Friday, September 30, 2011

Lame Dinner #1: "Pizza Toast"

"You should write about that," my friend Maddie said last night, when I was describing one of our most common lame dinners. So Maddie: this one's for you.

It's true that our very lamest dinner is popcorn and smoothies, which I serve most often in the summertime. But "pizza toast" is our second lamest dinner, and I serve it often, especially when it is suddenly 6:30 and I am standing in front of the open refrigerator with a dial tone humming in my brain. "Oooh," the kids say, because they are in a never-ending living remake of Oliver! "Pizza toast! Yay!" I could cry, seriously. Except then I remember that my mother, an excellent cook, would sometimes bake us up a carton Stouffer's French Bread Pizza, and we were nothing less than thrilled. So.

When it comes time to make pizza toast, you'll be glad you froze the extra tomato paste in lumps like I suggested. Plus, it's so appetizing when it's all covered in frost crystals. The geodes of the frozen-canned-foods world.

Pizza toast and apples. Pizza toast and whole unpeeled carrots. It doesn't matter what you serve it with, because the only important thing is that you cut up a string cheese with scissors. Mozzarella and a knife just aren't going to get the job done in the appropriately depressing way. 

Toast the bread on one side, then flip it and spread thawed tomato paste on the untoasted side. Paste, not sauce: sauce is just going to sog into the bread, while paste is going to actually be strangely delicious (can you believe that I can't resist giving you actual serious advice about fucking PIZZA TOAST?). Because I am fancy about my pizza toast, I drizzle a little olive oil on the tomato paste before spreading. I really do. Now cut up your string cheese with a pair of cleanish scissors, one string cheese per bread slice, and arrange it artfully. Add toppings, if you have any, which you don't, then pop your toast back under the broiler until the cheese is melted. While you wait, you can admire the filthiest of your lesser appliances.
Are you salivating yet?
And it's done! Pizza toast. It's a perfectly balanced meal on another planet where you live to be zero years old!

You guys, thank you for your beauty and sweetness when I wrote last week. Because of you, I am now happily sitting under my SAD lamp with an estrogen mist and a B-vitamin drip, reading What Is the What. (I really am reading that book. Thank you for recommending it.) I feel better this week--like a breeze has blown through my mood and swept out all the humid debris. But it helps so much (I know you know this) to be buoyed by friendship and the friendship of strangers.


p.s. Grape jam drawing tomorrow. . . keep voting and stay tuned.

Friday, September 23, 2011


The melancholy is morphing into a more generalized melancholic strangeness. The sight of a toad in the woods--its small moist lumpy self hopping and hiding--makes me cry. Birdy shoves her hands preemptively into her pockets on the walk home, and I hear myself saying, "One day you'll want to hold my hand, but I'll be dead." Luckily, I hear this only in my mind, but it's unsettling that a sentence like that could form, even unuttered. I wake in the night and lie awake; I read and fret and listen to the eggs shriveling in my ovaries and try to extract more love from the pussycat than he is really interested in sharing. "Kitty!" I chastise. "You have to let me hold you like a baby." And he is too sleepy to protest further. "Oh sorry honey, did I wake you?" I say to Michael, after I turn the light on and wake him. He is good for throwing a heavy leg over me, tethering me back to bed, reuniting me with the basic comfort of gravity.

Life is good. It's just late September, I guess. I'll be away on Monday, but will check back in later in the week. Enjoy your weekend, patient friends.

xo Catherine

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cherry-Chocolate Ginger Cookies

First photoshop experience: air-brushing the gross stain off the pretty turquoise oven mitt. It looks perfect again!

I just googled my own name with the words “fall” and “melancholy,” and got 4190 hits. Enough said, right? Maybe almost literally enough said.

I do love the leaf smell, the cold nights, the deeply misted mornings, corduroys, soup, fresh bread, acorns, apples, my down vest, dead mosquitoes, bright skies, and the changing light against the changing trees. But I’m tired today. The weird ChopChop voting thing makes me insecure—like I’m finally showing up for the middle school party in knickers, and everyone else has already moved on to jodhpurs. It’s an old feeling, largely unrelated to the contest, I’m sure. Mostly I just miss the kids while they’re at school. I come at the pussycat with need so frank that he scrabbles away from my empty arms—unless he’s sleeping, and then he’s too lazy to move, so I can kiss my loneliness into his fur. The weekend barely gets started, it seems, and it’s over already. Sigh.

As always, I find myself expressing my love via the children’s lunchboxes, in the form of cookies. I always bake on Sundays, and heading into the week with a tin of cookies is simply good for my soul and sanity. Plus, the kids are around to help me, or at least to dart in in their jammies and nab still-warm cookies from the racks. These are favorites: sweet, a little spicy from the ginger, tart with cherries, and striated with chocolate. They are crunchy on the outside and a tiny bit soft in the center, which I like. And they’re fragrant and wheaty and gorgeous.

Cherry-Chocolate Ginger Cookies
Makes 4 dozen
Active time: 1 hour

This recipe is adapted from one in Heidi Swanson’s gorgeous, inspiring Super Natural Every Day. I have made the recipe exactly as written by her—with the spelt flour and the apricots—and the cookies were terrific. But I like cherries best, and so I like this version even more! These are small cookies, which I love. Then you can pull one from the tin without making a huge commitment.

2 cups spelt flour or whole-wheat pastry flour (I used regular whole-wheat flour this time)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
½ cup (1 stick) butter (I use salted), melted and cooled slightly
¼ cup molasses
2/3 cup sugar
1-2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 large egg, well beaten
1 cup dried sour cherries (I love the ones from Trader Joe’s), chopped (or one cup dried California apricots, chopped)
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped/shaved (or use chips)
½ cup large-grain sugar (mine is Turbinado) or even just regular sugar works fine

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt.

In a medium bowl, stir the egg, molasses, sugar, and fresh ginger into the melted butter.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dries, add the cherries, and stir until just combined. Stir in the chocolate. At this point, you are supposed to chill the dough for half an hour. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Heat the oven to 350, and line two cookie sheets with Silpat liners (or parchment paper).

Scoop the dough into tablespoon-sized lumps (I really do love my dough-scooper for this), then tear each lump in two, roll each half into a ball, roll it in the coarse sugar, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Leave a little space: sometimes they bake up sort of squat and puffy, and sometimes they spread into broader, flatter cookies—I don’t know why. I get about 16 cookies to a sheet.

Bake the cookies two sheets at a time for 7-12 minutes (mine take about 11), until they puff up, darken a bit, and crack across the top. Cool on wire racks.

The cookies are good for lots of reasons.

Two kinds of ginger, for example.

Also: chocolate.

Cherries. And the fresh ginger. I kind of spaced and chopped it fine instead of grating it, but all seems well.

The recipe.

The dough, which is very stiff.

The cat, which is very lazy.

It could be that these are a pain to shape and bread in sugar, but I love it for some reason.

Unbaked cookie balls.

Cookies, baked. Sometimes they spread more, so I give them a bit of room.

Children, in pajamas.

I told him the funniest joke! 

Friday, September 16, 2011

reading and thinking

We all commemorated 9/11 in our own ways, I know, and I am grateful as always for that diversity--even in our processing of grief and disaster. You won't be surprised to hear that my marking of the event took the form of a book. This book:

It's a story about Hurricane Katrina, on the one hand, and 9/11 on the other--specifically about the experience of Muslim Americans in its aftermath. I confess that I tend to read nonfiction with a mixture of engaged righteousness (Look at me! I'm the kind of person who reads nonfiction!) and falling asleep, but this book I simply couldn't put down. I loved it and I am recommending it to you with a full heart. The title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has always made me a little exhausted, but now that I'm a Dave Eggers convert, maybe I'll pick that up too.

Thanks for continuing to vote for ChopChop. And if you're not on facebook, for keeping us in your thoughts!

Have a lovely weekend.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wild Grape Jam Give-Away!!!

jam pot
Where are my manners? Seriously. I knew there was something off about that request yesterday, and it was this: I forgot to bribe you! With a jar of my gorgeous, glossy, fully foraged, poetically purple, grapetastic jam. That's right. Vote at Birds Eye, then enter your name here, right here in the comments, in a drawing to win a jar of the good stuff.

The voting happens here. Vote! And then vote again tomorrow. And the day after. etc.

You cannot do it from an iPhone. Birds Eye has this advice:
1. Go to
2. If you have not already, please "like" the page in order to be able to vote
3. Click on the Share the Wonder Grant tab (right under the Birds Eye Facebook profile photo)
4. The page to appear will say "Vote for your favorite organization". ChopChop is the first video on the top left corner (it says "ChopChop"). Click on that video and the click the red voting button to vote.
You can vote once a day for a month, and whichever organization gets the most votes wins $20,000. I will do the drawing here on October 1st.

Now, I understand that a few things might give you pause.

Is it unsettling that it's decided by a facebook popularity contest?
Is it disturbing that I have to click that "allow access to all my personal information and private memories" button?
Aren't all the organizations worthy? (My God, they are--I practically voted for a different one until I remembered myself.)
Didn't we already enter another contest here, about the name of the blog, and you still lamely haven't figured that out yet?

I totally understand. But watch our video. Not just because I spent the better part of a million hours helping to make it. Not just because Ben and Birdy are both quoted in it and Birdy herself is actually in it. But also because it explains what we're trying to do.

Thanks for your patience, friends. And if you voted already, thank you so much.

xo Catherine

p.s. Favorite search terms that brought people here this week: "tape face," "2.5 year old knows how to play jenga," "you were rolling your tortilla boobs into a fancy burrito," which, by the way, I know one of you searched only to make me laugh. Which I did. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Please help ChopChop win this grant!

You guys, ChopChop, the non-profit I'm working for, is a finalist for a grant from Birds Eye. Can you please help? Can you go to this facebook page, "like" it, and then vote for our video every day this week? The organization that gets the most votes will win. . . thank you so much, and I'm sorry to ask so much of you all the time!

yours gratefully,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Smoky Minted Eggplant Dip

I have already written at great length about my hate-love relationship with eggplant, and so I won’t recapitulate it here. But I just want to say, for anybody who loathes or is allergic to eggplant or peppers or tomatoes: no duh. It’s the deadly nightshade family, folks—kind of a cusp edible, if you don’t mind me saying. That’s why they might make your lips itch when you eat them, or your scalp itch when you think about them or why, if you’re Ben, the sight of somebody cutting into a raw tomato might make you practically need to pull the neck of your shirt away from your body so you can barf into it. He always shudders, then says something like, “It’s just all that, kind of, seedy jelly. Rrrkh.” I once popped the top of a jar with his grandmother’s handwriting on the lable, and when Ben asked and I told him it was green tomato marmalade, he said, “Seriously? My God.”

This dip, which is my new version of the baba ganoush recipe I ran in O, takes me through all my eggplant feelings:

Still life with zinnias and beautiful produce.

My friend Nicole grew this eggplant, and I just love how much it looks like a cartoon character--like it's about to spring up and do a dance with a cane and it's own sprightly little green hat. Plus, the color. I mean, wow.

Under the broiler, where it can be largely ignored. Fine.

But then, I don't know. This starts to get me into eggplant-weirdness territory.

Oh God, and this.

"Eggplant looks so untasty," Ben remarked, staring into the colander. "It looks like those whale intestines we saw on the beach." Um, exactly.
But then this? There is almost nothing better: smoky, lemony, creamy. . . I mean, it's perfect. Those are chips I made from wheat tortillas following this recipe.

Smoky Minted Eggplant Dip
Makes 1 ½ cups

This zippy, lemony, herb-flecked dip is heaven on a pita chip. Spread it on a sandwich, dollop it onto a plate, or scoop it up with crackers. Purists can omit the mint—it tastes smokier and more authentic without it—but I love its brightness against the rich eggplant. Likewise, swap in tahini for the almonds if you prefer (a couple tablespoons should do the trick), but as you may or may not know, I’m not the world’s most ardent fan of dust paste tahini.

1/3 cup whole almonds
1 large-ish eggplant (around 1-1 ½ pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed through a garlic press
2 tablespoons each fresh mint and parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)

In a bowl, cover the almonds with hot water and leave them to soak.

Now preheat the broiler and prick the eggplant a half dozen or so times with a fork. On a rimmed metal baking sheet (I cover mine with foil first), broil the eggplant 4 or 5 inches from the heat, flipping it over at the halfway point, for about 45 minutes; you could probably do this on the grill—let me know if you try. It will be completely collapsed and browning by this point.

Dump the eggplant into a colander, pull it apart with two forks, and allow it to drain, torn side down, until it’s cool enough to be handled. Now remove the pulp from the skin: this is most easily accomplished with a fork and fingers, and will involve some combination of peeling the skin and scraping the flesh; be sure to get at all the nice browned stuff right by the skin.

Drain the almonds. Place the almonds in the food processor with all the remaining ingredients except the eggplant and process until as finely blended as possible, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Now add the eggplant and process again until smooth(ish). Taste it and  add more salt, lemon, or oil if it needs a little punching or fattening up. Scoop it into a bowl, drizzle it with olive oil, and serve it with crackers, pita, or pita chips.

Birdy. Who was home sick on her third day of school. Did I get to skip work and lie around in bed with her reading When Vera Was Sick and The Sick Day? Why yes. Yes I did.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

ChopChop News

ChopChop's Sally Sampson is talking about kids and lunch at the Washington Post. Yay, Sally!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wild Grape Focaccia with Rosemary

It’s graping time. I can’t help it. Every year, come the first week of September, I run in the woods and am intoxicated, over and over, by the smell of the wild grapes. It’s like nothing else—except any artificial-grape-flavored thing you’ve ever loved. It smells like Nehi. Like Laffy Taffy, Grape Bazooka, Otter Pops. It makes me almost dizzy with longing. After you reach up or in to grab a handful, and then you burst the purple globes in your mouth, crush the tannic seeds under your teeth, the grapes will make your lips itch so extremely that you’ll be sure you’re about to collapse in a grape-scented anaphylaxis. But you’re not. It’s just the itch of the wild grapes! And later there might also be the itch of the poison ivy. But that’s a separate issue.

Wild grapes.
Are you still smarting, though, because I mentioned running, and you’re like, “Who are you? Last I remembered, you were rolling your tortilla boobs into a fancy burrito bosom before you lay down on the couch with two beers and a bucket of Corn Nuts”—and yes. That’s still me. I just run a couple miles here and there to compensate for the added Corn Nuts. Mostly I’m just in the woods to feel my thighs smack bracingly together. And to sniff out the grapes.

These are called Fox Grapes. They don't bake up as pretty, but they taste great.
The grapes! The grapes. There are two places where I really pick them, when I get serious. This involves the wearing of wellies and long pants and bug spray. And, ideally, the company of a helpful child or two to spot the best clusters and hold open the bag and get apologized to every time I lose my balance and fall into the shrubbery and say, “Fuck.” And then, when we get home, I boil them up into jam and the house exhales the sweet grape smell like we’re in a scene from Willy Wonka.

I’m not going to post the jam recipe here, because I’m not assuming you’re all out picking buckets of wild grapes. But for this insanely delicious foccacia, you don't need much: you can simply purchase a clamshell container of Concords from the supermarket (I think they’re coming from Michigan right now). And you should. It’s one of those dishes that makes you feel, if you show up with it at a party, like a movie star. Everyone will crowd around you fainting and crying with joy and marveling over the fact that you thought to put grapes and salt and rosemary together on bread, even as you compulsively confess that it’s not your recipe. And you’ll say, modestly, “I was too lazy to take the seeds out—I was supposed to take them out,” and everyone will smile with their blue teeth and say, “Oh it’s perfect this way! I can’t imagine eating this without the crunch of the seeds.” Except your friend Lea, who will say, “The seeds make me want to kill myself,” while she spits them into a bowl. But even she will admit that the bread is wildly, obscenely delicious.

Wild Grape Focaccia with Rosemary

Serves 2 or 4 or 8 or 12, depending
Active time: 30 minutes; total time: 4 hours

This is my second year of making this, and there is no way to capture how good it is: the tender-hearted crunchy-crusted bread, the salt, sugar, oiliness, rosemary—all of it a backdrop to the fragrantly melting, bracingly tart grapes. The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen, and she adapted it from Claudia Fleming’s Last Course. I do a few things different: I don’t seed the grapes; I do chop the rosemary; instead of warming the milk, I compensate for its chill by using hot instead of warm water. It’s not a hard recipe, but it involves strangely ongoing odds and ends of rising, so make sure you’re not in a rush to get somewhere.

3/4 cup hot water

2 tablespoons cold milk
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups halved Concord, red or black grapes (optionally seeded: Smitten uses the tip of a paring knife for this)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary needles, chopped

2 tablespoons coarse (or regular) sugar

2 teaspoons coarse sea salt (or a little less than that of kosher salt)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the water, milk, sugar, and yeast. Let the mixture sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the flour, salt and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the yeast mixture and mix well on low. Attach the dough hook, raise the speed to medium-low and knead the dough for 8 minutes longer. (Okay, I did it all with the dough hook. What can I say?)

Brush a large bowl with a generous amount of olive oil. Scrape dough into the bowl (I used an oiled rubber spatula) and brush the top with additional oil (or just roll it around in the oil like I do. The dough is profoundly sticky: do not be alarmed!). Cover with plastic wrap (or a bowl cover) and let it rise in a cool place until it doubles in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Press the dough down with an oiled hand and divide it into two balls (Smitten has you start flouring hands and surfaces at this point, but I do better sticking with the oil, given how oily it all is). Brush a large baking sheet (or two small ones) with olive oil, place the balls of dough on it and brush the top with more oil. Set it aside for 20 minutes, lightly covered with a kitchen towel.

After 20 minutes, dip your fingers in olive oil and press and stretch each ball of dough into a 8 to 9-inch shape. It will be dimpled from your fingers. Cover again with the towel and let it rise for another 1 1/4 hours in a cool place.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Brush tops of dough with remaining olive oil and top the sprinkle grapes, rosemary, sugar, and coarse sea salt evenly over the dough. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and puffed around edges. Let cool before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

I couldn't resist showing you my yeast jar.

This is what the dough looks like when it's done! Seriously. It is a sticky mess.

But it's also very springy and lively, and it kind of burbles and bubbles while you're working with it, which I love. I'm so used to whole wheat bread dough, which is like the Eeyore to this dough's Tigger, if you know what I mean.

Risen, with oil blurbling up to the surface. Yum.

It is very funny and bouncy and you have to keep at it to wrestle it into flattened shapes.

Toppings. I've had the same jar of sea salt since some friends went to France years ago. I forget about it for months at a time. 

I forgot to take a picture, and opened the oven door to do it! Note the pooling olive oil, which the bread will absorb spectacularly. 

Beyond words.