Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dear Aimee Bender, I love you.


I admit it, I have a deep, unadulterated love for Aimee Bender. This is not one of those deep, dark confessions, like when I had a crush on Doogie Howser. It is no secret that the kind of schoolgirl crush Bender inspires seems natural, if not obligatory. Readers of her work come to see Bender as the girl you want to pass notes with, the girl you want to drink peach schnapps under the bleachers with, the girl you want to build a tree house with because she always has the best stories and she always, always allows you to be a  grown-up and a kid at the same time.

In her short story collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures (you can find her stories in numerous journals and anthologies, my favorite being Tin House), Bender doesn't just show us how to write a solid magical realist narrative, she shows us that everything is fluid. For Bender, every character has the capacity to be the virgin, the whore, the knight, the damsel in distress, the child, the lover, the beloved, the deformed, the wicked, and the good witch all wrapped in to one massive ball of moments. In short, Bender is one cool chick and if I wrote her a note I'd sign it, "Your BFF, Rachel."


The stories I cooked and drank from were "Lemonade," "Bull," and "Marzipan." I know, I know, it seems like too many, but did I mention Bender is my long lost best friend for life! Anyway, the reason I love each of these stories is because they demonstrate the fluid connection between the physical and the emotional in a way that makes you understand the human condition in an incredibly visceral way. In "Lemonade," our main character is in that painful stage between being a little girl and being an...older little girl (because let's face it, we're all just little girls until maybe the age of 20). This story adequately portrays puberty as hell and teenagers as ferocious beasts with secret, hot pink claws.

We love these kinds of coming-of-age narratives because teenagers tell us a lot about ourselves, they remind us that we are human, that we have the potential for change, and that we are really, really happy to no longer be one of them. The lemonade in the story indicates the complexity of tween narratives, which are just as nice and satisfying as they are awkward and painful (I guess I'm trying to say they are bittersweet without having to say the word bittersweet). And yes, this story made me happy that the "when are my boobs coming in" question is finally settled.

Similarly, the story "Marzipan" takes us through the mind of a adolescent girl who has some quirky parents (a father with a large gaping hole in his stomach and a mother who gives birth to her own dead mother). After the main character's mother gives birth to her own mother, they all sit down to share an incredibly dense marzipan cake (frozen/unthawed from the grandmother's funeral). Although I'm sure it would be strange to eat the cake from your grandmother's funeral with your grandmother, after your mother has just given birth to her, this scene is interesting because of what it tells us about families. And it has everything to do with distance.

The ritual of eating the cake is disrupted by the fact that the presence of the grandmother, although unsettling, doesn't change anything. There are no tears, no joyous hugging. You are here now and all I have to show for it is this fat stomach. Does it matter if your mother comes back after you've let her go? Would we love her more for the knowledge of that loss? The marzipan cake represents the relief we find in our main character and her grandmother. They both love the cake together, eat it together, and perhaps that is connection enough for us, a mutual indulgence.


The story "Bull" is fascinating because of the way it understands our relationship to what we want and what we know to be true. The narrative follows a woman who comes to realize her burglar boyfriend is boring and Spain's largest treasure, the bullfighting arena, is all a sham.There are no real bulls anymore, just puppet-like costumes of bulls that actors stand inside squirting out sangria every time the matador stabs them.

Confused? Well, the heroine of our story is too. To reconcile (or confound) this situation, she steals a bull-suit, acts like a bull, squirts some sangria, and, in order to prove this flawed system wrong, she squirts milk out with the sangira (interesting collision of the maternal with the masculine), everyone freaks out, and she runs to the closest farm where two real cows realize that this bull is...well, fake.

The problem is that the real cows can see inside the fake bull-suit, it's tangible, they know it's there, and maybe that is refreshing, to have it all out in the open. The reality is that we want the bulls to be bulls and the boyfriends to be the boyfriends and the loves to be true loves, but sometimes they aren't, sometimes they are just regular people dressed up like super heroes. So what makes the bull a bull? Does the shell, the symbol of the bull mean more to us? If so, why should it matter? I have no idea. I'm not a life coach.

Superheros and symbolism aside, my Aunt Judy's "Poorman's Sangria" will make you feel like sunshine and glitter. My Aunt spent most of her life in Brazil, Mexico, and Spain, where she learned how to cook and drink like the locals (which adds a nice touch of street-cred to my recipe, I hope). The ingredients are cheap and the result is a perfect blend of tart and sweet. I should add a small, but urgent warning, this sangria is far too easy to drink...if you know what I mean.


Poorman's Sangria
Yields: As many servings as you'd like...
Time: 10 minutes

2 Parts Cheap Merlot
2 Parts Cheap Cabernet Sauvignon
2 Parts Orange Soda
Sliced Oranges
Sliced Limes
Sliced Lemons

Pour wine and orange soda into an extra large pitcher (leave room for ice and fruit). Add several cups of ice.
Then add equal amounts of sliced oranges, lemons, and limes until the pitcher is full. Save slices to add to pitcher later or to use as garnish. Place in refrigerator.


As I explained earlier, "Lemonade" captures the awkward vortex that is our teenage years. Although my "drunken" versions of lemonade may seem a bit grown-up for this story, I just couldn't pass up a valid reason to make a cocktail. And if I'm being honest, my teenage years were not particularly sober ones.


Lemon Mojito
Yields: One cocktail
Time: 10 minutes

Start with a large glass and...

Add 2 shots of Light Rum
Add 8-10 Mint Leaves
Muddle or gently mash the contents (I used the butt end of a knife)
Add 3/4 shot of Lemon Juice (or Lime Juice for purists)
Add 1/2 shot of Simple Syrup
Fill glass with Crushed Ice
Top off the glass with Sparkling/Soda Water

Sidenote: Some recipes call for a splash of ginger beer or gingerale, personally I don't think it's necessary.


Black and Blue Lemonade
Yields: One cocktail
Time: 5 minutes

Start with a medium glass and...

Add 1 shot of Limoncello
Add 2 Mint Leaves and muddle very gently
Add 2-3 Blackberries
Fill with Crushed Ice
Top off with Sparkling/Soda Water


Although I didn't use true marzipan in this cake, I used it's lighter cousin almond paste. Both marzipan and almond paste lend an intense almond flavor and tend to make the cake more moist. Almond paste and marzipan have an acquired texture and taste, allowing me to see the grandmother and granddaughter's shared love for the marzipan cake as a unique connection. Kind of like cake soul mates.

Layered Almond Cake with Lemon Curd Cream
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living and Southern Cooking

Yields: One 8-inch cake
Time: Don't even ask...

1 cup (2 sticks) Unsalted Butter, room temperature
6 ounces Almond Paste, room temperature
1 cup Sugar
4 large Eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1 cup Flour
1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
Pinch of Salt
Lemon Curd Cream (see recipe below)
Strawberries, with leaves/stems cut off
Limoncello (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans VERY well (this is a very sticky cake).

2. Cut almond paste into small chunks, then beat almond paste and butter on medium speed until fluffy.

3. Beat in sugar until combined. Add eggs and vanilla extract, beat until combined.

4. Slowly add flour, baking powder, and salt, beat until combined.

5. Divide batter between pans and spread evenly with spatula. Bake at 350 for 22-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove cakes from oven and cool completely.

6. Place the 1st cooled cake in a 9-inch springform pan. Spread 3/4 of Lemon Curd Cream on cake and cover with 2nd cooled cake. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

7. When you are ready to serve cake, remove from springform pan and transfer to serving plate. Place strawberries, cut side down, on top of the cake. Then place blueberries on top of the strawberries.

8. Using the remaining Lemon Curd Cream, pipe dots in the spaces between the strawberries. Brush Limoncello on tips of Strawberries (for sanity's sake, take a swig of Limoncello because you deserve it). See it wasn't that hard...

Lemon Curd Cream

2 jars of Lemon Curd
1 cup of Cool Whip or whipped cream

Fold Cool Whip or whipped cream into Lemon Curd until combined. Add more cream if necessary.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"A Trip Takes Us": Reading, Eating, and Drinking My Way Through the Pacific Coast


For Spring Break this year, my boyfriend Josh and I embarked on what can only be called a "road trip on crack." In search of the perfect law school and a good time, we traveled from New Mexico to Arizona to California to Oregon and back. Racing up the Pacific Coast at a brisk 80 miles/hour, we tried our best to indulge in everything the West Coast has to offer and we even found time to sleep once or twice.


As Steinbeck wisely stated, "we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." Agreeing wholeheartedly, I feel that road trips should teach you something about yourself and your fellow travelers. If it had not been for this trip, I would never have known that Josh can change his pants while weaving through traffic on Sunset Blvd. or that he knows every System of a Down song by heart. In the spirit of learning stuff about stuff, I decided to read two road-related novels (William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley) and tried to eat as much food as possible. Ten pounds and one hell of a hangover later, this is what I learned...


I learned that I have a love-hate relationship with William Burroughs, a relationship I'm assuming he had with many of the people in his life (i.e. fans, lovers, friends, opium den mates, etc.). While I love the fact that Burroughs sucks me in and spits me back out into a terrifying Beat mosaic, his use of women as battering rams just highlights the fact that, much like his inability to write a typo-free sentence, he was a repressed, opiate-addicted yuppie. Harsh? Yes. True? Very much so. My personal feelings aside, it must be said that Naked Lunch is an awkward masterpiece, perfect in it's true affront to convention.


I also learned that John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row may be better than Travels with Charley, but this non-fiction, travel memoir is still a great read. Steinbeck is, as always, straightforward in his use of language and honest in all the ways we need him to be. Before anything else, Steinbeck is a storyteller and he tells a damn good story. Where Burroughs wants to obliterate perceptions, Steinbeck wants to enlighten.

In simpler terms, Naked Lunch is like your crazy uncle that drinks too much, hits on your friends, and throws up on your couch, whereas Travels with Charley is like your reliable grandfather who leans back on his porch chair, smelling always of salt and chewing tobacco (this would imply that Ginsberg and Kerouac are the dope-adled, sexually-ambiguous friends of your uncle, which would be awesome).


Needless to say, the Beat movement is over and San Francisco is much calmer these days. Not to say that you can't find hash-smoking, shirtless hippies, it just seems less subversive when the hash-smoker is a semi-obese, middle-aged bum. If it's orgies and social revolutions you are looking for, then find a time machine, but if you are looking for some kick ass crab cakes, then the Pacific Coast was made for you.


The food on the Pacific Coast is the best in the world, not because it's stuffy and complicated, but because it has carried that "screw the rules" hippie mindset over to it's cuisine. As cliche as it sounds, L.A., San Francisco, Napa/Sonoma Valley, and Portland are food cities because they prize innovation over anything else (whether it's street food or upscale dining).


A few of my Pacific Coast recommendations (please add your suggestions to this list):

1. Best Dessert - Mango Gelato at Mio Gelato in Portland, OR (Pearl District)
2. Best Breakfast - Swedish Pancakes at Fred's Coffee Shop in Sausalito, CA
3. Best Bread/Pastry - Walnut Panini at Pearl Bakery in Portland, OR (Pearl District, no surprise)
4. Best Seafood - Dungeness Crab Cakes at Scoma's Restaurant in San Fransisco, CA (The Wharf)
5. Best Pasta - Saffron Pappardelle with Jumbo Prawns and Wild Mushrooms at Allegria in Napa, CA
6. Best Cocktail - Dark and Stormy (Dark Rum and Ginger Beer) at Doug Fir in Portland, OR
7. Best Wine - Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel at Cuvee in Napa, CA
8. Best Beer - Leafer Madness Imperial Pale Ale at Henry's Tavern in Portland, OR (Pearl District)
9. Best Bar Food - Fresh Cut Garlic Fries at Weiland Brewery in Los Angeles, CA (Little Tokyo)
10. Biggest Craziest Meal - Burrito Dorado at El Cholo's in Los Angeles, CA
11. Best Burger - Cheeseburger at In-N-Out Burger in Los Angles, CA
12. Best Road Trip Food - Cake Doughnuts from Delicious Donuts in Portland, OR and Caramels from the Cheese Factory in Sonoma, CA (Josh would recommend Beef Jerky and Sunflower Seeds, any kind)
13. Best Road Trip Books - On the Road by Kerouac and Lolita by Nabokov (old favorites always win)


Warning: Chinatown's version of a small order of Sake is not small, it's huge, like a pitcher of warm, sweet rubbing alcohol.


I also recommend the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, OR (as shown above). The hotel is connected to a popular bar called the Doug Fir (bands like the Decemberists were born and raised there). I love this hotel because a) the bar connected to it houses a large glass moose head, b) the staff gives you REAL recommendations, rather than regurgitating a tourist guide, c) the decor is college dorm meets city loft, and d) you have to stumble a mere 50 feet from one of the liveliest bars in the city.


Only in Portland will you find generous slices of Vegan Pizza and Pabst Blue Ribbon in the same sentence. For whiskey-lovers, Portland's Cellar Bar in the Annex gave us the best whiskey tasting we've ever had (I recommend Jefferson's Reserve Very Old).


If New York City is the head of America, then Napa Valley is the heart. Although it seems a bit overrun with tourists, the vineyards are lush and the locals move at their own pace. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Sidenote: Skip the ghost town that is Downtown Napa and head over to it's bustling step-cousin Downtown Sonoma.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Falling for Alice Munro

I should begin by saying that I didn’t like Alice Munro right away. I had just gotten off of a particularly obsessive Faulkner binge and couldn’t wrap my brain around her tight, sometimes minimalistic sentences. I just didn’t get it. I wanted Faulkner’s long, sweeping sentences and a mason jar of whiskey, straight-up. Nevertheless, my sexually confused, Faulkner-induced stupor finally faded and I realized that I couldn’t stop reading Alice Munro, I wanted her too, but in a very different way.

In her latest book Too Much Happiness, Munro penetrates the shifting fabric of marriage, the complexion of death, and teaches us how to appreciate grotesque, even gothic tones. You have to appreciate an author who can portray a controlling, child-killing husband without the narrative becoming too much like a “but I love him anyway” Oprah episode.

Munro’s strength is not that she twists cliché plotlines, but that she forces us to see that tragedy happens, not because we are special, but because we are human, because we all have something inside of us that is selfish and cruel.

On a somewhat lighter note, I decided to “eat” my way through the story “Deep Holes” (which sounds much more sordid than I had originally planned). In a story that maps the intricacies and schisms of the American family, the foods that Munro chose to highlight are just as problematic and irrational as her characters. In the first scene, the main female character packs lemon tarts, Mumm’s champagne, and deviled eggs for their family picnic.

These are the following reasons why I would NEVER take a tart, deviled eggs, or Mumm’s on a family picnic: a) that tart was a lot of work, b) neither food packs well, and c) I can’t imagine feeding my kids deviled eggs and tarts for lunch, while drinking a pretty expensive bottle of champagne. Considering the fact that this picnic occurs in the middle of a geological anomaly (a park dotted with large, cavernous holes), the entire situation gives the reader (and the cook) a sense of unease.

Although Munro barely goes into detail regarding her food choices, they reveal a woman who is dislocated from her marriage, her children, and the reality of the moment (i.e. her marriage sucks and her children are perched on a literal and metaphorical cliff). The danger is that she sees her life as a parade of small details: packing the eggs, breast feeding in public, drinking enough champagne so that it pleases her husband, but doesn’t hurt the baby…the list is endless. Munro seems to beg the question: What do we lose when we don’t look at the big picture? What is left out when we stop treating our life like it matters? I don’t know, but the lemon tart tasted great.

I’m not particularly sure why, but in the making of my Munro récipes, I ended up using about 2 dozen eggs. Apparently, Munro has eggs on the brain (I will refrain from any comments on fertility here).  Nonetheless, both of these classics were a hit at the Academy Award party we went to last weekend (I love you Jeff Bridges).

I adapted recipes by Paula Deen and Martha Stewart, two formidable foodie goddesses. I tweaked them a bit, but you will find that both recipes are stable, sometimes easy, and always rewarding (no surprise that Deen uses mayo and Stewart uses fancy French terminology).

Southern Deviled Eggs
Adapted from a récipe in Paula Deen’s Home Cooking
Time: 20-25 minutes
Servings: 14 eggs

7 large eggs, hard boiled and peeled
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I always add an extra teaspoon, if I find the yolks to be a bit dry)
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickles (or sweet pickle relish, whichever you prefer)
¼ teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes, for garnishing

1. Cut the hard boiled eggs into halves, lengthwise. Carefully remove yolks and place in a small-ish bowl.
2. Mash yolks with a fork and stir in mayonnaise, chopped pickles, vinegar, and mustard. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Trust me, you will have to add/taste/add/taste because every batch of deviled eggs is different (it’s just another unexplained scientific fact, like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot).
3. Fill egg whites with yolk mixture. If you are trying to impress your mother-in-law or your cellmates, I mean, coworkers, then use a piping tube to fill the egg whites. Garnish with crushed red pepper flakes. Store covered in refrigerator. 

Add ¼ cup of chopped bacon to the yolk mixture and substitute crushed red pepper flake garnish for a few bits of chopped bacon (please, no bacon bits from the jar, frying up some REAL bacon never hurt anybody, except maybe Bill Clinton).

Blueberry-Lemon Tart
Adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living
Time: Don’t plan anything else that day…just kidding, about 1 ½- 2 hours.
Servings: One 12-inch tart

1 twelve-inch Pate Sucree, tart shell, baked and cooled (see recipe below)
8 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (yes, this is VERY tedious, but it is worth it)
1 cup fresh lemon juice, plus 1 teaspoon for blueberry mixture
2 cans (each 14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups of fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon of sugar

  1. Whisk egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, condensed milk, and salt until smooth (beat for about 30 seconds on medium speed, if using a mixer).
  1. Pour into 12-inch tart shell (crust MUST be baked and cooled). Bake until edges of filling are firm and slightly puffed, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool. Refrigerate for 1 hour, then remove sides of tart pans (leaving the base), and refrigerate, uncovered, until the bottom of the pan is cool to the touch.
  1. Place blueberries, sugar, and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, constantly stirring. Cook just until a thick syrup has formed, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool completely. Carefully pour mixture on the middle of tart. Refrigerate covered tart or serve (whichever comes first).

Pate Sucree
Adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living (thanks go to Martha for the best crust recipe ever)
Time: 30-45 minutes
Servings: Makes one 12-inch tart shell

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt (Martha says it’s optional, but I think it’s necessary)

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

4 tablespoons ice water2 large cold egg yolks, beaten

  1. Now I don’t mean to be a stickler, but precision is key to any good crust. It’s all about keeping that butter cold, so make sure you work fast and use VERY cold ingredients.
  1. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  1. Beat together water and egg yolks, and slowly pour into flour-butter mixture while stirring with a fork (ditch the pastry blender). As soon as pastry starts to come together, stop adding liquid. Shape dough into a round disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out to 1/8 inch thick. Press pastry into bottom and sides of tart pan. Run a rolling pin across top to trim. (Scraps can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for later use.)
  1. Carefully line pastry with aluminum foil, and weight with beans, rice, or pastry weights ( I used rice). Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. When pastry begins to color around the edges, remove weights and foil and continue to bake until pastry turns light golden brown, 8 to 10 more minutes (bake a bit longer if you are making a tart filling that does not require any added baking time). Place pan on a wire rack and let cool completely before filling.