Dec 10, 2013

Peppery Preparations

Gray skies, snowflakes, red berries, the vague outline of trees, the cold dregs of coffee, the scent of fir. Can you tell I'm mixed up about how I feel? December is at once depressing and delightful, dark and twinkling, exhausting and joyful. To sum it up, last night I had a dream where a talking snake said: "we have to search for the sparkly places."

Auspicious? Perhaps.

My passport is now in the hands of the Indian and Thai consulates (fingers crossed that I spelled my name right). In the meantime I try to collect the things I need for my trip; read strange stories about Ms Yingluck and the Thai government, do the laundry, buy Christmas presents, watch the snow fall, make onion soup.

Nov 26, 2013

Saffron & Onion Jam

My back is throbbing from a cortisone shot at Quincy hospital yesterday, where afterwards, sitting in a wheelchair eating Lorna Doone shortbread cookies and sipping cranberry juice, I listened to a nurse give the office lunch order for Chinese food over the phone, at the end of which she was required to give the delivery address: "Quincy Medical Center, fourth floor, wing C, Pain Clinic," but the person on the other end of the line, the Chinese take-out phone person I suppose, couldn't understand what she was saying so the nurse kept repeating "Pain clinic. PAIN clinic. PAIN. No, no, PAIN. As in, P-A-I-N." 

Oct 29, 2013

Sweet Fennel Seed

A lot has changed in the past month. The light has changed, and darkened. Now when I come home at six o'clock I find that the orange from the sky has gone, and the landscape looks like she's been dipped in blue ink. I love these changes, as everything begins to smell different, and the menus shift to autumnal flavors, and the sound of Red Sox sports-casters rattle noisily from car windows.

Sep 22, 2013

Curry Love

Trying to consider the line of a poem that caught in my throat at my brother Ian's wedding last weekend. I'm usually pretty good at speaking in front of people, loving the spotlight just for a moment, my voice a calm and steady stream, but this time I got caught on a line and couldn't go on, tears streaming down my cheeks while all the guests sat and watched and the sun blared, and the blue sky stared me down with a blank blue stare. "For better, for worse, splicing spirit-bodies to each other in the daily / Communion of light..."

Even now I'm having a bit of trouble keeping it together here on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I like to think of this line from Eamon Grennan's poem as a nod to the beauty of a good marriage, a wedding of two people whose "spirit-bodies" are suddenly realized. A wedding ceremony offers us the chance to join in this literal "splicing [of] spirit -bodies" and we are all there to share in the joy of that joining.

And even though the wedding last weekend on the coast of Maine was not religious, there was indeed this "Communion of light" that we all drank—it glimmered off the surface of the Atlantic, it sank into the pores of our skin, it lapped up against the rocks and the grasses and the fir trees. Though the toasts are all finished, the tent is collapsed and the chairs folded, I'd still like to raise one last glass of sunlight to my brother Ian and his wife Amanda: may your love be a kind of walk on water.

Aug 31, 2013

Dizzy Lemongrass

It's the last day of August. This summer was like a bright, strange dream. The last thing I remember I was swimming in the Atlantic ocean in my underwear on July 4th. Then everything went into super-speed-surreal mode, like a ferris wheel of colors, days, moments—here they all are, views of the landscape in the late afternoon light, of treetops and little houses and the blur of fairgrounds down below and then of the bored operator's face as he stares at the gears in the giant turning wheel, the blinking lights of the fried dough stand like a halo around him. I close my eyes and feel dizzy, I open them and am fed with light.

It's been a vibrant summer, and I'm celebrating it tonight by drinking a martini out of my home-made lemongrass straw. I'll tell you right now it doesn't work too well, but it tastes nice. What better way to spend a Saturday night?

Aug 4, 2013

Lily Children

My days open and close like the lilies. Each day another bloom, a new color, a fresh try. The flowers are named daylilies because they only bloom for one day, reminding us, I suppose, to live in the moment. But right now the lilies are in full force, showing their faces for us in every shade of orange, red and yellow. They demand my attention, they holler at me in five-petalled flower voices. The colors reflect the bright pulse of sunlight, that bee-buzzing, cricket-singing thrum of early August.

My dad hybridizes daylilies at our home in Maine. Every year he must plow new land to plant more of his daylily offspring, and we wait for even another year to see what new colors, heights, and ruffles emerge. During a recent visit to see my folks up in Maine, I decided I wanted to try to experience dad's lilies in a new way—that is, to eat them.

Jul 22, 2013

The Basil Clan

This morning the sounds of summer play like a modern concert: the tinkling electronic whir of a neighbor's air conditioner, the high-pitched squeal and clank of a city garbage truck, and in between, the loud caw of crows, the low buzz of cicadas, the throaty groan of a distant lawn mower. It's a beautiful, if dissonant concert.

I've been feeling homesick today, and I don't really know why. I'm not technically far from home, and even my oldest brother, who lives on the opposite side of the planet, is only a Skype call away. But there is a spaciousness to the days of mid-summer that makes me a bit sad, as though everyone is far away doing their own thing: busy mowing the lawn or splashing in the waves of some fine beach. Being busy is distracting, and I realize when I have a second to stop and breathe, I miss my family.

Jul 9, 2013

Ah, Little Rose

I betrayed the roses I was trying to honor. I boiled them too long in syrup and ended up with a caramelized, sticky rose petal mess. After a lovely fourth of July on a secluded beach collecting Rosa rugosa petals in between swimming in the ice-cold North Atlantic and lying on the beach blanket squinting at the pages of my book, I tried to make rose petal jam. I collected a lot of petals. I used the edge of my shirt pulled up to form a basket and then filled the empty Tupperware containers from our picnic with the cool, silky petals. Then I brought them home and it all went downhill. When I combined them with sugar, water and heat the beautiful petals began turning into syrup, then jam, then all of a sudden they turned into a candy as stiff and inedible as tire rubber.

These failures happen in the kitchen - perhaps more frequently than I'd care to admit - but a failure with hand-picked rose petals is particularly heartbreaking. I stood over my pot of browning petals and wanted to crumple. But only for a little while until I decided to HELL with rose petal jam I'm going to make a wild strawberry tart. So I did, and it was delicious, but my heart still ached for those petals.

Jul 1, 2013

Vanilla Cured

I don't know what happened to June, but I think I ate it. It was full of bright green flavors, crisp days filled with sunlight, evenings that were as sweet and fragrant as a mountain primrose. It was strawberry rhubarb pie and baby arugula and French radishes and citrusy spruce tips. June was truly tangy and sweet and tart. Now that it's July we can safely say it's "Grill O'clock." Gone are the tender and sweet moments of early summer replaced by the flavor-packed, juicy and char-grilled days of July.

Jun 21, 2013

Silver Thread Spruce

It's a strange sensation driving over land that contains precious metals and semi-precious stones. Mountains dug and scraped and toppled and rocks chiseled and sorted and turned over and over to find what is valuable to us, what has use, what will hammer smooth or hold fast. Or even beyond any practical use, what will give us pleasure, what will delight us by virtue of its color, its shadowy gleam, its quiet sparkle-song.

Jun 5, 2013

Sage Officina

All of my houseplants have come together for a family reunion on my porch. They are the last things I will move in my transition out of my apartment, along with a few shampoo bottles and precious vinegars and oils. They look good together, my plants: the orphaned orchid I rescued five years ago from the Oberlin College greenhouse next to the aloe vera that was an offspring of my godmother Meme's; the glossy-leaved coffee tree hauled back across the Pacific by my intrepid parents settled in beside the jade I inherited from an old roommate who now lives in South America.

The sage is only a baby, planted in late April in an old feta tin from work that I filled to the brim with dirt. It's made quite a home inside this once-briny tin, and I am proud. I am remembering now a dream I had last night of being on an island in Greece lounging in the hot sun. There were herbs and flowers and tan people. Then suddenly the skies darkened and I was running for cover from a tornado that whipped across the now-Oklahoma land and I was diving in and out of storm cellars, down ladders where people waited below, their faces white with fear and yelling at me to close the hatch.

May 24, 2013

Where's Home, Mastiha?

As I've been packing up my apartment this week in anticipation of moving, I've been thinking a lot about comfort food. Some food is comforting to eat, such as mashed potatoes, or chicken pot pie or warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream. Textures and temperatures that calm a frazzled spirit. But other foods are comforting to make—my favorite of all being granola. I used to make granola as part of my "dorm-duty" in college. I lived in a co-op where we all took turns cooking, cleaning, and bossing each-other around and one of the roles that a person could have for the semester was 'granola-maker' where, once a week you were expected to make a huge 30-pound batch of granola for the entire co-op to enjoy for breakfast or late-night study sessions.

May 20, 2013

Quick! Green Garlic

This week I can barely put together full sentences. Spring fever has me in its jaws and everything seems to race forward like something tumbling down the stairs. I can't catch my breath. Here are the lilacs, now beginning to brown, and the violets, almost buried by tall grass, and green garlic, which if you don't catch it, will be gone in an instant, turned into big old real garlic heads with the fierce attitude of a Boston driver on a Friday afternoon. Green garlic can be found at farmer's markets right now, and is often the result of farmers thinning their garlic patch, but the tall thin stalks have a gentle, sweet and rich flavor that is so delicious and versatile. It doesn't have the bite of mature garlic, so it can be used raw; the other night I just mashed up the white part in my mortar and pestle and spread it over salmon before broiling it in the oven. just so good.

In addition to green garlic and salmon here is a list of other good things i've been loving lately:

May 13, 2013

Asafoetida, Earth and Space

It's Sunday night and I'm eating popcorn in bed in my underwear.

I just got home from having drinks with a friend at one of my favorite bar/restaurants here in Somerville called Highland Kitchen, where you can sit in the window and, now that's it's still light out, watch the airplanes rise into the air out of Logan. There goes Aer Lingus and Swiss Air and United. I've always had a fascination with airplanes (dad would say it's in my blood), and to this day I still get teary during take-off when the plane breaks through the clouds and I look out into the ethereal topography of the sky contrasted with the earth below and realize that for a few hours I can leave everything behind.

May 4, 2013

Verbena & the Winning Orb

So much to celebrate on this first Saturday in May. First off, it's my niece Mirabelle's birthday—Happy Birthday Ms. Mirabelle! This completes her first full year on planet Earth. Secondly, a horse named "Orb" won the Kentucky Derby in the splattering mud, and thirdly, I discovered that lemon verbena has a way of clearing and reviving the tired mind.

Apr 28, 2013

Flare, Turmeric

This past week I've been so hungry. Hungry and thirsty. I go to bed thinking about what to eat for breakfast, I ride my bike to work thinking about lunch and how fast the hours might tick by until I can eat it and then I spend the afternoon daydreaming and scheming about what strange dinner I can concoct from the ingredients in my refrigerator - the leftover goat-cheese from the cocktail party, the huge jar of chili peppers that's taking over my cupboard, the lentils, the potato chips, the fennel. Oh what to do, especially when I get home and my hunger blinds me from all ration and reason. When photographing the dish below (turmeric and fennel pasta with goat cheese) I admit it took a critical amount of willpower not to put my camera down and start shoveling the pasta into my mouth. I even stuck the fork in the bowl at one point in an amateur food-styling effort to make the photograph more interesting, but that just made it worse. I felt like a dog begging at the edge of the dinner table. The temptation overtook me after only a few minutes of shooting and I ate the pasta standing up, in huge, flavorful forkfuls.

I've also been very aware of time lately, the way it moves through me and around me, the way the light is so different now at 7am, and at 7pm, compared to this past winter. Late afternoon the beautiful light of spring flares up and seems to make everything glow: the budding maples and the red tulips, the cherry trees and church steeples. The wind picks up and brings an ocean breeze with it, and I try to just pause in the moment of it, the light and the smell of the ocean and the trees. Forget whatever happened last week, last night, an hour ago, forget whatever is approaching.

As reliable as anything you will ever know,
time moves its dim, heavy thumb over the shoreline
making its changes, its whimsical variations.
Yes, yes, the body never gets away from the world,
its endless granular shuffle and exchange—

(Mary Oliver, The Leaf and the Cloud)

So we're in a new season here in Boston, this spring that is all of a sudden hot and bright and golden. I can't stop thinking about the color yellow this time of year, as the sunlight permeates everything, like a spice with a powerful coloring agent, making the world glow. Turmeric is a rhizome, which is the underground stem of a plant. It's in the same family as ginger, but when you cut into the turmeric rhizome it reveals its bright orange flesh, the color of Buddhist's monks robes. It's not often used in its fresh form (at least, here in New England), but rather as a dried powder, which makes up the base of many familiar yellow curries. Just touch a few grains of the spice and instantly your fingers will turn yellow. Turmeric is not really in my comfort zone of cooking—it still feels exotic, but also intriguing, like someone I've just met and want to ask a million questions. "What's it like being part of the Zingiberaceae family? How do you feel about being called 'Indian Saffron?' What's it like to be in a curry blend? How do you like fennel?"

Apr 22, 2013

Shelter with Chives & Tea

I made baked beans last Friday. I'd never made them before, and I didn't realize they took five hours to cook. Traditionally the pilgrims cooked them in pits lined with hot stones on Saturday night so they'd be ready by Sunday, the Sabbath, when one wasn't even supposed to cook because it was considered work.

I'd never made Boston baked beans from scratch before, and I'd also never been told by my city to "shelter in place" because there was a bombing suspect somewhere on the loose. So on a beautiful Friday afternoon in April I stayed (mostly) indoors, listening both to the live-news coverage on TV - Suspect #2 Still at Large - while simultaneously listening to multiple helicopters pass overhead searching for the suspect. At one point a group of about ten men in bullet proof vests gathered outside someone's house on my block. The beans boiled away on the stove, getting soft enough to transfer into a nice cast-iron pot where they would nestle with my "Boston Pride" flavoring agents of beer and black tea. Birds sang in the budding trees, the sun blared, and all my digital devices buzzed and beeped constantly with messages from friends and relatives.

I grieve for those lost and injured in the Monday Marathon bombings, and for the policeman who was shot and killed and the MBTA official who was seriously injured during the Thursday night shoot out. I have taken these events pretty personally, this being the city where I grew up and now live. And, whether or not others grew up here or feel a personal connection to this city, it has been an astounding event to try and process. Will we be all right? I have been thinking to myself constantly. As a city, as a country, as a species: will we be all right?

There has been so much press, so much reporting and journalism following these events as people try to unpack everything, turn it upside down, give new perspective. I am overwhelmed by it. The stories continue to pour out and unfold as the hours go by and the world continues to feel more and more like it's made of paper, so thin and flimsy. I want to shut it off and shut it out, but I can't. It brings me closer to the reality that so many people live every day—those in Syria and Afghanistan, in countries where terrorism and war are a pulsing everyday truth.

So I cook, and it helps soften the edges a little. I didn't have any molasses in the house (a traditional ingredient for Boston baked beans) so I used maple syrup, which is just as delicious. The day before, I had been out in the Jamaica Plain Arnold Arboretum with some friends, and we happened upon some wild chives. Since my friend's dog had just wolf-snatched half of my sandwich out of my hands, I was feeling my survivalist 'hunter-gatherer' instincts kick in. So while everyone walked around admiring the blossoming cherries and magnolias, I smuggled a bag of chives out the gates and later chopped them up and mixed them with Greek yogurt to make a delicious topping for the baked beans.

And since Boston has such a history with tea I decided to use black tea as one of the 'spices' in the beans. The tea added a delicious complexity and depth that surprised and also comforted me. While my friends and I ate the hot-dogs I'd bought that afternoon at CVS alongside the homemade baked beans, we watched the final scene unfold on television. The headline changed from Suspect #2 Still at Large to Suspect #2 Captured.

 There is still a cloud of strangeness over everything, but I know picking wild chives and cooking beans made me feel a little better and made me feel pride for this city. Spring in Boston is always beautiful even as it unfolds in the midst of sordid events. "Have you been crying?" a toll booth operator asked me when I handed him the toll after crossing the Tobin bridge. "No," I told him, then "Yes." He gave me my change and said, "You're going to be all right."

Boston Baked Beans
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Soak overnight or for 3-5 hours:
2 cups dried white beans or navy beans, rinsed and picked-over

Drain and rinse the beans and combine in a greased, heavy pot with:
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup of brewed, strong black tea
1 medium onion, chopped
5 TB maple syrup or molasses
5 TB ketchup
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped salt pork or pork belly

Bake, covered 4-4 1/2 hours. Uncover for the last hour of cooking. Add liquid (chicken stock or tea) during cooking if the beans become dry.

Chive Yogurt

For a tasty condiment for your baked beans (or burger or hot dog or grilled salmon) combine 1/2 cup finely chopped chives with 1 cup Greek yogurt and 1 tsp salt.  

Apr 11, 2013

Chamomile & Spring Fever

Springtime gets me into a frothy state of excitement. I get the urge to run out the door at work and just keep running, down the streets lined with maple trees just budding with red velvet buds, down the streets lined with houses whose snow-matted yards are now sprouting crocus and scilla, down past the supermarket where English peas and artichokes and asparagus have come into season, displayed in heaps of tantalizing green, past the random daffodils blooming beside the bus stop where empty plastic bags billow in the warm wind.
Sometimes, like this past week, I don't have the chance to get this energy out, to go running or frolicking or even fast-walking in the out of doors and so it turns into maddening anxiety that wakes me up in the middle of the night. The frustration of not being able to get outside during this time of year is enough to make me scream, but so long as I can keep cooking and writing and the days keep getting longer, everything will be alright. I am happy to report that the spice I've been meditating on this past week is a calm-inducing spice, more generally known as an herbal tea, called chamomile. It has "anxiolytic" or anti-anxiety properties due to certain compounds contained in the daisy-like flower. And someone like me, with quite a nervous nervous system is glad to discover a tea that soothes the crackling, spring-fever energy.

I'll admit though that this is a challenging flavor to work with. It is sweet but subtle, slightly bitter, and occasionally smelly sock-like. Your best bet is to purchase chamomile from a tea-vendor you trust, or else from a brand of tea you really love. I found a wonderful chamomile to work with that comes from Karnak Farm in Maine, grown by Mark Mooridian, whom many in the Boston area know for founding MEM tea company. Mark's chamomile is delicate and sweet. It reminds me of the way a hayfield smells mid-summer, with the sun drying each strand of hay into a fragrant, golden thread.
I tried to use his chamomile to make a syrup to flavor granola, but that was a fail (you couldn't taste it) so I then proceeded to make a batch of somewhat-successful honey-chamomile caramels. I think the ultimate use of this delicate flower would be in crème caramel or panna cotta - a recipe that offers an opportunity to infuse the milk or cream with the chamomile. I wish I had had the time or ingredients to make that for you here, but alas, I settled with good old candy.

I'm still tweaking the honey chamomile caramel recipe, but if you're curious about caramels (the possibilities are endless!) I suggest using this recipe from America's Test Kitchen.

Mar 31, 2013

Rosemary in Italy

Seeing as it's Easter today I'd like to reminisce about one of the most beautiful Easters I've experienced so far during my time on the planet. I was 18 and working on a farm outside of Siena, Italy, where I was given partial responsibility for a herd of 70 pigs, 2 horses, 1 donkey and a half dozen pure-white heirloom breed cows who loved escaping their pasture to wander the woods like something out of a bucolic oil painting.
I was part of a group of interns who had signed up to work on the farm in exchange for room and board. We all lived in a stone building called "Pulcinella," an Etruscan style building that used to be used as stables but had been converted into living quarters. The stones the building was constructed of made it quite chilly in the evenings, so as spring began to creep in, the stones would warm and, much like the pigs who slept in piles at nighttime to keep warm, we welcomed the temperature shift gladly.

Mar 23, 2013

Comet's Tail Pepper

This spice has me thinking about outer space. And not just because of the word 'comet' although that has something to do with it. Also there was this event yesterday that made the evening news. It's true: our planet is being bombarded by solar objects at all times of day and night, just as I am bombarding you with odd facts about spices.
A comet is a solar system body that has a tail created by solar wind. This pepper has a tail that is the stem of the fruit. It is also commonly called 'Cubeb' pepper after its Latin name Piper cubeba, or Java pepper, for being grown mostly on the island of Java. But the word 'Comet' interestingly comes from the Greek "kometes" which translates to 'long-haired,' so I suppose the logic goes that anything that looks like a head with a ponytail of hair (spice or celestial object) can be called 'Comet.' But unlike the orbiting ball of stars, the spice has a delicious flavor that is quite different from traditional black pepper. Comet's tail has a citrusy, allspice flavor with a hint of pine. It pairs particularly well with lemon.

Mar 15, 2013

A Pair of Leaves

Outside on the porch it's humid and the orchids stare with stalwart pleasure at the cityscape dotted with turquoise gems of swimming pools and the neon glow of bougainvillea-draped massage parlors.

The flavor of kaffir lime leaves brings me to Bangkok, Thailand, where my older brother Colin lives with his wife Anna and their baby, Mirabelle on the eighth floor of a Bangkok apartment building. When I visited them last summer, I discovered that one of my favorite dishes was called tom yum, a hot and sour soup that is common throughout the country, and has such a fresh and uplifting flavor from the crushed lime leaves that I found myself wanting to eat it all the time, even for breakfast, accompanied by a cup of coffee and the happy squeals of my niece.

Even though I'm not presently in Bangkok, I am dreaming of warmer days, dreaming of evenings on the porch after work drinking a big glass of lemongrass iced tea and reading a book. In the interim, I must wait, and cook, and be glad for the tilt of the earth and the sun that breaks through the cold March cloud-cover, and for kaffir lime leaves.

Kaffir lime leaf has the unexpected fragrance of the first days of spring; it has an uplifting freshness, a clean sweetness like the smell of the color chartreuse. A quiet perfume, a limey familiarity, a comforting exoticism—all the things I need to help me wait for the first gorgeous days of summer.

And for some reason, these leaves always come in pairs.

Mar 8, 2013

Shimmering Silver Cardamom

I have had a strange week. No reason for it, but nonetheless out of nowhere I woke up this morning feeling like my life had been reduced to small pieces of paper with indecipherable things written on them. My purse is filled with lipsticks, open bottles of Excedrin Migraine that spill their contents everywhere, bits of chocolate, pens, paperwork and mail including at least ten credit card offers and at least ten receipts scribbled with lists of important things I needed to accomplish, including "bake banana bread."

I'm glad I didn't lose that one receipt with that important to-do item on it, because I must say, despite everything else falling by the wayside, the banana bread turned out very well, and I'd forgotten what a comforting smell it creates while baking.

            But in the meantime, while organizing all my receipts and credit card offers and accomplishing absolutely everything (which is to say, nothing) I also got very involved with cardamom.  
            Falling asleep some nights I brainstorm which spice to dive into next, which rabbit hole to tumble into, indeed like Alice in Wonderland, down down down, curiouser and curiouser, or maybe like Jennifer Connolly in the Labyrinth, when she tumbles into the chute of blue hands that imitate faces and a spooky voice from one of the hand-faces asks her "Which way? Up or down?"
            Choosing the next spice to write about feels like this, like I am making a crucial decision that will alter the rest of my life going forward. 

            A whisper from somewhere, ethereal and ghostly, like the sound of bat wings overhead, or a distant rainstorm beginning, or a musical saw being played in a far off room: Cardamom, cardamom, cardamom.

Mar 2, 2013

Ode to the Orange Blossom

Winter Haven, Florida is home to some of the oldest American orange trees. Winter Hill, Somerville is home to the notorious 'Winter Hill Gang'  of the 1960's.  Each are special in their own way. But so far as I can tell the only thing these two places have in common is the word 'Winter' and the fact that I've spent significant time in both. While I sit writing at my kitchen table next to a jar of dried orange blossoms, I can't help but be flooded with memories of Winter Haven.

Feb 22, 2013

Winter Hibiscus for Meme

My godmother Mary (we called her Meme) lived in Winchester, just north of Boston, and loved plants. I have been inheriting her aloe off-shoots and baby cyclamens for as long as I can remember, but the most recent acquisition this fall was an enormous hibiscus tree her neighbors gave to her and she to me. If it was summer and the giant hibiscus tree was in bloom I could write and tell you I was making hibiscus cake out of my own hand-harvested hibiscus flowers. 

But, it's February and the tree sits dormant in the living room next to the radiator. We wrapped it in twinkly lights for Christmas, the glow of the tiny bulbs on the shiny leaves looking almost like flowers. I look forward to dragging the tree outside come June and seeing if it will bloom. One can dream. 
On New Year's Day this year I visited Longwood Gardens, outside of Philadelphia, PA where I saw an incredible collection of hibiscus plants. Some of the flowers were as big as dinner plates, with colors so vibrant they looked like the surreal blossoms of Munchkin land in the Wizard of Oz. This one I photographed was a perfect example of the magical realism of hibiscus: the petals flopping out from the central calyx like elephant ears, the colors bleeding into one another like paint. 

Feb 15, 2013

Dream of Juniper

This past October I picked my yearly supply of juniper berries from the woods in Maine. It's February now and I've already used up my supply. I suppose I need to start enlisting help with the harvest—a prickly business which involves bending over the low shrubs and tickling the berries off the underside of the spiney branches one or two at a time. You're on board, right? The berries are not berries at all actually but female cones, the soft, fleshy scales wrapped around a tiny seed.

In mid-coast Maine my family has a house and an adjoining field with a small grassy knoll we grew up calling "troll knoll" because of a big tree stump my father had convinced us was inhabited by trolls. It's a sandy bank facing due west, the soil just acidic enough to offer a perfect environment for two plants—blueberry and juniper—whose berries look eerily similar when mature but are unrelated botanically. The wild blueberry belongs to the heath family, the juniper to the cypress, but here on this grassy knoll and here in this buttery scone recipe they belong together. I know it may seem a strange combination, but as Pat reminds us: Don't let the doubts complicate your mind. 

The juniper plant was sacred to the Navajo, who strung the berries like beads and wore the aromatic bracelets to ward off evil spirits. They used them medicinally as well, for diabetes and even contraception, but I prefer the mystical usage, because I suffer from the stress of an overactive dream mind. Juniper may help me dream better, may help cure me of nightmares if I string them above the bed, if I take the midnight cones between my teeth and taste their waxy spheres, their compact flavor of the woods.

Feb 9, 2013


We are far from spring here in Boston—in fact as I write this, a blizzard named "Nemo" has descended on the city, bringing with it a "state of emergency" due to the 28 inches of snow that's been falling. It's been a while since we've had a big storm like this. Everyone keeps talking about the blizzard of '78, the one my oldest brother Colin was born into. A blizzard baby! 

I wonder how many blizzard babies there will be today. I think of my grown-up brother now, with his wife and baby girl living on the opposite side of the planet, in Bangkok, Thailand, where ne'er a blizzard descended, but lots of cilantro grows. For Christmas, Colin gave me this knife, from Thailand, which I used last night to deftly chop up fresh cilantro leaves. I love it. Thank you, brother—I am so glad dad drove mom safely to the hospital in all that snow so she could give birth to you and then later you could move to Thailand and walk down the hot, humid streets to Thai Home Industries to pick out this lovely Christmas present for your little sis.

So i'm in love with a knife. Whatever! It's beautiful and makes me feel more professional than I really am. But the time has come to think about the glorious freshness that coriander brings to the table. Coriander may be one of the few flavorings we use both in leaf and seed form - the only others I can think of are celery and dill. Are there others? 

The herb coriander (what we call 'cilantro' here in the U.S., due to the fact that it's a Spanish word popularized here by Mexican cuisine) is used all over the world, but particularly in SE Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese. It is also a popular fresh flavor in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine. What is a good fresh salsa without cilantro? What about a bowl of Vietnamese pho? Ah, cilantro.

Feb 2, 2013

Hey Little Caraway

I've been waking up at 3:27 AM a lot lately.

Enough to make me wonder what's happening inside my brain at that hour; unfortunately I'm rarely experiencing any great revelations that require a stumbling in the dark to find my notebook and scribble said brilliant idea in a mess of black ink over yellow legal paper. It might simply be the time of night when my sleep eye-mask slips off and the glare from the digital clock and ambient streetlamp light wakes me up. My sleep mask has the word "DIVA" spelled out in rhinestones but I can't say I look like one when I wear it, my hair poofed out on either side of the elastic band securing it to my face. It does help me sleep, however, making everything pitch dark.

Caraway is a diva, even if an obscure one. She is the diva of cabbage and sweet potatoes, pork and pastrami, Irish soda bread and the infamous rye. When I take a whiff of caraway seeds I see and taste rye bread. Would rye bread even be rye bread without caraway? Not to me. I smell caraway and I see a Jewish deli, and I'm ordering a Ruben sandwich. It's strange and yet so obvious that smells get attached to images—feelings—all of our senses. I want to understand this better, the power of associations, because it's what helps make spices come alive.