While I’ve always loved food, I didn’t start cooking until I was in my mid-twenties. As a child in 1980s Brooklyn, I ate what was available, what my family could afford. We were inventive with $1 bodega chicken legs, bags of sprouting potatoes and cans of Chef Boyardee. And although there was a summer where we subsisted on bags of potatoes and food that was best suited for hot pot cooking, limitations gave way to creativity. I’ve always harbored a deep respect and appreciation for good food because for so long I wasn’t privileged to have it. I didn’t have a real salad until I was in college–back then salad felt frivolous because who would spend $10 for a plate of leaves when you could get a whole meal for that money? And I didn’t get serious about cooking and baking until recovering from a drug problem forced me to do something else to occupy my hands.
Back then I cycled through a handful of recipes I’d learned from my best friend’s mother (fettuccine alfredo, lasagne, Thanksgiving herbed stuffing), but it wasn’t until 2002 that I purchased my first cookbook, Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. Nights that were usually reserved from blackout drinking and drug use were now spent indoors, catatonic, watching The Food Network. Nigella made cooking accessible, fun, and my first experiment was a cheesecake where I used confectioner’s sugar instead of regular sugar (I rationed: was there really a difference. Answer: Indeed there is) and no one had a second bite. I purchased springform pans and sheet pans. I stocked a small cupboard in an apartment I shared with a friend with spices and flours. I baked chocolate cakes that splattered my walls. I made scones that resembled hockey pucks, and I managed to somehow screw up pasta.
For two years I failed miserably, but I kept on because there was something comforting about the alchemy of ingredients. And even though I made cakes that no one would dare eat or dinners that sometime resembled science experiments, the idea that I could possibly create something from nothing, that I could create instead of ruin, kept me going. I made a simple pound cake again and again until I got it right. All the money I’d spent on drugs and nights out were funnelled into shopping bags of food. Back then no one really photographed what they made, and I’m grateful since I made the kind of food that was hardly photogenic.
Over the years I always returned to the kitchen when I was lost, confused, heartbroken, and stressed. When I lost a great love and we divided one home into two, I stayed up late drinking vodka out of the bottle and making muffins. When I lived in an apartment building where an unhinged man played jazz until dawn, I made stuffed shells and coconut macaroons. When my then best friend came over my Brooklyn apartment (the one with the Pepto-pink bathroom), I made her pancakes and maple bacon, and when I lost her I kept thinking about her, and how she loved those cakes. I invited scores of people into my home for a clothing swap, which was really a vehicle to road-test these red velvet cupcakes with peanut butter frosting. The year I resigned from my job and lost Sophie, I’d spend days bound to an oven.
However, it wasn’t until last year that my relationship to food dramatically changed. In a course of four years I’d gained nearly 40 pounds and lost my taste for good food. I shoveled lunch at my desk while answering emails. I came home and collapsed onto my couch and then ordered pizza, thai food or pasta smothered in oil and cheese. I stopped reviewing my credit card bills because I was embarrassed by how much I ordered from Seamless Web.
And then I started to get sick. Really sick. Like stomach pain so bad it felt like my appendix would burst. I would lose my train of thought so often that it became noticeable. I was forever tired, sluggish, and sick. A visit with my doctor (who’s also a gut specialist) and a nutritionist revealed that not only was I on my way to diabetes, I had a leaky gut and I was literally beating up my insides because of my diet.
Because kale smoothies don’t count when you spend the rest of your day binging on paninis, bagels and pasta.
Sometimes I look back on my childhood and I can barely recognize it. There were months when my fridge was anemic and now, as an adult, it’s abundant. I’m humbled by my privilege and the fact that I can afford to shop at farmer’s markets and buy organic. What bookends these two versions of myself were constraints. Back then I was limited by income, now by what I couldn’t consume. For a year, I couldn’t eat gluten, dairy, and yeast. For 6-7 months the list of foods I couldn’t eat was so unbearable that I spent the holidays alone.
At first I was apoplectic, but then I got wise and creative. I forced myself to eat vegetables I’d never previously considered (cauliflower, brussels sprouts). I purchased vegan, paleo, Middle Eastern and Asian cookbooks, and over the course of a year my palate changed and my repertoire expanded. As a result, I’ve noticed that I now cleave toward salty/savory vs. sweet. I eat pasta and bread a couple of times a month instead of multiple times a DAY. And I focus more on the quality of the food I consume rather than its caloric content.
What once had been a hobby that busied my hands became the core of how I would cultivate relationships with people. When I stopped drinking, I’d have friends over for dinner instead of playing the role of detective with my receipts after a night out. Now we connect over our most primal of needs–food, instead of a bottle of wine that merely serves to rob us of memory. We are our most vulnerable selves when we eat, and my friendships are richer, deeper because of it.
When I moved to California I chose my apartment specifically because it’s an open space and I have a deck for outdoor entertaining. From where I’m writing this I face my kitchen and it feels normal to live in a space that combines art, words, work, food, and friendship.
Last night I had my friend Jamie over for dinner, and we spent hours on my deck, talking, eating, marveling over how almond meal renders chicken juicier. While we were talking, I thought about alcohol and other anaesthetic agents. People sometimes ask: do you miss it? Drinking. And I think about how much anesthesia rubs away–you always end up with less than what you started. And then I think about food, which, in my strange math, is always about addition and multiplication. Friendships are fertile. Love festers and grows.
APPLE PIE INGREDIENTS
For the filling
4 pounds apples, peeled, quartered, and cored (I do a mix of tart + sweet–whatever’s in season)
1 lemon, zested
Juice of the lemon you just zested
1/4 cup cane sugar, plus 1 tsp to sprinkle on top
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground allspice
For the pie crust
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) very cold salted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cane sugar
1/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup very cold vegetable shortening (I use a non-hydrogenated kind I get from Whole Foods)
6 to 8 tbsp (about 1/2 cup) ice water
Preheat the oven to 375.
Chop each apple quarter in thirds crosswise and combine in a bowl with the zest, juice, sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Set aside. Don’t worry about the apples browning — the acid from the fruit will halt the oxidation process.
Now you’re ready for the pie crust. I can’t stress enough how COLD the ingredients need to be. Dice the butter in tablespoons, and store it in the fridge while you prepare the flour mixture. Add the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse a few times to mix. Introduce the cider vinegar, butter and shortening. Pulse 8 to 12 times, until the butter is the size of peas. With the machine running, pour the ice water down the feed tube and pulse the machine until the dough begins to form a ball. Dump out on a floured board and roll into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. You can also make this by hand with a pastry blender or the two fork method. However, after the nonsense with the apples I sometimes want to take the path of least resistance.
Once the dough is cold, cut it in half. Roll each piece on a well-floured board into a circle, rolling from the center to the edge, turning and flouring the dough to make sure it doesn’t stick to the board. Fold the dough in half, place in a pie pan, and unfold to fit the pan. Repeat with the top crust.
Roll out half the pie dough and drape it over a 9-inch pie dish to extend about 1/2-inch over the rim. Don’t stretch the dough; if it’s too small, just put it back on the board and re-roll it.
Fill the pie with the apple mixture. Brush the edge of the bottom pie crust with the egg wash so the top crust will adhere. Top with the second crust and trim the edges to about 1-inch over the rim. Tuck the edge of the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust and crimp the 2 together with your fingers or a fork. Brush the entire top crust with the egg wash, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar, and cut 4 or 5 slits.
Place the pie on a sheet pan and bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours (start checking after 45 minutes, and make sure you rotate your dish half-way through the cooking process so the pie will brown evenly), or until the crust is browned and the juices begin to bubble out. Serve warm.
FIG SALAD + CHICKEN CUTLET INGREDIENTS
For the salad
2 cups baby spinach
2 cups baby kale
8-10 figs, halved and quartered
olive oil/sea salt
For the chicken cutlets
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tsp butter
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup almond meal
1 tbsp fresh minced thyme
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 lb chicken cutlets, pounded thin (this serves 4, but I cook the whole lot and store the leftovers for salads
Making the salad is as simple as it looks. One important note, though. I’d wait to dress/toss it in olive oil just when you’re about to serve the salad as you don’t want the leaves getting limp.
The chicken cutlets work like an old-school assembly line. Heat the butter/oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the salt. In another bowl, mix the almond meal, thyme and pepper. Dunk the cutlets in the egg mixture, then dredge in the flour mixture. Fry on both sides (4-5 minutes each) until slightly charred. I kept the cutlets warm in a 175F oven.