How To Human: Roasted Kumquats With Homemade Ricotta And Fresh Basil On Toast

I may have eaten twelve of these.

Look, I know you’re busy.

You have places to go, people to see, and lots of stuff to do.

That’s cool.

But can you stop for just one minute? Maybe two, if you read slowly?

I just saw this on the interwebs, Purveyor of Many Things Great and Terrible, and I feel like maybe you (yes, YOU), need to read this today.

You will, of course, need a snack.

It is, as you may realize, the tail end of citrus season. When I was growing up, my parents would ship my brother and I off, solo, to family in Miami over the holidays. We would leave a cold, sleety, dark place and be discharged from an airplane into balmy, breezy air and a week of (often) unchaperoned adventures in either my grandparents’ development or my cousin’s apartment complex.

There was a kumquat tree in the front yard of my grandmother’s house.

Kumquats. Even the name is exotic and unusual and complex and way sunnier than this past week has been, and I’m not just talking about the weather.

They are the strangest citrus; you eat the whole thing. Nearly every website that talks about kumquats has a click-baity title like “The one astonishing thing about kumquats,” or “The strangely counterintuitive thing to do with kumquats,” as if kumquats are somehow built into our intuition about things in general.

But I digress.

Kumquats start out mouth-puckeringly tart, with less bitterness in the peel and pith (sweetness, even), and end up with a marvelous caramelly sweetness that spreads over your tongue and completely erases the initial tart flavor. even slightly unripe or slightly over-ripe the process of flavor is pretty much the same, with minor variations in intensity.

I don’t know that we gorged ourselves on these, but I do remember eating my fill whenever I felt like it, or just mindlessly reaching up and grabbing one as I passed by the tree. Kumquats were as much a part of my childhood as any other memory I have that was good and innocent and as sweet and beautiful as the nighttime Miami breeze on my bare shoulders in December, a thousand miles away from home.

I saw kumquats again in the grocery store this week and finally grabbed a few after years of passing them by. As my birthday fell on the snow day, and I happened to have the will, the time, and the ingredients, this lovely concoction came about and emerged, damn near perfect, on the very first try. So simple and complex and utterly delicious.

Today’s assigned reading is below the recipe. For those of you in tl;dr mode, there will not be a test on the reading, and maybe you don’t want to hear some of what I have to say (beyond the food). So if you take it upon yourself to skip the reading and just make the snack, that’s cool.

I know you’re busy.

Honey-Roasted Kumquats With Homemade Ricotta on Gluten-Free Whole-Grain Bread

Note: Hell, YES, I made all of this. Not. Hard. Full disclosure: I was trying to just link to the bread recipe from America’s Test Kitchen How Can It Be Gluten-Free cookbook, but it’s not published online. Which sucks, because now, just for you, I have typed it all out. This took awhile. If you are gluten-free, you can send your appreciation in the form of good old American dollars because it was a royal PITA. If you are not gluten-free, you can skip the recipe and use any old crusty bread you like.

Unlike other recipes on this blog, each component is written out completely, and they are organized in the order in which they should be made.

Ingredients

GF-Whole Grain Bread (this takes awhile, so maybe start here)

1 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees)

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

11 1/2 ounces (2 1/3 cups, plus 1/4 cup) gluten-free all-purpose flour (I used my own flour blend, but see recipe notes)

4 ounces (3/4 cup) Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal

1 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) nonfat dry milk powder (in the baking aisle)

3 tablespoons powdered psyllium husk

1 tablespoon instant or rapid-rise yeast

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Optional: 2 tablespoons unsalted sunflower seeds

Method

  1. Spray 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ (or 8″ x 4″) loaf pan with cooking spray. Tear off a sheet of aluminum foil that will fit around the loaf pan. Fold it so it is double, lengthwise, then forma  collar around the top of the loaf pan so that a double thickness of aluminum foil rises at least one inch above the top of the loaf pan. Staple to keep collar in place and set aside.
  2. Whisk water, eggs, oil, and honey together in a bowl.
  3. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix flour, hot cereal mix, milk powder, psyllium, yeast, baking powder, and salt until combined.
  4. Slowly add water and mix on low until dough comes together, about one minute. Increase speed to medium and beat until sticky and uniform, about six minutes. If using sunflower seeds, reduce speed to low and add them now, mixing until combined.
  5. Scrape dough into prepared pan and use wet fingertips to smooth dough into pan. Smooth the top of dough and spray with water. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rise at least 90 minutes in a warm, non-drafty place.
  6. Adjust rack in oven to middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove plastic wrap and spray loaf with water. Bake until top is golden brown, crust is firm, and sounds hollow when tapped (Side Note: I cannot tell when bread is done by tapping it. If you can, more power to you. But that’s the direction America’s Test Kitchen gives, so I am reporting for you. #YoureWelcome), about 1 1/2 hours, rotating pan halfway through (Side Note the Second: I forgot to rotate. Bread still fabulous.).
  7. Transfer to wire rack and let cool in pan for ten minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely for another two hours.
  8. Bread can be double-wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for 3 days, or you can slice it all up, wrap in plastic and store in a freezer bag in the freezer.

Recipe Notes

  • Flour substitutions America’s Test Kitchen recommends (but that I did not test myself) include King Arthur’s Gluten-Free Multi-Purpose Flour and Bob’s Red Mill GF All-Purpose Baking Flour, but King Arthur’s makes the crumb of the bread denser and Bob’s Red Mill is drier with a bean taste. Seriously, people. Just send me a note on the Let Me Cook For You page and I will give you a price for some of my flour.
  • Please, if you are a gluten-free baker, buy a scale. The best $20 you’ll spend.

Homemade Ricotta

1 cup whole milk (see Recipe Notes)

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons champagne vinegar (or any white vinegar)

Method

Bring milk, heavy cream, and salt to a rolling boil. Remove from heat and stir in vinegar. Let sit until it begins to curdle, about 2 minutes, then pour into a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Strain at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. For thicker cheese, twist the cheesecloth into a tight ball to get even more water out.

Recipe Notes

  • Milk can be pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. Ultra-pasteurized milk doesn’t work. #AskMeHowIKnow
  • You can discard the whey (the liquid that drains from the solid ricotta), use it to bake bread with, or give it to your dogs or chickens.

Honey-Roasted Kumquats

Kumquats, sliced in 1/4″ rounds, seeds removed (see Recipe Notes)

4 tablespoons champagne vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

Method

Slice kumquats and place in a bowl with vinegar and honey. Macerate for at least 30 minutes and up to four hours.

When you are ready to eat, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray.

Place kumquats on cooking spray and roast for about 20 minutes until honey begins to caramelize. I didn’t flip them over, but I suppose you could if you like.

Recipe Notes

  • I used  kumquats that are approximately the size of a ping-pong ball if that ping-pong ball was more of an oval. There are also smaller varieties with different variations of flavor. For this, I used about six kumquats, but honestly? I could have eaten eleventy million more. So there’s that.

ASSEMBLY

You need bread, ricotta, kumquats, fresh basil, freshly cracked black pepper, and maybe honey and fleur de sel.

Slice bread and toast lightly.

Slather ricotta on toast.

Place fresh basil leaves on ricotta, then top with roasted kumquats. Add a few grinds of freshly cracked black pepper, and if you want a little more sweetness, just a wee drizzle of honey and a flake or two of salt.

Assemble your toasts, have a seat, and get to reading.

RULES FOR BEING HUMAN

1. You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it will be yours for the entire period.

2. You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full-time informal school, called life. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant or stupid.

3. There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error – experimentation. The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”

4. A lesson is repeated until learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

5. Learning lessons does not end. There is no part of life that does not contain its lessons. If you are alive, there are lessons to be learned.

6. “There” is no better than “Here”. When your “There” has become a “Here”, you will simply obtain another “There” that will, again, look better than “Here.”

7. Others are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects something you love or hate about yourself.

8. What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.

9. Your answer to life’s questions lie inside you. All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.

10. You will forget all this.

11. You can remember it whenever you want to.

These are not my rules; I am just reporting on them. What would you add?

Reading Snacks – Warm Olives With Lemon And Rosemary

Warm olives = heaven.

Until this recent political debacle, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading.

Growing up, I was a voracious reader of all types of printed materials – comics, cereal boxes, advertisements, poetry, novels – whatever was available. I read myself sick in the car and nearly blind in the dim light of the evening when I should have been sleeping (true story. I have been wearing glasses since second grade, with seriously and rapidly deteriorating eyesight in the years that followed. As I enter my dotage – mid-40s – insult has been unceremoniously added to injury in the form of readers, a new necessity for reading. But I digress).

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon was in the stacks of Wonder Books, a small used bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. My brother, father, and I would spend Sunday afternoons reading in our separate corners among the dusty comics and paperbacks. Sometimes we’d buy one; sometimes we would just read there and go home empty-handed. I imagine this was a break for my mom, but I can vividly recall the warmth and comfort of those days spent hunched in the aisle, reading. When it came time to apply for my first job, that’s where I went (only it was Wonder Book and Video by then).

I like the smell and feel of a book, new or used, in my hands. Recognizing that it’s difficult to travel light with a  library of well over 2,000 books, I attempted to use a digital book for a time but quickly abandoned that. There is no sensory beauty for me in a digital book.

When Dane died in 2013, a switch flipped, and I found no comfort in books. I quickly realized that fiction was dead to me in many ways (with notable exceptions made for my favorite author, TC Boyle, and a new favorite, Jhumpa Lahiri); there was nothing that seemed to hold my attention. Magazines were okay, but they were quickly read and then just became dust-catchers.

The Facebook stepped in to fill the void.

For several years now, I have been ritually (compulsively?) reading Facebook, many times a day. What started as an interesting place to catch up with people and see pictures of family or look at cat videos quickly became fraught with arguments. I whittled my friends and family down, blocking or unfriending those who were racist, xenophobic, or homophobic. I saw Facebook as the digital equivalent of going out for coffee with a friend, and who wants to spend that time deflecting racial slurs and arguing about immigration? Not me.

But I have noticed something in the past few years. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have become more of an addiction than a minor passing interesting that I can dip in and out of. When I felt lonely or needed a connection, I spent more time online, which seems to be the story of most everyone’s life these days.

In addition, the pace of news delivered through these sites has become so frenetic that a person can hear about events nearly the instant they happen (or instantly, as with live-streaming Facebook video that has captured everything from birth to beatings to suicide, all in front of unsuspecting viewers who maybe just logged on to see a cat in a shark costume on a Roomba.).

The past 18 months in politics have been particularly brutal. The depth of ignorance and hate being spewed and the constant hammering of executive orders that seemed aimed at delivering us back to Nazi Germany has been overwhelming to me. My anxiety, already challenging during this particular time of year, has been through the roof.

Even the dog is having anxiety attacks, and he is medicated (and to be honest, which I always try to be, as am I at times. It has not helped).

So two days ago I did the logical thing: I pulled the plug on Facebook.

I didn’t give up my Charm City Edibles page (go join! It’s awesome!), and I am still on Instagram, which seems much more innocuous and for me features only food and the occasional travel picture, but I have completely checked out of Facebook for the near future.

I have also stopped listening to NPR and watching news. In essence, I have imposed upon myself a near-total media blackout.

Yes, news still trickles in, but it’s a trickle instead of drinking from a firehose.

This media blackout has left me with considerable free time, time I have begun to fill with books. In January I read seven books, and three days into February I am finishing up my first book, with one on the way in the mail and two more on hold at the library.

I have spent long, leisurely afternoons on the couch, listening to the wind howl outside my window and the dogs snoring on the floor beside me as I read.

I have stuck mainly to non-fiction trending towards cookbooks and food writing, but at the library a copy of The Tin Drum and The Yearling are waiting for me.

Maybe it’s the slower pace of reading and allowing myself to settle in for a few hours instead of reading in 140 characters or skimming the first sentence of a TL:DR article on The Facebook. Maybe it’s the fact that I am not constantly reminded of how badly we are fucking up this country right now and how powerless it seems we are to stop it.

Whatever it is, it’s lovely. It’s lovely to come back to the sensual pleasures of language and reading and cozy blankets and sleeping dogs and maybe a nap that happens later in the afternoon.

Or quite possibly it’s the snacks.

Reading requires a beverage and a snack; it’s very easy to get hungry and dehydrated doing nothing. #GiveItATry #YoullLoveIt

I could eat my weight in salt and vinegar potato chips and chocolate candy, but those snacks when combined with lounging are not conducive to overall good health. So moderation is required, and this means something nibbly but not too much of any one thing – nothing too sweet, too fatty, too salty, etc.

These olives are perfect for that. They don’t directly fulfill a sweet-tooth craving, but the lingering lemon and rosemary somehow seem to attend to it enough so that more snacks aren’t necessary.

You also need a snack that doesn’t require utensils. This fits that bill neatly as well.

I use the rosemary that continues to cling to life in a pot on my back porch (so luxurious!) and organic lemon.

Warm Olives With Rosemary And Lemon

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 six- to eight-ounce jar of mixed olives in brine, drained

1 teaspoon minced garlic

zest from one lemon

1 or 3 sprigs of rosemary

Freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Optional: red pepper flakes

Method

Heat olive oil gently over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for a couple minutes until it releases its fragrance. Add the lemon and rosemary and cook for about 30 seconds, keeping the heat medium-low and stirring as you cook.

Add the olives and cook until warmed through (not hot). Remove from heat and add freshly ground black pepper to taste. For a little heat, add some red pepper flakes.

Recipe notes:

  • Pitted olives are easiest, but feel free to use whichever olives you prefer.
  • I love rosemary and like to cook it a little bit longer to release its flavor, but this is a personal preference.
  • You could also use orange zest to add a touch more sweetness.

What are your favorite reading snacks?

 

How To Care For Others: Biscotti And Golden Milk

On my 30th birthday, my father asked me to shave his head.

He had just started a round of chemo and was beginning to lose his hair, fine tufts of fine hair that were beginning to come out in clumps and clog the drain. He figured he would head the eventuality of baldness off at the pass and just shave his head to see what kind of egg he would be dealing with.

He carried the stool out to my parent’s deck in Peachtree City, Georgia. They lived at the very back of a wooded cul-de-sac, cut through with golf cart paths. It was March, and fairly warm. He had already sharpened and oiled the clippers and draped an old towel over his clothes.

He turned around to look expectantly at me as he walked through the screen door.

I told him no. I couldn’t do it.

So now, instead of my 30th birthday being the day that I shaved my father’s head, it’s the day I refused to shave his head. I can still see my stricken look reflected in his eyes. He was trying to make the best of a situation, and I was not quite able to ride shotgun for that.

For many people around me, the holidays seem like that this year. Like me with my dad and his shaved head, many people are trying to be cheery and go along for the ride, but cannot quite get there. Behind their eyes I can see the despair and anguish and quick darting glances, looking for an escape hatch. Literally. They have in their looks the knowing of a deeper, harder, longer road ahead, no matter how sparkly the tinsel or bright the lights.

All things being equal, and with my personal year of hell and death in 2013 being the high bar for awful, this year has not been terrible for me. I fell in love, worked hard enough and saved enough pennies to send my kid to France, and started a new business cooking for people. I have had a couple parties with really wonderful people, and I will ring in the new year with one of my oldest friends and his wonderful wife and kid(s). On an individual level, things have been okay.

Nationally and internationally, the world is folding in on itself. Implosion isn’t the right word for this descent into hell that humanity is experiencing. Hate crimes, genocide. Violence and fear.

Things feel desperate and washed out at the same time. If the water is rising but there are no boats and you can’t swim, what the hell are you supposed to do?

I think the only thing for me is to alternate between taking care of myself by turning off the internet and social media so that I can read, write, and engage with myself and welcoming people into my home (or, in the spirit of the crappy dinner party, popping in to theirs).

After the holidays, I have Galentine’s Day on the horizon in February, but in the meantime I have started to line my nest with comforting food-type things. I baked cookies and caught up with my friend Terri at her house last week, and this week I have been sipping Golden Milk and making biscotti.

I know, I know: the last thing people need is another holiday cookie. I prefer to think of this as Winter Breakfast.

This biscotti recipe has infinite variations and is very, very forgiving. It takes a little over an hour, most of which is baking, but the flavors just get better as they sit, so make a double or triple batch and let them sit on the counter for whenever you want a snack.

As I am overly fond of rosemary, I have used it liberally. Feel free to modify any and all amounts to your taste; suggestions are listed below the recipe.

Make sure and take good care of yourself and keep the connections to your people strong; ask for and offer help. Notice when someone isn’t doing well and make some sort of gesture to lighten their day.

And if all else fails, feed them biscotti.

Biscotti With Rosemary, Lemon, and Cherry

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour

1 cup almond flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 spring rosemary, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

zest of one lemon

1/2 cup olive oil

2 eggs

1/2 cup white sugar

1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar

1/4 to 1/2 cup dried cherries chopped

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine flours, salt, and baking powder, rosemary, and lemon zest and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine sugars, olive oil, and eggs and mix thoroughly. Use a spatula to add flour, completely incorporating both mixtures.

Add cherries and mix.

Divide dough into two and place on parchment paper. Shape into six-inch logs that are about three inches wide.

Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes until firm and golden brown.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 200 degrees.

Using a serrated knife, slice each log into one-inch slices. Place sliced side down on the parchment paper and bake again until fully crisped, turning over once, for a total of about 20 minutes.

Let cool thoroughly. Store in airtight container, or give away. You can’t really go wrong.

Recipe notes:

  • Add ginger, cinnamon, and chopped chocolate for gingerbread/chocolate biscotti.
  • Orange zest and cranberries (and maybe toasted chopped walnuts) are very festive.
  • Dried blueberry, lemon zest, and fresh chopped thyme are also ridiculously delicious.
  • No need to use best-quality olive oil.

Golden Milk

In the beginning, there were spices…

Note: Many claim that this will cure what ails you. Improved digestion, decreased inflammation, and improved sleep are just three of the many touted benefits. I find it warming and comforting and delicious. Whatever is good for me is a bonus.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ginger

pinch black pepper

2 cups milk of your choice

agave, to taste

Method

For best results, place all ingredients (except agave) in a blender and blend until smooth. Place this mixture in a pot and heat, adding agave to taste.

Recipe notes

  • Coconut milk is often suggested for its benefits. Whatever you choose, use the unsweetened variety.
  • You can also use fresh ginger and turmeric instead, but powdered is a fine substitute.

 

 

 

Cocktail Hour: The Black Manhattan

Smoky, dark, and bitter.

What a complicated mess this life is.

No one said it would be easy, and I am not really talking about ease.

It’s just so complicated, and we, as humans, seem to thrive on making things even more complicated.

Once it was simple enough to have a patch of grass to grow something. A small family (or a bigger one if your patch of grass was bigger) and a little homestead.

It’s easy to romanticize that life, but I know it was hard. Grueling days. Hunger. Not naming your kids until they hit three so you didn’t have to experience the pain of losing an actual person (which, I believe was a false hope because mostly you love them the second they draw breath. But I digress.).

It was hard, but it was simple. Wake, work, food, rest.

Sometimes, when days were short, some music was made, or some other such diversion.

Now we make it way harder than it needs to be, everything, all of it.

Perhaps it comes with living in proximity to so many others whose desires are often at odds with your own.

Perhaps it comes with the fact that we have lost most (all?) of our connection to the natural rhythms of the world. We sleep late, or rise way before the sun. Then we stay up way past the time the sun dips below the horizon. #FearOfMissingOut

We eat when we aren’t hungry.

We don’t even call anymore. We text.

We have lost our rhythms as creatures on the earth, in a very fundamental and elemental way.

This disconnectedness from the basic rhythms of our human-ness is why we are unable to really find the root of the huge problems the US is facing right now; we don’t even know where to begin to identify the core of what’s wrong, much less find solutions – real, long-term solutions – to problems that have plagued our young country since its birth. We slap a Band-aid on it, cover the immediate wound, and then move on to the next.

Trouble is, this results in a spider-thin web of scars criss-crossing our hearts/souls/psyches/consciousness. Sometimes they are so faint we almost forget they are there.

Then something happens that turns them angry red, and we have to start again.

Last week Khristian and I attended a lecture at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The speaker was Wendell Berry, poet, novelist, and general excellent human, reading his latest essay, “The Idea of Limits in a Prodigal Age.”

To be honest, neither Khristian nor I really knew what to  make of the lecture, as all he did was read his new essay and answer a few questions with Eric Schlosser (the Fast Food Nation guy). But among other things, Berry talked about the importance of touch, as well as the importance of asking, as the Amish do, “How does this affect the community?” before making any moves or decisions.

Berry called us “cousins to the bees” to stress how connected we are, whether we like it or not.

He talked about the idea of limitlessness as, in fact, quite limiting and unsustainable. We need to understand where our outer edges connect with everyone else’s, and instead of drawing a line between those boundaries, really taking each other in, in a very human and powerful way in which all interests are considered.

A radical idea, it seems, in this day: that you and I have equal right to exist.

That we are both bounded by one another and boundless within the universe.

To be honest, after this talk, I wanted a drink.

Partly to take a moment to savor the ideas while gazing into a glass of alcohol, and partly to drown my sorrows, just a little bit.

Fortunately, there is the Black Manhattan. Strong, complex, and very simple to make. Slightly bitter, but with just a touch of sweetness. Sort of like life, if I’m being honest.

The Black Manhattan

Note: My jigger holds 1 1/2 ounces on one end, and 3/4 of an ounce on the other. You can use a shot glass to follow the proportion of 2:1, and you’ll be fine.

Ingredients

2 parts bourbon

1 part amaro

2 dashes angosturo bitters

Garnish: Brandied cherry (or Luxardo cherry if you have the cheddar)

Method

Mix bourbon, amaro, and bitters in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Serve with large format ice in a rocks glass or simply chilled in a martini glass or coupe. Garnish with a cherry or six.

Recipe notes

  • I used Buffalo Trace. Good bourbon matters, and BT is my “house bourbon.”
  • Cherry bitters might also be outstanding here.
  • Amaro is the Italian word for “bitter,” but the flavor varies wildly among amaros. The one I chose (Ramazotti) has lovely rootbeer and vanilla notes. Whichever amaro you choose will necessarily influence the flavor of your cocktail.
  • I am going to make my own amaro this winter and see how that goes.

Gratitude, Day 4: Lettuce Soup, Or How I Realized I Was Rich

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

Luxurious abundance.
Luxurious abundance.

In 1996 when I moved to Seattle, I rolled into town with just $200 in cash (and no credit to speak of, plus one black cat and a car of dubious quality). Even back in 1996, before the construction boom that is currently overtaking the Pacific Northwest, this small change didn’t get me very far. I slept on the floor of a friend’s cousin’s house for a couple weeks, then moved quickly onto another floor of a stranger’s house in West Seattle after the cousin began to hit on me.

At that time, I had just a college degree, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and about $75 left, so I applied at a local temp agency and quickly found work that paid every Friday.

Temp work was steady but didn’t pay well, and the end of the week often found me short of cash and hungry. Too proud at that point to apply for any kind of financial assistance from my new city, I solved the problem with what I had at hand: coffee.

Every morning I would drink a fortifying cup of coffee for the commute to work, then continue to drink copious amounts of coffee throughout the day, lightened with a considerable amount of milk and sugar. This got me through the day without lunch (except for the days when someone would bring in doughnuts or bagels), saved tons of money, and allowed me to pay my bills without applying for any kind of financial assistance (from the state or from my parents).

These days, I can still stretch a dollar until it screams, but as I look back on that time I realize how rich I actually was. I was educated and had a job and a safe place to sleep at night. These days in Baltimore, 20% of Baltimore’s children face food insecurity in that they have no idea where their next meal is coming from. They may not have a safe place to sleep, and their parents may not have the educational resources (or, let’s be real, the skin color) to easily secure even a temporary job.

A couple months ago, I learned about a local organization that helps remediate food insecurity and works to alleviate food deserts: Gather Baltimore. This organization uses volunteer labor in the fields and on the street to gather food that would otherwise rot or be thrown out. The food is sorted (with decomposing or inedible food going to compost) and packed into big blue Ikea bags to be sold for $7 to anyone who wants one.

These bags generally contain between 30 and 40 pounds of produce and are designed to feed a family of four for one week. Bags also often contain bread, crackers, and occasionally, chips.

While this amount of food can be a lifesaver, one considerable issue can arise: what do you do with ten pounds of lettuce? Or five pounds of jalapeños? Or that crazy, lumpy brown thing that you know is a vegetable but you have no idea how to actually cook it?

For people who lack basic cooking skills or too many extra ingredients, this can be a considerable challenge. I have used the Gather bag to make some delicious things I would not have otherwise made, including a spicy corn relish that I could eat my bodyweight in.

The lettuce thing actually happened once when I got a bag that  contained not only two heads of butter lettuce but also a two-pound bag of shredded iceberg lettuce. From this, lettuce soup was born. Overall, this entire recipe cost me about $2, as I made the vegetable stock from peelings and vegetables from the previous Gather bag, and the spices were purchased from the bulk section at MOM’s in Hampden for less than a quarter.

It may sound crazy, but lettuce soup has French roots and is often a light course in a sumptuous French meal. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped (at least one cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon allspice
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
5 cups vegetable stock
8 cups of lettuce, any kind, but tender-leafed lettuce (e.g. butter lettuce) works best
4 tablespoons of butter
Optional garnish: Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped cashews, mild white cheese

Method

Heat two tablespoons of butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for two minutes, then add garlic and cook for one minute more.

Season with salt and pepper, then add coriander and allspice and cook for one minute more.

Add potato, lettuce, and stock. Bring to a low boil, then turn heat down and simmer. Cook until potato is tender.

Puree the soup in one of two ways:

1. Working in batches, use a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Use a handheld immersion blender and puree in the pot.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with optional garnish.

Image source.