Monday, February 26, 2007

Five Days, Part Two

Yes, KRO spent five good days out here on the West Side (as in the far West Side of the country, not the “wesssaiiiiiiiiiid” of wannabe gangster lingo). And yes, you’ve been waiting patiently to learn what I made for the dinner party in her honor.

First Course:

Freshman year, KRO and I lived across the hall from each other on the eighth floor of Thurston. We saw each other in the hallways, but had never spoken for the first few weeks of school. KRO has told me, in the confidence of a long, safe friendship, that when she saw me around the dorm in the early part of freshman year, she thought I was “stuck-up.” But, one rainy day I walked alone to class, umbrella-less, while my hair, jeans, sweatshirt, papers, super-awesome Banana Republic bag—everything—dampened into shapeless masses of cold. KRO, walking the same direction on the other side of the street, crossed and caught up with me. KRO’s first words to me were: Do you want to share my umbrella?

ECG’s Fantastically Fabulous Fondue and Homemade Bread. ECG, my partner in culinary crime—and just about everything else—made this course.

Second Course:

For KRO’s birthday sophomore year, I planned a surprise party. We lived in a little room in Virginia Hall, spacious compared to our freshman dorm, and happily housing a kitchen, but compared to our current living spaces, infinitesimally small. It is hard to plan a surprise party in such small quarters. There is no place to hide where one’s roommate can’t hear one on the phone. And, gifts? Impossible to keep as a surprise; however, that didn’t matter because I was pretty sure that KRO knew what I had bought for her. For months, KRO had been talking about the pleasures of real cotton sheets, sheets with a high enough thread count to feel like suede after a few washings, sheets so soft that ironing them would be a shame. With this much talk of sheets, how could I not assume that sheets were exactly what she wanted for her birthday? I thought she was dropping hints so loudly that even the animals in the zoo up Rock Creek could hear her. But that night, when she opened the present wrapped in comics from me, her face broke into shock, albeit cheerful shock. Seriously, what college student buys another college student sheets for her birthday?

Baby Spinach Salad with Chili-Garlic Nicoise, Shaved Parmesan, and a Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

Main Course:

KRO’s home, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is a flat, mostly rural stretch of ancient green-ness. It’s humid, isolated, and feels old in a way that can only be described as mystical. Her family, large, complicated, and Irish-Catholic, had lived there for many generations, so it made visiting the Eastern Shore feel even more ancient to me. One St. Patrick’s Day, we drove out for a long weekend of celebrating with her family. And celebrating it certainly was. KRO is the most moderate of drinkers, but that didn’t stop her from slinging out dirty jokes. We listened to her cousin recite filthy limericks, every other family member drag out the best jokes from their brain-closets of humor, and patiently allowed Uncle Richard to affix shamrock stickers all over our faces. My first exposure to Irish Coffee, heavy on both the cream and the whiskey, happened this particular weekend. The morning we drove back to DC, we stopped at the old, abandoned house on her parents’ property and picked feral jonquils and quince branches to brighten up our dorm room. The flowers smelled whiskey-spicy and lasted for days.

Milk-Braised Pork Roast with Fennel Seed, Garlic, and Sage

Side Dish:

We moved to an old rowhouse on 24th Street the magical summer before our senior year. KRO worked that summer performing cancer research in the medical school, while I worked—sometimes it seemed more like playing, really—at the florist. The florist shop filled the bottom floor of a business building, in which a prestigious law firm held its offices. The daughter of one of the founding partners, also a lawyer, stopped in every other day for a fresh collection of flowers. She was kind and walked with a brace to assist her shortened leg. Whatever hardships she had experienced because of her disability seemed to make her more generous and compassionate towards everyone, a sharp contrast to her fierce-eyed colleagues in their impatient suits. One evening, just around closing time, she stopped in with a handful of Oriels tickets, complete with parking passes. She asked if any of us wanted them. KRO, a Maryland native, loves the Oriels almost as much as she loves frozen bread slices and sad songs, both which she loves very much, so I knew I had to get them for her. I took the tickets and rollerbladed home as fast as I could that night. Once home, we threw together a bag of snacks for ourselves and our friend Mark who planned on joining us. Into the old El Camino, borrowed for the summer from KRO’s cousin, we went, three across like jumpy sardines, sweaty with DC humidity and the anticipation of a free game. KRO started the ignition. Or, KRO tried to start the ignition. It wouldn’t even turn over. We unloaded and lifted the hood; Mark listlessly fiddled with wires and whatnot, but he had no idea what to do. We tried a couple more times to start the car, but the evening wore on and the game happened without us. We leaned against the car that night, listening to a motor that wouldn’t run while a mockingbird sang.

Roasted Beets, Carrots, and Red Onion


The kitchen on 24th Street experienced constant use. We frequently fed our friends and baked more sugary goods than we needed to. We often shared our baked goods with our neighbor Thelma. Thelma had lived for years in the rowhouse adjacent to ours; she was close to deaf and wary of strangers, having lived so long in one place. Her loud “HUNH?” dropped like an anvil on the ears of anyone who stopped by her house. Her doorbell would ring, and Thelma would yell out her open upstairs window, HUNH?! A friend from her church would stop by: HUNH?! And when we brought her our excesses of baked goods, we’d get the same greeting: HUNH?! Thelma would see it was us bearing gifts, and she’d come downstairs to chitchat and thank us. We never really knew what to say to each other, other than simple inquiries towards each other’s well being, so our conversations were always awkward and brief. I think she was a sweet lady, just lonely, old, and scared. Each time we’d bring her something, she’d ask us if we’d ever had a rum cake from an old bakery in Capitol Hill. Neither KRO nor I had ever had what Thelma described as perfection on a plate. But that Easter, we did. Thelma, dressed to the nines from church, proudly carried over a pink bakery box and gave us what she had wanted to for months. It was a beautiful cake, with pristine white frosting and white roses—no colors, but simple decorations—almost modern in its austere beauty. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste like much of anything. Both KRO and I wished we had never cut it open. If Thelma loved both this and our baked treats, maybe we weren’t as good in the kitchen as we thought we were.

Mango Ice Cream on Almond Pound Cake

Love Only Amplifies One's Dorkiness

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Minor Interruption in the "Five Days" Train of Thought

LA Early-Spring Fregola
(Very loosely adapted from

I just made this and had to share it. Oh, yet another reason why I love living here: all of these vegetables are from my local farmers’ market; and the bay leaf, well, I foraged for that. The flavors of the sea, the canyons, and the hillsides come together in this dish, touched with a soft layer of smoke (smog?) from the Spanish paprika and toasted fregola. This is LA in a skillet, and it is one gorgeous dish.

You will need:

1 large artichoke, cleaned, tough outer leaves and stem removed
1 clove of garlic

1 bottle clam juice
1 ½ cups chicken broth
½ leaf wild bay from your nearest lovely canyon (one dry bay leaf will be a fine substitute if you aren’t lucky enough to have a Southern California canyon nearby)
Large pinch of saffron
1 cup fregola
Splash of olive oil

2 slices of thick bacon, cut into lardons (1/4 inch strips)
1 medium bulb of fennel, chopped finely (save a generous tablespoon of chopped leafy fronds)
1 leek, split, cleaned and finely sliced
¼ cup dry Vermouth
1 tablespoon Pernod
¼ teaspoon smoked sweet Spanish paprika
½ pound of sugar snap peas, strings removed
½ pound of cleaned, shelled shrimp
1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
One lemon

To make the fregola:

Place the artichoke in a medium saucepan, along with the garlic clove. Add water—enough to cover the base by an inch or so. Place on a back burner at medium high heat and cook until you can easily remove the bottom leaves from the base. This can range anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. When the artichoke is cooked and tender, remove from the heat, let it cool enough to handle and cut it into quarters. With a spoon, dig into the center and scoop out and discard the fluffy “fur.” Cut the quarters again to have eight pieces. Don’t worry if the artichoke falls apart a bit—that will mean it will be integrated more completely into the whole dish, imparting its nutty sweetness in every bite.

Meanwhile, bring clam juice, chicken broth, saffron, and bay leaf to boil. Once boiling, add the fregola. Cook for ten minutes, then drain the fregola, reserving the cooking liquid. Toss the fregola with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside in a bowl to add to the dish in a few minutes.

In a large (and I do mean large) skillet, begin to fry the lardons until the fat has rendered and the pieces begin to crisp. Add the chopped fennel and leek, and cook at high heat until the leek begins to caramelize in places. Pour in the Vermouth, let it reduce to about a tablespoon, then add the Pernod. Let the Pernod reduce for about thirty seconds before pouring in the cooking liquid from the fregola. This liquid is starchy from the pasta, so you may have to add a splash or two of water in the next few minutes as you are cooking, if things get too sticky. Toss in the smoked paprika, artichoke pieces, peas, shrimp, and chopped fennel fronds and thyme. Cover the pan and let cook on medium heat for a couple of minutes, until the shrimp are pink and just cooked through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice, if it fits your taste. Stir with a large spoon to mix ingredients well then serve the golden, pink, and green, slightly soupy meal in deep dishes.

Serves two very hungry people.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Five Days, Part One

Ten years ago this spring, I graduated from college and left one of my many sweet little homes. My dad had rented a limo to drive my family to the airport, where we were to fly away from Washington, DC, the city I had loved and lived in for four years. I remember staring out the window and crying as I waved goodbye to that old rowhouse and my roommate of three years, KRO. She stood on the stoop, surrounded by flowers that I had planted, and waved back. When I think of leaving DC, I see KRO on that step, her hair glowing in the sun, burning red geum blossoms dancing around her. She looks beautiful in that mind-picture.

And, she still is beautiful. This weekend, KRO flew out to visit me (with a yet-unborn baby as her travel companion). We spent five days enjoying the variable Southern California winter weather.

We did a little of this on Thursday.

On Friday, we hiked to this.

As I do every Saturday to get my produce for the week, we shopped this.

Sunday, I showed her part of my version of LA.

And today, after a morning walk in the drizzle, I took KRO to the airport, to fly back to DC, where her husband and home wait for her. My eyes welled as I pulled away from the airport drop-off. Every time I leave KRO, I cry a bit. She's the star of so many of my stories, the walking companion of streets in more than one continent, the band-aid to post-break-up broken hearts, and the constant friend.

On Saturday night, I invited the WW and CC folks over for dinner to meet the fabled KRO of Christina lore. We told stories and played games. I did my best to make a feast worthy of 14 years of friendship. What did I make?

The answer to that deserves its own post.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Danger of High Expectations (They'll be Exceeded)

Today, while in a very public, otherwise mundane spot, I ran into a remarkable person. This person had been a student of mine early in my teaching career, one with whom I had been very close. While sipping coffee and catching up with this now-very-adult-parent-person-who-I-had-known-when-he-was-only-sixteen, my nervous system attacked itself, and I felt shaky and clammy-skinned. It had been years since I had seen this kid, and now he was no longer a kid--what would he think of me? Teachers have such a strange professional static quality in that we are adults when students meet us (not that we don't grow and change, but often in less obvious ways) while our students are constantly tranforming creatures that defy prediction. My former student didn't seem disappointed by me away from the classroom, brought down to everyday human size, perhaps because he was more concerned with what I thought of him.

He told me that he had driven by the school many times, always wanting to stop in, but his doubt held him back. He raised his right hand head level and said, "I know you always expected this," and he raised his left hand to his chest, "but I've only achieved this, and I didn't want to go back and tell you that."

Oh, my chest fissured into little chunks of remorse when he said that. Yes, I did want great academic things for him, but because I thought he'd love college and the opportunities that it would provide him. I knew he'd love the debates, stories, and self-exploration that are part of the college experience. I also wanted for him all the career opportunities a college degree promises. But this kid, this man, has achieved greatness. He's taken responsibility for his new family, working hard at his job to move up the ladder quickly enough to purchase a home for his child to grow in. As he completed everyday tasks in his office today, I could see how his peers responded to him with respect and humor. He's busy teaching his son to walk and to grow up to be as kind a man as his father. And, he still has that smile that breaks his face into two happy crescent moons. I am so proud of him and what he's achieved. I told him that; I hope he believes it. I hope that he's as proud of himself as I am of him.

I expected greatness out of him, and he's giving the world that and something even better: goodness. To be good in all senses of the word, for what more could I hope?