Author Archives: Sayer

Cold Remedy

It took me two years to make it to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival.

Happy sheep on festival day even with cold and rain. Wait, I have no idea if the sheep were happy or not, but they made me happy. We watched the Shetland Sheep show. I learned about ruminants, and I learned that a sheep can die if you feed it 24 hours before sheering. You need flat-heeled wool elf shoes to sheer a sheep, and you have to be strong. My mom doesn’t think I can sheer a sheep. I think I’m strong. We didn’t eat a lamb burger.

The train back to the city took 11 hours. I caught a cold. Probably when the train ran out of water and no one was able to wash their hands. The cold lasted a week with one full Sunday in bed. When the pressure in my head was too much to bear and I could no longer blow my nose, I self medicated with spice. Not the spice of Dune, not nutmeg and cinnamon, but hot clear-your-sinuses chili pepper spice.


Chop 1 1/2 cups of very hot chilis into large chunks–leave the seeds in. I don’t know what kind of pepper I bought but they were $2 per pint at the market. Just make sure they’re hot.

Put chilis, 1 tbs lime juice, 2 cloves garlic, 2 tbs brown sugar, 2 tsp salt, and 1/4 cup white vinegar into a a food processor and chop until desired texture.

Eat on everything, store in fridge.

Pepper Jelly

Chop 4 lbs. Granny Smith apples without removing the skin or the cores. Slice 6 Jalapeño peppers in half. Leave the seeds in 4 of them, remove the seeds from 2. Remove the seeds from 1 red bell pepper and chop (the pepper). Put apples, all peppers, 3 cups water, and 3 cups white vinegar into a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and, stirring occasionally, simmer for 20 minutes or until apples and peppers are soft. Crush everything up with a potato masher until you have something that resembles apple sauce. Spoon into a few layers of cheese cloth suspended over a bowl and let strain for at least an hour. You should end up with about 4 cups of juice.

Anyway, measure your juice and pour into a thick bottomed pot. Add sugar–7/8 cup of sugar for each cup of juice (4 cups juice=3 1/12 cups sugar). Heat gently to dissolve sugar and bring to a boil. Stir frequently. As you are cooking, gross white scum will appear on the surface. Remove this with a spoon. Cook until jelly reaches 220-222 degrees F on a candy thermometer. It might take a long time. Make sure your jelly is ready by dropping a spoonful onto a plate that has been chilled in the freezer. If the jelly is runny, it’s not ready. If it wrinkles up when pushed with your finger, it is ready. Pour into sterilized canning jars. Most popular way to eat: on Ritz-type crackers with cream cheese and a plop of jelly. My favorite way to eat: on toast with butter.


Eggplant Curry

Last Saturday was not a Hemingway in Paris type of Fall day. It was cool and sunny, and I rode my bike along the Hudson river without sentiment (although there was plenty of red sediment in the river itself from flooding upstate). I wore a sweater and a scarf and fingerless gloves which came off (the gloves, not the sweater, or the scarf for that matter) soon after we reached the market at Union Square.

There is a lady at the market who sells Mexican food from a small wire shopping cart–the kind you see old ladies pulling into Fairway, the kind with plastic wheels that fall off if you don’t know the exact angle at which to push around a corner. She always has a circle of people around her, peering over her shoulder into red coolers full of sauces and fillings. This week we tried gorditas. They were spicy. Good and spicy. My tongue tickled from the burn, but I couldn’t stop. And then I wanted another one.

The market wasn’t crowded this week, so we were done our shopping and back on our bikes by 9am. We would have been home napping by 9:45 if it weren’t for the motorcycles. My front tire had just touched the Henry Hudson when a police officer in an SUV blocking the crosswalk waved me back. Behind him, a parade of motorcycles came rumbling up the highway. A long parade.

People began to crowd at the crosswalk. I wanted to join the two kids shielding their ears from biker thunder. I exchanged a smile of commiseration with a woman in a gray suit. We waited and waited, and the bikers kept coming and coming. Cars waiting to turn on the highway honked with nowhere to go, adding to the cacophony. A runner stopped next to me, yelled “fuck!”, and decided to cross anyway, weaving through the motorcycles as if she were on the streets of Hanoi.

We were delayed again by the wind. Riding north on the river path, the wind was in my face. Each curve in the path brought another gust, and the entire way home felt like an uphill struggle. The wind is my enemy. I even started swearing at it. I was swearing at the wind.

All of this brings me to eggplant curry. When we got home, we were cold and tired. Curry fixes both of those things. Plus, eggplants are related to tobacco. 20lbs of eggplant = the same amount of nicotine as 1 cigarette.

Eggplant Curry

1. Cube 1 lb eggplant and put in a bowl. Sprinkle eggplant cubes with some ground turmeric and salt. Set aside.

2. Cut 2 small onions in half (the long way) and slice lengthwise (not across).

3. Slice 4 chilies lengthwise.

4. Heat oil in a large pan. I used a cast iron pan, but a wok would work as well. Add the eggplant and fry until soft and light brown. Eggplant soaks up a lot of oil and takes a while to cook, so add more oil if necessary. It will take about 5-10 minutes, but eventually the eggplant will begin to release some of the oil. When the eggplant is done, remove from pan and set aside.

5. Add more oil to pan if necessary and fry the onion until soft. Mix in 1 tbs curry powder and the green chilies. Add 1 cup coconut milk and salt to taste. Boil until coconut milk begins to thicken. Stir in eggplant and cook until sauce becomes the consistency of gravy.

6. In a small pan heat a very small amount of oil and add 1/2 tsp mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds, 4 dried curry leaves. Cook until fragrant and the seeds begin to pop. This is the tempering oil. Remove the curry leaves and pour over the eggplant mixture.

7. Squeeze at least 2 tsp of lime juice into curry, but add more if the dish needs more acid.

8. Serve over brown rice.

Chocolate Blueberry Muffins with White Chocolate Chips

White chocolate is not really chocolate. It is cocoa butter and milk and a lot of sugar. Sometimes they skip the cocoa butter. In favor of what? More sugar?

These aren’t really muffins. They are muffin shaped brownies. Soft like a cake, they fall apart soon after reaching your mouth.

Blueberries are not… well, I can’t think of a way in which blueberries are deceptive. Except that they should be paired with chocolate more often.

Chocolate Blueberry Muffins with White Chocolate Chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease your muffin pans before you get started.

Mix 1 and 3/4 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/4 tsp. baking soda, 2 tsp. baking powder, and 1/2 tsp. salt.

In a separate bowl, mix wet ingredients: 2 large eggs, 1 cup milk, 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract, and 1/2 cup melted butter.

Fold wet ingredients into dry, but don’t over blend. Add 1/2 cup white chocolate chips and 1/2 cup (or more) blueberries.

Fill muffin pans and cook for 18 – 20 minutes until a toothpick comes out just clean. The muffins should still be soft.

Let them cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then remove. Eat right away if you do not mind hot blueberries burning your tongue.

Comme Vous Voulez Hummus with Pita

I love hummus, as long as the chickpeas aren’t lost in tahini. I love lemons. Don’t be surprised if I enjoy the lemon garnish more than I enjoy the cocktail. And I love garlic but can’t eat it raw, or someone will have to hold my hair from my face as I kneel over the toilet bowl in predawn light. Sadness, I know.

So this is my hummus–selfish and as I want.

Taste as you go and adjust.

Comme vous voulez hummus

2 cups chickpeas, canned or cooked
Tahini to taste
1/4 cup of olive oil, more or less
Garlic, if you like
Lemon juice (1/2 a lemon, a whole lemon, 2 lemons?)
Salt and pepper
Paprika, or cumin, or za’atar, or sansho, or shichimi

1. Combine all chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt and pepper in a food processor until smooth. Start with a small amount of all auxiliary ingredients and add more if needed. How do you know if you need more tahini? Taste it. Lemon juice? Taste it. Salt, pepper, garlic? Taste it. Obvious: If you like the flavor, the hummus is good.

2. Add more water if your hummus is too thick–just a little at a time until you have a puree the right consistency for dipping.

3. Scrape hummus into a bowl, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a healthy sprinkle of one (or more) of the mentioned spices.

Pita Bread

1. More food processor fun: Add 3 cups all-purpose flour, 3 tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp instant yeast, 2 tsp coarse kosher salt, and 1/2 tsp sugar to food processor. Cover and add 1 cup of water through the feed tube while mixing. blend for 30 seconds until dough comes together to form a slightly sticky ball. As usual, add more water if needed.

2. Pull the dough from the food processor and form into a neat ball. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise about 1 – 2 hours, until dough has doubled in size.

3. After rising, divide dough into 6 pieces, rolling each piece into a ball. Put the dough balls on a floured surface (a cutting board works well), dust with more flour, and cover with a dish towel. Let rise for 20 minutes.

4. On lightly floured surface, roll each ball out to a flat round less than 1/4″ thick. Be sure to cover each round when you have finished rolling. While rounds rest for 20 minutes, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. A pizza stone works best, but if you don’t have one, place rounds onto a lightly oiled baking sheet (you may have to work in batches). Bake until browned on one side and then flip over to brown other side. Takes between 5-10 minutes, so pay attention!

5. When done, brush with melted butter, cut into triangles, and dip in hummus.

Fickle Mint

A red plastic fish taught me the meaning of fickle.

It was summer vacation on Cape Cod. It was also the early nineties–things like mood rings and peace signs charmed a near 10-year-old girl. We filled our days with all sorts of Cape Cod-y family reunion type activities: hours on the beach, giant clam bakes, clam chowder lunches, and hermit crab collecting with the cousins.  But it was the Brewster General Store that evoked the most excitement from my sister and me.

The store is a large former church with white siding, arched windows, and a country porch out front. Inside you’ll hear the sound of squeaking floor boards and the smell of old wood. In those days, my parents would head for the coffee, donuts, and newspapers while Gaelen and I paced the aisles of penny candy. When our brown paper bags were full, we moved to the toy section. The toys here were not the kind you would find at Toys ‘R Us or a store in the mall. To us, they were old school. Paddle ball instead of Nintendo. Marbles instead of Barbie. Jacob’s Ladder, Jacks, Kazoos, Bouncing Balls, almost nothing with batteries. We touched everything. Dipped our hands in the marbles and tried to play Jacks. Watched Jacob’s Ladder fall and bounced every ball in the room. Before our parents finished their coffee, we each picked one shiny object to take home with us. That year, I chose the Fortune Teller Miracle Fish.

image from zymetrical

The fortune telling fish was really just a piece of thin red plastic resembling an enlarged Swedish fish. But for me, it was the key to my future. I pulled the fish out of its plastic wrapper and placed it on my open palm. It writhed and curled as I hoped for “In Love” or at least “Indifference.” The sides of my fish curled together, and I checked the answer key. Curling sides = Fickle. Fickle? What the hell does that mean?

I asked my dad. So I change my mind a lot? I’m capricious? I’m inconstant? “I’d say so,” he answered. Now, whenever I hear the word fickle, I think of that day.

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

I have a fickle love for mint chocolate chip. Most often I’m indifferent. But this summer has been constant–mint chocolate chip ice cream is wonderful. With no ice cream maker, I had to use condensed milk for the base which makes the ice cream very sweet, but I think that you’ll like it.

1/2 bunch of mint leaves
2 cups of heavy cream
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
1 bag of chocolate chips

1. Heat cream and mint leaves in a small pan over medium heat until cream begins to simmer. Pour into a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until completely cold.

2. Once cool, you will have mint infused cream. It’s just like steeping tea. Strain the cream into the bowl of a stand mixer or other large bowl and discard the mint leaves. Beat the cream until whipped using stand mixer, hand mixer, or a strong arm and a whisk.

3. Fold in the condensed milk and chocolate chips.

4. Cover and freeze. While freezing, I stirred my ice cream every hour or so in the beginning to make sure that all the chocolate chips didn’t sink to the bottom.

Cat Ba Island

We chose to leave Ninh Binh, sun low and air thick with morning humidity. Everyone on the bus was asleep, or at least pretending. The driver’s assistant, black hair orange from bleach, switched on his mono-rhythmic Vietnamese pop music. I grabbed my iPod. We made it to Hanoi in two hours–our last night before 2 days in Ha Long Bay and a flight to Japan.

Hanoi transformed; it was familiar and comfortable. Our old hotel and a morning bowl of red fruit crawling with ants. Unlimited choco pies. The snaggle-toothed pug next door and her sidewalk puppies. The crooked streets around Hoan Kiem Lake untangled. We knew how to walk into traffic and survive.

More transportation. At 8 the next morning a minibus arrived to take us to Ha Long Bay. We spent hours threading traffic, my head on James’ shoulder, his eyes fixed on the road. And then the bus stopped. We scrambled out to the docs–the city of Hanoi was floating on water; motorbikes were replaced with small ships.

In sunshine and heat we waited for the boat. A boat that looked too tall and thin to float. Like the slightest breath of air would tilt it into the opaque green water. A boat of intimidating age. The dark wood stain, applied in thick layers over several years, rolled from the siding in lines, like neglected drops of glue left to harden on a repaired chair leg. Everything from the floorboards to the pull-string wall fans creaked and murmured. Welcome to the Christina.

Unguided we jumped on, throwing our bags in a pile on the deck. The dining room was set with white table clothes and wooden benches. Everything inside was covered in the same glossy wood stain. We sat down with three French travelers. Of the three, I only remember the name of one. Eva had the best English and was outspoken. She dressed in rugged natural colors, big silver jewelry clashing with her tanned skin. She was most concerned with matters of culture and authenticity. To her left, the second companion with flyaway blond hair and the wide-eyed short face of Emily Watson sat next to the lone male, who was tall and goofy and never changed from his red Hawaiian shorts printed with white aloha flowers. I’m not sure if he owned a shirt.

From the galley, in some hidden portion of the boat, lunch was served family style on stainless-steel platters. Fried squid parts and rice yellow from spices. Silken tofu and scallions. An entire fish so tender and juicy that our chopsticks were all we needed to peel flesh from bone. Grease and strong flavors and a cold beer.

Eva was shocked. Not by the squid or the whole fish staring up at her, but by the style of dining. Is this authentic? Is this really how they eat here? We are all supposed to take from the same plates? I began to assume the general absence of Chinese restaurants in Paris.

The boat was warm on deck and we each had more beer to stay cool. The Parisians stripped down to swimsuits and piled on sunscreen, while James and I regretted leaving our suits packed away in our luggage. Hundreds of limestone islands passed by and each formation of any acclaim was highlighted by the tour guide. “See that one? It is kissing rooster!”

Our Parisians counterparts lit up three cigarettes, lighter exchanged one by one for a cupped hand to shelter fire from wind. Their attention–or curiosity–turned to us. “What are you doing for the 4th of July?” It was August; I was confused. “What do you mean?” “Do you hang American flags all over? I think that is so cute. In France we would never do that. Not–how do you say–patriotic.” Realizing that Eva had confused present tense and past tense (but who cares, her English was better than my French), we continued to stumble through conversation about the celebration of French and American revolutions.

We passed floating villages and crossed streams of boat traffic. We snapped photos and drank more beer. And we drifted towards land, a dock in the distance. This was not our final destination, merely a stop along the way. A giant cave discovered by the French and lit up in reds, oranges, greens, and blues by the Vietnamese. Tourists were ushered through in a single file line, impressed by the wide open space and over-the-top lighting. James and I politely excused ourselves and worked our way through the cave. Organized tourism was keeping us from our final destination–Cat Ba Island. Waiting to get back on the boat, we watched food vendors throw 5 gallon buckets of waste into the water. Fish guts, juiced sugar cane, dirty water, fruit peels, motor oil. An UNESCO World Heritage Site well cared for.

Cat Ba Island

As soon as we docked on Cat Ba Island, a swarm of women selling food and drink surrounded us. Like the seagulls in Finding Nemo they sent up a chorus of “You buy, you buy, you buy, you buy.” Piercing, unrelenting–for 30 minutes while we waited for the bus to take us to town. A stocky man from Israel was irritated. No, he did not want to buy water from them… he already had a bottle of water, see? But, would they like to purchase his bottle of water? The women giggled, decided to give up, and sat down between us and the Israeli. They kept us company, even though we were only able to communicate through gestures and more giggles. Their oblivious husbands sat in a small house at the other end of the bus turnaround watching cartoons, drinking sodas, hardly working.

Waiting and waiting and finally another bus. Cat Ba Town was on the other side of the tropical island. Large banana leaves, exotic flowers, a symphony of bird calls–it could have been a deserted island, a Lost island, if not for tucked in lean-tos and the signs of new construction for high-end resorts.

Cat Ba Town was also deceptive. Pink and yellow and teal mid-rise buildings clashed against the moss-covered limestone cliff before us. Tourists–mostly Vietnamese–moved about with sand in their toes and sun on their backs. That thing about island time penetrated daily life. Slow and relaxed. The crescent bay cradled more single platform houseboats and floating restaurants, their phone numbers advertised in giant neon letters.  But when pressed further, the town revealed a lonely character. The buildings were all hotels. The tourists were temporary, the population was fleeing. A place to sleep while we dreamed about visiting the beaches and hiking in Cat Ba National Park.

Cat Ba National Park

We were the first visitors to the park that morning. It was silent and overcast and raining. Or was it just so humid that it felt like rain? Before the real hike began, the path was paved and flat. The overgrown field was full of strange butterflies. Our guide–a woman in her forties wearing flip flops–hurried us along, pushing toward the canopy of trees ahead. The path turned to mud and humidity soaked rocks. Large drops landed on our heads from the trees above. Mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and left pink welts on our skin. They were particularly fond of the blond French girl. Almost in tears, her legs lumpy from bites, she was helped back to the village by our guide. We were abandoned.

The path forked. A sign with a simple map gave us two options–the “easy way” or the “adventure way.” Choosing adventure, we turned into rock climbers. We lost the trail several times. We saw land crabs but no Cat Ba Langur. We ignored the mud covering our arms and legs. We made it to the top. Our Dutch companion suffered vertigo and lay horizontal on a rock to ease his spinning head. We snapped pictures, now high above the canopy, and listened to the park wake up. Birds and bugs and fellow hikers, way down there, imitating the howl of the langur.

We spent our last day drinking beer on the beach. At night we packed our bags for Japan and prepared for the bus ride back to Hanoi.

Salmorejo Dreams

I did not come from an air-conditioned family. In the hills above Lake Champlain, open windows and a breeze were enough to keep us comfortable. But New York is different. No breeze pushes through my lonely sixth-floor windows. Heat rises up from the five floors below and collects in our apartment. The nights feel even more humid than the days, especially at four in the morning as I lie awake thinking of nothing but sleep and cooler days. So three years ago, we bought two used air conditioners from our departing neighbors–the first I’d ever owned.

This year–probably from some primal “I’m almost 30” desire to feel like I have a home–James and I have been working our way through an extended spring cleaning. We painted the walls, scrubbed hidden corners, repositioned furniture. We purged and simplified, years of collected “stuff” without a place, without meaning, gone. I grew more plants. Vegetables, herbs, giant vine-y monster plants that grow and grow and grow. And then, from the need to have more space and more light, I had the best idea ever. Let’s get rid of the air conditioners.

We replaced the a/c with fans, the idea being if we can’t get a breeze through these window, we will make one. In June, everything was fine. I read articles about fans like this one from the New York Times and felt special. I imagined telling people of my a/c free apartment to be like telling people I don’t own a TV. A careless mention in casual conversation. “Well you know, we’ve done away with our air conditioners.” People would stare, trying not to betray their awe, as they congratulate my moment of asceticism in the name of smaller energy bills and a better environment. Instead, everyone thought I was crazy.

And they’re right. Fans move air around and evaporate sweat. They do not cool the room. With the heat index near 115, evaporation stopped, and the indoor temperature rose to 91. Hot is still hot, whether fans are moving air around or not.

We tried to hold out. We kept a blue spray bottle near by–one squirt for the cats, one squirt for me. We froze blocks of ice in loaf pans and left them in front of the fans hoping to lure out an arctic breeze. I put frozen peas in my bra and slept with a wet washcloth draped across my forehead like a fever victim. Without a swimming hole nearby, I jumped into a cold shower whenever the sweat started rolling down my back again.

The only word for it is surviving. We were surviving. Until I woke up on Friday morning and found both cats flat on the floor, panting with eyes focused on me like lasers of desperation and loathing. We bought an air conditioner that day.

These are the days when I miss the gazpacho we ate in Spain. Salmorejo in Cordoba–peeled tomatoes pureed with bread, olive oil, salt, vinegar, garlic. Garnished with Serrano ham and chopped hard-boiled eggs. There must have been a secret ingredient, a secret reason this soup was so good. Or maybe simplicity is the secret.

Back in NYC, tomatoes at the market are still too expensive, so my Salmorejo dreams will have to wait. On the hottest day of the year, I made green gazpacho instead of red.

Green Gazpacho
 adapted from Plenty

2 sticks of celery, leaves on
2 green peppers
12 oz small cucumbers
4 oz white bread (stale is good)
1 hot green chili
4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp sugar
5 oz walnuts
7 oz baby spinach
1 oz basil
3 tbs parsley
4 tbs sherry vinegar
1 cup olive oil
1.5 oz Greek yogurt
2 cups water
4.5 oz ice cubes
2 tsp salt
white pepper

1. Chop celery, peppers, cucumbers, bread, chili, and garlic and throw all into a blender.

2. Add the remaining ingredients, but only use about half the water.

3. Blend until pureed. If you’d like a thinner soup, add more of the water. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired.

4. Serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and crusty croutons or a slice of bread.