Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pasta is Love

I love food, as we know. But if I had to name one just one dish that equated love to me? It would not, shockingly, be barbecue. Barbecue might be termed "heart," or certainly, "home," but not "love." Love, to me, is pasta. It always has been, and I imagine it always will be.

I have loads of pasta recipes. I have the pasta equivalent of a marriage proposal, of putting all your cards on the table: a three-page lasagna recipe that uses a different scrumptious sauce for each layer. It takes all day to make, and it will get any romantic job done. I have the sexy date at home dish: a red-hot vodka sauce that sears and soothes in equal measure. I have the first dish I ever made that snapped T's head around and left him begging for more: an earthy, spicy sauceless pasta with sausage, spinach, and crunchy breadcrumbs.

What I also have, though, are simple, steadfast dishes that please year in, year out, day after day, no matter the company. They're not special occasion dishes. They're everyday dishes that aren't made to impress, but to nourish and to share and to quietly delight instead. They're simple love, these dishes... which is so often the best kind.

Here, then, are two of my favorite everyday pasta dishes, and I'm finally including the recipes here, because, well... that's what one's supposed to do with love. Spread it.

Tangy, light, and cooling... made for warm-weather potlucks and leftover lunches.

  • 1 pound orzo
  • 1 container cherry tomatoes
  • 1 6-oz package crumbled feta
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh basil (or other herb)
  • 1/2-1 cup champagne vinaigrette
Bring salted water to boil in large heavy saucepan. Add orzo and boil until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Transfer to large wide bowl, tossing frequently until cool. Mix tomatoes, feta, and herbs into orzo. Add vinaigrette; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.
    Champagne Vinaigrette
    • 1/4 cup champagne vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    • 1 teaspoon honey
    • 1/2 cup olive oil
    Whisk vinegar, lemon juice, and honey in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season vinaigrette with salt and pepper.

    Adapted from Ruth Reichl ... and as tailor-made for man-friendly (and kid, I'm sure!) weeknight salvation as she advertises. I love eating leftovers cold for lunch. 

    • 1 pound spaghetti
    • 1/4 to 1/2 pound good bacon
    • 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled
    • 3 large eggs
    • Black pepper
    • 1/2 cup grated Parm (plus more for the table)
    • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook spaghetti. While the spaghetti is cooking, cut the bacon crosswise into small pieces. Put them in a skillet and cook for 2 minutes, until fat begins to render. Add the whole cloves of garlic and cook another 5 minutes, until the edges of the bacon begin to get crisp. Don't overcook, because if there's too much crispiness the bacon won't meld with the pasta.
    • Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl you will serve the pasta in and beat with a fork. Grind in some fresh pepper.
    • Remove the garlic from the bacon pan. If it looks like too much fat to you, discard some, but be judicious - you want to toss the bacon with most of its fat into the pasta. If this bothers you, this isn't the right dish for you.
    • Drain the cooked pasta and immediately put it into the beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly. The heat of the spaghetti will cook the eggs and turn them into a sauce. Add the bacon with its fat, toss again, add cheese, and serve.

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    Good places for us all

    My favorite anything - book, movie, memory, story told over drinks - revolves around the search for oneself through a place-based journey. Give me a vista of open road on the screen, and you have me. Begin your narrative with a quest for home, in all its definitions, and I am yours. I believe in the power of places, the thread of history that channels us into what's next, and the kind of roots that grow because of our choices rather than where we were born. Some of this is why I stumbled into the field of planning the way that I did. I was writing about the power of place and feeling increasingly powerless in how such places are shaped. The fact that I now help shape places and miss simply writing about them is something you can take or leave in this discussion.

    One of my favorite books about the quest for oneself on the open road is Blue Highways, one man's rambling journey over state highways that begins as a search for answers on the day he loses his job and is left by his wife. Traveling these small roads, our hero sees America on the cusp of change, in the moment before far too many of the diners, Main Streets, fishing docks, and farms he visits are ravaged by Wal-Marts and condominiums. The trajectory of one man's life turning itself over along with the American landscape is poignant, achingly funny, and true.

    The Cornbread Nation series takes up my love for place-based narrative, and does so through the stomach. We accept rival brothers and their competing barbecue sauce brands as a metaphor for modern race relations in the South. We marvel at poetry that cuts to the heart of ancestral traditions through smoke and fire. We see direct linkages to Africa through the humblest and proudest pots of greens. In these essays, food is elevated to the common language and living history that it should always be.

    I'm thinking about Blue Highways and Cornbread Nation today because two friends are going through their own placed-based journeys, and they're doing so in ways that allow us to tag along.

    First, my friend Jessie has written a beautiful post about leaving New Mexico in two months and moving back to Asheville, NC, after a decade away from the mountains and hills and streams of her youth. As you know, I left New Mexico, too. As you know, I still carry it around with me everywhere, and always will. Knowing Jessie, I know how the eastern mountains have called her home, even as she's made an indelible mark on the high desert mountains of the West. I know what a big move this is for her, and I'm as thrilled for her as I am full of support for what will be a truly bittersweet departure. Is there anything tougher than leaving a place you love, even if it's to go to a place your heart knows you need to be? I'm not sure, but I'm so happy for her that she's following her heart across I-40.

    With Jessie in Albuquerque, 2006

    The second journey that's speaking to me these days comes from T's stepbrother Joe, whom you've met in my tales of Prague. (I wasn't lying when I told you I'd be recounting our trip sporadically, as you've noticed... the rest - the beer! - will come in time. Maybe soon-ish, now that I think about it.) Upon his stateside return after the family wedding, Joe took off on a meandering American tour to figure out, among other trivial matters, what he wants to do next with his life, and where he wants to do it. This sort of journey naturally puts everything he's doing right now at the top of my personal Stepbrother Gold highlight reel, it's so my kinda thing. Joe's been writing letters from his travels, and I think you should all read them. They're funny and perceptive and smart and they make me hungry. Go savor Barbecued Love Letters... you won't be sorry.

    Under Prague's Spell with T and J, May 2010

    Speaking of places and occasions (in the roundabout way I'm feeling this morning), this blog turns a year old next week. Last July, I started this little journal to have a place of my own on the Web, one where I could be silly, serious, saccharine, and sarcastic in turn. It's been good for me, and a week from today, I'm hosting a little birthday giveaway to mark the occasion. Stay tuned for the chance to win a gift that's pretty and place-based in turn. (Hint: you might want to start thinking about your favorite places if you want a chance at winning.)

    Off I go... back to work shaping places. Or wishing I was just writing them, as it were.

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    14th and U Farmers Market

    Ahhh... weekend, I love you. Before the beers and boos of the US World Cup game on Saturday, we visited our neighborhood farmers market and loaded down with goodness: fruit, vegetables, meat, herbs, baked goods, jam, and eggs. Food for the week, and all of it purchased directly from the farmers who grow it. Nothing feels better than buying from the right kinds of people. Also worth noting: gorgeous food.

    The farmers markets in DC have been one of the most enjoyable upgrades from Dallas for me. The Dallas Farmers Market, while in a great location, is stocked primarily by produce distributors. Finding produce that's both local and organic is next to impossible. By contrast, nearly every neighborhood in Washington, DC boasts its own market, and most of the food is pesticide-free in addition to being local. This map hints at the quantity of markets in the District, but I know there are more, as our neighborhood market isn't even listed. PSA: Local Harvest is a great resource to find out about farmers markets, CSAs, and more in your area if you don't know where to start.

    A day later, we ended up hitting up Eastern Market, too - resisting those peaches is next to impossible. I actually documented my day yesterday for a forthcoming series over on EADL called "Day in the Life." Those peaches and more, coming in time. But for now, just a hint of the scene on our patio last night. Can you feel that breeze high above the sweltering 100-degree sidewalks?

    Tell me: what's your favorite farmers market? What did you find there over the weekend?

    Friday, June 25, 2010

    Friday I'm in Love

    Here's what I'll be doing this weekend:


    I'm pretty thrilled about this. We haven't been home together a single weekend this month. I think we've had maybe two weekends here since our European vacation, so having a whole lotta nothing on tap feels pretty glorious. As for those drinks you see, mine is the g&t in the highball: Hendricks gin, cucumber slices, tonic, and basil from the garden. T's is the double old fashioned with rum, simple syrup, and mint from the garden. It's going to be 100 again on Saturday, so I expect we'll be needing plenty more of these.

    But before we get to the weekend, we have Friday, and as such, here are three things that caught my eye this week, funny and poignant and okay, poignant again, in turn.

    What People Waiting in Line for an iPhone Can Learn From Twilight Fans

    Oh, how this makes me giggle. Favorites: "This is going to take awhile, so maybe you should put a few posters up and such" and "Sorry Apple addicts, when it comes to waiting in line, you are getting schooled—by a bunch of girls!"

    Time Wastes Too Fast 

    In college when I had writer's block, I would watch Ken Burns' Thomas Jefferson until I was inspired. It never took long. Monticello is one of my favorite places on the planet - my dad and I nerded out there together too long ago; it's time to go back. We had a TJ table at our wedding, where I seated my siblings. My Jefferson thing is... complicated. I like brilliant people with incredibly varied interests and talents who do great things, yes. But my favorite characters are always the most contradictory ones, the ones full of paradox, the ones battling demons. This piece from the Times, "Time Wastes Too Fast," filled me again with wonder at this man and all the reasons I love being a Jefferson freak. That I can be inspired again and again, swept away still after all these years of paying attention, is exactly why Jefferson will always be among my biggest crushes, with all the trouble and contradiction that it might (and does) bring. (Hat tip: Lauren Airey)

    Same Hill, Different Day

    A couple of years ago at the New York Public Library, T and I came across a photo exhibit by someone who'd taken a photo out of their apartment window every day for years. The Twin Towers were in their personal skyline. One day the view was dark and fiery. The next it contained a hole. Hundreds of shots of that view, all lined up along a wall. This project - far removed from a window in the middle of the concrete jungle - reminds me of why I liked that one so much. Outside of the tragedy that was captured, there's the quiet routine of everyday people, the gentle coming and going of seasons, the humanity unfolding relentlessly, every single day, with all that it brings. Back then, a skyline with a missing tooth. This time, a simple hill and the people who visit it. "Same Hill, Different Day," by Paul Octavious, via Little Garden.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010

    Heat? What heat?

    Although we don't want to live in a modern high-rise forever, I can say with certainty that the best thing about having my patio garden way up in the sky is that I can avoid the nasty summer weather down below. When I walk out there to water every morning, it's downright pleasant outside, even if the sweaty pedestrians eight floors down are battling heat in the upper 90s with humidity to match. The breeze, the views, the smells... June in DC on my patio is heavenly! Working from home doesn't really help my state of oblivion, I must admit. Yesterday I was absolutely convinced it was gorgeous out until I met T for drinks and the Nats game after work. It was awful down there. But up here on my happy little perch, life is pretty dang good... even in the heat of a DC summer.

    So how about a garden update?

    Gorgeous summer color

    Barbara's Gardenia in full bloom! The smell is heavenly.

    Mojitos, anyone?

    Lantana is such a happy-go-lucky flower to me... mellow and unassumingly gorgeous

    This basil plant is two feet tall - good thing it's my favorite herb (good thing also that I have four of them)

    The newest dahlias. Isn't this peach color heavenly?

    My oregano started flowering, which isn't great for the herbs... but the flowers make great rustic bouquets for bud vases. 

    I spy tomatoes!

    Finally, our patio mascot, little Fanny (whose name my grandma just approved of: "that's a good 'ol farm name"). It's such a battle getting her back inside every day. I swear she'd just live out there if she could, comfy laps and air-conditioned perches be damned.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010

    Head in the sand

    Here's where my head's still at:

    If you were wondering if I'm immature enough to get in a big funk after leaving the beach, you would be.... correct! Luckily, I do have some interesting things going on this week to keep my head out of the proverbial Outer Banks sand too much. And better yet, I'm heading back in a month, so I really can't feel all that sorry for myself, even though it's my instinct. But oh, being able to drive to the Outer Banks! I love love love living in the Mid-Atlantic again. On to happy little shout-outs:

    Happy 80th birthday to my Grandma Jessie Mae!

    Happy cheers also to my super-cool cousins... naps on the beach...

    ... to ridiculously adorable nephews (who had to count double since my ridiculously adorable niece was absent, giving her parents a much-deserved vacation by themselves) ...

    ... to a great brother and sister and associated SOs and parents who escaped my camera, so please enjoy another scenic beach shot instead...

    ... to T previewing his "hot dad" beach potential...

    ... to so much laughing, over group Ped Egg sessions, over a certain someone's lack of an engagement ring, over my brother's poor busted-up knee, over my mom's famous showdowns, over my dad's hobo jeans, over creepy family matchiness, and more. See you again soon, beach family!

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    Friday I'm in Love: Beach-bound edition

    Man, what a killer week! Work is not my friend right now. But on the bright side, if I can get through today I get to put it all behind me for a spell. We're off to "the country" tomorrow (as we always called it growing up) to celebrate my Grandma Jessie Mae's 80th birthday, and then heading over to the Outer Banks for a couple of days with the fam. T and I haven't been there since this whole thing went down, so it'll be fun to return to my favorite place without having to frantically assemble 100+ welcome bags before I can enjoy it. One of my favorite quotes is in my head today, tired and still under the weather as I am: "The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." Isak Dinesen has it right. So on that note, my sea-themed picks for the week:

    Beach Countdown
    (okay, not exactly sea-themed)

    There was some truly great web amusement this week to count down the hours until my toes hit the sand. First, I can't even tell you how many times I watched this amazing dancing baby yesterday instead of crying about the gargantuan spreadsheet that was swallowing my soul. This baby can move! On another note, this website provided so much amusement for me during yesterday afternoon's infuriating "I'd like to apologize to BP" moment from the esteemed Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX, of course). Go play "Joe Barton would like to apologize," and see what you find! My favorite: "Joe Barton would like to apologize to King George III, for dumping all your tea in the ocean. That probably made it *way* too salty. Our bad."

    Beach Blanket 

    I spotted these perfect beach blankets on Frolic and was instantly smitten. They just scream sand-sprinkled, salt-tinged, effortless ease to me. They also make me smile about two of my favorite effortlessly easy beach side effects: beach "pedicures" (I've lazily avoided shelling out $$$ for weeks now knowing that free smooth feet were on the way) and beach hair (curls galore, so kinky and full I don't even bother washing it when I'm seaside). Bring. It. On!

    Beach Music

    While we're at it, how about a soundtrack? This song played on our wedding website for all of 2009, and hearing it makes me, you got it, so very happy. I'd also like to point out that I've come a long way from my beach music of years past (mopey teenage music fans unite!). I mean, I'll light a mental candle for The Cure this weekend during an especially poetic crashing wave and all, but in general, I'd prefer Alton Ellis to actually come of out of the speakers on this particular trip. Ahh, the things age does to you...

    Have a very happy weekend, everyone - here's hoping we can all find a little serenity, whether we're seaside or not!

    Thursday, June 17, 2010

    Absolving my guilt, one gardenia blossom at a time

    So my family has this nice tradition of planting things in honor of loved ones who've passed away. My mom's yard and grandparents' farm are full of them. This kind of symbolism really speaks to me ... where someone once lived, something else can live on in their honor. Touching and symbolic and loving and productive all at once. However, there's a big 'what if' involved with the decision to plant something in honor of a person.

    What if you can't keep your honorary plant alive?!?!

    As you've probably gathered by now, I've found myself in a bit of a predicament the past few months regarding a gardenia bush in my patio garden. Gardenias are one of my absolute favorite flowers, and I thought it'd be a beautiful choice to honor T's grandmother Barbara, who passed away a few months ago. It's a dwarf gardenia, actually - remember I'm doing container gardening out there, so it fits the setting. Here's the gardenia in the early days of the garden, in the lower right:

    This plant was... troubled, from the start, really. The wind kept mangling it, and it didn't seem to get enough water no matter how often I watered it. For weeks, I was calling my mom in a panic about Barbara's gardenia dying.

    And in a way, it's funny, right? A plant has a simple job, and you've given that simple job a lot of importance, so why the hell can't it buck up and do what it's supposed to do since it is living for someone else and all? But nooooo, the plant wants to make life difficult, and by taking its time to consider whether or not it will save your ass when you've already gone ahead and told everyone that it's Barbara's gardenia, it is pissing you the hell off. Which probably isn't the best way to nurture a plant to blossom, but whatever.

    So when the Plant Whisperer arrived a couple of weeks ago, her priority was to mix some color into my herb and veggie bonanza, but my priority was for her to give the gardenia a thorough checkup. By that time, it had grown (although it's still comically misshapen) and had hard buds, but no blossoms. Of course, my mom and I both knew that her own huge gardenia bushes had been filling the air with their gorgeous scent for weeks now. My mom pronounced the plant in fair condition, and decided it might just need more room, so we switched it out for a bigger pot. Nothing really seemed different, though - the plant had done nothing for months, and my hopes were pretty dim.

    Imagine me pre-coffee and pre-meds this morning (which means bleary-eyed, coughing, and sniffling), holding the watering can out on my patio and spilling some of the water while I sneezed. Post-sneeze, I open my eyes, dodge a cat jumping at a butterfly, and wonder if I am hallucinating. Because.... those aren't.... BLOSSOMS?!

    Barbara's gardenia is alive and blooming?!

     It is!

    So I'm thrilled over here, even more so because the plant is now covered in soft buds ready to open. And whew, I'm no longer accidentally cursing out of negligence a wonderful woman I wish I'd had more time with, nor am I a cursed granddaughter-in-law because of it. My relief is palpable. No more guilt, no more furious dwarf gardenia googling, no more desperate calls to the Plant Whisperer.

    And one day soon, when my head isn't full of slime, I might even be able to smell these wondrous flowers!

    Live on, Bar. And to the rest of you, please don't do this to yourself.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Dreaming of Rialto

    I am drowning in ear/nose/throat gunk this week, which T was carrying around last week and some other lucky person shall receive from me next week, I suppose. Powering through has involved lots of meds, lots of water, and this soup, which somehow I can taste even though I can't really smell anything. I've made two huge batches of this soup is three weeks, that's how much I love it ... and it won a seal of approval from my parents, so I'm not alone in singing its praises.

    In my current state of sensory deprivation, I keep thinking back to my meal last Friday with T and my college pal Nancy. Dinner was in Cambridge at Rialto, which somehow wasn't on my radar in my six years as a Boston resident aka broke college student/recent college grad. I fell in love with Rialto's chef/owner Jody Adams on Top Chef Masters this year, a season in which I otherwise snoozed my way through. As soon as our trip to Boston was finalized, I made sure our Friday night was free to get to know Jody a little better. 

    Being starstruck happened much sooner than I expected. While we were waiting for Nance at the bar, I spotted Jody Adams sitting right in front of us watching the Sox game and drinking a glass of wine. I might have done some major fangirl tweeting...

    ...but I couldn't bring myself to go over and say hi. I'm bad in these moments, or perhaps overly respectful, because I always imagine myself on the other side of the squealing introduction and feel annoyed for the person I'd love to meet. It's always been that way for me. And so I just watched her stalker-like instead. LAME.

    At any rate, the three of us made our way to dinner and dove into the menu. I think I'd need to go back five times before the menu changed just to taste everything I wanted to taste. True to reputation, the food was regional Italian tinged with the freshness of New England farms and the sea. Stunning food, served in a spectacular avocado and salmon-colored restaurant. I didn't take a single picture of our food because we were too busy enjoying the hell out of it, and I'll take that over the distance required to photograph it any day.

    Now, the food. I had the most amazing fisherman's soup, not chunky and full of fish as I'd expected, but instead reduced to a rich broth and served with small toasts. Next up for me was a salted cod gnocchi, which will go down as one of the most memorable dishes I've ever had. The salt of the fish played off the dough fantastically, and was served on a bed of sweet roasted tomatoes and eggplant, peppered with briny capers that played off the fish wonderfully. T had local littleneck clams served right on the rack used for roasting, and then a truly delicious duck that left my mouth watering for a glass of red wine. N had a gorgeous medley of spring vegetables followed up by a beautiful whole-roasted fish with a really yummy aroma. We were too full for dessert. But oh, to try that pistachio olive oil cake!

    Gorgeous food, gorgeous space, gorgeous woman! (Biggest fangirl moment: "She's so pretty!")

    Times like these, when tasting anything at all is an achievement, remembering meals like this one offer the best kind of respite from interior gunk and sinus pain. And now, to get well again and go back as soon as humanely possible!

    Go to Rialto if you're in the Boston area. And go read Jody's blog ... I discovered it today and am (of course) entirely smitten.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Urban Garden II: Now with color!

    Hello gorgeous dahlia! I remember planting you as a bulb, wondering if you would ever really transform from a strange clump of root into one of my favorite flowers. And now here you are, two feet tall and bursting open to the sun. Welcome to you and your little neighbor opening up in the next bed!

    The garden has been such a delight for me the past few months. It's so nice to start the morning out there, watering and taking in the city waking up below me. In the beginning I was all foodfoodfood, but since the Plant Whisperer's visit, I've really fallen for all these flowers she convinced me I needed. There is still plenty to munch on, though: herbs galore, shallots getting closer to harvesting all the time, new tomatoes and peppers making their way... just stepping out there makes me really happy.

    The cats can't help but fall asleep, their view is so relaxing... (please note I have permanently ceded control of this furniture piece to Fanny, who loves to perch up there).

    And now for some oohing and aahing...

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