Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why do you love food?

Food. Where do I begin? It starts somewhere between boiling salted water until it was dry just to see what would happen and staring, longingly, for hours at the glossy pages of my mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook. I’d hover around my father, working over our little white enamel gas stove throwing bits of leftover chicken, the last of the cabbage, and squirts of teriyaki sauce into a pot to turn out something comforting for us on a rainy Portland night.

In college, my palate seared after a year of suffering through carbohydrate-sprayed cafeteria lettuce, I managed to cook all my meals in a dorm room, to the marvel of my peers. “How DO you make a bean burrito?” they’d ask. “That chicken smells divine,” they’d cluck. And of course it was far from divine, it was chicken breast in a pan with some salt.

At one point I even pledged to drop-out of university to attend culinary school. But my family, lovers of higher education that they are, didn’t approve. Looking back, I’m still not sure why I’d listened.

Luck flew me to Spain for a semester abroad where a sense of adventure in eating was born. I dove into barnacles, snails, stinky cured pork hanging from the ceiling, curious wines, and a little something called saffron. I visited Greece and fell in love with gyros pita, olive oil, the darkest greens, and foraged herbs. Never had I ever loved a cheese as much as feta. The yogurt, the homemade wine, the lamb, it was all so much and yet never enough. Around and around Europe I went, sampling and tasting, cooing and coveting. My love for global cuisine was bred.

As a real adult I now live on the Big Island of Hawaii, in a whole new world of sub-tropical edible wonders. I’m passionate now about discovering and preserving Hawaiian food culture.

But I feel that I’ve reached a plateau with my culinary skills that can only be continued with a culinary education.  Please help me continue along my path toward great cooking, and this time, I won’t let my family talk me out of it.

*This was my submission to the Food Network Great Food Truck Race scholarship contest in answer to the following prompt: "What cuisines are you passionate about? Explain how a scholarship from The International Culinary Schools at The Art Institutes could help you expand your knowledge of global cuisines." Wish me luck. 
PS: there is still time to enter if you are interested, deadline is 2/28/13.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Clam Digging in Oregon

The Edwards' home in Silverton, Oregon
It's Christmas eve. An impenetrable mantle of hot electric blanket has forced me out of the bed I'm sharing with Dustin at his parent's newly built house in Silverton, Oregon. We've gone to bed leaving twinkling lights downstairs and plans to host his mother's family tomorrow. The beast is waiting quietly in the fridge for his turn to be roasted and the house murmurs with Dustin's steady sleeping breath and the hum of the heater.

Earlier today as we walked the property in the brisk afternoon I couldn't help but imagine myself holed up in their tiny, red guesthouse working hard on my first novel, a pot of tea steaming on the stove  as my fingers tap, tap, tapped the keyboard. The clouds piled high above our heads as we rode the tractor back to the house.

This place has a mix of both homey familiarity and a sense of belonging I can feel nowhere else but in Oregon, where the trees and the mud and the icy mountain streams make up the very blood in my veins. This sensation grows as we trudge through the fields in high rubber boots down to a nearby creek, stopping to admire rose hips and forgotten blackberries still red and unripened on the vine. Moss grows thickly on the little wooden bridge crossing the creek and the coffee colored water rushes under us, drowning out the sound of my thumping, longing pulse.

Netarts, Oregon
Days later, after the last guest has gone, full and happy, and toting a number of tasty leftovers including smoked turkey, Yorkshire pudding, and champagne cake, I select my breakfast from the once inviting, now daunting pile of endless Christmas cookies. Blackberry brandy and eggnog have slowed me this morning but I've managed to pull on some boots and a sweater. The beach awaits.

Netarts, Oregon
We arrive in Netarts on an utterly perfect day. The sun is (almost) out and the wind has taken a break. Waves crash far offshore and the salty air creeps slowly down into my lungs. The combination of cliffs and breakers and moss and trees trees trees on the Oregon coast is like nowhere else. Lucky for us the tide is low and I came prepared with a shellfish permit.

Digging for clams in Netarts, Oregon
Rake, shovel, and bucket in hand we set off skeptically down to the sand. My dad had told me about this method of simply raking the sand and scoring clams. I doubted this claim as my memories of clam  digging as a kid were just that, digging to frigging China in the freezing sand as fast as possible before the clam out-dug you.

Oregon cockles
When you dig for clams you look for little holes in the sand, step near them, and hope the clam shoots some water up at you through the hole. That's how you know where to dig. Well, as we sloshed along the sandy bay, we saw no such holes. At all. I was beginning to look the fibber. My mother in law suggested we just start raking.

So we raked a little in the sandy tide pools and pop! up came a clam. We laughed at our luck but then pop! pop! pop! we scored more and more. Within 15 minutes we'd drawn a small crowd and the legal per day catch limit. This was definitely the easiest clam digging I'd ever done.

As you can see from the photo, these clams are quite large. They have a hard, textured shell and are technically called cockles. Before you steam, broil, slurp, or chowderize your cockles, be sure to soak them in an open container of fresh water for at least a couple hours or up to 12. Do not cover with a lid as the cockles need to be able to breath. Soaking them allows the excess sand to seep out before cooking. We skipped this step because we were so excited to eat them, but trust me, it's vital, we were eating some crunchy clams.

The recipe below is the simple way to enjoy clams. Serve with crusty bread, pasta, or hot cooked rice.

Fresh, steamed Oregon cockles

Steamed Oregon Cockles

20 cockles (or your favorite clam)
1 cup white wine (salted water or broth is fine, too)
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 TBL butter
salt & pepper to taste

After the cockles have soaked in an uncovered container of fresh water for at least 2 and up to 12 hours, rinse and set aside.

In a large pot, add wine and and garlic over medium high heat. As soon as wine begins to boil, add cockles to the pot and cover. Be sure not to crowd the cockles. It helps to have a glass lid so you know when the shells have opened.

Steam for 3-5 minutes or until shells have opened wide. Discard any that do not open. Serve with the wine/butter mixture and add salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dear 2012,

The thing I most want to do in this moment is make a giant list of all the wrong that occurred in the year  of our Lord 2012. I want to wallow in it, highlight it, point out how unfair everything that ever happened in 2012 ever was. I want you to feel sorry for me. I want to feel sorry for myself. For not being skinnier, for not being in my 20s, for not becoming a famous blogger, for never seeming to do the things I really really really want to do. For failing to do everything perfectly, including choosing the right career and keeping an impeccable garden. I realize while writing this that my greatest sin, in my own mind, it not achieving perfection.

Because there's the times that I do those things that I really really really want to do. And those wonderful things get covered up by clouds of self doubt, by some need to tell myself, hey you really ought to have done better. I'm always raining on my own damn parade. Truth is, the failures and unexpected twists that have made up this past year are the very things that have gotten me through it.

This year, I really really really wanted to know what it felt like to live in New York. You know, the glam, the hustle and bustle, the opportunities. So I just did that, went to New York and acted like I lived there for a few weeks. And it worked, I totally felt like I did live there. Nothing glamorous happened save for a dirty martini at sunset atop the Met. Except that everything glamorous did happen including a rained out Shakespeare in the park performance, dollar oysters around every corner, art appreciation lessons from a stranger at the Brooklyn museum, frog legs at Coney Island, matinee ballet amid fur clad seniors, and standing-room only Mets baseball. In New York, the glamour is in the grit.

After visiting Ellis Island, whose museum on American immigration is truly inspirational, I did a quick search on their website just to see if there were any relatives who'd passed through. Without much searching at all, I found a record from 1922 of my grandfather returning to the US from Turkey. The document indicated he was in Constantinople on business.

My grandfather died when my father was small, so I never knew him and neither did he. We knew next to nothing about the man. Maybe because my grandmother was too devastated to talk about him, or maybe because she didn't know him well herself. We will never know. But staring at that computer screen in my friend's studio apartment in Manhattan suddenly brought the man to life. Next to his name on the Ellis Island manifest document was a short description of his trip length and purpose, as well as his date of birth and an address in Brooklyn, New York. Now, we'd known he'd been born somewhere in New York, but we didn't know anything about his childhood or young adult life. For the first time in my life I needed to know everything there was to know about this man.

I stayed up all night and spent the next few days feverishly researching documents and family trees, pouring over census records and Meanwhile, my friend helped me find a long-term rental apartment in Brooklyn, steps from Prospect Park. I lugged my possessions up seven flights of the stone, World War II era building and into my new digs on the well-heated top floor apartment with a view of the neighbor's window across the breezeway and my very own rusted fire-escape. This was definitely the ideal New York living I'd been striving for. After settling in a bit, I took a walk to orient myself to the nearest subway stops, grocery stores and outrageously bad coffee shops I would learn to love in the weeks to come. And there it was, under shady sidewalk trees, lined on both sides with iconic brownstones behind wrought-iron fences, Greene Ave. The street my grandfather had listed as his address in 1922.

I laughed at serendipity and hung a left, admiring the homes and tiny flower gardens, looking for #1622. These brownstones are definitely pre-1922, I thought, his house is certainly still standing. As I passed #34 and #35, it occurred to me that 100 degrees was not ideal conditions for such a long walk. It was good enough in that moment to simply walk where he walked, to exist where he existed.

Turns out #1622 no longer stands. But in the weeks that followed, I found much more than an old brownstone. My obsessive family research led me to my grandfather's siblings (who we never knew about) and their children and their children. I looked one of them up in the old-fashioned Yellow Pages and called the number. And she answered. Without much explaining at all she knew who I was and on my very last day in New York I got to meet her, at Grand Central station, amid the definition of hustle and bustle.

Just like that my father, who never had an uncle or aunt or any family at all, had a cousin. And I, who'd imagined my summer wistfully drinking cocktails at jazz bars while writing poetry on napkins, had discovered that I didn't need to know what it was like to live in New York, I was freaking from there.

In the end I ought to have done a lot more than I did in 2012. The year, as a whole, was far from perfect. Exactly where it should be.


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