The Lovely Beach of Umami-Land

I am feasting: right now, by myself, in front of the computer. When my husband’s out of town—which he is, hiking the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail—I indulge in my favorites. Tonight, it’s spinach salad with pine nuts, artichoke hearts, and lemon; sautéed mushrooms; and brie cheese with flat bread. I’m drifting off to umami-land even as I type.

This follows an absolutely delicious weekend of food prepared by my sister, Maria, and her husband, John. In Chris’s absence, I met my parents at Maria and John’s West Virginia home and was treated to a weekend of perfectly perfect meals: summery enough for the screen porch, filling enough for my father.

To start, Maria made a luscious banana cream cake with buttery-salty pecans atop; a great breakfast, as the cream soaked into the layers, the cake somehow became richer, denser, and even more delightful. For Saturday’s dinner, John made vinegar-boiled shrimp with creamy cocktail sauce to accompany Maria’s stuffed portabellas and chopped salad. I don’t generally like cold shrimp, but, as Maria predicted, I loved John’s which were piled hot on ice just before serving and steamed their spicy-briny fragrance.

Then, on Memorial Day at Audra State Park, we picnicked with potato salad; perfect, light fruit mix with dressing; and two-handful meatloaf sandwiches with herbed mayo. Ideal picnic fare, even without plates! As I drove home Tuesday, I realized that the delight of food is its life-affirming quality—as you eat, you know you’re alive, and, inherent in food, there’s a promise that life will continue. With family, friends, or alone, food promises not only substistence but some measure of bliss.

I considered my early grad school days, when I was painfully broke—$1000/month stipend, $550/rent—and a grocery bill of $40 caught my breathe. My new puppy was terribly ill and, as the vet instructed, ate the leanest ground beef with rice twice a day as I was left to the bargain of meatlessness. I’ve never enjoyed pasta greatly, but I found a good, affordable jarred marinara to pair with $.99 spaghetti noodles. In need of greater substance, I melted a slice of domestic Swiss over my sauce and noodles—piekna, as my Polish grandfather would say! My favorite grad school dinner was born! And my puppy and I feasted in our hand-me-down-rich apartment, enjoying our delicacies and all the life they promised.



While the dish itself needs a little work, the ingredients in my Lobster & Riccotta Spaghetti were sublime: Captain Jack's Frozen Cooked Lobster Meat, which my father-in-law orders from Canada; Il Pastaio Di Gragnano spaghetti imported from Italy by Avanti Savoia (http://www.avantisavoia.com/); organic ricotta from grass-fed cows; baby portobellas; and fresh, rain-dampened thyme from my garden. Dangerous!
Here's the thing, once I have a recipe clunking around in my brain, I can't rest until it's right. It will be a chore to convince my husband that the last can of lobster in our fridge should be utilized for recipe research (aka, another round of spaghetti), rather than lobster rolls (his favorite), but I plan to sweeten the deal with a few "favors." I'll post the recipe once it's perfect.


Food, Folks, & Photos

I've been taking photos of nearly all our meals lately (so long as there's good light) in an attempt to begin to understand the basics of food photography. Last weekend, I asked two professional photographers what camera they'd recommend for this purpose and both answered, only, that taking pictures of food is terribly difficult. Yikes!

Here is my best attempt so far--yesterday's lunch, Avocado & Herb Salad with Chevre Dressing & Pepitas. The dish turned out well, as did the photo, I think. Of course, it's all about timing--getting the shot before the greens wilt, the dressing runs, and the avocados brown. But I'm a stickler for realism, not perfection; in fact, I'd prefer that everything be the tiniest bit off.

When my book is published, I feel quite strongly that it should include lots of pictures. As I may not have quite as much pull with my first book publication--and photos are pricey--I worry that I may have to take the camera in my own hands, as some other writers have done. Better get practicing!

Here's a loose recipe for the salad pictured. It's rich! And you may be able to divide one avocado between three diners--or even four--if you're following it with something substantial.

Avocado & Herb Salad with Chevre Dressing & Pepitas

Two handfuls of parsley and cilantro, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 avocado, sliced
1 handful pepitas, toasted in a dry skillet over low heat until puffed and crisp

2 T chevre
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. olive oil
½ clove garlic, minced

Mix chevre, vinegar, lemon, oil, and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the herbs among the serving dishes and arrange avocado slices prettily on top. Divide dressing among the dishes, sprinkle with pepitas, and add a few grinds of pepper. Enjoy!


Recipe Testers?

Would anyone out there be willing to act as a recipe tester for my book? I've roped about eight family and friends into the gig, but I don't want to bombard them with "work." If you're willing, please leave me a comment with your email and snail mail addresses. Thanks! Jessica, SCRATCH


Make Work Grant

Today I received my full grant request from Create Here! With monies allocated for a shiny new range; kitchen hardware (pots, pans, knives, shears, scale, food processor); book artwork; ingredients for testing; and podcast equipment (microphone and mixer), a published SCRATCH is one step closer to being splattered and dripped upon in kitchens across the country! The grant application process, including the interview with the jury, was a stimulating experience, and the outcome is, to say the least, encouraging! This is the first money I’ve made, directly, from creative writing, and it’s a decent chunk! To understand Create Here and its mission, check out the website, http://www.createhere.org/.