The Little Sister Gift Guide: 5 Essentials for Every Kitchen

When it comes to the kitchen, I rely most on the simplest tools. I’ve rounded up a list of my five favorites. Ranging from $10 to decadent splurge, I depend on each with faithful adoration. I hope there’s something here that inspires you! I read somewhere that this lemon press is Ottolenghi’s favorite gadget. Simple and affordable, it’s fully worthy of the poetic lemon. GET THE FULL LIST!

Kitchen Conversations: Baking with Bridget

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that as a child I was a very picky eater. I wanted nothing to do with the seven fishes stew my mom served on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t touch the sugar-dusted Linzer tortes my sister baked, taking some unfathomable offense to the texture of jam. My sister has always been worlds ahead of me in this regard. While I munched on sugar cookies and inspected the presents under the tree, Bridget was improvising with spices for her latest batch of gingerbread or glazing a freshly baked poppy seed lemon bundt cake. …KEEP READING

Shredded kale salad with currants & pine nuts

This salad is so good that I challenge you not to eat it all before getting to the table. I ate it standing up with a wooden spoon, but that may be in part due to the fact that for the past week I’ve eaten about as healthily as a college senior during exam week. …KEEP READING

Poolside Plátanos & Cocktails on the Beach

FAC0E68D-FE13-4D73-97F7-D9C019D57B24I could walk to the beach with my eyes closed. Out the door of my grandma’s peach-colored house onto the hot pavement of a quiet dead-end street, past the house with the ferocious dogs and year-round Christmas decorations, left at the creaking iron gate, over the canal on a wooden bridge, through the tunneling sea grapes, and down the boardwalk to the sparkling sea. …KEEP READING

Little Sister Goes South: Everything I Ate in Greenville, SC

Photo Apr 09, 8 49 07 PM (2)On my last evening in Greenville, SC, my best friend Eliza took me to a free candlelight yoga class. “How nice,” I thought, “we’ll do some sun salutations and some light spinal twists, all by the soft light of little twinkling flames.” Not exactly. In fact, I have never sweat so much in my entire life as I did in that 98-degree room. It didn’t help that Eliza is a yoga teacher and moves with the grace of a Hindu goddess. I teetered in tree pose and nearly collapsed on my 100th chaturanga, but I walked away feeling incredibly energized, full of happiness, and blissfully unaware of the soreness that would ignite the next morning.

Eliza and I spent every day of school together from ages 5 to 18, and yet when we got home each afternoon, the phone would ring and one of us would start doing accents on the message machine until the other one picked up. I remember silences of five minutes or longer when we laughed so hard no sound came out. We’ve watched each other grow up and helped each other through the good, the bad, the extremely awkward, and the painfully sad. We’ve talked each other through leaps of faith, like going to Costa Rica to get yoga certified and quitting a stable job to pursue a crazy love of food.

It’s cheesy, I know. But when you’ve been friends with someone for 20 years, you‘re allowed to look back and marvel a little. Sweating through that fiery yoga class next to her while “Burn” by Usher blasted from the stereo felt undeniably like a metaphor for our friendship: Warm, eternal, and uproariously funny.

I’d heard about White Duck Taco a thousand times on the phone. The Bangkok Shrimp, specifically, featured prominently whenever Liza recounted day-trips to Asheville. On Friday, the two of us drove up into the mountains, so different from the rolling Massachusetts hills I’m used to, their slopes alive with a haze of budding leaves. Asheville felt like it’s own little world, suspended in the windy green hills and dotted with irresistible cafes, boutiques, and art galleries where you could actually afford something. We made a beeline for the White Duck and ordered two Bangkoks each and some fresh watermelon sangria (who could resist?!) Sweet lord, those tacos were good: tiny, sesame-glazed crunchy shrimp surrounded  by chili aioli, shredded lettuce, and a tangle of sweet pickles.

Sidewall Pizza is another spot I’d heard about for years as I sketched together a picture of Greenville in my head. Liza compared it to Baba Louie’s, which anyone from the Berkshires knows is high and nigh-unattainable praise. We went for dinner on Saturday night and sat at the bar to wait for our table. The people watching was impeccable—tattoos, man-buns, and Lululemon abounded. We ordered a pear, blue cheese, and candied walnut salad, a Margherita and the “Potato.” The crust could have stood on it’s own with an ever-so-chewy, almost brittle bite, but topped with thinly-sliced potatoes, bacon, caramelized onions, toasted walnuts, fresh sage, mozzarella, blue cheese, and fragrant olive oil, it was perfection.

Being the good little sisters that we are, Liza and I wanted to bake something for her sister’s birthday. After weighing the pros and cons of rolling out piecrust with a wine bottle, we settled on making a cake. A quick delve into Bon Appetit’s gluten-free archive brought us to a gorgeous-looking honey cake topped with cream cheese frosting and a spray of bright spring flowers. Everyone agreed it tasted like carrot cake without the carrots, which is fine by me as carrot cake usually includes raisins: my least favorite food on the planet. I don’t consider myself a great cake baker (pies are my wheelhouse), but I loved this! It had the warm, fragrant flavors of honey, ginger, and cinnamon, accented by a subtle tang of citrus. We used coconut oil instead of vegetable oil and substituted the somewhat demanding frosting recipe for Martha Stewart’s classic cream cheese frosting.

I’ve been on a mac & cheese odyssey this year, dabbling in everything from fussy béchamel sauces to clove-studded onions and dashes of Cayenne. But when Liza’s friend fractured two bones jet skiing, there was only one recipe we deemed comforting enough. My mom’s recipe comes from John Thorne’s Simple Cooking (which I am currently reading for pleasure—a refreshingly candid and unpretentious volume, simultaneously scrupulous and poetic). While my mom disapproved of such things as Tabasco sauce and condensed milk, Liza and I committed fully and the results were glorious.

My trip ended as all trips should: with savory crepes at Tandem Coffee, a bicycle-themed spot with bright yellow china, exposed brick, and an abundance of window seats.

Orange Pecan Cake with Honey-Whipped Ricotta

1E200789-8F91-4F87-BD2D-28080CF502A4Less than two months ago, I had a very stable 9-5 job. I woke up every morning, made my bed, got dressed, ate breakfast, and hopped on the orange line. I mapped out exactly how many pages I could read on the train before getting off at Back Bay Station, where I’d ascend the escalator, past one Dunk’n’Donuts and then another, and cross Dartmouth St. to enter the Copley Mall. I even counted the steps it took from the station to the seventh floor Wayfair offices (somewhere around 400).

9FA9C944-1E0E-47CF-838D-04E1700B4620The day ended at 5, which is exactly when I stopped thinking about e-commerce and shifted my focus to food, cookbooks, and dinner. Those evenings were wonderfully free and spent primarily in the kitchen, to the probable chagrin of my roommates, who would have liked to prepare their reasonable dinners without the presence of a maniac on her third batch of chocolate-dipped biscotti.

3C740D1D-584C-4CDD-A8F7-39F531309481I now live in a 3 story house in New Haven, CT with two law students, an ex-NYC management consultant-turned singer, a crazily artistic refugee reestablishment caseworker, a botanical genius, and a 6-month old black and white Schnoodle. There’s a music studio set up in the basement, plants everywhere, a wood stove in the living room, a backyard and patio, and a cantankerous caretaker named Frank. At any hour of the day, you’re likely to hear someone practicing guitar or singing, like some extra cozy music school for twentysomething misfits. Two house members (who shall remain un-named) have spent most of their winter vacation referring to each other as either ‘Jurist’ or ‘Bailiff’ and playing Shadow of Mordor on their PS4. In other words, a far cry from my quiet little haven in Jamaica Plain.

A1C716AF-48CD-43F2-83C5-C55C948896D0It’s hard to believe I am now a freelance writer. Whenever I heard the word “freelance” growing up, I pictured a sort of law-defying knight of the round table who’d left the jousting circuit to gallop around on a horse with his lance and not a care in the world.

A4A447E3-23E7-4AB9-8B70-0DAF7CB18B55In reality, however, “freelance” means figuring out how to create your own work, setting expectations for yourself, and practicing discipline. I’ve become one of those people who “works from home”—you know, the kind you see at a café with their laptop in the middle of the day and wonder why they don’t have something better to do.

01B5B759-56AD-4401-AD7F-03D4035FA072In the mad shuffle to move from Boston to home in Western MA and then to New Haven in a small sedan, I had to temporarily part with my cookbook collection. It might surprise you that my first instinct for baking inspiration is not the world wide web, but there is nothing I love more than turning the pages of a cookbook, flipping to the index and scrolling through ingredients. In fact, my goal in life is to have a living room with floor-to-ceiling shelves of cookbooks organized alphabetically by author.

5EF30CAA-1611-495D-95EE-227933A765B8So for my fist bake of 2016, without my two 100-lb. storage bins of cookbooks, I turned to Smitten Kitchen: that steadfast bible of witty, approachable inspiration. Deb’s most recent recipe, an upside down cake studded with glowing oranges seemed perfect against the bright blue-white of the year’s first snow.

9EA977CC-5490-46CE-B405-00EA509AB85AI wish I could say I substituted pecans for almonds on a whimsical stroke of pure culinary genius. In fact, I had no almonds in my pantry and had to improvise. I roasted the nuts for a warmer, toastier flavor. Note: this is one seriously moist cake. Oh, and it happens to be gluten free!

Orange Pecan Cake with Honey Whipped Ricotta

Adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen 

Ingredients 

For the cake 

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cara cara oranges
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup full fat ricotta
  • 1/3 cup  cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups whole pecans
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup apricot jam (optional, for glaze)

For the Ricotta

  • 1/2 cup full fat ricotta
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • Pinch of seasalt

Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 300º. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. Mix brown sugar and water together to form a thick paste. Pour into prepared cake pan so that sugar mixture is equally distributed over the bottom. Set aside.
  3. Spread pecans on a baking sheet and roast until lightly toasted and fragrant (about 7 minutes). Remove from oven and let cool completely. Once cool, place pecans in a food processor and pulse until  nuts have the consistency of wet sand. This is a much damper meal than almond meal, so don’t be alarmed when the nuts feel slightly moist.
  4. In a medium sized mixing bowl, whip egg whites with an electric hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
  5. Cut one orange in half and slice into paper thin half moons or circles. Arrange over brown sugar base in cake pan.
  6. Add sugar to a large mixing bowl and zest both oranges over the sugar.
  7. Juice remaining orange and a half until you have just under 1/3 of a cup. Set aside.
  8. Add butter to the sugar and zest and beat with your electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add one egg yoke at a time and beat to combine. Add orange juice and ricotta and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the salt, pecan meal, and cornmeal and mix until just combined. Gently fold in egg whites.
  9. Carefully scoop the batter over prepared cake pan so as not to disturb the orange slices. Bake 40 minutes, until a fork inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake is so moist that Deb recommends a few extra minutes.
  10. Cool cake in pan on rack for 5 minutes. Run a butter knife around the side and invert onto a cake plate.
  11. Heat the jam until liquified and spoon over cake top for a glossier finish. Let cool before cutting into slices.
  12. Place ricotta, heavy cream, honey, and salt in a mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Spoon in dollops on cake slices to serve.

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Dark Chocolate, Sea Salt, and Brand New Beginnings

CD0E0853-8CD6-4C81-93E9-5EEC1C8FB2E2At 11 PM on a Saturday night, I sat down to start on work for one of my four jobs. A few hours later, as I dipped a granola bar into a mug of watery hot chocolate from a package that’s been sitting in a kitchen drawer for over a year, I felt it might be time to reevaluate things. When I proceeded to scald my entire tongue on a sip of the aforementioned beverage, I decided it was time  time for a flat out reality check. The facts:

  • I am 24 years old
  • I am wearing size XL sweatpants from a college I did not attend, a mustard yellow fleece, a wool sweater, and fuzzy Eskimo slippers.
  • I just got home from a 12 hour shift working retail at a pop-up holiday market specializing in small batch, sustainably-sourced artisanal foods
    • I’ve probably used the phrase “small batch, sustainably-sourced artisanal foods” about 50 times today
  • For dinner, I ate ¾ of a frozen pepperoni pizza, to which I added a healthy does of salt.
  • I recently quit my job.
  • I’ve given up a salary, membership to a fancy gym, pre-paid T pass, health benefits, and paid vacation to enter the world of food writing, which is not exactly known for being lucrative.
  • My dream life is one in which I spend half the time cooking and baking and the other half writing, and yet
    • I have been using my roommate’s cast iron skillet for the past year and a half
      • I do not own a food processor, a stand mixer, a single baking sheet, cake pans, or a good knife
        • and am, in point of fact, an incredible mooch who has been reaping the benefits of well equipped friends since graduating college

And yet…I’ve never been this kind of happy. Armed with a well-worn wooden spoon, a hand mixer, and a Le Creuset stainless steel spatula, I am ready to take on the next adventure, whatever that may be.

DCC98F70-7F6D-4186-B0FC-1CC64CC0E06286A4CCAD-D065-4F6D-9A86-81D2B9C98D9BMost people imagine their lives as movies. I dream of mine as a cookbook. You know, the kind where after several pages of plum galettes, elegant cakes and heaping summer salads, there I am, looking ever-so-chic, stirring a shining copper pot without a care in the world. But realistically, a cookbook of my  life would involve meals like: yogurt straight from the carton with a few walnuts on every spoonful, eaten standing up at the counter. And maybe a short inspirational piece on how to eat Trader Joe’s potstickers in bed, dipping each bite into a bowl of soy sauce, all while watching Jane the Virgin on Netflix. The pictures would show me in bulky sweaters and my fuzzy slippers, squatting with my nose pressed against the oven door at 10 PM on a weeknight.

ED78E759-E0E5-4BEF-BBF5-84161E10FB33DEB1F89F-3CA3-4D90-89FA-E526E7A049B9So there you have it. I’m neither glamorous nor well equipped, but I’m one tiny step closer to defining myself in the world of food. After an incredibly educational year of e-commerce and site merchandising, I’m suddenly immersed in the world of freelance writing, working for a successful blog and artisan food company, and filling up every hour I can with odd jobs like helping a painter convert slides and negatives to a digital archive. I’m about to move from Boston to a rambling old house in New Haven, CT, where I’ll be living with 5 other people and a puppy. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That’s 5 new subjects for my baking experiments…

2FB603C0-2191-44AE-9CE1-44EA073327A2AFD53546-5A97-4BAD-ACCF-27CD6A346F50Up until now, I’ve been coasting along, using cooking as a hobby, an antidote to a stressful day. Now it’s time to get serious. I feel like I should be taking an oath, one hand on my heart and the other on The Joy of Cooking.

25C81202-3C29-42CF-A818-F45E733F5F51A116D71A-CAAF-4DD8-9363-58E967099BC1Whoever you are, and from wherever you’re reading this, I’m so grateful and I can’t wait to keep sharing my haphazard culinary adventures with you. My goal is to inspire you to bake and cook. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you. I’m the one who up until the age of 10 refused to eat pie because I didn’t like the texture. Really!  So here’s a recipe that is incredibly easy and will guarantee ooh’s and ahh’s from everyone who takes a bite. Made with dark chocolate and sea salt, these cookies are rich, soft, crumbly, and sophisticated: perfect after any meal with a cup of coffee or tea. They’re from the inimitable Dorie Greenspan and Pierre Hermé, a fan of whose once claimed that a daily dose of these cookies would ensure planetary peace and happiness. It is physically impossible to eat only one.

Recipe for Dorie Greenspan & Pierre Hermé’s World Peace Cookies,
from The Splendid Table  (my notes in italics)
Ingredients
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar (the third time I made these, I used organic brown sugar and I swear it made them better…)
  • 1/4 cup sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

Instructions

  1. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.
  2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more. (Really do the full two minutes–it makes a difference in the final outcome)
  3. Turn off the mixer. Pour in the dry ingredients, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don’t be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface (it will look like a giant pile of crumbs), gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you’ve frozen the dough, you needn’t defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)

Getting Ready to Bake:

  1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
  2. Using a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you’re cutting them — don’t be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.
  3. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won’t look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.

34839AD7-3A0B-4E71-BCBA-973CCF021A6B4A0D0F70-9796-4983-9916-01E16219E9C7Try them and let me know what you think!

Xo,

GraceED2FD2B5-1339-4FB5-B373-6E2BA65499A3

A Guido’s Thanksgiving Feast

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When I daydream about coming home for the holidays, I think of wearing slippers and cozy sweaters for days at a time, sitting in front of the fire until my eyelids begin to droop, and waking up to views of the rolling blue Berkshire hills. Mostly, however, I think of cooking. I think of dreaming up menus at the kitchen table surrounded by a small fortress of cookbooks, writing out grocery lists, and going to Guido’s Fresh Marketplace. For someone who considers writing grocery lists a hobby and who thinks about food 24/7, Guido’s is like paradise. I’ve been there over 1200 times (I did the math), but every time I come home, in summer, winter, spring or fall, shopping there still feels like a treat.

Thanksgiving us upon us, but let’s be honest, I’m nowhere near ready to roast a whole turkey. I’ve seen my mom’s technique, which involves dunking the bird in a giant, plastic-lined industrial bucket full of brine a full 3 days before the feast, and then painstakingly spreading herbed butter under every inch of the bird’s skin. If you’re like me, you find that process slightly intimidating, but nonetheless adore the flavors of the classic Thanksgiving feast.

This year, I partnered with Guido’s to create a Thanksgiving menu, Little Sister style; in other words, fun, festive, and easy! I combined trusty resources like the New York Times food section, my favorite food blogs, and a few age-old family recipes with the gorgeous bounty of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace to come up with the following menu:

Shrimp Steamed in Beer with Tartar Sauce

This might be a little outside the usual Thanksgiving agenda, but it’s a quick, easy, no-fail hors d’oeuvre for entertaining season. My family learned the recipe in Key West, where they cook the shrimp whole. The tartar sauce is my grandma’s recipe. While its roots are Floridian, the warm flavors of beer, cloves, onion and bay leaves are perfect for a late fall evening. Mazzeo’s fresh-caught Alabama shrimp can’t be beat.

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For the Shrimp

1 lb. fresh caught shrimp

1 Bottle beer

1 T whole cloves

1 Bay leavef

1 Onion, roughly chopped

1 Dill pickle, roughly chopped

Combine beer, onion, cloves, bay leaf and pickle in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add shrimp, cover pan and bring to a boil again. Turn to simmer and watch carefully. They’ll be pink, firm and done very quickly!

For the Tartar Sauce

1 C mayonnaise

1 Clove garlic

3 Scallions

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 tsp. Capers

a sprinkle of salt and a grind of pepper

About 5 leaves of parsley

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly combined.

Roasted Fennel, Satsuma Orange, and Pomegranate Salad

from Brooklyn Supper

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This salad is simple but gorgeous, the roasted saltiness of the fennel and red onion contrasted with the bright crunch of pomegranate seeds. Click here for the recipe.

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Stuffing-Stuffed Acorn Squash

If you ask me, the whole point of Thanksgiving is the stuffing. Everything else is just a vehicle. Why not showcase the flavors of stuffing—crumbly cornbread, warm chestnuts, sweet sausage, and sage—by piling it into halves of velvety acorn squash? The type of squash is up to you! From local butternut to speckled Kabocha to bright orange Kuri, Guido’s selection is overflowing.

For the Squash (serves 8)

4 Acorn squash

1 T olive oil

½ tsp. coarse sea salt

Preheat oven to 425°. Halve each squash and scrape out seeds from center. Lightly oil the cut edges and center of squash. Oil the bottom of a baking dish or roasting pan, and sprinkle salt over surface. Bake squash cut side down for 25 minutes. Let cool slightly before flipping, as hot steam will escape. Set aside.

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For the Stuffing

2 T butter

1 Onion, diced

¾ lb. sweet Italian sausage (Guido’s sells it freshly-made, in bulk!)

1 ½ cups Olivia’s Original Cornbread Stuffing Croutons

15 oz. Whole roasted and peeled chestnuts (After years of agonizing over roasting whole chestnuts and multiple injuries sustained from the peeling process, we now buy Guido’s Blanchard & Blanchard’s Organic Whole Roasted and Peeled Chestnuts)

1 C whole milk

2 Stalks celery

3 Sage leaves, finely chopped

Salt & Pepper to Taste

Cook the onion in butter until golden brown. Add the sausage and sage and cook, stirring constantly until meat is browned and cooked through. Add the chestnuts, cornbread, milk, salt and pepper and mix well. Cook on low heat until all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated and the cornbread has lost some of its crunch. Once stuffing is done, pile it into the cavity of each squash half and bake for 5 -10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley to serve.

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Quick-Blanched Haricot Verts

Guido’s deliciously crisp haricots verts don’t need anything other than a quick blanch in boiling water to bring out their bright, cheerful flavor.

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Cranberry Orange Curd Tart

From the New York Times

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I couldn’t resist the locally grown cranberries that greeted me in a tower of deep red when I walked in the door of Guido’s. But instead of cranberry sauce, why not eat them for dessert? This New York Times recipe combines everything good about tangy cranberries and orange zest with the luxurious creaminess of curd, spreading it to bake in a buttery, roasted hazelnut crust (that just so happens to be gluten free!) I was initially intimidated, but take it from me: curd is not scary at all, and this will become a new staple on your Thanksgiving table. Click here for the recipe

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Anna’s Avocado Toast

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In honor of my grandma (Anna) on what would have been her 93rd birthday. 

 My brother, sister and I used to walk down the beach, toward the distant pier, past the graying bungalows with their tinted glass windows, past the small stretch of beach with mismatched chairs and ominously taut fishing rods, finally reaching the neat monotony of blue and white umbrellas, positioned in a grid as if facing the water in battle. We’d pad up the sandy walk to the Beach Club, feeling conspicuous but blending in with the other damp, sandy kids.

The swelteringly crowded Snack Shack was pitch dark after the blinding sun and sand. It smelled of deep-frying oil and sunscreen. A huge fan hummed wearily somewhere overhead. The ladies at the snack shack never changed. They wore Hawaiian shirts as part of their uniform, but you got the sense that they’d wear them at home, too, the scent of their perfume mingling with eau de hot dog. They glared at us as we approached in line as if daring us to place an order. We used my grandma’s membership number, which was only supposed to cover the fancy restaurant, with its uncomfortable iron chairs and tangled awning of Sea Grape branches. There was something thrilling about giving our fake room number, 1468, and pretending we were guests at the hotel. My heart sped up whenever it was my turn, as if they might suddenly turn off the music and throw us out by our ears into the sand and sun.

While we waited for our food, we wandered past the giant chess set and took turns in the hammock, watching tan, shiny-nailed moms in white visors and lanky boys who really belonged. One of us guarded the food while the other two dove into the teeming pools, swimming around the fake tropical islands and doing handstands in the shallow end.

Then we’d head back, balancing our hot dogs and cheeseburgers, accompanied by the muted rattle of ice in our big Styrofoam cups full of pink, pink lemonade. It was a peaceful walk. Lost in our thoughts, no longer under cover, we’d drag our toes in the wave-washed sand and make up foreign languages together. We walked back past the fishing rods, the big swirling pines, and toward our little beach. My mom always looked up from her book in surprise, as if she’d forgotten she had children. She’d extend a slim arm and receive her order: half iced tea, half lemonade, on the rocks.

As the day waned, our sand ladies with their seaweed-and-shell necklaces lay forgotten. The great Dole barges were mere specs on the horizon, and the shadows of our umbrella were long past keeping us in the shade. I’d think of Anna, moving gracefully through her cool, quiet house. I pictured the sound of my flip-flops on the orange tiles of her sun room, the clink of the ice machine, the patient chime of her library clock. I longed to go home, stamp my feet on the spiky grass, hurriedly shake off my, towel and ring the doorbell. I’d press my nose against the glass and watch her walk toward us, stepping so lightly in her blue Keds and freshly-ironed shirt. “Hi Gang,” she’d say, smiling as she opened the door, “How’s tricks?”

Anna always appreciated beauty more than anyone I know. Toward the end of her life, she began to marvel at the simplest things, like the full moon, a flower in her back yard, or an avocado sandwich. She’d been making them for me my whole life, long before the combination of toasted bread and avocado became inexplicably hip. They always tasted perfect when she made them. In the last year of her life, it was as if she’d never tasted one before. I mashed the avocado with a little mayonnaise and lots of salt, spread it thickly on toast, and brought it to her as she sat in her flowered armchair in the alcove. “Delicious! This is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.” She’d exclaim after each bite, shaking her head and looking at me like I’d made her a feast. “Where did you learn how to make this?” “You taught me, Anna,” I’d say, unable to repress a smile.

Anna’s Avocado Sandwich (serves two)

  • 1 perfectly ripe avocado
  • 2 slices good bread (it doesn’t matter what kind. Bread is just a vehicle for the avocado. Sometimes Anna and I would skip bread all together and just dip crackers.)
  • 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise (trust me)
  • Lots of sea salt
  • A grind of pepper
  1. Scrape the avocado into a bowl and mash with a fork. Add the mayo, and salt to taste. Mash it thoroughly, but don’t be afraid to leave a few chunks
  2. Toast the bread to your liking. I like it to have a good, loud crunch.
  3. Spread avocado thickly on toast and sprinkle with more salt and pepper
  4. Eat with someone you love.

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Flipping the Skillet: How Cooking Won My Heart

IMG_3263Sometimes the best meals aren’t the glamorous ones. Take right now, for example. It’s mid-July and the weather is cool and heavenly. The city of Boston is lively and aglow. There are a million new restaurants and award-winning ice cream flavors and tacos that would probably make my heart sing. People are drinking cooling cocktails and talking loudly over one another at bars. I’m sure the esplanade is full of runners and the Charles River is reflecting the fading sun. And yet, I am sitting in bed in a sweater, under the covers, eating a bowl of black beans. Specifically, black beans stewed with onions and leftover roast chicken, with a dash of vinegar, cooked not by me but for me, by someone I love.

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re 24. You have a good job and a desk with a view, a big kitchen with two windows that let in the morning breeze, and are by all accounts the luckiest girl in the world. And yet, there’s this nagging sensation that runs deep—that you aren’t where you need to be yet.

I never actually had a something I wanted to ‘be when I grew up.’ I always knew I was passionate, but after my short-lived dreams of being an opera singer (sorry, siblings, for stationing myself in the echo-y stairwell for hours at a time, belting out ballads where they sounded the loudest) my dreams became less specific. In college, it was easy to indulge in the challenges of my classes, analyzing paintings by and working laboriously through esoteric texts. But I had this fear of not knowing what I’d be good at.

Then I flipped over a cast iron skillet, filled with my fist real baking endeavor: a tarte tatin. No, I hadn’t made the crust by hand, and yes, I still sound like a fraud when I try to pronounce it, but there was something about those amber-colored apples, soaked with caramelized sugar, and the way they held together on the plate that told me all I needed to know.

Cooking is an act of love, but until now I’ve mostly been on the receiving end. I remember visiting my sister in Minneapolis, where she’s lived for the past 5 years. It was late fall, and I got off the plane and ran to her car though the freezing Minnesota rain. Her fiancée was away so we had the apartment to ourselves. Her living room, spacious and lovely, has wood floors and floor-to-ceiling shelves, brimming with everything from Tolstoy to books on bees, poetry, and food. And yet, as always, we gravitated toward the kitchen. The house was freezing, and we bundled in blankets, sat in stools by the counter, and ate sunken apple honey cake she’d baked that day. It’s hard to explain just how that cake tasted—sweet, yes, and pillowed with the lightness of small apples, but also of caring and sisterhood. I’ve never felt so much like a little sister as when I ate that cake. It tasted like all the days and hours we’d missed because we live so far apart.

Just a few months ago, I visited again. It was May, but the weather still hovered around 50°. Her fiancée Ed was there this time, and Bridget fed both of us: flour tortillas, warmed in a skillet, filled with the scraped green roundness of a ripe avocado, sprinkled with sea salt, squeezed with lime. Not glamorous. But it tasted like the indulgent comfort of a cold day in May, and the unfurling excitement of an upcoming marriage.

Just like that, this bowl of beans took me from the apprehension of uncertainty to the simple perfection of salty chicken, the slight crunch of cooked onions, the realization that gratitude is more fruitful than anxiety.

I’m learning now to cook with the ease I so admired in my mom and sister. Here are some things I cooked for two old friends who just turned 25. (Actually, the birthdays were more of a technical excuse to make cake.)

Menu:

Chilled cucumber and avocado soup with mango salsa

Roasted chicken with salt

Raddichio salad with Manchego

Upside-down apricot cake with Greek yogurt whipped cream

For the soup I went to Food52, as always. The original recipe is here, but I made adjustments. (I skipped the lime and went easy on the scallions. The flavors of avocado and cucumber are too delicate to compete with bitter scallions and the abrasive sweetness of limes.) Another method for this soup would be to use only cucumbers, and then to stir in a light avocado crème to serve. As for the mango salsa, I make variants of this all the time (adding red onion, for example). It’s easy and summery and 100% healthy.

Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

  • 2 ½ large cucumbers, peeled and cut into rough slices
  • 1 medium avocado
  • 1 scallion, green and white parts included, chopped
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt (to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
  • A few drops of olive oil

Mango Salsa

  • 1 mango, cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 1 or two tomatoes, largely diced
  • 1 or 2 ears’ worth of shucked corn kernels (raw)
  • ½ cup cilantro, loosely packed and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Blend all soup ingredients together in a blender till smooth, adding enough water to achieve a perfectly creamy texture (I barely added any!).
  2. Toss the salsa ingredients together in a small bowl. Transfer soup to four serving bowls. Top each with a half cup of the mango salsa, and serve.

IMG_3269 IMG_3270 IMG_3272 IMG_3273IMG_3274I felt it was high time I learned to roast a chicken. It’s one of those things you need to know how to do if you want to be a self-respecting cook. So I overcame my admitted squeamishness at dealing with a whole, raw bird, and turned to Alice waters, whose recipe my mom swears by. It’s this simple:

  • Whole roasting chicken (about 3.5 lbs)
  • Salt
  1. The night (or a few hours) before, coat whole chicken in salt and some pepper. Make sure the salt gets in all the crevices of the bird (including the bottom and center cavity). Wrap it in parchment paper and put it in the fridge.
  2. Plan for 2 hours total prep and cooking time, because the most important thing is to take the chicken out of the fridge an hour before roasting it. The bird should be at room temperature when it goes in the oven.
  3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken in a lightly oiled pie dish, breast side up. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove and flip the chicken over. Roast breast-side down for 20 minutes. Remove, flip to breast-side up one more time, and roast for another 20 minutes. From my experience, this timing was pretty foolproof. Make sure to let the chicken cool for 10-15 minutes before serving, so that clear, golden juice has a chance to gather at the bottom of the dish. Spoonfulls of that are all you need to season.

The salad is a Genius Recipe by Toro Bravo that never fails. Soak the chopped radicchio in ice water for 20 minutes—it removes the bitterness. Then shower in grated Manchego and dress with any vinaigrette.

As for the cake, just follow David Lebovitz’s recipe to the letter. (Read his blog while you’re at it. He is hilarious and real and observant, and his writing will make you look up flights to Paris tout de suite.) The cake was perfection, if I do say so myself, and so easy! I was inspired to accompany it with this whipped cream, but vanilla ice cream would do the job swimmingly.

IMG_3261 IMG_3262 IMG_3264 IMG_3265 IMG_3266 IMG_3268The dinner:

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The aftermath (not pictured: all of us, in cake and wine-induced stupors)

IMG_3259Now go bake that cake!

Xo,

Grace