer farmer’s market and an abundance of ambition, all of the steps are listed below. At the very least, my hope is that you get inspired to use a few of these elements and create a Budapest-inspired brassica dish of your own.
(Musically) pairs well with The Dirty Dancing Soundtrack, because why not
2 cups caramelized onion and cauliflower purée (recipe follows)
2 cups quick pickled and roasted cauliflower (recipe follows)
2 cups roasted romanesco (recipe follows)
2 cups blanched broccolini and arugula raab (recipe follows)
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup rehydrated sultanas
Spread 1/2 cup of purée onto four warmed plates. Divide remaining ingredients and arrange artfully atop purée. Garnish with salt and serve immediately.
Caramelized Onion and Cauliflower Purée
Yield: About 4 cups
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped into 1/4 inch half-moons
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
1 head cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for brushing
1 1/4 cup vegetable broth
To caramelize onions:
Heat a medium sized skillet (anything but non-stick) over medium heat. Add butter and melt until it just begins to bubble. Toss in onions and salt and stir to coat. Turn heat down to medium-low. Now here comes the tricky part. Garner all of the patience you can muster and resist the temptation to stir your onions. Wait until you cannot wait any longer. Then wait just a little bit longer. If you cave in and stir them and they slide easily across the pan, translucent and monocolored, you have failed at patience (for the record, I failed three times this time around).
Use your eyes and your ears – when you can see browning around the edges of the onions and hear a sound akin to pop rocks (loud, sharp cracks), you know those suckers are getting caramelized (usually around the 30 minute mark, or sooner if your heat is higher). Give the onions a good stir, being sure to scrape up all of the brown bits, and continue cooking another 15 minutes or so, stirring more regularly (once every few minutes). Add the nutmeg, stir and cook for a minute to toast the spice. Add the vermouth to deglaze the pan, stir, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Your onions should be a deep golden brown in color and sweet and salty in flavor when finished.
To roast cauliflower:
Preheat the oven to 400. Toss the cauliflower with oil and sea salt. Brush a parchment lined baking sheet with a little oil, and spread out the cauliflower out, being sure to maximize the space in between florets for deeper caramelization. Roast for about 20 minutes, until one side is dark brown.
To make puree:
Combine onions, cauliflower, and broth in a blender and blend on high until very smooth, at least five minutes. Check for salt, and add more liquid if you foresee wanting a thinner puree. Pass through a fine mesh strainer if you want it as smooth as can be.
Quick Pickled and Roasted Cauliflower
Yield: 2 cups
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: about 35 minutes
1 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
1 pod star anise
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
1/4 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
2 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into medium sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 400.
Bring all ingredients except cauliflower to a boil in a sauce pot. Dump in the cauliflower, cut the heat, and cover with a lid. Let steep for at least 20 minutes, up to an hour. If your cauliflower aren’t completely submerged, give the pot a stir every 10 minutes or so. Drain cauliflower, drizzle with olive oil, and spread out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Roast in oven for about 15 minutes until tender and nicely caramelized on one side.
Yield: 2 cups
Cook time: 20 minutes
1/2 head romanesco, cut into medium sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for brushing
Preheat the oven to 400. Toss the romanesco with oil and sea salt. Brush a parchment lined baking sheet with a little oil, and spread the romanesco out, being sure to maximize the space in between florets for deeper caramelization. Roast for about 20 minutes, until one side is dark brown.
Blanched Broccolini and Arugula Raab
Yield: 2 cups
Cook time: 1 minute
1 bunch broccolini, stems trimmed
1 cup of arugula raab, cut into 4” pieces
Heat a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Drop in broccolini and cook for 30 seconds. Add arugula raab and cook an additional 30 seconds. Drain and spread out on a large baking sheet to cool.
Sometimes long adventures will lead you to the most memorable meals.
“So, what was your favorite meal?” This has dominated the list of most frequently asked questions after returning from a five-week trip in Europe. I usually respond with something along the lines of, “How much time do you have?” Sure, the Michelin starred Tanti in Budapest is an obvious stand out, as is the hidden basement milk bar U Babci Maliny in Krakow; these restaurants are typically granted a worthy mention. However, a favorite that often goes unspoken was in Salzburg, where I was served the chestnut celeriac soup that inspired this recipe. The rich and velvety sweetness of the soup undoubtedly plays a role in why I remember it so fondly, but to understand why this soup weighs so heavily on my memory requires knowing the events that lead up to it. Maybe the soup was just that good, or maybe it just happened to exist in the perfect moment of crucial respite from the flurry of the previous twenty-four hours.
A day earlier, Jonny and I were tiredly traveling by bus from Bregenz to Salzburg, reflecting on our recent ten mile jaunt through the mountains and daydreaming of what adventures our new city had in store for us. Over the seven-hour ride we sipped beer and grazed on our supply of sandwiches, sausage and gummies; these treats would be our last repast of the day. By the time we reached Salzburg, the day had turned to night, clear skies had turned to a chilled downpour, and our excited hearts had grown weary as we sat on the cold bus platform, waiting for our host.
Andi was a family friend and native Austrian who had lived in Minnesota when I was young. I had vague memories of him making cheese at the buffalo ranch in our town, dancing wildly at family weddings, and occasionally donning lederhosen and cooking schnitzel for the family at dinner parties. As a teenager, I was amused by his eccentricities, but shied from his intensity. Andi possessed a seemingly bottomless well of energy, both physically and in spirit, and knowing he was to be our host for the next four days intimidated the hell out of me. Perhaps, I thought, he had calmed down, or perhaps better yet I had grown up.
Finally, a man with familiar set of sharp blue eyes and fiery long strawberry blonde hair bounded up from the escalator and marched towards us. Andi greeted us both with a firm handshake and quick kiss on each cheek, took our bags, and then sprinted in the opposite direction.
“C’mon guys,” he yelled, urging us to keep up, “I’m parked illegally!”
The next thing we knew, we were tearing down the dark and glistening Austrian streets in his hatchback, ending up at the local beer hall for a nightcap. Because it was late, Augustiner Bräu’s cavernous rooms were near empty. Our small talk echoed throughout the hall as we sipped steins full of the only beer on tap. At about 10:55pm Andi ushered us towards the door.
“They get mean,” he warned, “Let’s leave before they yell at us.”
Hurriedly reemerging into the rainy October streets, we agreed to go on a little walk to see the city. We followed our host up through the woods that snaked above the beer hall; the dimly lit trails were slippery with a blanket of degrading leaves. Andi neither flailed in footing nor failed in words. Like a toddler at a zoo he pointed wildly at each monument we passed, explaining in his thick accent the significance of each building, the history of the churches, the origin of the stones mined beneath our feet, and the celebrities that have stayed in the inns. With every new landmark he would take the opportunity to snap our picture.
We ascended the bluff until we reached a proper lookout of the city. Below, the churches were regally lit with spotlights; their rusted steeples gleamed green against the black backdrop of the pinpricked sky. Streetlights twinkled in reflection upon the weaving river as the slurs of drunks gaily echoed up from the narrow corridors of the streets down below. Though we looked down at Salzburg, the great white castle in the near distance still dwarfed us. For a moment, I lost myself in the vast history of this old city, attempting to comprehend all of those who had stood in this exact spot throughout the years.
Andi quickly snapped me back to the present. “C’mon guys, no time to waste…. We gotta keep moving… there’s more to see!”
Our trek continued along the perimeter of the city, switch-backing until we reached ground level. After exploring the dignified old town, we stopped at an Irish bar for a final drink of the night and then headed home. By the time we reached Andi’s apartment – over an hour’s soggy walk out of town – it was nearly three in the morning. Despite the seven-hour bus ride, we’d clocked over ten miles of walking that day.
Morning came quickly with a persistent rapping on our bedroom door.
“C’mon guys!” Andi called, “Gotta get up! You’re wasting the day!”
Jonny breathed a heavy sigh into his pillow implying something in the realm of – you’ve got to be fucking kidding me – and with our feet dragging, we got up to meet our host in the living room. He sat us down on the sofa and opened his laptop.
“I want to show you what I did this morning,” he said. As he returned to busy himself in the kitchen, a somber guitar tone broke through the air and the words, for nora and jonny, appeared on the screen. For the next nine minutes the two of us sat in silence, watching the drenched and smiling faces of our prior selves pan across the frame at least a hundred times. The night before – mere hours earlier – was already encapsulated in slideshow format for our entertainment. With three more days to go in Salzburg, we were certain that by the end we would possess a full-length movie.
After breakfast we hopped back in the hatchback and succumbed to the mercy of Andi’s whim. For the next six hours, our gracious host drove us around the foothills of the eastern Alps, stopping intermittently to capture the view with his old Nikon. We weaved through the crescent lakes of the Mondsee and Attersee, both stepping foot on their rocky shores and viewing them through fog from miles above. Against the backdrop of 90’s grunge music, Andi regaled us with stories of the areas history and his own personal relationship with the region. At one point we stopped at a tiny distillery, D’Brennerin, and were elated to have a private tour and one of the best schnapps tastings of our trip.
At another point high in the mountains we escaped the confines of the two-door and trudged across the snowy landscape. Cows grazed on elusive patches of grass as children took their sleds on maiden voyages down tiny hills. The fog hung low and precipitation was fresh in the air; the cold stung our noses. To curb our hunger, Andi offered us peanuts as we followed him blindly down the frozen path. Eventually we came across a wooden bridge, white but for a few footprints. Hugging the bare rock face of the mountain, it stretched maybe a hundred feet to stable land. At the halfway point, the trees opposite the rock face cleared, which allowed us to look down upon the vast entirety of Salzburg. The majestic castle that squatted above the city appeared smaller than a monopoly piece. We took turns testing gravity by throwing snowballs, and reveled in the view. This time, Andi did not rush us along.
Miraculously, less than an hour later we were back in the city streets. Andi had dropped Jonny and I off near the old town to give us a couple hours alone before we met up for dinner. Thankful for the solitude and desperate for a beer, a bite, and a bathroom, we set out in Mozart’s city in seek of the perfect safe haven to satisfy our desires. Like rats in a maze, we scurried about and were lured into either dead ends or cleverly disguised tourist traps. After an hour of discovering only disappointments, I spotted a humble sandwich board boasting a modest menu. Our throats were parched and the prices seemed right. “This is it,” I said. “This is the place we rest.”
The opening thrust of the door wafted the thick cigarette smoke back just enough so we could see all four heads of the men sitting at the bar rise from their beers and turn to stare. The woman behind the bar, wrinkled and heavy eyed, immediately informed us in English that the kitchen wasn’t open. We ordered two beers anyway and took a lonely seat in a pastel floral booth behind the short wall that designated the “non” smoking section of the restaurant. One wall was halfheartedly adorned in Venetian masks, on the other walls hung large floral prints worthy of midrange retirement homes. A table in the center of the room offered free tabloids, appropriately accompanying the American top-40 that played over static on the speakers above. If it weren’t for a tiny dusty display case of simple but elegant looking Austrian cakes, I would have sworn I was in the middle of Wisconsin.
“Where in the hell are we?” I asked Jonny, over my beer. He just smiled and shook his head, unable to answer. We had successfully found small town USA in the heart of one of the most elegant cities in Europe. While the beer was refreshing enough, my stomach still trembled. This, it seemed, was certainly not the place of our great repose.
Back on the streets of Salzburg we continued the search to satiate our hunger. After another twenty minutes or so, we spotted an intriguing little restaurant on the corner of a market square (the name of which, unfortunately, I never recorded). As soon as we entered I breathed a sigh of relief. Every table was filled, every plate held huge colorful portions of classic Austrian fare, and the room was abuzz with lively conversation. Our waiter was friendly and sat us at a corner table, looking over the restaurant. Tucked away, we had finally found our oasis. I ordered hot chocolate with amaretto, and the soup of the day, celery chestnut. Perhaps it was the relief, the sanctuary, or the success, but that was, at that moment, the best soup I’d ever had.
(And, for the record, we did end up receiving a grandiose final slideshow of our stay in Salzburg, which Andi eagerly showed us on the platform as we waited for our train to Vienna. Because of him, we got to know that city inside and out. He was a spirited host, eager to share his beloved town. Though we cherished our moments of solitude, tourist boot camp was exhilarating too; we wouldn’t trade our experience, or our slideshow, for anything.)
Salzburg-Inspired Chestnut Celeriac Soup
Yield: about 1 quart
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: just over an hour
This was my first time playing with fresh chestnuts and man, were they ever a pain. However, they were also one of the most delicious whole foods I’ve ever had the pleasure of scraping my thumbs raw over. Perhaps the roasting method isn’t the best (I’ve heard rumors of frying them to loosen the shells), or perhaps my chestnuts were on the old end, but the pods were incredibly stubborn to remove. If you go this route, get comfy with a bottle of wine and a long movie to distract yourself. Or, be kind to yourself and substitute with prepared chestnuts.
(Musically) pairs well with: Mozart, of course
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, sliced in half moons
pinch sea salt
2 tablespoons Madeira, sherry, or other sweet liquor
2 bay leaves
1 cup roasted chestnuts
1 medium sized celeriac (celery root), skin trimmed off and flesh chopped up
1 sprig thyme
3 cups good vegetable stock
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Jaggery or brown sugar
Unsweetened whipped cream
Heat butter in a medium sized stock pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt and stir to coat. Turn down heat to low and summon patience to caramelize, stirring only occasionally, for at least 15 minutes. Add the Madeira to deglaze, and then add the bay, chestnuts, celeriac, thyme and broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until the celery root and chestnuts are tender, about 40 minutes. Remove the bay and thyme sprig, and blend until smooth. Return to pot, add the cream and let simmer gently for an additional ten minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For garnishing, I used fresh thyme sprigs (parsley would be good too), grated jaggery, and some heavy cream I’d whipped using a hand mixer.
One o my most defining moments was when…
One of the first things that Cynthia Lair, my teacher in culinary class, taught our group in our “How to teach a cooking class” class (cooking demonstration), is something she learned in improv comedy. A famous act of throwing your hands up in the air and screaming (loudly proclaiming), I Failed, with a big smile on your face. Once that fear of failure is overcome (embracing failure), getting down to the nitty gritty doesn’t seem so scary.
I demonstarated this once at a dive bar down the block from house one night. They Every night, there is karaoke . 7 times a week. Usually my MO for karaoke is three songs: two of whch being Otis Redding. I know every note, and with some liquid encouragement can go up and sing. This night,I was a cocktail in and decided t put my name in the hat with asng I didn’t know too well. I didn’t want to make a total ass of myself, but I didn’t want to know what I was doing, either. I’ve been performing for years, but always with material I know like the back of my hand and with the aid of stage fright drugs. (drugs to curb stage fright). That night, the song was Mellow Yellow, by Donovan. There was a key change I wasn’t exactly anticipation. Where were those higher notes coming from? Did I need to sexily whisper that bit? What is this song about? Why are they staring at me? Why is it going on so long? Hy did I pick something so slpw? The KJ was doing the mouth along, the way a parent would as they watch their elementatary school child say his first rehearsed words in the school play. I bombed. I fell flat. My boyfriend gave me an apologetic “better luck next time” look. I wanted to fail, and you know what. It wasn’t so bad. I lived through it. I’ve since stood up to do Meatloaf, Katy Perry, and Weezer on a whim. Failing makes everything else a little less scary, living a little less scary. Try failing. Try sucking. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go.
The ABC (Avocado, Banana and Cocoa) Pudding
I have attempted, in the past, to write a recipe for this pudding. I’ve succeeded in creating the perfect balance of creamy and rich, sweet and subtly bitter, and have diligently scribbled every measurement so that I can recreate what, in my mind, is a perfect dessert (or smoothie, depending on the amount of liquid). Then, I’ll return to my recipe a month later, follow it to a tee, and discover a disappointingly bland and strangely awkward goop in the bottom of my blender. Where did I go so wrong? How did this happen?
Not every banana is the same size, nor will they be the same sweetness. The same could be said for the avocado. Some vanillas and cocoa powders are more bitter than others, some honeys blindingly saccharine, others more floral. I can promise you that the combination of these ingredients have the potential to be out-of-this-world good. But, I can’t tell you how. That adventure I leave to you. Imperfections become a lot less scary after you submit to them. Try. Fail. Try again.
(Musically) pairs well with Donovan (of course)
Milk (whole is my favorite, but coconut works well too)
Raw cocoa powder
Chop up the banana, put all ingredients into the blender and whirl until smooth. Don’t dare skimp on the pinch of salt – it really binds the flavors. Keep playing until you get it right. It’s okay to not get it perfect the first time; you’ll know when you do.
There’s a reason I’ve been so quiet. I’ve long had my next topic in mind, but the more I thought about it, the larger it became. After many months, this convoluted Godzilla-like beast of a concept wreaked havoc on my motivation because, frankly, it became too damn daunting of an undertaking. I felt that evoking King Kong was the only solution to beating this idea into submission and, well, he’s been busy doing whatever gigantic monkeys do.
How’s that for a disclaimer? Deep breath…
Lately, I’ve found myself contemplating identity through the lens of tense and time. (Otherwise known as “Symptom #24 You’re Spending Too Much Time Alone With the Cat”.) Often, I view my past, present, and future self as three different individuals. Present Self is almost always apologizing to Future Self – “I’m sorry you’re going to have to do the dishes (because all that cooking has made me sleepy)”, “I’m sorry you’re going to have to move the car at 8am (even though I could very well do it now but, well, The Simpsons is on AND YES I KNOW IT’S ON DVD)”, “I’m sorry tomorrow is going to be plagued with the hazy memories of cheap pizza and even cheaper bourbon at 3 am (worth it!),” etc.
In regards to Past Self, however, Present Self goes back and forth between feeling staggeringly perturbed or startlingly impressed – the former usually when reflecting on immediate Past Self, the latter when reflecting on distant Past Self.
Still with me? Yeah? As a reward, here’s a picture of the cat who inspires such mediations.
What has struck me is the number of times I’ve looked back on Past Self and thought, for better or for worse, “I cannot believe I did that.” This sentiment often results from either a contradiction in perceived personality, or a surprising tenacity of spirit. Or sometimes, naturally, just from being an idiot kid.
For example, I can’t believe that as a teenager I willingly got on the back of that Mexican guy’s scooter in Cozumel to go alone to an unknown destination (sorry mom).
- I can’t believe I took so calmly to getting a tumor at 16 years old.
- That I moved across the country to a new city just a month after turning 18.
- That I allowed my cat to be homeless while I lived in the dorms, finding it on the streets of Wallingford twice a week to feed her and sleep beside her in my minivan.
- That I often ventured to the seediest of dive bars when I was 21 to rub elbows with the regulars for the sake of story and photography.
- That I hosted a couple hundred people – friends and strangers – to cycle through my house after our friends were killed, and managed to remain “strong” and dry eyed until many many months later.
- That I maintained my sanity while, as a full time student, I juggled seven jobs.
- That I offered to cook for 200 people over 3 days without any previous catering experience.
- That I went back to dancing pointe as a 27 year old.
- That I had the guts to sing 99 Red Balloons auf Deutch in front of an sold out audience for New Years.
- That I actually started a blog for REAL LIVE PEOPLE to read, and am publicly pondering shit like this!
And many, many more….
There is one theme that weaves its way through these musings pertaining to Past Self. Many moments of former Nora do not fit the mold of who I think I am. I think that I am shy. That I am scared. That I am indecisive. The above, however, are not characteristics of a shy, scared, indecisive person. So, what gives?
We are not anything. We are everything. When thinking about myself, I’ve been trying to use the phrase “I feel“, rather than “I am” – “I feel shy, scared, indecisive etc”. I “am” implies a stagnant inability to change. Yet, we are always changing, always evolving, always becoming just slightly different versions of our Selves. Just a simple alteration of language can liberate what we think we’re capable of. How often do we unintentionally confine ourselves by saying, “I am“? If we were to break free from our perceived persona, what would become of our potential?
Going back to my perpetual battles between Past, Present, and Future Self, I wonder what I might be doing now that would inspire Future Nora to say, “I can’t believe I did that.” And if I were able to recognize such a thing, what effect might that have on my motivation and confidence? To my perception of Self? Shouldn’t the goal be to always seek to impress, rather than disappoint, my future self? (Well, maybe not by doing the dishes. Past Nora will always be cursed for slacking on those. She’s such a bitch.)
So whatever, you ask, has this to do with food?
Regardless of where we are in life – however satisfied, depressed, driven, anxious – most of us have one at least one constant that rarely changes: our penchant for comfort food. While it’s different for everyone, this post is ultimately about finding those stable joys in an otherwise ever evolving Self. And with that, I’ll pose the question: What have you done in your life that challenges your perception of you?
Comfortingly Lavish Macaroni and Cheese
Preparation: 30 – 40 minutes
Gorgonzola, kale, shiitake mushrooms, and truffle oil join forces to create this bold mac and cheese. For kale skeptics, this is a great subtle way to incorporate this powerhouse into dinner. Feel free to tailor the proportions of gorgonzola and truffle oil to your own taste; these flavors are not for the shy palate.
(Musically) pairs well with Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues
1 bunch kale, stems removed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
a few pinches of salt, divided
16 ounces macaroni noodles
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
1 – 2 teaspoons white truffle oil
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to boil and submerge the kale leaves. Cook until tender, 8 – 10 minutes. Using tongs, remove the kale, shake out excess water and blend in food processor or finely chop. Set aside.
Heat butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Once melted, toss in the shiitake mushrooms, a pinch of salt, and fry until the mushrooms begin to release their liquid and become tender. Set aside.
Bring the kale water back up to a boil with a pinch of salt, adding more water if necessary to mostly fill the pot. Once boiling, toss in your noodles, give a stir, and cook until al dente. Drain and throw back into the empty stockpot.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium low heat, melt the remaining butter. Add the flour, whisk to incorporate, and cook until this roux just barely darkens in color. Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until smooth. Keep cooking and stirring until the mixture thickens and becomes hot. Off heat, gradually stir in the Monterey jack cheese and gorgonzola until melted. Fold in the kale, mushrooms, and truffle oil. Pour cheese sauce over the noodles, reheat, and taste once more for salt. Spoon into bowls, top with extra jack cheese, and serve pipin’ hot. Tastes best while lounging under your favorite blanket.
I, Nora Dummer, solemnly swear that this shall be the longest ever post published in the cuts and burns web log. Consider this your warning if you, like me, tend to bail when faced with blog entries that take longer to read than preparing the damn recipe.
Still with me?
Alrighty then, here we go…
Whenever I tell of my five years working in the Pike Place Market, I’ll often summarize a list of varied establishments; I’ll speak fondly of my two years at the Cinnamon Works Bakery, describe the delectable food we served at Michou, reminisce about my god-awful boss at Pike Place Flowers, and even include my month long stint at Taxi Dogs. Rarely, however, do I mention No Boundaries Café. Perhaps deliberately, my mind glosses over this place, dismissing it as an unworthy sojourn for memory. Though my time there wasn’t especially long lasting, I realize it should not be disregarded like a stack of unflattering pictures; this experience introduced me to exotic flavors and people while providing me with my first taste of responsibility in Seattle’s renowned food service industry.
I had been working as a florist at Pike Place Flowers for about six months when a co-worker mentioned a job opening at a quaint Turkish café in the Market. Eighteen years old and eager to escape the watchful eye of my temperamental boss, I jumped at the offer. At the time, the kitchen of a retirement community in Minnesota was the only employment listed on my resume – those four years at Point Pleasant Heights encompass some of my fondest memories to this day – and I’d been anxious to flex the puny muscle of my restaurant experience in my new hometown of the Emerald City.
Nestled in a crook of the Markets south wing, between Tenzing Momo and the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company, sat the modest eatery called No Boundaries Café. The café boasted a small menu of made-to-order sandwiches on foccacia bread, traditional Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouli and hummus, and the delightfully murky sludge that is Turkish coffee. Out of all of the items on the menu, nothing roused the pride of the owner quite like the Café’s two soups: Red Lentil and Clam Chowder. Ramazan would post up just beyond the entrance and with a bellman’s cry, proclaim, “The best Clam Chowder in the Market, folks!” Salt and pepper hair neatly framed his face, his skin was leathered by years of exaggerated expression. His emotions were nothing if not extreme; one moment he would be grinning like a hyena, the next his temper raging like a hippo. Initially, I found this unbridled intensity rather charming and after a quick exchange I was hired on the spot. This was likely due to my native English speaking abilities, but perhaps also because of my obvious timorous nature. I distinctly remember him scribing two bulbous connected semi-circles on a piece of paper after a dollar sign; for my training, he said, I would be paid three dollars an hour. He circled the amount, exclaiming, “This makes sense, no?”. I was young, still naïve, and agreed to the wage. Whether or not I actually believed this to be fair, or if I was just too timid to protest, I cannot recall.
My first shift proceeded typically – I learned the mechanics of the register, familiarized myself with our small menu, and became acquainted with Turkish cuisine. I worked alongside two women, both relatives of Ramazan, who had moved to the country to pursue a promise of work at the Cafe. Bedrunnisa* was an older woman with a gentle smile and tired eyes. Since she didn’t speak English, we communicated primarily through gestures and animated facial expressions. Saran, on the other hand, was just five years my senior. With her I felt both instant rapport and slight intimidation; she towered over me, her smooth dark hair falling to the small of her back, an irrepressible fire behind her eyes. Over cigarettes she would spit words out like popcorn kernels, furiously ranting about Ramazan’s overworking and underpaying her and Bedrunnisa, and their inability to take action over it because of their illegal status.
A week after being hired, Ramazan told me I was to open the café by myself the following morning, which entailed preparing both treasured soups for the day. At the time, my culinary skills were limited to doctoring up boxes of Pasta-Roni and mastering the art of pizza ordering. Preparing soups from scratch was a foreign concept, (despite the best efforts from my knowledgeable mother), but I agreed to the challenge. For training, I shadowed Bedrunnisa for the day, notebook in hand, scribbling directions in my journal. Instead of using measuring spoons or cups, she used an arbitrary collection of utensils that prompted my notes to read as the following: 3 big cups water, 2 ½ handful onion, soup spoon thyme, 3 wooden spoons margarine, 1 ½ soup bowls flour, half lid full dry mint, etc. To add to the confusion, Bedrunnisa did not follow a linear path of “recipe” making; this resulted in my notes meandering through a labyrinth of clam chowder, spanakopita, lentil soup, Greek salad and hummus. Occasionally Bedrunnisa would gesture to me with a spoon to which I would nod, feigning comprehension. After a bewildering training session, Ramazan rewarded me with a key.
Any nerves I ever have regarding the contents of ‘Tomorrow’ have always manifested in dreams. My fears tend to amalgamate, forming grossly sensationalized nightmares depicting worst-case scenarios; the night before opening for my first time at No Boundaries was no exception. Scattered imagery of distorted soup pots, missing ingredients, and blinding lights set the scene for a fanatical Ramazan chiding me for my wrongdoings. The next morning upon reaching Pike Place, I restlessly made my way through the buzz of vendors hurriedly pushing their carts towards the ribcage of the Market, finding some solace in our shared anticipation of day to come. I’d arrived especially early, ensuring ample time to account for any missteps. The unlit Café loomed ominously in its corner, and the turning of the key into the doors lock acted to rev the ignition of my trepidation. Scarred from the incessant rebuking from my flower shop boss, along with the dread instilled from the night’s dreams, I had no interest in disappointing Ramazan. The latch clicked. The door swung open. I took a deep breath and entered the restaurant.
I switched on the lights, checked the contents of the line, turned on the dishwasher, and opened my notebook for further direction. It was then that I realized just how disorganized my notes were, each scrawled ingredient an ambiguous constituent to any one of five recipes. I fumbled around for ingredients, tried to recall the meaning of “big spoon,” and hesitantly measured “little carrots, (1 ½ handful) celery, onion (more onion),” adding these vegetables to the pot. Piecing together the directions, I eventually constructed two dishes that quite closely resembled soup, and opened the restaurant for business. Though the clam chowder maybe didn’t taste like ‘The Best in the Market!’, and the color of the lentil soup was not quite as vibrant as it had been the day before, I was pleased with my accomplishment. Still frazzled as the first customer entered the Cafe, I nervously watched as she took a spoonful of the lentil soup into her mouth. Neither scowl nor scorn washed over her face, and I breathed a sigh of relief. When Ramazan arrived a few hours later he lifted the lids off each hot-held soup, breathed in their steamy aromas, and, partly to himself and partly to me, simply said, “Good.”
I don’t recall my fate at No Boundaries Café – whether I left on good terms, how many months I worked there, or if I ever even received a paycheck. That morning was the only day that Bedrunnisa was allowed to take off from work, the only day I was ever asked to make the soup. Occasionally in the years that followed I would see her painting names on grains of rice for pendant jewelry at the Seattle center, and I’d offer a smile hello. Ramazan ended up chaining himself to the Café when the Market threatened to expel him for repeated lapsing on rent. (I’ve heard he’s now a proud owner of a hot dog stand in downtown Seattle – “The best hot dogs in town, folks!!”.) Despite being an avid diary writer during those years, the only mention of the Café in my journals can be found in the opening line on April 27th 2004: “Yesterday I worked with Saran and made the soups all by myself.”
No Boundaries Café had successfully piqued a pride in me that I hadn’t previously experienced – pride in creating a dish from scratch, pride in the independence of opening the doors of a restaurant, and pride in myself for accomplishing a task, albeit menial, that I wasn’t initially certain I could execute. I learned the important lesson that confidence can materialize simply by trudging through and faking it. Though I don’t consider my time at No Boundaries to be terribly significant otherwise, every time I venture to prepare clam chowder or lentil soup, I’ll pull out my old journal and attempt to follow along.
* My memory doesn’t have access to her real name, aside from recalling that it was Turkish and began with the letter B. I see it fit to call her Bedrunnisa, which means face of the bright side of the moon.
No Boundaries Lentil Soup
Prep Time: 10 – 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 – 45 minutes
Yield: 6ish servings
I altered this slightly from the “original”, in that I added more spices, used fresh instead of dried mint, and used two kinds of lentils (the red lentils will fade into the background, while the yellow will remain just slightly al dente). You could certainly opt to ignore any of these alterations.
While adding a roux to a lentil soup is pretty unusual, I included it to keep with No Boundaries tradition. The outcome is a richer, more porridge-ier stew. If you’d like to cut down on time or keep the soup vegan and gluten free, by all means skip this step.
(Musically) pairs well with: Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands
Not only is this album one I listened to extensively in my Pike Place Market days, but the moody, mellow and folky texture of this record couples well with the earthy aroma of lentils cooking on a cold winter day. Plus, the opening line is – this is the soup that I believe in.
1 tablespoon sunflower seed oil, or any high heat oil
1 yellow onion, medium diced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 large carrot, medium diced
2 stalks celery, medium diced
1 teaspoon each smoked paprika, coriander, and cumin
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 smallish-medium sized yellow potatoes (I used yellow finn)
3/4 cup red lentils
1/2 cup yellow lentils
4 1/2 cups vegetable broth
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Scant 1/4 cup flour (optional)
1/4 cup half & half (optional)
Sea salt, anywhere between a godly and ungodly amount
Black pepper to taste
Fresh mint, for garnish
Pomegranate molasses, for garnish (optional)
Heat a medium large stockpot over medium high heat. Add the oil and when hot, toss in the onions and salt. Give a stir and sweat 3 – 4 minutes. Throw in the carrots and celery and cook an additional few minutes, until just tender. Ideally you want the veggies to retain just a touch of a bite. Toss in the spices and garlic, and stir a minute or two, until fragrant. Add the potatoes and lentils, give a stir, and then pour in the broth and fold in the tomato paste. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until all veggies and yellow lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20-30 minutes.
If you’re not making a roux, add the half and half, and season with salt and pepper to taste. (For the record, I erred towards the “ungodly” end of salt uses – 6 to 7 full pinches of it. This will depend on the type of broth you use, and how much you like your food to taste good.)
If you’re making the roux, heat up a small saucepan and add the butter. When it’s fully melted, add the flour, a little at a time, and stir until the mixture becomes a paste and ever so slightly darker in color. Slowly pour in the half and half and incorporate it into the paste – you should have an ever so slightly thinner paste. From here, add the lentil soup, one ladle at a time, to the roux pan until it is more soup than paste. Then stir this mixture back into the stockpot to thicken the whole soup. (I’ve found it’s much easier to prevent lumps adding soup to roux than roux to soup.)
For a thinner soup, add a little more stock. Taste for salt. Serve hot, and garnish with fresh mint and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. Afiyet Olsun!
Don’t be discouraged. It is what it seemed.
After much deliberation, I’m going to spare you. Spare you from waxing poetic about the weight of one’s final words, spare you from philosophical jargon of what it means to be alive, spare you from advice for how to love your loved ones, fully and without hesitation. I’m going to spare you from the pages I’ve written for this post. Trust me, it’s better this way.
I mean, Jesus, we’re just talking about mushrooms here.
What I will say is that this dish is dedicated to Drew. The last thing that my friend said to me before he passed suddenly and tragically was that if it weren’t for me, he’d never eat anything. These mushrooms were his goddamned favorite.
To prepare for this recipe, my one requirement is that you procure, open, and sip a can of Rainier, though any cheap beer will do (or, who am I kidding, any type of alcohol will suffice). Bonus points if you put on this album, or, if you want to get weird(er), this one. Or at least watch this video. Extra bonus points if you remain dry eyed during “Follow Yer Dreams” or “Hello G’bye” (and for the record, I failed). Proceed with merriment, and when you pop that first hot mushroom in your mouth, take a moment to be grateful for the life you have to do so.
Yield: 10 stuffed mushrooms
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20-30 minutes
10 medium sized mushrooms (270 grams)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup minced celery
pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallions
Madeira wine, though, once again, any alcohol will suffice (optional)
2 cups packed spinach, torn
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, rough chopped
1/3 cup cream cheese
1/8 cup parmesan, plus more to top
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire
1/2 teaspoon tamari
1/4 cup rough chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Twist or pop the stems out of the mushrooms, taking care not to break the caps. Rough chop the stems, set aside. Arrange the mushroom caps, de-stemmed side up, on a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Heat a medium sized skillet over medium heat and add the butter. Once melted, toss in the celery and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushroom stems, garlic, thyme, and scallions, and cook an additional 4 – 6 minutes. If the pan gets too dry, deglaze it with a splash of Madeira. Add the spinach leaves, toss the mixture a few times, and remove from heat.
Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and fold in the walnuts, cream cheese, parmesan, Worcestershire, tamari, parsley, lemon zest and pepper. Taste for salt, add more (or a splash of tamari) if you’d like.
Once the filling suits your taste, spoon a bit into each mushroom cap, pushing down on the mixture slightly so it fills the cavern. Top each mushroom with a pinch of Parmesan, and pop in the oven to bake for about 20 – 30 minutes, or until the cap is soft and the cheese is golden brown. Let sit for a minute or two, open a fresh beer, and enjoy!
I don’t mean to offend, dear reader, but to ease into the process of The Blog I’m going to pretend that you don’t exist… for now.
I’m sure you understand.
First, an explanation. For the love of cuts and burns is inspired by my first substantial catering experience. Loving both music and food, it’s been a goal of mine to find a venue to combine the two. A couple summers ago I was finally given the opportunity to do so. For four days, against the backdrop of last minute acoustic rehearsals and a frantic festival staff tying up loose ends, my partner Emma and I prepared eight meals over four days for nearly 200 musicians playing a festival in the stunning San Juan Islands of Washington. After the third twenty-hour workday of bustling around a kitchen barely bigger then my own (which is tiny, I assure you), wearing ill equipped shoes and fueled solely by adrenaline and bottomless cocktails (thank you, dear Jonny), Emma and I deliriously began to brainstorm our would-be catering company name. At one point I looked down at my hands, speckled in burns from sloppy reaches into the oven, splattering sauces, and skillet encounters, and looked over at Emma’s, boasting crimson memories of sharp edged aluminum hotel pans, soapy food processor blades, and wanton knives. Though Slop and Gruel was a close second, we settled on Cuts and Burns Catering Co. She was cuts, I was burns.
Though our catering company has never materialized beyond the week of the Doe Bay music festival, the name has since stuck with me. Food has a story beyond the pretty picture we see in books or blogs; it’s easy to glaze past the journey to focus on the final result. Rarely does it turn out exactly the way we want – sometimes it is a crushing disappointment, other times it’s a pleasant surprise – always food is an adventure. I wear my cuts and burns like battle scars, and revel in the imperfection, the occasional sloppiness, and unpredictability of life in the kitchen. For the love of cuts and burns is all about accepting the blood, sweat, and tears that can accompany making a meal; from the farmers who grow the food, to the hands who transport it, to the cooks who transform it, food is a lot of work, a labor of love, a duty of necessity.
And though you don’t exist, a sincere thank you, dear reader, for reading.