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November 2009

Diner's Pommes de Terre Boulangère


Oh my golly golly goodness - I am totally, totally overcome. I thought getting a book deal couldn't be topped, but then I started reading your comments and your emails, each and every one of them, and my heart just about burst. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for cheering me on, for believing in me, for finding inspiration in what I wrote for your own lives, and for generally being the most incredible readers and commenters a girl could ever have. I want to give you all a big hug. Maybe even do a little jig for you. Want to come up and visit me on Cloud 9? There's space up here, along with some nice, cold Champagne, delicious snacks, and really comfortable chairs. Plus the weather seems to be just fantastic all the time. Weird!

Seriously, though. I may have said this before, but I'll say it again (and again, and again): you guys are simply amazing.

Now to the nitty-gritty. I leave New York in mid-December. Which means that I have about six weeks left. At first I thought I would make a list of all the things I never got to do in the past ten years (Di Fara's pizza, Kitchen Arts & Letters, the Museum of the City of New York, dinner at Babbo) and get to work crossing things off that list. I realized about five minutes later that that might get a little depressing. (Not to mention exhausting.) It'd be like I was leaving New York and never coming back! Instead I decided to leave those things undone, to give myself things to look forward to when I come back to visit. As if there wouldn't be enough already...

Most importantly, though (and pardon the profanity, but I think it's warranted here): hell yes, I am keeping the blog. Can you imagine? I leave my friends, my job, my apartment, my city, and on top of all that, this little space, too? I think I would have a nervous breakdown in about 4 minutes flat. I need you, little blog! I need you, darling readers.

And look, I'm in Berlin right now, as I type, and it's going swimmingly! Wouldn't you say? You can't even tell that I'm here and not there, can you?


I'm here just for a few days, to work out a few things before I move. And right now, I'm sitting in a pool of sunshine, typing away to all of you while listening to someone's washing machine hum, thoughts of last night's homemade yeasted plum cake and plans for a pea soup party with friends on Sunday in my head. I have to say, I like this feeling; like all is right with the world.

One more thing I need to tell you before I head out for lunch is about these potatoes I made last weekend, when I was still reeling from the events of the week. The recipe comes from the chef at Diner in Williamsburg, which is such a great little place to eat. I have this fantasy of having a Stammtisch, you know, a restaurant within walking distance of your house, where you're such a regular that the waiters always seat you at your favorite table and bring you your drink without you having to order it and know just how you like your steak cooked or your greens drizzled, and all the while the restaurant is so cozy and unpretentious and such a joy to be at for a few hours each week that you end up never really wanting to eat anyplace else, no matter what. I like to think that, for some lucky people at least, Diner is that restaurant.

Anyway. Potatoes. Where was I?



Right! Potatoes. Delicious.

What the chef does is make a panful of caramelized onions with thyme, and then he deglazes the pan with vinegar, lets it get all syrupy and wonderful. The onions turn silky-sweet, herbal and pungent. You could practically eat them with a fork right out of the pan. But you don't. You exercise patience and fortitude while, in a different pan, you fry up a bunch of parboiled potatoes until they're brown and crispy and hot hot hot. Then you mix the vinegary, silky-sweet onions with the crispy, hot potatoes and sit down very, very quickly to eat them.

You might think, but what about the rest of lunch? Aren't there any vegetables or at least a sausage to eat with this pile of potatoes and onions? And you know, you have a point. You could certainly stand to add something to your plate. But if you are still as speechless as I was last Saturday, still reeling from one of the most exciting things to ever happen to you, just know that you won't actually need anything else to eat. That the potatoes will be the first thing that passes your lips all week good enough to wake you up out of your reverie and, while you chew happily and fork up more, to help you realize that no, never fear, it all really happened, it wasn't just a dream.

Pommes de Terre Boulangère

Serves 4
Note: I am not usually such an onion-lover. These onions, however, were a revelation. So much so that I actually wished I had made more. The next time I make this, I'm going to double or triple the batch of onions, and I think you should, too. If you have leftovers, pile them on a cheese sandwich, mix them into boiled spaghetti or just eat them with at the stove.

2 pounds (about 7 medium) firm, waxy potatoes
6 to 8 cups beef or chicken broth, or as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large red or white onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Place potatoes in a saucepan and add broth to cover by about 1 inch. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper, or to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer until just tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Remove potatoes from broth (reserve broth for another use) and allow to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, combine onion with 1 tablespoon fat. Place over medium-low heat and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add 4 thyme sprigs. Reduce heat to low, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and caramelized, about 10 more minutes. Add vinegar, cook 1 minute more. Remove from heat, and discard thyme sprigs.

Slice cooled potatoes into rounds 1/3 inch thick. Place a large cast-iron skillet over high heat, and add 2 tablespoons fat (or as needed to provide a thick coating on bottom of pan). When fat is extremely hot, add potatoes and allow to sit without stirring or shaking until seared and crispy.

Turn potatoes and sear and crisp other sides. When well-browned, add caramelized onions, salt and pepper to taste, and stir to mix. Chop remaining 2 sprigs thyme (or if stems are woody, use leaves only), sprinkle over potatoes and serve.

Leap And The Net Will Appear

Sometimes I wonder where it all started. It could have been in Ms. Mercer's fifth grade class, I guess, when I wrote my first story, a bound set of loose leaf pages grandly titled "The Boarding School Murders" and illustrated with a luridly dripping knife, no less. But then I think it must have been earlier than that, when my father taught me how to read on the nubby, cream-colored couch that sits in my living room now, when I learned to escape into the wintry wonderlands of Narnia or the the big woods of Wisconsin, pulled along into those stories by the little girls who bewitched generations of readers before me. Perhaps I was older still, sitting quietly in writing class in college, feeling the strange rush of adrenaline course through my veins when I started writing short stories and found I couldn't stop. Or maybe it was the blog, the daily, weekly discipline of showing up here and writing, opening my heart and finding an audience in a dozen, a hundred, a thousand computers and more, scattered throughout the world.

Other people knew it before I did, believed in me long before I would ever learn to. I'd resigned myself to being on the other side, didn't really think I'd ever make it happen. Was too scared, if I'm honest. Too anxious I'd fail.


Ten years ago this January, I moved to New York. I got myself a little desk outside a big publisher's office, where I answered his phone and took notes in meetings, went out to book parties with other assistants and reveled in bagfuls of free galleys. I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, skin tingling, and felt smug pride when I learned to navigate the West Village without a map. Smiled when I started recognizing strangers on the street, when the dry cleaner remembered my name.

I didn't need much adjusting to New York; it felt almost instantaneous, my acclimation. I had my little room in a darling apartment on the Upper West Side, just across from Zabar's, just a few blocks from Central Park. My roommates and I memorized the lines in "French Kiss" and stayed out late; threw dinner parties with borrowed chairs and fought with our landlady about the heat. I taught them how to cook and they taught me that friends could become family. Turns out that with the right people, all it takes is a little time. That, and a little bit of magic, too.

I remember when I first fell in love with New York. I was eight, and my father and I were on a visit with my grandparents. There had been an opera at Lincoln Center and a ride in a yellow cab, lunch at an Italian restaurant with their old friends in Midtown and a walk up Fifth Avenue, the city pulsating, alive, around us. It didn't scare me, though; it was thrilling, and so I fell hard and fast. I bought a canvas "I Love New York" tote bag and came home bubbling, proclaiming it, knowing it in my bones. One day, I'm going to move to New York.

And so, 14 years later, I did.


On New Year's Eve last year, at 11:45 pm, I sat in the guest room of my aunt and uncle's apartment in Brussels, wrapped up in a blanket in front of the computer. My family and friends, all felled with the flu, had gone to bed early and I, the lone healthy person, was alone on New Year's Eve. Well, I thought. 2009 wasn't starting very well. It had been a tough fall and I knew the months ahead would be even tougher. I braced myself that night, gave myself a stern talking-to.

You will get through this. You simply must.

The thing is, I'm not very good at being stern. I'm too soft, I think, too quick to fold. Now, do you know what I wish I could do? I wish I could go back to that night, slip into that room with the girl sitting in that chair, and wrap her up in a big hug. Trust me, I'd say. Trust me. It won't always feel this way. And she'd know I was right.

The next few months, though, were just as hard as I knew they'd be. Harder, even. I thought they'd never end. I gritted my teeth and braced myself, but it didn't help. I balled my hands into fists and fought, but lost. I tried to be strong, but it felt like I'd failed.

And then. Oh then.

My girlfriends - my sisters - took me with them to Paris. Me with my heart frayed around the edges, so fragile I'd been teetering on the edge of tears every hour, every day. We flew to Paris, and I felt the magic the minute we stepped off the plane. You think I'm speaking in metaphors, maybe, am having just a bit of fun, perhaps. No. There was magic there and it was real. Between the lilacs on the RER and the insistent flap of pigeon wings, Paris shook me awake; gently at first and then harder, with urgency. Open your eyes, I heard. There's no time to waste anymore.

The answer is right in front of you.


Readers, how do I just get it out and tell you? How do I put it in words? I don't know how, am trying so desperately to get it right, to really nail this one, because this is important.

Something happened in Paris and the weeks thereafter. I don't know if that's where my childhood finally ended or if it was then that I started to realize who I really am and what I really want. Maybe they go hand-in-hand, maybe you can't have one without the other. Either way, something happened, something pushed me to snap out of it, to wake up and take my life into my hands before it was too late.

In those strange, clear days in late spring, I remember finally realizing with earth-shaking certainty this: You, and only you, determine your own fate. You only get one chance at this life. Do something with your life; open your heart to risk. At some point, enough is enough and you must take the biggest leap you can and live it.

So I did.


Last week, I gave notice at my job. This week, a dream came true. No. This week, my dream came true. The biggest dream of my life, I think, the thing I've been dancing around as long as I can remember, the thing I've always wanted, yet didn't ever believe I could actually do. After writing all summer, after finally getting down to business and trying, after doing what people have been urging me to do for years, I took my heart into my hand, handed a book proposal over to my agent, closed my eyes and leaped.

48 hours later, the editorial director at Viking Press bought my book.


But that wasn't the only leap, you see. Something else I learned this year is that only once or maybe twice in life, when you get the chance for change, real change, you've got to do a whole lot more than just one thing. You've got to look deep inside your own soul and follow where it wants to go. You've got to listen, really listen, in order to hear what the universe is trying to tell you. And move mountains, then, when you finally know what you want. So, my dears, my readers, my silent and not-so-silent supporters, here it is, at last.

I'm writing a book, yes. But that's not all. I'm leaving New York, too.

I'm moving back to Berlin and I'm writing a book, about Berlin, about my life, about cooking and home and family and love, about being divided and finding a way back to being whole again, about a city and its recipes, and a girl who's learning how to find her way.

And somehow, finally, I believe it, too: This is what I was meant to do.

Gourmet's Thai-Spiced Tomato Soup


I remember quite vividly the first time I read Gourmet. I was thirteen years old and visiting my father and his new wife in their house in a suburb of Boston. It was the first time I'd met Susan - my new stepmother - and I was jetlagged and a little overwhelmed. But Susan was nice and my father was happy and the house was cute and there was a cat named Taylor who warmed to me right away, so I found myself relaxing in spite of it all.

And furthermore, the next morning when I woke up too early and came downstairs, I discovered a stack of magazines with looping script that spelled out Gourmet, with luminous photographs and mouth-watering recipes and photographs of food and stories - well-written, to boot - about the very things I liked to read about. I leafed through the pages slowly in wonder. I felt like the world was opening up, quite literally, in front of me. Whole galaxies of possibility in front of my very eyes! I'll never forget that feeling.

Before long, I was copying - in longhand - all the recipes that grabbed my imagination. I don't even remember how many loose leaf pages I filled, but for years after that first visit, I would look forward to settling down on my visits to see my dad and Susan with a stack of Gourmets by my side; hours stretching ahead of me in which I could read and fantasize and lose myself in the beauty of that magazine.

For me, as for many, many others, Gourmet was not just a magazine. It was one of the first things that Susan and I shared, and I can't look at an issue without thinking of her. I had an emotional attachment to it, as well as a professional one. As a cookbook editor, I used Gourmet to find photographers, stylists, and writers, not to mention book ideas. It has been an invaluable source of inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the folding of Gourmet over the past few weeks. I know some people never warmed to the "new" Gourmet. I know some people subscribed only because of Ruth Reichl. I know some people think the Internet killed Gourmet. And some people think heartless businessmen in suits are to blame. I don't know what did Gourmet inultimately, but what I want to address are readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions to other magazines out of protest or anger because of the folding of Gourmet.

Please don't. Please remember there are people behind all those other magazines, people who work hard and who are passionate, who have tastes and opinions that matter, who are doing their very best in a very difficult industry, whose work each month inspires millions of cooks and readers and dreamers and artists. If anything, in the wake of Gourmet folding, we should become new subscribers to other food magazines, lending those publications our support and our dollars, letting the writers and editors there know that people are still reading, still paying attention, still hungry, for lack of a better word, for nourishment. Magazines aren't static - they're living, growing, changing things and they need us, like a plant needs water, to keep them vibrant and alive.


I found this fantastic soup on earlier this week. After one of the magazine's editors warned that web-exclusive recipes on the site would eventually disappear when the site got taken down, I spent the better part of an hour getting lost in there, finding delicious things to cook, rereading older pieces by MFK Fisher and Francis Lam, marveling at the amount of work that went into it all.

Tonight, after more than a week out of my kitchen, I chopped up an onion and cooked it in olive oil, then stirred in ground cumin and a few spoons of prepared red curry paste, cooking and stirring the paste gently to release the fragrance. Then I poured in chicken stock, a can of tomatoes and their juice, crumbling brown sugar and some salt. After a brief simmer, a 15-minute window in which I had just enough time to straighten up the apartment, admire a new pair of shoes and read my mail, the soup was ready. I blitzed it into smoothness with an immersion blender, and brightened it up with a good squeeze of lime juice. My apartment smelled incredible.

Would you understand what I meant if I said this soup tasted like the brightest summer day, simultaneously, impossibly full of languor and excitement? The flavors are strong and bright and layered, despite the humble ingredients, and the fact that you can make the whole thing within half an hour of walking in the door only makes this taste better. The original recipe has you add a cup of water to the brew, but I left it out and the soup was perfect: just hot and spicy enough and not too thick. I find traditional tomato soups, slick with cream, leave much to be desired. This one is my new gold standard: practically shimmering with life.

Thai-Spiced Tomato Soup

Serves 4

1 onion, chopped
tablespoons vegetable oil
tablespoons Thai Kitchen red curry paste
teaspoon ground cumin
(14-oz) cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
(28-oz) can crushed tomatoes
tablespoon packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Juice of 1/2 lime
A handful of cilantro leaves (optional)

1. Cook onion in oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add curry paste and cumin and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

2. Add broth, tomatoes, brown sugar, and salt and simmer 15 minutes.

3. Purée soup in batches in a blender (use caution when blending hot liquids). Return soup to pot and reheat. You can also leave the soup in the pot and purée using an immersion blender. Stir in the lime juice and serve, garnishing with cilantro, if using.

Melissa Clark's Coconut Barley Pilaf


Sometimes there's just no escaping a dinner disaster.

You can try as hard as you can, be armed with this recipe from the always-reliable Ms. Clark, can have lovely corn and vibrant green herbs from the greenmarket, a perfectly plump chicken breast from the gourmet grocery in the West Village, a sack of pearled barley from the now-defunct Balducci's and a luscious can of coconut milk, and things will still Just Not Work Out.


I mean, how many of you read this and got hungry right then and there? I can't have been alone. But what sounded so promising just ended up being this rather flat, pallid dish that I poked around on my plate for a while, feeling like a truculent third-grader while picking out nibs of corn with the tines of my fork.

If, and only if, you plan to attempt this yourself, here are my words of wisdom:

1. Don't fry the cashews with the chicken and then stir them into the stew at the end. This turns them soft and rubbery. And soft and rubbery cashews are Not Pleasant At All. Instead, toast them in a separate pan and strew them over the dish when you plate it. Crunch! Flavor! Delicious.

2. Melissa's method for cooking the barley just didn't work for me. It needed far more liquid than she said and more time, too. I cooked mine for 50 minutes and it was still too hard and chewy. Hard and chewy barley is not the same as al dente barley, not at all. Take it from me. Also, maybe two whole cups of barley is a little too much barley. I wonder.

3. How come the photo on the New York Times makes this dish look more like a barley salad than what I ended up with, a creamy barley stew? I don't know. But, in fact, the photo has a point. Maybe you should just cook the barley in salted water until it's properly done and then toss it with cubed, sauteed chicken, sauteed corn, a bunch of herbs and that jalapeño (try two!). Then you'd have a barley-corn-chicken salad that might have a bit of a kick rather than a coconut-barley-risotto type thing that will sit in your stomach like a lead weight and then also take up precious real estate in your fridge for five days before you can bring yourself to face the music and Just Throw It Out. (I'm really going overboard with this capitalization thing, aren't I.)


In other news, totally unrelated, I had my first (and please, God, make it also the last) meal at Katz's Deli (of Sally's infamous orgasm!) on Saturday afternoon. I think I probably aged about 26 days just standing in line, which might be almost as maddening as the (double) line at the Angelika Theater. Not that the corned beef wasn't delicious! It actually really was, as was the sour pickle it came with. But $14.95? For a pile of meat on rye with a freaking pickle alongside it and no table service? Holy highway robbery, Batman.

Next time I attempt a New York institution, I'm going to aim a little higher, I think. Babbo, anyone?