Posts tagged “Poetry

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.