Making a list, checking it twice

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We crossed our Christmas shopping finish line today. I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief; I’ll be working flat-out at the store until Christmas Eve selling Christmas goodies, putting the finishing touches on customer’s holiday meals with cheeses and bottles of wine. I feel good knowing that my bases are covered at home now. Because, of course, when I speak of Christmas shopping, I am talking about shopping for our Christmas dinner!

We met up this morning in Chelsea for brunch after S had a doctor’s appointment and then went to Chelsea Market to pick up groceries. First stop was Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. I want to make something porchetta-ish. The traditional porchetta is a pork loin wrapped in pork belly with all the spices inside then roasted, a volume of meat that would daunt even the most committed pair of carnivores. I knew we wanted leftovers (just not for the next 4 months) so I consulted with one of the women behind the counter about options – pork belly only, pork belly wrapped tenderloin, pork shoulder…she offered to cut to size, talked about the amount we would need. I needed to think about it and get the rest of my provisions now that I knew what options were available so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes.

Next, the Italian market Buonitalia to get semolina flour and dried porcini mushrooms for our Christmas Eve lasagna bianco. Naturally, because it was the week before Christmas and surely one of their busiest days of the year, their register system was malfunctioning, grim-faced staff trying to ring  up the growing line of customers, a manager clutching the counter and muttering into the phone. Eh, these things happen.

Manhattan Fruit Exchange is one of my favorite places to shop, one of my weekly stops for groceries. It comes the closest to replacing some of the great produce markets in the Bay Area (not even close, but the closest option I have available) with a huge variety of produce, from sea beans to quince to chiles to lacinato kale at not-fancy prices. I got baby artichokes and lacinato kale (cavollo nero), sprigs of rosemary and sage, king oyster and shitake mushrooms, sour oranges, red navel oranges, and little gem lettuce for the salads and seasonings and green parts of our dinners.

Another favorite, we walked through The Lobster Place to ogle the gorgeous seafood. It looks like jewels laid out on crushed ice, luminous under the lights. The fishmongers were breaking down whole salmon today, filleting them as cleanly as unzipping a dress. I love good knife work (and get pretty snippy about lackluster work). It’s something I enjoy practicing when I’m cooking myself and work hard to cut as cleanly and precisely as possible at work. I couldn’t resist a pretty little filet of pearly pink  fish to take home for tonight’s supper.

So back around to the butcher shop: I decided to get a pork sirloin roast with a beautiful white cap of fat, butterfly it, and as the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe’ Cookbook taught, “early salt” the meat with a herb mixture for a few days to infuse the meat with herby goodness. The counter woman found a nice sized one and then had a butcher with a sharp curved knife slice it open like a trifold wallet, fold it back up, and wrap it up for me. I also got a link of salt and pepper sausage for the lasagna.

I have a grocery delivery coming in the morning before work with some of the heavier things I normally order (truly, you can get almost anything imaginable delivered to your door here) like orange juice, eggs, bacon (for Christmas breakfast bacon oatmeal scones), milk and butter. It makes life a lot easier not to have to carry all of that home from the store but I can’t stand not to pick out my own meat and produce. I need to see how my fruits and vegetables look and smell,  and I don’t like buying a pig in a poke either literally or figuratively.

I may pick up something here or there if I happen to run across something interesting, and I’m sure I’ll bring home some cheese from the store but it is so relaxing to have it all in hand, to be cooked and enjoyed at our leisure but, there it is, Christmas shopping done with a bow on it. And I am deeply grateful for the luxurious gift of an overflowing refrigerator.

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Hurricane Potluck Mac and Cheese

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This time a year ago, I was standing in the fading light in my kitchen cooking mac and cheese with all of the cheese, milk, and butter I had salvaged from the  fridge and trying to figure out what I could still use in my rapidly thawing freezer. Sandy had hit Hoboken three days ago and we were one of the fortunate few to have no flooding, gas to cook, and some food in the house. Hoboken had become a dark little island, the only sound or light at night  from the police or national guard patrols or the occasional disjointed voices from passersby. During daylight we would walk around town trying to find out how our friends had fared, if there was any prediction about when power would be restored, when the water would be drained out.

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I never posted anything about the storm. During the exciting parts, I was husbanding my rapidly draining phone battery to try to get the occasional update from twitter or to get a text out to our families when I could find some wi-fi. As days began to pass with no clear picture of how or when life would begin to return to normal, I wrote a rambling narrative of our experiences, of the National Guard trucks driving through the flooding to rescue residents, of the restaurants opening to cook in the dark, of the few homes with power running extension cords out onto the street and making handwritten signs saying “Free WiFi/password: sandy/ Charge  Your Phone Here”.  Even after the power came back on a week later, I didn’t post. It was too big and horrible to sum up, it would have felt disrespectful to the magnitude of the situation. And “normal” was so relative. Our main supermarket had flooded so badly that it stayed closed for 15 weeks, the PATH train from Hoboken to Manhattan was closed into February.

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In the middle of that week though, there I was, cooking mac and cheese. We ran into a friend who told us that another friend had power and was an open door for anyone who needed a shower, to charge batteries, to eat a hot meal. We went home and emptied the freezer and fridge of anything 20 or so people could eat and took it over to her house for a potluck.  And in this, I think, I found the bright spot in the hurricane. Hoboken, and my community within Hoboken, pulled together in a really powerful way during the storm. The overwhelming spirit of my neighbors during the crisis was of calm and generosity.  And it was then, during one of its least lovely moments that I resolved that if home is where the heart is, Hoboken was home.

This mac and cheese is of course tastiest when shared with a group of friends in the aftermath of a hurricane, but is not bad on any less dramatic occasion.

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Mac and Cheese

serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk (preferably whole milk)

pinch cayenne pepper

pinch nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4-6 ounces young gouda, grated

1 ounce pecorino Romano, grated (optional)

8 ounces dry elbow noodles

bread crumbs, toasted in butter (optional)

Cook the elbow noodles in a pot of generously salted water according to the instructions, but drain well just before they are al dente since they will cook a little more in the cheese sauce.

Make a roux with the butter and flour, cooking the flour just until it is a pale blonde color. Whisk in the milk, stirring to incorporate the roux. Cook over medium/low heat, stirring almost constantly until the milk begins to thicken. Whisk in the spices and mustard. Once the sauce comes to a simmer and has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Stir the drained noodles into the cheese sauce; it will seem very soupy at this point but the noodles will soak up the sauce and thicken. Taste for salt.

If you like a baked casserole style mac and cheese, pour it into a buttered baking dish, top with bread crumbs and a little pecorino cheese and bake at 250 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and the pasta is bubbly.

Since everyone in my house doesn’t like the bread crumb topping, I usually toast the bread crumbs and just spoon them over each serving for a little crunch.

Note about the cheese: I like the taste of sharp cheddar in my cheese sauce, and the sharper the cheese, the more the flavor comes through in the sauce. The texture of cheddar, however, is not ideal for melting, so I add another melting cheese, one with a creamy buttery texture to make the sauce rich and silky. Young gouda is nice as are most alpine style cheeses, Gruyere, Havarti, or even Monterrey Jack. You’re looking for something both flavorful and one that will give you those nice gooey strings of melted cheese when you make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Let me introduce you to my friends at

MYNEWUSUAL

If any of you have ever had a loved one struggle with a terrible illness (and if you haven’t, lucky you!) you know that feeling of helplessness, of standing around unsure of what to do with your hands, of what to say (or not to say), of what to do to try to make it even a little bit better. So when someone who is going through breast cancer treatment sends you a Facebook message that says:

Christine – Just wanted to take a minute to tell you how much I enjoy your blog, your postings and your photos. I want to come and eat at your house!! Hope you are well, Amy

you say “Thank you, ma’am” and thank God you accidentally did a good thing!

I met Amy Kelley a few weeks after we got the news that we would be moving to New Jersey at a birthday party for a mutual friend in Santa Cruz. It was one of those “ships in the night” meetings, but one with a fortuitous “click” so as we both entered the upheaval of the next few years, we kept in touch on Facebook. I knew about her move back to Dallas, her marriage, the cancer diagnosis, and her mother’s illness but in a peripheral way. I was finding my own equilibrium in a new place, putting a lot of creative energy into pictures I took of the new geography of my life. When Amy sent me that message last year, I was so grateful to know that some of those messages in bottles were finding their way into welcoming hands.

Then, this Spring, Amy started talking to me about a new project she was launching. She asked if I would be interested in contributing to a site she was building  to enrich the lives of those who were walking in her shoes. As much as anything in my life, my approach to food and cooking has been shaped by my dad’s life-long Type 1 diabetes and the neuroblastoma cancer my sister Grace had in infancy coupled with no health insurance for our family and my mother’s determination to keep us as healthy as she could with food. We gardened and ate strange things like sprouts and tried everything on our healthy dinner plates and all of us developed a love for adventurous whole food diets, but as an artist, my mother emphasized a colorful, bright dinner plate. This ethos is the backbone of the way I cook: food should nourish the eyes, the tongue, the soul, and the body.

So obviously, my answer was an enthusiastic “YES!!”

Friday, Amy posted my first story, a little guide to my new hometown Hoboken, New Jersey, as Contributing  Food Editor for My New Usual. I will be adding my two cents there regularly, talking about ways to flourish in a new way of life, eating things that both taste and look good but also make you feel good, pulling from my experience to offer new ways to look at nourishing the body. I hope I can be encouraging to those who might find themselves faced with the paradigm shift that illness often is. You’ll still find me here at Cognitive Leeks, but if you or a loved one are faced with a “new usual”,  stop by the website for some encouragement. We would love to see you there.