Writing Life

Piedmont Has Hills… and Ridiculously Good Wine and Food.

Homemade tajarin, which is the Piedmontese name for taglierini, with porcini, spinach, and a poached egg. The garnishes are salted capers, caperberries, toasted and chopped pine nuts, and chopped olives. Although the many dishes of tajarin I had were made with fresh pasta, dried "nests" of these noodles where available for sale all over the region. The pasta is an egg dough, but specifically egg yolks, which lends the pasta its color. I experienced it mostly hand-cut to various thin widths.

Homemade tajarin, which is the Piedmontese name for taglierini, served here with porcini, spinach, and a poached egg. The garnishes are salted capers, caperberries, toasted and chopped pine nuts, and chopped olives. Although the many dishes of tajarin I had in Piedmont were made with fresh pasta, dried “nests” of these noodles where available for sale all over the region. The pasta is an egg dough, but specifically egg yolks, which lends the pasta its color. It appeared mostly hand-cut to various thin widths nearing fettuccine. It almost came exclusively as a simple yet richly flavorful dish, served with only butter and Parmesan for a sauce, thinned with a little pasta water (I imagine), and either shavings of black truffles or asparagus or  with wilted spinach. This dish pictured served as the “primo piatto” for my first Piedmont inspired meal. I tried to evoke tajarin’s substance in this homage to the nests of dried pasta.

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.

Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.

The meal started with this cantaloupe, tomato, and tomatillo gazpacho. While the flavors are not truly Italian, we did have a chilled spicy tomato soup with pepitas on our last night in Monforte d'Alba that I was conjuring up, yet with a Texas flavor. I used three tomatoes and three tomatillos peeled and seeded. I seeded the tomatoes in a wire strainer over a bowl to catch all of the juices. I used a quarter of a cantaloupe; a quarter each of seeded red, orange, and yellow bell peppers; a quarter of a red onion; the juice of one lime; one jalapeno seeded; one cucumber peeled and seeded; and a tbsp of chopped basil and a tbsp of chopped mint. Those ingredients were blended smooth. I topped the gazpacho with  heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, salted toasted pumpkin seeds, and mint and basil.

The Piedmont nostalgia meal started with this cantaloupe, tomato, and tomatillo gazpacho. While the flavors are not truly Italian, we did have a chilled spicy tomato soup with pepitas on our last night in Monforte d’Alba that I was conjuring up, yet with a Texas flavor. I used three tomatoes and three tomatillos peeled and seeded. I seeded the tomatoes in a wire strainer over a bowl to catch all of the juices. I used a quarter of a cantaloupe; a quarter each of seeded red, orange, and yellow bell peppers; a quarter of a red onion; the juice of one lime; one jalapeno seeded; one cucumber peeled and seeded; 1/4 cup of olive oil; and a tbsp of chopped basil and a tbsp of chopped mint. Those ingredients were blended smooth and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. I topped the gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, salted toasted pumpkin seeds, and mint and basil.

What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.

This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.

“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.

Our meals in Piedmont were always long affairs with many courses and many wines. The porcini tajarin was our second course, accompanied by a nice Arneis, a white wine not in much abundance here in Texas, which is sad. It's a great wine and can drink like a light Chablis. I made the tajarin with four egg yolks to a 3/4 cup of "double zero" flour. The pasta is tossed in butter, a little pasta cooking water, grated Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and chopped porcini mushrooms. I wanted the poached egg to act as an additional layer to the sauce, which would be seasoned by the garnishes.

Our meals in Piedmont were always long affairs with many courses and many wines. The porcini tajarin was our second course, accompanied by a nice Arneis, a white wine not in much abundance here in Texas, which is sad. It’s a great wine and can drink like a light Chablis. I made the tajarin with four egg yolks to a 3/4 cup of “double zero” flour. The pasta is tossed in butter, a little pasta cooking water, grated Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and chopped porcini mushrooms. I wanted the poached egg to act as an additional layer to the sauce, which would be seasoned by the garnishes.

Piedmont is know for braised meats, and we enjoyed many such dishes. One in particular was a braised pork shank I ate in Monforte d'Alba. Most of the second piatti would just be the meat and vegetable. Asparagus was abundant, and we ate family-style many times. This course reflects that.

Piedmont is known for braised meats, and we enjoyed many such dishes. One in particular was a braised pork shank I ate in Monforte d’Alba that had a delicious crust of a glaze. It came with a simple side of perfectly fried cubes of pillowy potatoes.  Most of the second piatti we had would just be the meat and a vegetable. Asparagus was abundant on our trip, and we ate family-style many times. This course reflects that. I couldn’t find pork shank on the day I made this dish, so it is pork shoulder, but a small 3 lb bone-in shoulder. I braised the shoulder at 285 °F for 4.5 hours, and then finished it with the glaze at 450 °F for 10 minutes. The glaze is just a reduced cup of pomegranate juice mixed into a paste with kosher salt, brown sugar, and black pepper.

Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts, and with its hazelnuts, Nutella. A common dessert in the region is a hazelnut cake, and we had the extreme pleasure of eating in a family-run renovated farmhouse restaurant in Acqui, and the sweet and talented chef, Clara, gave us a demonstration on making homemade Nutella and even enlisted me in preparing a hazelnut cake. That night, we ate overlooking the vineyards where Clara's son Guido grows Dolcetto, Barbera, and Muscato, and makes excellent wine, which he served us. I tried to recapture a little flavor of the area by making a chocolate bark with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt.

Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts, and with its hazelnuts, Nutella. A common dessert in the region is a hazelnut cake, and we had the extreme pleasure of eating in a family-run renovated farmhouse restaurant in Acqui, and the sweet and talented chef, Clara, gave us a demonstration on making homemade Nutella and even enlisted me in preparing a hazelnut cake. That night, we ate overlooking the vineyards where Clara’s son Guido grows Dolcetto, Barbera, and Muscato, and makes excellent wine, which he served us. I tried to recapture a little flavor of the area by making a chocolate bark with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt. I got the idea for this bark from the wonderful food and poetry blog, Eat This Poem.

I served the chocolate bark over white chocolate mousse with a cherry compote for an end to the meal. We left Piedmont just at the start of cherry season.

I served the chocolate bark over white chocolate mousse with a cherry compote for an end to the meal. We left Piedmont just at the start of cherry season. I wish we had had more time. To make the mousse, I found a very helpful video on YouTube.

The view from Clara and Guido's restaurant.

The view from Clara and Guido’s restaurant.

Helping Clara with the hazelnut cake. She supplied the hat.

Helping Clara with the hazelnut cake. She supplied the hat and the Muscato. Nice way to cook.

<p style="text-align: center;"><em>And yes, homemade Nutella in Piedmont with local hazelnuts is ridiculously tasty.

And yes, homemade Nutella in Piedmont with local hazelnuts is ridiculously tasty.


Wine-Poached Sea Scallops with a Coconut-Cucumber-Basil Broth and the Art of Failure

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, charred scallions.

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, and charred scallions. For the broth, I brought 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk to a boil with 2 tbsp of sugar. Once boiling, I turned off the heat and steeped the leaves from one bunch of basil for 30 minutes. I removed the leaves and blended the broth with a peeled cucumber and shallot in the food processor. It was put through a mesh strainer and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. The broth is served chilled. I cleaned four sea scallops and sliced each one horizontally into four discs. They were poached in Gewürtztraminer with pink peppercorns. One radish, a golden beet, and two baby fennel bulbs were shaved. Four scallions were charred on a grill pan and sliced. This makes four appetizer portions.

In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.

I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme. The meal started with this salad.

 

Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.

My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. This dish was served as the main course.

 

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

 


Cape Breton Tea Biscuits

Cape Breton Tea Biscuit

“‘Yes…’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes…’ / A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that.…’” So Elizabeth Bishop describes a habit of speech from Nova Scotia in her poem “The Moose,” and it’s true. This particular verbal gesture, this custom of saying “yes” as if swallowing it, or it’s consuming you, and not necessarily a response to any question, but simply a way to let the person you are speaking with know that you’re listening, that you’re with them, you’re there, this peculiar “yes” was one of the surprises for me when I visited the province. I was also surprised to see a moose, multiple moose, in fact, but unlike Bishop’s moose, the ones I saw were on Cape Breton. The biggest shock was not the discovery of a “sweet / sensation of joy” at the encounter with the “grand, otherworldly,” and curious creatures. No, it was the herd of not-so-brilliant humans getting out of their cars and playing paparazzi, and being just as reckless to everyone involved, beasts and bystanders included. We had come to Nova Scotia to visit Holly’s relatives, but with the additional intentions of seeing the place Bishop had mapped so descriptively in her many Nova Scotian poems and to learn to like eating fish. More precisely, cooked fish. To help with that, we booked a few days at the end of our trip in the south end of Nova Scotia at the Trout Point Lodge. This idyllic, luxury hotel specializes in local seafood, with preparations paying homage to the Acadian history of the province. It’s a beautiful retreat, perched along a river surrounded by woods, and the wonderful flowers and vegetables from the gardens will end up on your table.

The dough can be difficult to work with. Since I am no expert at cutting in butter to the dry ingredients, I use the food processor. A 8-10 pulses with butter that has been chilled in the freeze for about 30 minutes does the trick. When adding the liquid to the butter-dry ingredient mix, the key is not to overwork it. If it is too wet to handle, I add a little more flour when I'm gathering it up and rolling it out.

The dough can be difficult to work with. Since I am no expert at cutting in butter to dry  ingredients, I use the food processor. 8-10 pulses with butter that has been chilled in the freezer for about 30 minutes does the trick. When adding the liquid to the butter-dry ingredient mix, the key is not to overwork it. If it is too wet to handle, I add a little more flour when I’m gathering it up and rolling it out.

“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides” is how Bishop opens “The Moose,” with that generative, propagating, localizing preposition, “From,” and the poem begins its cinematic sweep. Like a tracking shot in a movie, a single sentence carries us across a landscape over six stanzas, telescoping down from a bird’s-eye view to join a journey in progress, where “a bus journeys west,” the main clause of the sentence that finally arrives after we’ve been held in suspension for twenty-five lines. It’s a breathtaking sentence, and though Bishop travels west, presumably from her childhood home of Great Village, following along an inlet of the Bay of Fundy and tributaries, “where if the river / enters or retreats / in a wall of brown foam / depends on if it meets / the bay coming in / the bay not at home,”  before she turns north to New Brunswick and her moose, Holly and I travelled west, too, but then south, on the North Atlantic Ocean side. While the Trout Point Lodge fish-fest didn’t quite take, I did learn a little something about the Acadian style of cooking, particularly some techniques for incorporating the holy trinity of onion-celery-green pepper with your roux in making gumbo. Yet the biggest culinary surprise on that trip to the province “of fish and bread and tea” was the Cape Breton tea biscuit. Every home we stayed at had their own version of this tasty cross between a flaky, buttery biscuit and a scone. The relatives who graciously opened their doors and guest-rooms to us also generously made Cape Breton tea biscuits to have in the morning with jam and butter and coffee. I devoured them gratefully over our conversations around the table. Morning can have its own form of “dreamy divagation,” and the scene on Bishop’s bus is a social one not distant from the hearth or family table, hosting its talk of “names being mentioned, / things cleared up finally; / what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; // deaths, deaths and sicknesses; / the year he remarried; / the year (something) happened.” When I discovered the biscuits at the ubiquitous Tim Hortons as we drove across Nova Scotia, I couldn’t resist them.

This is my version of the Tim Hortons savory tea biscuit. I cooked off four slices of bacon and cooled them completely. I chopped them and added them with 1/2 cup of shredded white cheddar to half of a batch of biscuits.

This is my evocation of the Tim Hortons savory tea biscuit. I cooked four slices of bacon and cooled them completely. I chopped and added them with a 1/2 cup of shredded white cheddar to half of a batch of biscuits.

The first thing we did once getting back on the main road to Halifax after our stay at the Trout Point Lodge was to stop at Tim Hortons where I purchased a few of their ham and cheese variety. When we returned home, I decided to test my ineptitude with baking by making these biscuits for myself. I was craving them. I was able to get some help from the family, fitting for the spirit of these biscuits. I’ve been making these biscuits ever since. Modified a little from the family secrets, here is the recipe.

Cape Breton Tea Biscuits:

2 cups flour

2 1/2 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter

1 cup buttermilk, or substituted with 1 cup skim and a tbsp. cider vinegar

Sift the dry ingredients together and place in food processor. Add chilled butter (I place mine in the freezer for about 30 minutes), and pulse 8-10 times to combine. Remove mixture to large bowl and add the milk. Combine, but don’t over-mix. Roll out on a floured surface, and cut out biscuits with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a lined, rimmed sheet at 425 °F for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. This makes about a dozen biscuits.


Vocabularies of Obsession/Vocabularies of Habit

When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.

Obsession can be a form of concentration, a way to find possibilities for what you already have at hand. The leftover rhubarb from the Valentine's Day salad and some strawberries I had bought for the occasion but never used taunted me to make a dessert. I'm not ready for pie, but a free-form, rustic, and forgiving tart that is the crostata was a great place to begin. Googling landed me on this super easy and tasty eggless crostata recipe from  the blog EGGS ON SUNDAY.

Obsession can be a form of concentration, a way to find possibilities for what you already have at hand. The leftover rhubarb from the Valentine’s Day salad and some strawberries I had bought for the occasion but never used provoked me to make a dessert. I’m not ready for pie, but a free-form, rustic, and forgiving tart that is the crostata was a great place to begin. Googling landed me on this super easy and tasty eggless crostata recipe from the blog EGGS ON SUNDAY

I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.

To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.

This another take on a watercress salad, but unlike the Valentine's Day version, this one has peeled baby heirloom tomatoes, with edamame, avocado, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds, and a pumpkin oil and sherry vinaigrette. It is served over fried firm tofu. The technique for peeling the tomatoes comes from the Momofuku cookbook. It's really easy. Cut an X in the tomato skin on the non-steam end. Prepare a pot of boiling water and an ice bath. Drop the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water for ten seconds and then transfer them to the ice bath. The peels will slip right off. David Chang has a recipe for serving these tomatoes with fresh tofu that partly inspired this dish.

Repetition is the mother of obsession. This is another take on a watercress salad, but unlike the Valentine’s Day version, this one has peeled baby heirloom tomatoes, with edamame, avocado, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds, and a pumpkin oil and sherry vinaigrette. It is served over fried firm tofu. The technique for peeling the tomatoes comes from the Momofuku cookbook. It’s really easy. Cut an X in the tomato skins on the non-stem ends. Prepare a pot of boiling water and an ice bath. Drop the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water for ten seconds and then transfer them to the ice bath. The peels will slip right off. David Chang has a recipe for serving these tomatoes with fresh tofu that partly inspired this dish.

Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.

Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.

Peeling Tomatoes

Peeling Tomatoes

Peeling Cherub tomatoes for a ragout.

Peeling Tomatoes

 

I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be.  The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.

Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.

My trip to Nippan Daido to explore further the Japanese ingredients I've been using resulted in this dish. After using the fried tofu for the watercress salad, which was my first time frying tofu, I tried it again. I made a version of the citrus-soy-ginger glaze I used on the pork belly, but added sesame oil and seeds. The broth here is bacon dashi with dried shiitakes and red miso I've been steadily depleting.

My trip to Nippan Daido to explore further the Japanese ingredients I’ve been using resulted in this dish. After making the fried tofu for the watercress salad, which was my first time frying tofu, I tried it again. I contrived a version of the citrus-soy-ginger glaze I used on the pork belly, but added sesame oil and seeds and used fresh ginger. The broth here is bacon dashi with dried shiitakes and the red miso I’ve been steadily depleting.

At Nippan Daido, I purchased some enoki and beech mushrooms that I planned to use in a batch of ginger scallion noodles. I also got some sake, which I decided to use in a braising liquid for some beef short ribs. The marinade for the short ribs I got from the JUST ONE COOKBOOK blog, which seemed appealing because it calls for gochujang, and I just happened to have some of that tasty, spicy Korean chili paste in the fridge. I marinated the ribs for over a day, then browned them off in a dutch over with some pork belly fat. (I'm going to be so sad when this liquid gold is gone.) I made a braising liquid of sake, chicken stock, soy sauce, and sliced yellow onion. I cooked the ribs at 315 °F for two and a half hours, basting with the braising liquid every half hour. When the ribs were done, I removed the bone, tough membrane, and most of the excess fat, and then glazed them with a mixture of gochujang, brown sugar, and kosher salt in a 475 °F oven.

At Nippan Daido, I purchased some enoki and beech mushrooms that I planned to use in a batch of ginger scallion noodles. I also got some sake, which I decided to use in a braising liquid for some beef short ribs. The marinade for the short ribs I got from the JUST ONE COOKBOOK blog, which seemed appealing because it calls for gochujang, and I just happened to have some of that tasty, spicy Korean chili paste in the fridge. I marinated the ribs for over a day, then browned them off in a dutch oven with some pork belly fat. (I’m going to be so sad when this liquid gold is gone.) I made a braising liquid of sake, chicken stock, soy sauce, and sliced yellow onion. I cooked the ribs at 315 °F for two and a half hours, basting with the braising liquid every half hour. When the ribs were done, I removed the bone, tough membrane, and most of the excess fat, and then glazed them with a mixture of gochujang, brown sugar, and kosher salt in a 475 °F oven.

Because I just can't leave things alone, I transformed the leftover short ribs into this dish the next night. I already had everything I needed except a few vegetables, and these ready-to-used fresh purple hull peas caught my eye at the grocery store. I immediately thought of a ragout, so I picked up some mustard greens and the above pictured Cherub tomatoes. The ragout is composed of one bunched of sliced scallions sautéed in some of that pork belly fat, the purple hull peas, the peeled Cherub tomatoes, a cup of chicken stock, two tbsp tomato paste, and some leftover pan juices I separated from the fat after cooking the short ribs. Once the peas began to soften up, I added the chopped mustard greens with their thick ribs removed. I seasoned with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.

Because I just can’t leave things alone, I transformed the leftover short ribs into this dish the next night. I already had everything I needed except a few vegetables, and these ready-to-use, fresh purple hull peas caught my eye at the grocery store. I immediately thought of a ragout, so I picked up some mustard greens and the above pictured Cherub tomatoes. The ragout is composed of one bunch of sliced scallions sautéed in some of that pork belly fat, the purple hull peas, the peeled Cherub tomatoes, a cup of chicken stock, two tbsp tomato paste, and some leftover pan juices that I had separated from the fat after cooking the short ribs. Once the peas began to soften up, I added the chopped mustard greens with their thick ribs removed. I seasoned with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. While the ragout was cooking, and before I reheated the short ribs in the oven, I decided to do the ribs two ways. I envisioned a kind of deconstructed ragout with shredded short rib on the side and then a whole rib next to that. I needed something to accompany the whole rib, and I was lucky enough to have a large white potato in the fridge and a can of chickpeas in the pantry. I took up the challenge to be resourceful. I cooked the potatoes in water, a tbsp of butter, a hunk of fresh ginger cut into three pieces, and a sliced garlic clove. When the potatoes were nearly done, I added the drained chickpeas. I strained once finished, removed two of the three ginger bits, and then blended the mixture with a little milk and butter. The result was a little too much of a gluttonous paste, so I added a dollop of sour cream and a spoon of chèvre to give it something it was lacking. The plate was a little bland looking, and I brightened it up with a julienne of pickled beets and some kimchi I bought at Nippan Daido.

So I had all of this leftover ragout and potato-chickpea purée, but no more short ribs, and the Oscars were on, and we had to eat something, so I cooked off some bacon, sautéed some chopped yellow onion in the bacon fat along with halved Brussels sprouts, and then added the leftover ragout. I served this concoction over the reheated potato-chickpea purée, along with the bacon and some chopped snow peas.

So I had all of this leftover ragout and potato-chickpea purée, but no more short ribs, and the Oscars were on, and we had to eat something, so I cooked off some bacon, sautéed some chopped yellow onion in the bacon fat along with halved Brussels sprouts, and then added the leftover ragout. I served this concoction over the reheated potato-chickpea purée, which was surprisingly better the next day, along with the bacon and some chopped snow peas.


Valentine’s Day Dinner

Watercress salad with cucumber, daikon, radish, edamame, pickled rhubarb, bacon, and a sherry vinaigrette, with avocado cream and tomato-rhubard hearts.

Watercress salad with cucumber, daikon, radish, edamame, pickled rhubarb, bacon, and a sherry vinaigrette, with avocado cream and tomato-rhubard hearts. The idea is to blend the two sides while eating to create balance between acidity and richness.

Valentine’s can be an awkward day to be a poet. It shouldn’t be. It should be a day of gratitude since it is one of the main times when the culture comes looking for poets, seeking out those lapidary phrases to commemorate important sentiments. Poets have been insecure about this role for what seems like always, but definitely English-language poetry has been afflicted since the beginning. Just consider Sir Philip Sidney’s defensive blast against poetry’s haters in his sixteenth-century Defence of Poësy: “yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet, and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” There’s something revealing in the overselling of his poetic returns, and I’m sure if Sidney produced on demand as an inscription for a Valentine’s Day card his sonnet 31 (“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!”) or sonnet 45 (“Stella oft sees the very face of woe”), which are two of my favorites from his Astrophil and Stella sequence, there would be a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The problem is those sonnets aren’t really occasional verses. Occasional verse is good for weddings and graduations and inaugurations and Valentine’s Day cards, because in each of those instances the event is more important than the words. They’re times of action, not reflection. They require expressions that are unequivocal and un-conflicted. If you have to clear your throat while giving a wedding toast, you’re kind of a jerk. Just say something nice, and sit back down so the good time can keep on going. That’s what everyone is there for. I can’t think of a good love poem that doesn’t clear its throat in some way. And that’s a good thing. One of my go to love poems is William Meredith’s “Crossing Over,” a poem full of honest doubt and an honest insistence on affection despite it all, with a nod toward a larger historical-social milieu to put that affection into perspective for good measure. I have actually read this poem at weddings, but I imagine everyone just pretending not to hear the complicated parts.

I finally have a steamer again!

I finally have a steamer again!

Littleneck clams with red miso broth, mustard greens, peas, and scallions.

Littleneck clams with red miso broth, mustard greens, peas, and scallions. The broth is kombu, dried shiitakes, water, mirin, soy sauce, and red miso paste. 

 Where poetry has failed me for occasions needing commemoration (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays), cooking has served just fine. It has provided the right amount of ritual and ceremony to acknowledge the importance and has expressed sentiment unambiguously. And it’s a gesture I can believe in (unlike a bad poem) or don’t have to practice selective attention to enjoy.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned to streamline the menus for these celebratory meals. After all, you need to be sharing in the moment, not just cooking in the background. One way I’ve done this is by planning dishes I can prep in advance and that I can finish cooking and assemble quickly.

Beef filet topped with bacon, shiitakes, and pecorino; red miso glazed potatoes; and peas with watercress.

 Beef filet topped with bacon, shiitakes, and   pecorino; red miso glazed potatoes; and peas with  watercress. I pan-seared the filets and then finished them in the oven with the topping. The shiitakes are from the miso broth. While the filets were resting after cooking, I added the peas and watercress to the hot pan, along with a dash of chicken stock, scooping up the pan juices while not turning the peas to mush. The potatoes are Yukon Golds, and the glaze is miso paste and amber agave syrup.

Valentine’s Day this year, I also decided to let certain ingredients appear across the meal to give it a sense of transformation and cohesion. I knew I wanted to do something that would be striking visually, and I got into my head an image of hearts, like what might come with a reduction on a dessert. It’s a little cheesy and gimmicky, but that is the spirit of the day, no? That thinking led me to rhubarb. I diced some of the rhubarb and added sugar, a little water, and some cherry tomatoes that were halved and marinated with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a chopped garlic clove, and salt and pepper. I broke all of that down on the stove and then blended it with a hand blender. The hearts would be created by making a sphere and then running a toothpick from one edge straight through and out the opposite side. I needed a base to hold and contrast these hearts, so I decided on the avocado cream, which is just a ripe avocado, a pinch of kosher salt, and a dollop of sour cream to smooth it out. The hand blender was used for this as well. I also quickly pickled some of the rhubarb with sugar, kosher salt, and a splash of rice wine vinegar.

Dessert was ice cream with homemade chocolate chip and walnut cookies with pink sea salt. No decent pictures came out, but that’s okay. I can only take partial credit for the dessert.


Cooking with David Chang’s Momofuku Cookbook, or Exercises in Innovation and Convention

For Christmas, I received David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, with its clean cover and nice heft, its great photos, and the book’s packed with incredible and inventive recipes and cooking tips. It also contains a compelling narrative, a memoir-ish, manifesto-esque meditation on craft and ambition, on tradition and innovation, and David Chang projects an ethos of unpretentious dedication to making relentlessly tasty food. What he says about his take on ramen could be a mantra for the book: “the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact.”

As David Chang suggests, I used the shiitakes from the ramen broth to make pickled shiitakes. Following the advice to be resourceful.

As David Chang suggests, I used the shiitakes from the ramen broth to make pickled shiitakes. Following the advice to be resourceful.

Super easy. Super tasty.

Super easy. Super tasty. Quick-Pickled Cucumbers. Use a 3:1 ratio of sugar to kosher salt and enough to lightly coat the cucumber slices.

I could transpose William Carlos Williams’s dictum—“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”—into the question: “If it ain’t delicious, why are you making it?” What connects the best crepe I ever ate, the savory Cuban at the Flip Happy Crepes Airstream trailer in Austin, and the best meal I ever ate, one at Grant Achatz’s Alinea? They were both ridiculously delicious. I rarely visit New York, but last year on a brief trip (like 36-hours brief), I ate at David Chang’s Má Pêche, and the food didn’t have to sacrifice tastiness to be inventive. I’ve spent the last month hoping I’ll be infused with some of that inspired cooking by experimenting with the Momofuku cookbook.

I can’t claim to have the attention span to work from cookbooks or to strictly follow recipes. Usually, I just use them for hints about technique and handling ingredients or for flavor combinations, but I don’t go off script because I think I’m exercising my right to be creative, à la Billy Madison drawing a blue duck because he’s never seen a blue duck. There are the more practical impediments of not having all of the necessary equipment or ingredients that come with the amateur home-cook’s kitchen and pantry. To get anything done, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to react to what you have. Or as David Chang reminds us, “Be resourceful.”

There’s a challenge in that, and that challenge is actually the source of innovation and creativity for me. This is much the same for poems as it is for cooking. The challenge can be local to the circumstances of preparing a specific meal or working with a particular bit of language; however, it may be more global, such as the tension between the new and the old, innovation and tradition.

In this iteration of Chang's bacon dashi with clams, I had to be resourceful and use mixed baby potatoes. I liked the purple and red color.

In this iteration of Chang’s bacon dashi with littleneck clams, I had to be resourceful and use mixed baby potatoes. I liked the purple and red color.

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Here, I combined two items in the cookbook: the ginger scallion noodles and the pork belly. I added daikon, radishes, quick-pickled cucumbers, and snow peas that I quickly blanched in the noodle water after the noodles were done cooking. For the pork belly, I made a citrus-soy glaze: the juice of 1 lime and half of an orange, 1/2 cup of light soy sauce, 1/3 cup of amber agave nectar, 2 tbsp. rice wine vinegar, 2 tbsp. mirin, a few pieces of dried ginger, and two Tien Tsin chili peppers. I removed the last two ingredients about halfway through reducing the glaze. I reduced it down to between a 1/2 and a 1/3 cup. After the pork belly had cooled, I brushed on the glaze and cooked it in the oven at 400 for about 8 minutes. I did this as I was assembling the noodles. The flavors went to eleven.

Of course, a very immediate reason for innovation is novelty. We hate being bored. Surprise and whimsy are valuable for enjoyment, for being reawakened to the substance, the fact of something, whether it’s food or language. Roman Jakobson said of literary language that it is “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” which is not because poets are sadists. Rather, literary uses of language can rejuvenate language’s meaning-making potential. To arrive at that requires that you challenge your and your readers’ assumptions.

This variation of David Chang's ramen has a broth of chicken stock, pork, bacon dashi, and shiitakes. It uses Chang's recipe for shredded pork shoulder and the wickedly inventive slow poached eggs. It has mustard greens and radishes as well.

This variation of David Chang’s ramen has a broth of chicken stock, pork, bacon dashi, light soy sauce, mirin, and shiitakes. It uses Chang’s recipe for shredded pork shoulder and the wickedly inventive slow poached eggs. It has mustard greens and radishes as well.

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Day-after ginger scallion noodles and citrus-soy glazed pork belly? Yeah, even the leftovers are awesome and tasty.

David Chang is not afraid to question his assumptions. I love what he says about his transformation of traditional dashi—a broth infused with katsuo-bushi (dried fish flakes) and konbu (kelp)—into bacon dashi, which substitutes smokey bacon for the smokey fish flakes. Chang writes, “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints and everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.” He didn’t have to completely reinvent the notion of dashi, but he did question the purpose and composition of it. The result of that willingness to question himself is this versatile and flavorful iteration of dashi. According to Chang’s narrative, it was a lack of available katsuo-bushi that led him to his innovation, but the solution is one that makes sense not only for him but for the American kitchen where bacon holds a consistent if not fanatical place. Bacon dashi seems so spontaneous but inevitable.

This kind of innovation holds sympathies with my thinking about the creative process in general. The appearance of something new and exciting in poetry doesn’t appear from nothing and doesn’t have to be completely unrecognizable when it arrives. I wouldn’t question my assumptions about what makes a poem a poem by presenting you with a toaster. The following Kenneth Burke quote has been helpful to me in thinking about innovation. He had this to say about John Dewey’s ideas on novelty in art and philosophical pragmatism: “The artist says, in substance: ‘I make the exhortation in the terms of what has already been accepted. Once these terms are accepted, I can go a little beyond them. But I shall argue only for my addition, and assume the rest. If people believe eight, I can recommend nine; I can do so by the manipulation of their eightish assumptions; I need not justify my nine by arguing for one.’” David Chang’s bacon dashi seems to me like a good example of manipulating some eightish assumptions.

Yet, when innovating, food still needs to be delicious, and a poem still needs to move you.


Moroccan Spiced Squash Soup with Pumpkin Seed Oil

Squash Soup with Pumpkin Seed Oil

I like the challenge of letting a meal develop around a few random ingredients or even a single one. Call it the Chopped compulsion. Most times, though, it’s not about competitiveness, which is really just a competitiveness with myself, as much as it is about economics and circumstances: I don’t want to waste what I have in the fridge or I don’t have time for the grocery store. Other times it is the joy of novelty. Perhaps someone has given me an ingredient, or I walk the aisles of the grocery store waiting to be drawn in by what looks good or interesting. These ingredients are generative constraints; the places from which to leap towards innovation and surprise. As with the composition of a poem, I love discovering what I wasn’t looking for but what seems so inevitable and right when it arrives. In teaching poetry, I regularly tell my students, and remind myself, that you don’t need an idea to write a poem; you just need a little language or a little bit of structure to work against. An ingredient can work the same way.

This time it started with a gift. Holly brought me a beautiful pumpkin seed oil purchased at Zingerman’s on a recent trip to Michigan. Richly viscous and nutty, this oil has a color that appears to go from tar to amber to a corona of chartreuse. I wanted to use it in a way where it wouldn’t be completely lost in the background or as an undercurrent (like in a dressing), both visually and in its taste. I decided to keep the oil’s autonomy by using it in a soup, one that would let the oil shine on its own while still giving it the chance to be incorporated into the whole. photoIn my carnivore-dominant culinary repertoire, I have few vegetarian recipes, but in the fall and winter, I have one for a Moroccan spiced squash soup that is a welcomed regular. When making the soup, I usually blend it partially, leaving chunks of squash and potato before I finish the soup with chickpeas. For this recent meal, I wanted the soup thicker to let the oil rest on top, so it was going to be completely blended. The chickpeas didn’t seem right, but to maintain texture, I purchased some toasted, salted pumpkin seeds. For further texture and earthy flavor, I crisped sage leaves in the oven for a garnish (first coating them in olive oil, then baking them at 325 degrees for about 16 minutes). I also wanted to balance out the oil by increasing the brightness of the soup, so I chose to add cider vinegar.

For the soup, I started with mirepoix, then added garlic, the cider vinegar, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a spice mixture of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, white pepper, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, and oregano. Then I added butternut and acorn squash, russet potatoes, and vegetable stock. When finished, the soup was blended, and I stirred in heavy cream and a little whole milk. I served the soup with a drizzle of the pumpkin seed oil, the pumpkin seeds, and the crispy sage.