the Chef

how this food connects us

that orange drink

Most of my best food experiences come from random happenstance, it seems.

Yesterday, while I was buying my daily venti drip coffee for the Chef at the beginning of his shift, I talked to my favorite barista about her lunch. (We talk every day, and we have become friends. It wasn’t as weird as it seems.) She exulted about the jicama she ate, along with fresh fruit. Jicama.…My brain caught upon it, the idea of that crisp, delicious white tuber, cut into strips. By the time I had walked back to the Chef’s restaurant, I had an idea. Together, we perused his copy of Culinary Artistry, his favorite book besides mine. Jicama goes well with chiles and lime? Hm. When I left the door, I had a new recipe in mind. Time to go to the store.

This is how we ate my new favorite dish for dinner last night: chilled millet with roasted jalapenos, mangoes, lime segments, and slivered jicama. Oh goodness. You’ll see it, eventually, too.

There’s always a tug at the back of my brain when a new food idea enters. Something stops. For a moment, I seize. My gut says yes. And then my mind won’t let go. I walk around for a few moments like a zombie, chanting in my head, “Jicama. Jicama.” Finally, I have to go do something about it, just to move onto something new.

I’m so grateful to be living a life that allows me to act on this strange behavior.

Last week, I was reading the February issue of Saveur magazine, their 100 favorite foods, restaurants, drinks, people, places, and things. Don’t let me get started on how fascinated I have been by this issue, and inspired. There are pink post-it notes darting up from nearly every page, marking foods and recipes I want to try. One simple paragraph, along with a photograph of a hand clutching a drink, set me going the most, however:

“Though its name means to die dreaming, Morir Soñando hasn’t scared folks away from Reben Luncheonette, in Brooklyn, New York, where they’ve been serving the Dominican beverage — fresh-squeezed orange juice, milk, sugar, and a dash of vanilla syrup, shaken with ice — for 45 years. A sign behind the counter proclaims, ‘You taste it. If you don’t like it, don’t pay.’ Assistant manager Aristedes Anthony Garcia says nobody’s ever asked for money back.”

My brain stopped for a beat when I read this. I don’t know why, entirely. I have stopped needing to know why on these matters. I just knew I needed to make it.

On Sunday, my dear friend Merida came over for lunch. She and the Chef have become great friends, so I will switch that pronoun to our from now on. Amidst all the celebrations of the holidays and the manuscript being turned in, we had seen her some, but not just the three of us, alone. What better time than Sunday lunch?

I love a Sunday afternoon, lazy and slow. Food, but nothing rushed. The Chef made us a big plate of fried chicken, from a recipe we developed for the book. “Oh holy god,” Merida uttered upon her first bite. I couldn’t talk at all, for ten minutes. This chicken was so juicy — from the buttermilk soaking — and so crispy — from the breadcrumbs and sorghum flour, that I just couldn’t stop eating it. I barely took a breath.

It had been two years since I had eaten fried chicken.

There was also a lovely plate of sauteed kale and roasted vegetables, but I barely paid attention to that, I’m afraid to say.

Sated and smiling, we all settled down on the couch. We had talked, idly, about going to the movies. But after a meal like that, you rarely want to be industrious and drive somewhere with a purpose. We decided to stay in, instead.

Thus began the longest, loveliest afternoon of sitting in front of the television I have experienced in a long time. For four months, I had to be disciplined and productive, nearly every hour of the day. I could not remember the last time I had acted like a kid still in her pajamas at 4 pm on a Saturday. We gave in.

We watched several episodes of Arrested Development, which the Chef has only started watching, because of us. There was one episode of Jamie Oliver’s series, which was really a busman’s holiday for the Chef, since every time he watches dear Jamie he sprouts ideas for the restaurant. He makes us put the dvd on pause (not really such a chore, since it freezes on Jamie’s lovely face) and scrawls shorthand menu items. This time, it was something with prosciutto and goat cheese. We insisted on showing the Chef the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers, a series he has somehow never experienced. (He has never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or The Sound of Music, either. Shock! We have some movie watching to do.) When Basil thwacked his wonky car with a huge branch, we all laughed so hard I thought I would hurt myself. Mostly, there were episodes of South Park, of course.

(If Matt Stone and Trey Parker are somehow reading this, we would love for you to come to our wedding. We do have a South Park love, after all.)

After hours of idling, we needed something more to eat. Three of the most determined and busy bees finally rested, together. It made us hungry. As I peeled myself from the couch, I suddenly remembered the orange drink. “Hey Merida,” I shouted from the kitchen. “Do you want to make this?” And I brought the magazine toward her.

Her eyes grew wide. “Morir Soñando!” she shouted, without looking at the blurb. Her Dominican grandmother and aunt in New York used to make it for her, all through her childhood. “It’s good for clearing the head and giving you energy,” she said. Well, we could use some of that.

We could have gone to the store and bought oranges for fresh orange juice. We could easily have found some whole vanilla beans, which Merida says makes it taste infinitely better. But, when that food idea tugs at my gut, and I can feel it within reach, I want it now. So, we improvised.

“More,” Merida said, as I poured in some orange juice from the carton. “A little milk now,” she urged me. We had no recipe. We just played with the proportions in the blender until the color looked right to Merida. “There!” she shouted, and we poured it into glasses.

Merida’s eyes closed with the pleasure of this childhood treat. I took one sip, and my eyes shot open. “Oh my god!” I shouted, then took a glass to the Chef, in the living room. He took one sip and looked up at me, astonished. We both had the same memory.

Orange Julius.

When I was a kid, one of my most favorite treats was this orange-drink concoction at the mall: Orange Julius. We couldn’t afford it that often, and even as a kid I sort of hated the mall. But when we had that frosty, frozen orange explosion in our mouths, I was in heaven. I remember, along with the poofy colored hats the poor kids who worked that stand were forced to wear, that everyone wondered how Orange Julius achieved that elixir of taste. No one knew the recipe.

It turns out — it seemed to us — it was a mass-production variation on a Dominican drink, all along.

And in that moment of drinking orange juice and milk, frothed up with vanilla syrup, I knew why my mind and gut had tugged at reading that recipe. Not just because it reminded me of my Orange Julius childhood, but also because it connected the three of us in that room, with the slender thread of remembered tastes. There we all had been, in the late 1970s — Merida, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; the Chef at the Cinderella Mall in Denver; and me, at the Montclair Plaza, just outside of Los Angeles — all drinking something similar and marveling at the taste. None of us knew each other then. None of us even knew the other ones existed. But there we were, in early 2007, gathered in this room together, now integral to each other’s lives, and remembering our childhoods.

I love how this food connects us. The world now feels much smaller, and far less random, than I once thought.


HOMEMADE MORIR SONANDO

I am certain that the more authentic version of this, with fresh-squeezed orange juice and vanilla bean paste, would be even more exciting than this simple fix we created. However, I will say this: I haven’t been able to stop drinking this version. Besides, with the citrus crop all but destroyed in California now, it may be that we will all be drinking orange juice from a carton for awhile.

Life is short. Let’s live it, imperfectly.

4 cups orange juice
1 cup milk
15 ice cubes
2 tablespoons vanilla syrup (or more, to taste)

Throw it all in the blender. Whirl it up. Taste it to see if you like it. Add more of what you need. Blend again. Drink.

Serves three thirsty people.

gluten-free blueberry muffins

blueberry muffin

I am becoming so domestic.

This morning, I woke up before the Chef. Sentences were singing in my mind, with a high-pitched insistence. Reluctantly, I left the bed to write some more, quelling the choir into quietness. After awhile, I was fully awake. After I set a pot of coffee going, I checked in on the Chef. Sleeping sweetly. What was I to do? Read the paper? Curl up with my new favorite book? Go for a walk?

No, I did the only sensible thing a gluten-free girl can do. I made muffins. From scratch.

I have never made gluten-free muffins from scratch. I have only made them from mixes a few times, and those are fine. In fact, I have one sitting on the shelves of our pantry, right now. I could have so easily dumped that in the KitchenAid, added some butter and eggs, and called it done.

But these days, almost nine months after the Chef and I met, I find myself — to my surprise — becoming incessantly domestic. I make lists of projects to do around the home. I spend every evening wiping down the counters so the kitchen is clean before the Chef comes back. When I lived alone, I would let the kitchen go, for days. Who was around to see it? Now that it is his home too, I find that I want it gleaming and clean. And after reading dozens of crafty blogs the last month — especially this one — I’m even considering buying this book and teaching myself to sew.

(If you had seen the lopsided, sadly shapen, horribly embroidered placemat I made in the seventh grade, you would know just how shocking that sentence is.)

Mostly, though, I just can’t stop creating food. Certainly, that has been true for more than a year and a half now, since I stopped eating gluten. I have been cooking myself into a new being for months and months. But now, I’m cooking for someone else. Top it off, I’m cooking for a professional chef, a damned fine one. I have had to face the reality — I will never sear lamb chops or create a fish special the way this lovely man can, no matter how long I cook. He has a gift, a genius, I can only admire. Then again, he stands in awe of my writing, particularly the fact that I wrote an entire book in four months. We both have our strengths.

But you see? No one cooks for chefs. Everyone is too intimidated. Unless I let go of the need to be as good as him, the man will never eat home-cooked food. And this is our home.

Long ago, I gave up trying to impress him. What I want most of all now is to feed him.

Nothing sends out love like baked goods made from scratch. When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I thought I would never be able to make a batch of cookies for a friend, or woo a man with my pies. Now, however, I no longer worry. I’ve done enough experimenting with gluten-free flours to know what I want. The bottom shelf of our little pantry is filled with little one-pound bags of millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff. I love the experimenting.

Mostly, though, I love the final product. When I make something new, and it turns out right, I stand in the kitchen and clap my hands, truly delighted. These muffins? They were golden-brown and studded with raw sugar, filled with so many blueberries that some bites tasted like June, and wonderfully warm. When I brought one into the Chef — he had been awoken by the smell of baking — along with a hot cup of coffee, he smiled up at me, delighted.

That is the sweetest part of domesticity: the look of love in his eyes.

BLUEBERRY MUFFINS WITH LEMON ZEST, adapted from The Best Recipe

Gluten-free baking truly isn’t that hard. All it takes is a desire to play and a willingness to make mistakes. However, over time — months later —you will know, instinctually, which flour to use. When I made these muffins, I knew. Sorghum, because that is the base of almost everything I bake these days. It is light and binding, the closest texture to wheat of any of the gluten-free flours. In fact, I use it in almost everything I bake these days. White rice flour, because muffins should be light and airy, with almost no density, just enough to hold them together. Tapioca flour, because some kind of starch works well with these together. (Could have been cornstarch or potato starch. I like tapioca starch here. It has an ephemeral sweetness, faint but perceptible, that I like.) Put them together — muffins.

My friend Monica came over for a visit this afternoon, for one last conversation before she returns to New York. She can’t eat gluten either. In fact, she was diagnosed because of me — she had the same symptoms, and my experience taught her what questions to ask. I fed her minestrone soup, some of the gluten-free bread, and one of these muffins. “Man, you are really getting this gluten-free baking down,” she said. I smiled. No accolade at school ever felt so sweet.

10 tablespoons unsalted, soft butter
1 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 cup sweet white sorghum flour
1 cup white rice flour
1 cup tapioca flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (or ½ teaspoon cream of tartar, ½ teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon cornstarch)
½ teaspoon baking soda (if combining above, add another ½ teaspoon to mix)
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups plain yogurt
1 cup blueberries (frozen are fine)
2 tablespoons raw sugar

Preheat the oven to 375.

Combine all the dry ingredients together. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together, until just creamed. If you leave the stand mixer running as they are creaming, these muffins will not rise. Simply cream them until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each egg.

Add one half of the dry ingredients, mixing well. Add one-third of the yogurt and combine until well mixed. Add one-half of the remaining dry ingredients to the mixture, and combine. Continue this, alternating the yogurt and dry ingredients, until you have mixed both of them in, completely.

Add as many blueberries as you can.

Oil a muffin tin well, then sprinkle a little cornstarch or white rice flour on the bottom of each cup. Fill each space for muffin two-thirds full. Sprinkle the raw sugar over the top and set them in the oven.

(This recipe will give you enough batter to make two tins of muffins, or close.)

Bake the muffins for about 35 minutes, or until the tops have browned and started to harden, and the entire house smells of warm blueberry muffins. If your sweetie wakes up from the smell, the muffins are done.

Makes 18 muffins.

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