It’s the first few cold days here in Baltimore, so cue the inevitable references to the busy time of the holidays.
It’s less than a month until Thanksgiving, which means it’s less than two months until Christmas, which means it’s about to get primal in the Target over the last (fill in the blank) holiday toy.
I’m not buying it. Literally.
I am done with buying dumb shit for people who don’t need it. I have no interest in scurrying around to fulfill our country’s image of what the holidays are supposed to be.
But more importantly, I am not buying the conceit that the holidays are filled with merciless and driving good cheer, buoyed by copious amount of holiday punch and $5 trinkets from the White Elephant gift exchange.
Truthfully, I dropped the pretense of the picture-perfect holiday years ago, maybe around the time when I was younger and my brother and I told each other what the other was getting for Hanukkah and then it sucked a little, opening our presents, because we both already knew.
It may have taken me a little while to really exorcise the holiday demon because Dane was a huge fan of holidays and had an image in his head about what they should be, complete with overspending and overcommitting to holiday celebrations.
But this is not about that.
As the light fades from the sky and the darkness and cold return, I am starting to pay attention more.
How often do we grant ourselves permission to be deliberate? How often do we actually choose to consider what we are doing instead of simply walking through one big, long, knee-jerk reaction of a life?
What a gift it would be if we really paid attention to the people in our lives – close up and far away.
What if we slowed down enough to hear their hearts beat? To listen to them with both ears and our own open hearts?
I am not talking about sacrificing yourself on the altar of But They’re Your Family or Deep Down, They Really Love You.
I am talking about being deliberate and intentional with your chosen family – blood or otherwise – as a meditation, of sorts.
I am not here to give you suggestions about how to do this with your family.
Today is Easter, a time when I traditionally post about Zombie Jesus and tell a long, anti-climatic joke whose punchline is, “Peter! I can see your house from up here!” My dad, good Jew that he was and inveterate and unapologetic Teller of Terrible Jokes, thought my joke was excellent. Possibly he was the only one, unless you count seriously intoxicated patrons of the bar that I tended back when I first learned this joke. I always worked on major holidays because that’s where the money is, and my captive and inebriated audience rewarded me with drunken laughter and extra money.
But I digress.
I am non-religious to an almost atheistic degree, especially in that I find so much hypocrisy and contradiction in religion that it can really only be made up by humans. How can you preach one thing and act completely another?
This is not to say that I don’t have some certain thoughts. Feelings. Beliefs?
Let’s not get carried away.
I, like every single, solitary other person on this earth, have no idea about any of it – what’s true, what happens when we die, if there is a plan or a purpose or some kind of reason for being. So, like every other single, solitary person on this earth I make shit up.
It’s what we do.
I grew up in Maryland but moved huffily away back in 1995. Since moving back to Baltimore in 2014, one very strange thing has been happening, a very strange thing that has me making shit up sometimes.
I keep finding utensils on the ground. Forks and spoons mostly, with the occasional knife thrown in. I find them on walks in the woods, the random stroll to the store, and even embedded in a newly paved road (in East Baltimore by the Johns Hopkins campus where I teach yoga).
For some reason, I have been picking them up. There are a million things on the street in any major city, but I pick up silverware.
Initially I thought I might get arty and make a windchime or something, but I have not yet done that, and the stash of cutlery is growing.
Coincidentally, just before I really started writing about food, the pace of street cutlery acquisition increased exponentially. Everywhere I went, spoons and forks magically appeared. Plain, ornate, bent out of use, and perfect as if just out of the box from the bridal registry: eating utensils were everywhere.
It got a little ridiculous.
But now, as I continue to stockpile my growing stash of silver/not silver, I wonder.
Which is how all made-up human creations begin.
Is this The Universe telling me to start a food blog?
(pause here for that not-quite-serious question to sink in)
I just read an article on The Facebook about ten of the most overused phrases in yoga (this is not that article, but this is a good one, still with the same snarky bullshit, but the sting of truth is there. Get a Band-Aid and some tissues, hypersensitive yogis.), and while I disagreed completely with the snarky, my-yoga-is-better-than-yours tone of the article, one point struck me: the serious and continued calling upon of The Universe.
As in, “If I just tell The Universe what I want, then I can manifest it, ” or, “That’s The Universe telling me to____.”
We are tiny little specks in this overwhelmingly ginormous collection of dust, gas, and other material. To suggest that our tiny little lives merit even a moment of attention from any wisp of cloud or breath of wind is ludicrous and faintly ridiculous. The Universe frankly doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us and our tiny, insignificant human problems.
I have felt in my life that sometimes, if I could just make myself small enough (or, conversely, make myself open and big enough), I would be able to hear that little voice that is maybe me, deep down, or maybe something else outside of me. That whispered breath of something has been with me for a long time, and I don’t know if it’s on the wind or in my bones.
Whatever it is, it’s never wrong. Quite literally. I have tried to drown it with booze and outrun it by moving, but ultimately whatever is being said/whispered/transmitted/ WHATEVER gets through.
It sounds like a belief system, of sorts, but I promise you, it’s not.
But it’s something.
There really is no good segue into why this recipe made it into this post, except to say that I found the inspiration for it on The Facebook in the form of Jennifer, my cousin in Seattle. In truth, she is a cousin by marriage, related as she is to my deceased husband, but after Dane died we became (and stayed) close (like maybe The Universe thought we should. #Transitions) She posted on The Facebook, asking a friend in Washington to make these for her, and they seemed just the thing for a not-quite-atheist to have for a dinner celebrating Zombie Jesus’s (re)birth.
Buffalo And Bleu Deviled Eggs
Note: Like all things religious and spiritual, there are no hard-and-fast answers. Amounts are really subject to you and what it looks like. The filling should be creamy, so taste and keep adding until it’s how you like it. The original recipe has many exclamation points! And ranch dressing powder! Neither of which made it into this recipe, as exclamation points are an anathema to me, and I didn’t feel like buying ranch dressing powder. But do as you like. This isn’t a cult, for Christ’s sake.
6 hardboiled eggs, cut in half with yolks removed to a bowl
3 tablespoons softened cream cheese
2 teaspoons mayonnaise
Frank’s hot sauce, to taste
Splash of milk
Garnish: bleu cheese crumbles and celery
Place egg yolks, cream cheese, mayonnaise, hot sauce, and milk in a medium-sized bowl (or the bowl of a food processor) and beat with a hand mixer (or process on low) until ingredients are smooth a creamy. Taste, and add more hot sauce or milk as needed.
Spoon (or pipe if you’re fancy AF) into hardboiled egg white cases. Thinly slice celery and place artistically on top, then add bleu cheese crumbles (gorgonzola is also delicious here). Finish with some freshly cracked black pepper, and try not to eat them all in one sitting.
You spend the first little while – six months, maybe – trying to be impressive as hell, your sparklingly best version of yourself. Even if you are a real, down-to-earth, no artifice kind of person, this is just how humans roll. We want to be loved and accepted for who we are, but it’s much easier to reveal the best parts first, the parts that are easy to love.
You and your new particular friend may do new and interesting things.
Maybe you try exciting new hobbies or go on long walks or eat at interesting places you have always wanted to try. Maybe you sit through the boring lecture or sporting event because it lights them up. Maybe they do the same for you.
Whatever happens, you don’t fart out loud, and if you fart at all you keep a dog handy.
And then, somewhere around the six month or one-year mark, things begin to shift.
Contrary to popular cultural belief, this is where things start to get good.
Because it’s not the new adventures and the new food and the no-farting that make human relationships deep and wonderful (although all of those things definitely enhance life together).
It’s that part where you can exist in a space with another human and just be 100% who you are, the best and worst parts of yourself all at once without any effort or any need to go or do or be anything.
It’s when you allow yourself to relax enough to read at opposite ends of the couch together, and that’s the night without guilt or remorse or a shred of FOMO, even on Fridays and Saturdays where you start to feel hella old if you are in jammies by 9 but are secretly proud you made it even that late because you really wanted to put jammies back on around 5.
It’s sitting on the back porch in unseasonably warm weather, watching the earth spin as a planet moves across the sky. And that’s it.
It’s all of those nights where there is no pressure, no plan, a weekend off from running from thing to thing, a night in after being pulled in a million different directions, dealing with the slings and arrows of this mortal coil.
Maybe not every night. You don’t want things to get boring.
But just enough nights so that you can see how spending more time with your particular friend might just unwind into a whole new lifetime of love and adventure, even on nights when there is not much happening.
And this realization needs an appropriate snack: tater tot pizza.
You heard me: Tater. Motherfucking. Tot. Pizza.
I am not scared of salty language, but I will tell you that I am holding myself back from unleashing a torrent of curse words.
This Saturday night, after a long walk and some bad news about a car (not mine, but still), this is the kind of easy, early night in food we needed.
Full disclosure: we ate the entire cast iron pan full of it. Zero scraps left.
And even more full disclosure: I won’t say this recipe is perfected as a pizza.
In fact, it’s still just a little bit messy and not quite the same all three times we have made it. The tots aren’t quite accepting of their role as a crust, and sometimes when you can’t wait for it to cool it ends up looking nothing like pizza and more like a bowl of deliciously crispy bits of potatoes slathered in tomato sauce and dripping with fresh mozzarella.
It’s kind of like how real life is with a new person after the new starts to wear off, just a bit if you’re lucky: comforting and warm, infinitely adaptable, and pretty good no matter how things turn out.
Tater Tot Pizza
One bag of tots
One jar of pizza sauce
8 ounces of fresh mozzarella
Whateverthefuck you like, toppings-wise
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. You can use a cast iron skillet, a pizza stone, or a baking sheet – stick that in the oven while it’s preheating.
Meanwhile, shred your cheese and get your toppings ready. No rush, and you’ll see why.
When the oven is hot, take out whatever you are heating (it will cool a little; that’s okay) and dump about 1/2 a bag of tots to cover the bottom. Get fancy, or don’t, but make one even layer. If you are using a pizza stone, allow a two-inch gap between tots and the edge of the stone.
Pop back in the oven and cook for about 10 minutes.
Pull the pan out and smash the tots into an even layer that climbs a bit up the sides of the pan or reaches out to the edge of the pizza stone.
Place back in the oven and cook until the tots are done and crispy on the top and sides.
When Khristian makes it on a pizza stone, he uses the edge of a spatula to press the tots towards the center, forming a sauce-containing structure.
Add your toppings, and put back in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and brown and delicious-looking.
Here’s the dumb part: after you take your pizza out of the oven you have to wait for at least ten minutes, probably more like 20.
It SUCKS. Truly. I am one of the least patient people, especially when it comes to tater tots and/or pizza.
However, waiting allows everything to firm up a bit and allows you at least the chance of picking this up like a pizza.
For me, I don’t give a crap if it looks like a pizza or not. At this point, I will put it in a bowl and be perfectly happy. When Khristian made it last night, though, it was more pizza-like than any of my creations, and he cooked for me, which made it taste EVEN BETTER.
However it turns out, it’s pretty much the most delicious thing ever.
Tater tot “crowns” by Ore Ida may work better for a pizza stone (no rolling), and all Ore Ida fries are gluten-free.
Why they give you two full cups of pizza sauce when you only need less than 1/4 cup for most pizza-making endeavors is beyond me. I portion the leftover out into 1/4-cup servings in ziplocs and freeze them flat until I need them.
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?
Last week I drove to Pennsylvania to visit my nearly-98-year-old grandmother. It was the day after a particularly difficult therapy session (yes, we can talk about this: it’s mental health, y’all), and the drive out of the city was a welcome escape.
There is something about sunny, crisp days when the trees are outlined in black against the clearest blue sky and golden-hued leaves fall like rain from the trees that fills me up with a complicated mix of emotions.
On this particular day, I had a very clear sense of myself and what it is I am trying to do.
(a phrase I hate but which is utterly appropriate here)
On a day like this, I feel like every step I take is a step towards the person I have always wanted to become in this lifetime and away from the person that I was becoming, the child who experienced trauma but had never looked it square in the eyes as an adult. It is difficult to imagine doing work like this on a clear, sunny day, and yet this is one of the few times when I feel at peace with myself.
I cannot always talk explicitly about the things I am dealing with; it’s not a fit for this blog, and it will be hurtful to some who are still on the earth. But it is important work for me, and as I drove the two hours to see Grandma, I kept returning to one person with whom I have been able to talk explicity, slowly unwinding the knotted threads of decades-old hurts and haunts.
In this endeavor, I have been supported this past (nearly) year by someone who has previously only been known as my “particular friend.”
I am 45. “Boyfriend” sounds dumb at my age.
“Partner” could be many different things.
“Lovin’ spoonful” is silly and applies but is often dismissed.
“Lover” just doesn’t work in mixed company.
In light of this, I will start my 30 Days of Thanks by introducing Khristian Weeks, my particular friend.
I introduce him here, this first day, because he has been in the 11 months I have known him a source of tremendous joy, love, and support.
Khristian is an artist. He loves children and has decided to love my dogs, even though he isn’t, himself, actually a dog person (and they love him sloppily back).
He brings me coffee in bed.
I cook for him, and he loves it.
We go for long walks.
We kiss in public, quite a lot (sorry, everyone in the freezer section of MOM’s in Hampden).
He talks to me about creative things and wants to collaborate with me, a first for me in all of my time as a writer (and with a host of other past artistic boyfriends who maybe never saw me as an artist).
Khristian has made me happy and given me hope for everything that is to come in this life.
So for all of this, I am making him a mushroom galette.
Khristian is a newly-minted pescatarian, and he loves all things vegetable.
So why in hell would I decide to make a mushroom galette for this person who means so much to me? Isn’t that sort of shitty?
Well, here’s the thing.
I like a challenge. Khristian hates mushrooms; I want to make him something with mushrooms that he loves.
When my friend Laura posted that she had foraged some maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods) from Druid Hill Park, I swapped her buttermilk mashed potatoes, two types of slaw, and a roasted chicken thigh for a huge bag of maitakes and a smaller bag of chicken of the woods mushrooms (which I am planning on frying like chicken and slathering in barbecue sauce. #Trust).
The recipe below uses my gluten-free galette crust from my butternut squash and caramelized onion galette. The filling is a combination of red chard harvested from The Friends School (where Khristian works), mushrooms from Druid Hill Park just two miles away, and ricotta cheese. This is the kind of hyper-local food that is bound to taste good.
Hopefully dedicating a recipe to someone isn’t like getting their named tattooed on your body (as in, that it pretty much instantly dooms the relationship).
Khristian, my love, on my first day of gratitude in November, this is for you.
1 stick of very cold butter, cut into bits (or frozen and grated)
1/4 cup Greek yogurt (or sour cream, or regular yogurt)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup ice water (seriously. Ice water. Don’t skimp. Cold tap doesn’t work.)
1 cup ricotta cheese, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
1 cup (ish) maitake mushrooms, torn, or crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 large bunch of red chard, cut into bite-sized pieces (I do not remove the ribs, but you can if you like)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup fresh mixed herbs (I used all parsley because that’s what was in the Friends’ School garden, but any combination of cilantro, chives, or dill would be lovely)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Make pastry first, as it needs to chill. You can even make it the day before.
Method one: Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix. In a small bowl, combine sour cream and lemon juice. Add butter to flour and salt in food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add sour cream mixture and pulse to combine. Slowly add ice water until dough comes together.
Method two: Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine sour cream and lemon juice. Using a pastry cutter or fingers, rub butter into flour until mixture resembles cornmeal. Add sour cream mixture and mix well. Add ice water and mix until dough comes together.
Turn dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press together into a ball. Wrap tightly and chill for an hour.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large pan to prevent overcrowding, heat oil and add mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. If mushrooms are crowded in the pan, they will steam rather than crisp. If you only have a small pan, saute in batches. Crispy mushrooms take about five minutes over medium-high heat. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add garlic to the same pan and saute without burning, then add red chard. Season with salt and pepper, then cook until the chard begins to wilt. I like to keep mine slightly crispy, but it’s up to you. Four minutes and your chard will be completely wilted. I cook for about a minute less than that.
I use a piece of parchment paper to roll out my crust, as this makes for super easy transfer to a baking sheet.
Place chilled dough on parchment. Place plastic wrap on top of the dough (this keeps pastry from sticking to the rolling pin without adding extra flour, which can dry pastry out) and roll out into a circle roughly 12″ in diameter and no more than a 1/4″ thick.
Spread 3/4 cup of ricotta over the pastry, leaving about 1 1/2″ around the edge without filling. Top ricotta with chard, then pile mushrooms on top of that. Spoon remaining ricotta over vegetables. Season once more with salt and pepper.
Fold the edges of the pastry over and pinch to seal any gaps. I use a bench scraper to pick up the dough so that I am not warming it up by touching it more than I have to.
Brush edges of pastry with beaten egg.
Keeping galette on the parchment, transfer to a baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes (check at 20) until the edges are golden brown.
Remove from oven and let stand for at least five minutes before serving. To serve, mix fresh herbs, lemon zest, lemon juice, and one tablespoon of olive oil together. Top galette with herb mixture and cut like a pizza.
Say it straight or it will come out crooked. ~Dane Kolbeck~
Sometimes you just have to say it straight. And sometimes that is terrifying. Well, for me, always it is terrifying.
That’s not 100% accurate.
There are some things that will always be easy to say. To wit, for me, I have no problem speaking up about the following:
Fundamentalists of any religion attempting to witness
General assholery that includes but is not limited to elitist bullshit, overt hipster cynicism, high-brow condescension, etc.
Some things are very, very hard for me to say. Can’t you tell by the veiled terms of this post?
Get at the point, you might be saying. Just spit it out.
The problem is this: in the past I have just spit it out, with sometimes-disastrous results. Speaking off-the-cuff and on-the-fly is not necessarily the best course of action for me these days. I like to be more measured in my responses, lest I send a nuclear warhead to settle what might best be handled by a fly swatter.
Or some such.
I want to say what I mean. Make promises I can keep. Be kind. Be honest and true to myself and the person I am speaking to. Recently, I have been unable to speak when spoken to in certain situations. The context of this does not really matter. What matters is that I have lost words in much the same way as I have continued to lose memories, a slow leaking of the past (and now the present) sliding away from my brain.
When I try to force myself to speak, everything comes out wrong. Like speaking-in-tongues wrong, quite literally – garbled sounds, half-started sentences, a mash of sibilant consonants and murky vowels sliding across my lips. #Confusion
So then I get quiet.
You know how you aren’t supposed to be afraid of the dog that barks? It’s true. The one that is barking is not the one you worry about. It’s the silent one, slinking towards you, that should be feared.
When I stop talking, people worry.
There has to be a way for me to come to the middle. At the risk of being one of those douches who quotes their therapists, if she were here she might ask me what happens to trigger this sudden loss of words.
To begin to consider this is also speech-defying.
Thus, we find ourselves again at an impasse. #DamnedIfIDoDamnedIfIDont
I find in these cases, as in most cases, that a cocktail works wonders. Not multiples. Just one.
And since you are having just one to get things flowing, it ought to be delicious. Although I am a fan of bourbon, neat, for conversational lubrication it is best to sip something slightly less boozy.
Enter Lillet Rouge.
My friend Kerry introduced me to Lillet, a crisp, slightly fruity libation that is delicious when teeth-achingly cold and sipped by itself or with a splash of similarly-chilled gin.
Lillet Rouge is Lillet’s redder, earthier, spicier cousin. Perfect for the heart of darkness that is winter and deep conversations that must be had, reluctantly, haltingly.
And since it is February, a month that simultaneously screams love and death in the Kolbeck household, red seems a perfect color. And ginger beer is appropriate anytime of year, but the bite of this one will wake you up, keep you focused, and make you talk.