024: Our Mind's in Disturbia
So if you must alter recipes, be wise!!!
(SB) In 2008, when I was a junior in high school, Californians voted down Proposition 4, a ballot measure that would have mandated that clinics notify the parents of any minor seeking an abortion. That same year, they voted into law Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage and was later overturned in court. For those unfamiliar, ballot measures are California’s particularly convoluted commitment to direct democracy (other formative measures include 13, and 187; this is a nice read for you ballot measure heads out there). Prop 8 galvanized almost everyone I knew, and marching against the measure in West Hollywood is one of my first memories of political action (JS: #tbt Legalize Gay). I remember feeling defiant, righteous, and sure of our side’s triumph, as the All Stars I insisted on wearing at all times blistered my feet and my friends and I held up our magic marker signs.
So, I was stunned when the measure passed, another early experience of realizing the boundaries of my personal political bubble. I don’t remember any marches about Prop 4, and for all I know it was a longshot to begin with, but I do remember being privately and desperately terrified of its passage. The spectre of pregnancy was already used as a cudgel by school administrators and talking heads to shame every teenage girl I knew, and adding a layer of restriction to our already imperiled bodily autonomy felt impossibly unfair. To be frank, I was already reading a lot of Bitch magazine and writing impassioned in-class essays on the importance of Roe v. Wade and my AIM screen name had been RawrAFeminist since late ‘06... but newly feeling the weight of all of those politics on my body made me feel aflame. The proposition's defeat went largely unremarked in my social world, but it didn’t inspire relief so much as temporary victory. The patriarchy would surely persist, as well.
Is ugly delicious the body positivity movement for food?
I’ve taken us down this winding path to the mid-aughts to make space for the fact that we all have a deeply personal relationship to our politics and this moment is traumatic for reasons immediate, material, and buried deep. As a historian, I know that struggle is forever and that abortion was effectively illegal in most of this country before the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. As a person with a body, I felt a deep, familiar demoralization that I could only cope with by popping some magical chocolate beans and eating warmed pecan pie, ice cream, and bourbon in bed. After spending hours in line attempting to exercise my right to vote yesterday, I crawled into my cashmere sweatsuit and was in bed by 9. This time feels exhausting and anxious and I encourage you all to be especially kind to yourselves and those you love over the next few weeks. For us, that’s meant a lot of comfort food. We’d love to hear what you’re eating and drinking to self soothe, as well.
Other than the pie, this week I ate:
Smitten Kitchen’s tangy braised chickpeas (inspired by Molly Yeh!), which were so good, smelled great while braising, and were simple to put together before throwing in the oven for a while.
Emergency arroz caldo, which rescued me from a flirtation with the sniffles. More below.
A Chipotle burrito bowl, with steak and guac to round out my extended early voting saga. Gotta make the most of being on 168th street. I topped it off with a nap.
(JS) Recognizing that we may not know the final results of the election for weeks, and that even if our candidate wins there’s still so much work to be done toward making this country more equitable and just, and that we’ll still be in a pandemic for the foreseeable future… this week still feels different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of the same fuckery we’ve come to expect from the right (and I’m not just talking about SCOTUS), but the air feels at once both pregnant with potential and rife with anxiety. I don’t have any thoughtful commentary on the current state of the world, but I will offer a friendly reminder to take care of yourself and check in with those you hold close. Depending on who you are, that caretaking could take any number of forms. For some, it’s two weeks of health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, then surprising your closest inner circle with a trip to a private island; others might seek solace in their faith; many find strength in the powers of music. You do what works for you.
Does kimchi look better in landscape mode?
With that in mind, Salonee and I decided to write a bit about foods that bring us comfort. This is admittedly a subjective exercise; some find comfort simplicity, while others prefer full sensory overload. Maybe this is the week you turn to takeout, or perhaps you’re all in on snacks. We started this newsletter nearly six months ago (!) with the goal of bringing a little joy back to the pandemic kitchen, and hope that we can continue in that spirit as we sail further into uncharted waters. Whatever your comfort tastes like, we hope you’ll take the opportunity to indulge.
Before we dive into the main event, a couple housekeeping notes. A quick thanks to everyone who reached out with sleep aid suggestions; I’m still experimenting but hope to report back with successful stories soon. Also, we’re taking a quick break from Digestivo next week, and will be back with fresh content the following Wednesday, 11/11 — make a wish or something!!!
Here’s what I ate last week:
Gabriela Camara’s pastel azteca, a layered enchilada casserole which eagerly incorporates leftovers
A banchan-heavy textbanking dinner with friend of the newsletter April, including her mom’s homemade kimchi, pickled perilla leaves, braised burdock, and Eric Kim’s gojuchang-glazed eggplant with fried scallions
A half-assed attempt at a kohlrabi caesar, inspired by the excellent version I enjoyed last Friday in the back garden at Lalou (thanks friend of the newsletter Lindsay for the tip and extremely generous pours)
TMYK: Moussak’ it to me
(JS) There’s really no point in beating around the fact that making good moussaka is a commitment. I’d say it’s a solid half day project in terms of labor, but better planned as a full day affair, since like most casseroles, moussaka is a dish that shines brightest after some rest. Aglaia Kremizi, whose recipe I’ve adapted, explains that her well-organized mother split the process over two days, first frying the eggplant and preparing the sauce, then assembling the dish the day it was to be served. I understand if the timing turns you off, but would spin it as a much welcomed distraction in a moment when it’s increasingly difficult to tune out.
But first, a bit of history: the word “moussaka” is likely Arabic derived (مسقعة), from the root meaning “to moisten or draw liquid,” and a range of homophonous eggplant and tomato dishes are indeed found throughout the Middle East and the Balkans today. While moussaka is often billed as authentic Greek home cooking, the version we often see today, elegantly stacked and finished with a thick layer of bechamel, is in fact an early twentieth century intervention attributed to chef Nicholas Tselementes. An unapologetic Francophile, Tselementes took techniques and ingredients he encountered in the upscale hotel kitchens of western Europe and New York and folded them into traditional Greek recipes in attempt to elevate the dishes and “cleanse” them of what he believed were undesirable or “barbaric” (i.e. Turkish/Arab/Balkan) influences and return to an imagined classical ideal (does this ring a bell, art historians?). Perhaps this is not the lighthearted yiayia anecdote you were looking for (what was that bit about tuning out?), but it serves a gentle reminder that white supremacist thinking and ethnonationalism are sometimes literally baked into the food on our tables.
I promise I cleaned my stove after this
So on that note… moussaka! I’d start with the sauce, since you’ll want to allow at least a couple hours of simmering for concentrated flavor. Sautee your onions in a warm combination of cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, then add ground meat and cook until liquid evaporates and it is well browned. I prefer beef, but lamb is also nice, and given the multiplicity of flavor components in this dish, I suspect plant-based crumbles could work well. Add tomato paste, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and cook a couple minutes to caramelize, then deglaze with wine or vinegar. Add tomatoes and water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer partially covered for at least 90 minutes.
Arguably my boldest suggestion in adapting Aglaia’s recipe is to roast your eggplant instead of frying. Much as I love fried eggplant, I loathe standing over the sputtering pan tending to the slices within. This step almost always takes longer than the recipe indicates and the heat from my stove doesn’t distribute very well, so I end up anxiously moving the pieces around like some deranged eggplant card trick, dejectedly seeking the elusive even brown. It also feels a bit wasteful to use all that olive oil, since you’ll ultimately drain the slices before assembly. My solution is to salt the slices and generously brush both sides with oil, then roast them on a parchment lined tray in a 450° F oven for 15-20 minutes. The eggplant should emerge softened and starting to brown, sufficiently scented with olive oil, and ready to sop up the flavorful sauce you worked so hard on.
Other than that, we’re largely sticking to script. For your potatoes, peel and slice into ¼” thick rounds, then add to a pot of salted boiling water to parcook. Drain, shock in a bowl of ice water, then drain again and set aside. The bechamel is also fairly straightforward, save for the last minute addition of eggs. Melt your butter and gradually whisking in flour, cooking for a few minutes til it starts to smell toasted and nutty (#NoRawFlour in this newsletter). Throw in some nutmeg and cinnamon, salt to taste, then whisk in your milk, cooking until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and blend with eggs to give the bechamel a little extra body. Spread a thin layer of bechamel on the bottom of your casserole dish and sprinkle with cheese. Aglaia suggests graviera or gruyere, but I’ve subbed pecorino romano in a pinch, halving the amount to make up for the saltiness. Spread your potatoes in an even layer, followed by the eggplant slices, and then ladle in the sauce. Pour the remaining bechamel over the top and finish with remaining cheese. Bake until golden brown, rest for at least 30 minutes, and enjoy for two to three days, depending on what your ~pod~ looks like.
Pandemic Porridge Panacea (the other and arguably better PPP)
(SB) Even in non-pandemic conditions, I am a cranky and difficult sick person. While most people dislike being under the weather, even a mild stuffy nose evokes within me a plaintive, desperate indignation that borders on a little self-indulgent. The feeling that you have to sneeze? The heavy eyelids and mild headache? The way my nose gets so dry, even with fancy tissues? It’s simply unfair. Plus, now that we’re obligated to hold our common colds to the light in order to ensure that they’re not actually deadly viral infections, my proclivity towards complaining easily and often has come to border on panic. I am fortunate to have spent the last twenty-eight years largely surrounded by people who recognize and honor my desire to be taken care of in these moments — letting me choose what we’ll watch on TV (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and what we’ll eat (some kind of soup, involving chicken.)
Many cultures boast a disease-fighting chicken soup, and I am a fan of basically all of them. Jewish penicillin? Sign me up. Ajiaco? Yes, please. Pho? I’ve never met a better sinus clearer. Cup Noodle? Iconic. For much of my life, my sick meal of choice has been silky, Chinese-style chicken and corn soup, a Cantonese staple of Indo-Chinese cuisine. There are whole photo albums of me as a chubby cheeked child enjoying this soup. More recently, I’ve been partial to healing soups involving lots of simmered rice and ginger — savory porridges ubiquitous across the Asian continent. Their names vary (jook/juk, congee, or, in vegetarian South India, kanji, to name a few) but their structure is essentially the same: comfortingly savory, starchy, and easy to digest. I largely attribute this shift to a bowl of arroz caldo I had sometime in 2013 at Maharlika (RIP).
Please ignore my chaotic metal cutting board
Personal porridge history aside, arroz caldo has come to be synonymous with healing in my household. I first attempted it while taking care of boyfriend-of-the-newsletter Willis after a particularly gnarly bike accident in 2015. He credits it with some of his recovery, and it’s become the dish I turn to when I need to be fortified, soothed, and comforted. Over the years, I’ve consulted a few different recipes that have informed, with modifications, the way I like to make it. This recipe from Serious Eats is probably the one I follow closest. This weekend, as the weather stepped decisively towards the winter and our electoral system towards chaos, I credit this very arroz caldo, some Vicks on my feet, and the thrill of a virtual visit to Sunnydale-on-Hellmouth with banishing the trace of a cold I felt on Saturday.
While I am often tempted to go without the crispy fried garlic topper, I have found that it is an essential part of this experience. So, I like to begin by placing 10-12 cloves of minced garlic into a layer of room temperature oil in a small cast iron skillet, bringing it to frying temperature all together. When the garlic is crisp but not burned, remove and drain on a paper towel. I then pour this oil into a larger, heavy-bottomed pot or dutch oven to begin cooking a thinly sliced onion until soft, then adding in a generous amount of grated ginger and a few more cloves of chopped garlic. Once this mixture has released some moisture and is fragrant, add in 1-2 lbs of chicken.
What kind of chicken will depend on your priorities. Most agree that bone-in thighs or a combination of legs and flats yield the most flavor. I like to use chopped, boneless chicken thighs because I am a baby when I am sick and want to be comforted, not challenged with a bone (JS: But the collagen, he protesteth). Once your chicken is browned on all sides, add in a tablespoon of fish sauce (i.e. Plenty of Fish sauce) and about a cup of uncooked short grain rice. I am partial to jasmine, with a handful of arborio thrown in if I have it for extra starchiness. When the rice is nicely coated, add in six cups of chicken broth. Whether I’m going homemade or store-bought, one of these cups is always Better than Bouillon broth for me… it’s just... Better. Let the mixture come to a boil, then cover and simmer until the rice is cooked. Uncover, and cook down until the porridge is a consistency you’re into. Serve with lime juice, fried garlic, scallions, and some chili oil.
POT CHEF: (Pot) Brownies
(JS) At the risk of going full Cathy, I’d venture that brownies are a most welcome provision in times of high stress, though the follow up question of precisely which brownies we’re talking about may trigger further civil unrest. I refuse to entertain the cakey or fudgey debate, as I am of the staunch opinion that any brownie worth its salt (and a brownie worth anything must have salt) should fall somewhere in the middle on that spectrum, and probably skews closer to fudgey if we’re being completely honest. Some would insist I’m describing a third category inexplicably called “chewy,” but I’d suggest they rethink their naming practices.
A more reasonable question is the matter of chocolate or cocoa. The brownies of my childhood, a signature recipe of my Nanny Reeva, were a chocolate varietal, but at some point in my early adolescence Katharine Hepburn’s cocoa brownies had their moment in the spotlight (SB: I was also briefly obsessed with these brownies in my early teens! Two hearts, baking together, on different, elite, coasts). Nowadays I find myself firmly in the chocolate camp, but if I were to stray I’d give these another try. The headnote describes them as “rich and gooey,” but frankly they’ve got nothing on the Ghirardelli boxed mix (controversially crowned thee best brownies over at Sifted), the third most influential brownies of my youth and a staple of the early aughts classroom party.
Devil’s ivy for the devil’s brownies
I’ve since tested many a recipe, intrigued by flexes like whole grain flours, a gluten-free tahini swirl, or a veritable shit ton of “good” ingredients, but my research has led me to believe that when it comes to brownies, less really is more. My favorite recipe these days is also Deb Perelman’s favorite, a true accolade from a woman whose blog has featured no fewer than twenty different brownie and blondie recipes. They’re reliably impressive for special occasions and easy enough to throw together when you forget and need something special occasion-worthy fast (friends who have received these are now math ladying which category their batch fell into). They require just seven ingredients and can absolutely be served warm, though the patient baker is rewarded with smoother cuts and superior texture. Per Deb’s tip, I think they taste best straight from the fridge. I usually up the flaky salt and start checking them around 22 minutes — a slightly underbaked brownie is always my preference, and they will firm up as they cool (SB: This is neither here nor there, but I love a crispy edge and the addition of NUTS to my brownies).
As I opened this feature with a cliche, so too will I close with one: Deb’s favorite brownies take especially well to pot, with the notable caveat that they are so delicious you will probably want to eat more than you should responsibly ingest. My early experiments with edible production led me to bake a batch using an entire stick of home-rendered sativa butter; an unfortunately timed (i.e. post-ingestion) back of the envelope calculation put this in the range of 700 mg of THC, or nearly 44 mg per brownie. The marijuana flavor was muted, but the effect was like a full-body equivalent of the THX surround sound test. I’ve since made them with 50/50 cannabutter/regular butter, and have advised recipients to start with half a brownie for a more approachable high (SB: I cannot recommend a weighted blanket and Jeopardy enough for this journey).
PERMANENT ROTATION: Perhaps your self-soothing involves a little bit more firewater than normal these days. In case you find yourself hurting, we recommend making the most of your rehydration ritual with a little electrolyte cocktail, my (SB) evergreen hangover helper: mix iced Pedialyte (coconut & plain are both good), a little lime juice, and a sprinkle of jaljeera. Sip slowly. Think about your choices.
(JS) Back in the spring Entireworld had their moment as the unofficial WFH sweats purveyor of admirable internet folk. My boyfriend invested in some pants I’ve been tempted to steal, but recently I’ve been coveting their Dogwalker coat, described as a slightly oversized, reversible (!), quilted sensation. I might be miserable for any number of reasons next week, but at least I’d look cute.
(SB) Anticipating the need for a few hundred long showers (perhaps some seated, who can say) in the season to come, I’d like a luxury showerhead.
(JS & SB) As the weather pushes us further indoors, we’re increasingly aware of soiled surfaces and seeking eco-friendly solutions to make our apartments shine (while still occasionally succumbing to the powers of bleach). Does anyone have an in-stock green cleaning solution for us? We’re eyeing this Veles starter kit, which is unfortunately sold out. Extra points for refillable containers.