You may be aware–I wasn’t–that the last recipe I posted on this site was in January 2019. As in, almost a year ago. As in, right before my sister decided to remove herself from this planet. When the year was new and I was hopeful for a happy, healthy, vibrant New Year.

Yeah. That dream sort of went up in smoke, didn’t it?

When Mama died, I found solace in the kitchen. I stirred batter and carefully poured it into pans. I dredged cutlets and sizzled them in a hot pan. I made things that were relics of my childhood–things I hadn’t made in years–hotwater cornbread, chicken a’la king, pasta primavera with lots of butter and cheese and basil from the garden. I even flirted with oatmeal again, for Chrissakes (a fail. I just ain’t an oatmealer, y’all). I found myself unable to sit still, beckoned by a warm kitchen, yearning for the heat and the smell of something made with intention and love.

Not so with my sister.

She thought cooking was for peasants and frankly, would far prefer to drink her dinner than eat it. Mama and I would spend hours in the kitchen, but she skedaddled right out of there, wanting no part of it. This was fine with me, but when she died, I had no place to go.

Where was I supposed to find comfort? The bar?

Even I knew that was a bad idea.

Mama’s death galvanized me into action, even if it was something as simple as making dinner. As long as I kept moving, arms deep in dough, I could get through the day.

My sister’s death sent me to the couch. And the bed. And paralyzing inertia.

To the Cracker Barrel.

I have not coped well and I still am not right in the head or the spirit. It’s hard to find a home for anything that’s clanking around inside me. I am not proud of this.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve cooked, I have fed my family, but it’s been a joyless enterprise. It felt like work; another burden to shoulder. Often I made dinner and couldn’t drum up enough enthusiasm to eat it. Suddenly, food started sticking in my throat. I’d gag and choke on anything solid, like my beloved rice and potatoes and pasta. I resorted to foods that slid down the gullet without effort, as if even the act of swallowing was too much to bear.

So. I have cooked and eaten endless upon endless pots of soup since my sister took her life. It’s the only food that feels right in my stomach, and you have to understand that I’m a girl who used to only resort to soup when sick. But I guess you could say my soul has been sick, so maybe it makes sense.

Bowls of pho, congee, chicken noodle, minestrone, broccoli cheese. They have kept me alive and kickin’, even if I don’t feel like it. I have found a completely new appreciation for soup.

 

And, because I am WEIRD, the time soup tastes best to me is in the morning. Yeppers, I eat soup for breakfast. All. The. Time.

I slam my coffee and sip my soup and check emails and think about writing (and often fail beyond that). The couch still has a powerful pull, even now. But mornings come no matter how soul-weary we are, and soup helps. It especially helps because I often have restless nights and wake feeling parched, cotton-mouthed.

“Shit, it feels like I ate a freaking hamster or something,” I complain to my husband.

Thus, soup.

 

The one soup I crave but have failed to successfully make is Chinese hot and sour soup, which I love but cannot have access to because we have the shittiest damn Chinese food in the world where I live. We don’t even bother ordering it anymore. One takeout order gave me hot and sour soup that had–gag–maraschino cherries floating in it. It is truly that bad.

A good hot and sour soup engages your tastebuds and makes you sit up and take notice. It’s almost bracingly hot and pungent and savory and full of good things that make you feel alive. Some of those things are a total pain in the ass to find in the Rocky Mountains; traditional hot and sour soup has wood ear mushrooms and lily buds and Szechuan peppercorns. Good luck, asshole.

 

I’ve been on a quest to find a reasonable facsimile of traditional hot and sour soup that is even halfway acceptable, and it’s been a struggle. I have tried no less than seven recipes for the stuff and all of them have been lackluster at best. No heat, no zing, no complexity. But this week, I tried a version that comes pretty darn close without my having to outsource lily buds. You DO need Chinese black vinegar, which King Google should help you find quite nicely. There is no substitute and don’t even think about it. Just get the dang stuff. And the chile oil. Get one with some balls on it, mmmkay, because hot and sour soup should be fiery.

 

Admission: this soup is still quite a pain in the arse to make. It looks so simple, but is time consuming, it uses quite a few bowls and dishes, and there are some steps that seem fussy (cornstarch and egg, I’m talking to you) but they are necessary and if you are faced with a pantry of ingredients and a chilly, miserable day, consider making the effort. Put on some music, even songs that remind you of who you miss. Soothe yourself in stir and chop and julienne.

Remember, for a moment, what life tastes like.

 

Hot and Sour Soup

from Cook’s Illustrated

serves about 6

 

7 ounces extra-firm tofu

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 (6-ounce) center cut pork loin chop, trimmed and cut into very thin matchstick slices

3 tablespoons plus one teaspoon cold water

1 large egg

6 cups chicken broth

1 (5-ounce) can bamboo shoots, sliced lenthwise into thin strips

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

5 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1 teaspoon ground pepper or ground white pepper

3 thinly sliced fresh scallions

Red chile flakes, for extra heat (optional)

 

Place tofu on a paper towel-lined plate, top with a heavy plate and weigh it down with 2 heavy cans. Let the tofu drain until it has released about 1/2 cup liquid, about 15 minutes. Cut into small cubes and set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and sesame oil together in a medium bowl. Add pork, toss to coat and let marinate for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Combine 3 tablespoons cold water with 3 tablespoons cornstarch in a small bowl. Mix the remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with remaining 1 teaspoon cold water in another small bowl. Add egg and beat until combined.

Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add bamboo shoots and mushrooms and simmer until just tender, about 5 minutes.

Add marinated pork and tofu cubes to broth and stir vigorously to break up pork; simmer until pork is no longer pink, about 2-3 minutes.

Stir water and cornstarch mixture to recombine, add to soup and increase heat to medium high. Cook, stirring, until soup thickens, about a minute. Stir in Chinese vinegar, chili oil, pepper and remaining soy sauce. Remove from heat.

Without stirring soup, use a soupspoon to slowly drizzle very thin streams of egg mixture into broth in a circular motion. Let soup sit for 1 minute, then return pan to medium-high heat. Bring soup just to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Stir the soup once gently to distribute egg. Sprinkle with sliced scallions and serve.

{ 0 comments }

The Strangelings

October 23, 2019

We are only ten minutes into the hike and I am ready to throttle Littlest Minx.

She has a litany of complaints: It’s too hot. It’s too sunny (sunshine in Seattle, how dare you?) Her water bottle isn’t full enough. Her feet hurt. She needs a bench to sit down, because she is ex-HAUS-ted. She is thirteen and has to spend time with her family. Life is full of everlasting fuckery and she’s not going to let us forget it.

I turn to my husband and hiss, “That child is never, ever, going to Europe with us. Can you see that child moping her way through the Louvre? Recoiling at the crowds on the Tube? Scowling through the Coliseum in Rome? With all of those sweaty bodies and the dust?”

“Well, she wouldn’t be impressed, and Jesus, she wouldn’t eat anything, anyways,” he laughs. “I guess she could live on eclairs and gelato?”

“Technically, yeah. I think she could. But I don’t wanna be around for the Poo Baby.”

He loses it. “Oh man. Just…don’t go there. That’s terrifying.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our misfit family and the thing that is the Poo Baby.

The Poo Baby is a vacation phenomenon. It afflicts only female members of the family and it usually happens around day 3 of travel. Too much sitting in an airplane, where you willingly dehydrate yourself because the airplane toilets are jarringly loud and stinky and scary. Too much strange hotel food. Too many grab-and-go meals when you’re on the run, trying to squeeze one more thing into your daily itinerary.

You think it’s all fine and good until, on day 3 of vacation, everyone with an xy chromosome looks pregnant. We are cookin’ up something, and it’s not pretty. It also (alas) is here to stay unless you take some drastic measures. And the thing is, we never learn. We don’t. At least half a day of every. single. vacation. is devoted to the attention and expunging of the Poo Baby. We never know who is going to be afflicted, but it’s a certainty.

Sometimes, the Poo Baby rears its ugly head during a hike in beautiful, verdant, dog-filled parks in Seattle and you gotta hustle, mothersucker, and we make it but barely.

Later, younger child is in a much better mood. She will agree to 20 more minutes of hiking.

This is a gift that we aren’t going to squander so we tromp around and pet every dog that halfway wags its tail.

At least I do.

“Mom. You know that you can actually SEE a dog without yelling, ‘Dog!’ at the top of your lungs.”

How quickly the familial landscape changes, minute by minute with the dazzling strain of the teenage years.

I’m trying to ride it out, but let’s be honest. Nobody knows who the fuck is driving this bus.

I can pretend, though. With carefully packed lunches and stacks of folded laundry.

Do you think they are fooled?

Is anybody?

 

{ 1 comment }

My Amsterdam arm is so bruised and nasty looking that at first I want to hide it. This isn’t a problem in Holland, where the weather is cool enough for long sleeves, but the minute we land in Naples, I know I’m screwed. The sun has already set by the time we disembark, but whooo, it’s still steamy. No long sleeves here, even at night. I immediately begin to sweat and the 75-minute drive to Sorrento in a taxi without air conditioning feels endless. Still, it feels good to be in Italy–my happy place. It especially feels good because I never, ever get stomach ailments from the Mediterranean diet and my flirtation with burgers and fries in Amsterdam has done me NO favors. I actually throw up in the airport (don’t even make it to an infamous Dutch toilet. I have to settle for a Ziploc baggie in my purse. Sexy as Hell).

“Jesus, you look terrible,” my husband says. “Do you want me to re-book our flight? There’s a hotel connected to the airport.”

“I’m gonna barf no matter where I am,” I say. “Just get me to Italy.”

I do not vomit in the un-air conditioned taxi, for which I am eternally grateful. I’m also grateful that my husband doesn’t mention that my condition is a direct result of my crappy dietary choices in the land of wooden shoes and bicycles. But those Dutch fries, y’all. Almost probably worth it.

 

Sorrento is the gateway to the Amalfi coast and when I look out the window in the morning, I’m in awe. How they get buildings, hotels, villas built on such steep cliffs defies logic.

 

We sit under lemon trees at breakfast, and the smell of them permeates the air. We spend the first day loafing at the rooftop pool and wandering around the town square, which is delightedly and blessedly flat. Positano and Amalfi kick our asses with the uphill trekking, but Sorrento is comfortably walkable and paved in charming cobblestones.

We eat homemade pasta and sip local wine in a teeny little trattoria (maybe ten tables). The chef, Carmen, is the only one in the miniscule kitchen, and truthfully, there isn’t room for anyone else. She’s busting her butt in there, working quickly in the steam and juggling different pans on burners. Everything on the small menu is homemade and the portions are large for Italy. We definitely over-order and I can’t finish my pasta in the end, which earns me a good-natured scolding from Carmen. She’s killing it back there but she’s got her eagle eye on every plate in the room, making sure people are happy.

I am happy. So happy that I even forget my ugly arm.

 

We stroll around the shopping district after dinner, full of pasta and drink and La Dolce Vita. My husband spots a whimsical dress with dragons and tigers on it, and I’m smitten. The only one in the store is on the mannequin in front, and it looks impossibly small. My husband insists I try it on anyways.

“It’s not going to fit,” I say. “That thing is tiny.”

“Just try it on,” he insists. He knows that I suck at shopping and try to get out of it whenever I can but I humor him and Viola! It must be a magical dress because it somehow fits in all the right places.

 

I have to wait a few days to wear my magical dress because the next few days are spent on a boat, speeding around Capri and the Amalfi coast in waters that are so turbulent at times that we get absolutely soaked. I gasp for air in steep Positano and look at the crowded beach–stuffed with Eurotrash and tanned skin–and I’m grateful we’re staying in sleepy Sorrento. It’s nice to pretend for a day or two, but the jet set is not my bag, folks.

 

By the end of those days on the water, we stagger back to our hotel, exhausted and salt-crusted. And starving because both my husband and I fear getting seasick so we eat very little all day long; by evening, I’m ready to eat my freaking shoe. Luckily, there are casual little homestyle places peppered around town that we can scarf our weight in pizza, pasta, seafood fresh from the Mediterranean. We eat very, very well in Sorrento.

And.

I went to Italy and didn’t get crapped on by one. single. bird.

Not that I know of, actually. But it could have happened because on our sailing trip around the coast, we stopped at this beautiful, crazy waterfall that seemed to appear out of nowhere, nestled in the high rocks. Our captain encouraged us to get under it, for good luck.

I took one look at that thing and knew that it was BAD luck in DanaLand because a) in order to get under it, you had to hang off the front of the boat, clutching a weathered rope and b) when I looked at the top of the waterfall, guess what was splashing and frolicking around in the water? Birds. Seabirds. Several of them.

The lovely Canadians on the cruise with us both partook in the waterfall, squealing at the cold and the precarious footing.

“You have to do it,” they urged.

Umm. no. I explained my long and unfortunate history with birds, but they were unimpressed. “Just do it,” they said. “What can happen, really?”

Clearly they have no idea who they are dealing with.

I’m a sucker for peer pressure because I did, indeed, go under the waterfall, clutching the rope in a death grip, envisioning all of the residual bird shit that was probably seeping into my hair and swimsuit. I took the longest shower known to man when I got back to the hotel.

 

Our last day in Italy was September 15th, our anniversary. Nineteen years. Can you believe that shmuck has tolerated me for that long? I busted out the magic dress and the high heels for dinner under the stars and Sorrento sky, and it was all so perfect and so romantic that I was almost able to ignore the Parisian couple sitting next to us who obviously hated each other’s guts and ate stiffly, wordlessly. The woman sighed and glowered in equal measure while he laser-focused on his plate of linguine.

“Tell me we’ll never be like that,” I said, clutching onto my husband and stumbling on the cobblestones in my heels.

“We’ll never be like that.”

“Okay. Because that was horrid.” I give up and decide to take off my heels. “I’m just gonna have to walk the rest of the way barefoot.”

People stare at me and one amused shopkeeper gives my husband a wink and a grin, as if to say “That American girl sure can’t handle her champagne, eh signore?” but at least without shoes, I’m not stumbling like an idiot. Or so I think.

The hotel is almost in sight when I stumble on a cobblestone and split my big toe wide open on a shard of rock.

“Fuck!” I yowl. “That really freakin’ hurt!”

Red spills out onto cobblestones.

“Jesus, you’re bleeding like a pig,” my husband mutters. We limp to the hotel, which is entirely paved in beautiful, intricate tiles and I leave a trail of bloody ooze behind me as we head to the elevator.

I stick my mangled foot in the bathtub and run steamy water over it. It stings like a bastard.

As I’m nursing my injury, I hear my husband on the hotel phone. “Uh, yeah.” He sighs deeply. “You might notice that there’s blood all over the tiles in your entryway and down the lobby? That’s from my wife.” I can almost feel him rolling his eyes.

“No, no, she doesn’t need medical attention. I just wanted to let you know about the bloody trail she left in your hotel. Yes, actually, ice would be great. No, please don’t worry about it. That’s just…her.”

 

{ 3 comments }

Lose Yourself

September 5, 2019

What If Today is the New Forever?

August 27, 2019

All My Crackers are Broken

August 18, 2019

The Thin Lizzy

July 27, 2019