Entries from August 28th, 2014

Tomatillo Salsa

Thursday, August 28, 2014

tomatillo salsa

I started writing this post from Annie’s couch in Harlem. A breeze would pass through the apartment, carrying the sound of someone’s saxophone or the distant wail of a siren, and if you folded yourself into her living room windowsill, you could gaze down on her neighbors’ plant-filled, walled-in urban retreat of a patio. We hadn’t started packing her things yet, and she was all knotted up over her decision to leave New York. On the inside, I was pitching a fit over the possibility of returning to Minnesota alone, with the deposit on our apartment already paid. Those eight days were tough. Toss together two longtime friends, both of whom have their own complicated relationship with New York, as anyone with New York history does, add in the weight of moving, quitting jobs, saying goodbye, starting over, seeking closure, and the probability of a blowup is all but marked in stone. Today that trip seems part of a past life, which makes it all the harder to believe that I’m writing this now from our new apartment in Minneapolis.

minneapolis apartment_1

minneapolis apartment_3

minneapolis apartment_4

When Annie and I decided to live together, I wasn’t positive it was the best move. I’d been living with people my whole life, and I was very much ready to have my own space. Annie, on the other hand, was used to living alone. Above all, though, we both saw it as a now-or-never type of chance, a challenge, for sure, but one that we both wanted to risk taking rather than missing. I’d stalk Craigslist for apartments, she’d send me links to places she’d found and I’d make appointments to view them. On Google Chat one day, we sent each other the same link at the same time for a duplex in South Minneapolis. Six weeks later, we moved in.

First we had to get her out of the clutches of New York. And what the hell, I thought, why not make a trip out of it? I booked a one-way ticket and flew out on a Tuesday, the first of eight consecutive days of summer perfection. She met me at the corner of 125th and Lenox, and when I saw her standing there, she was a woman who’d melded to the city’s pace.

One night at dusk, we crossed the Triborough Bridge in her friend Bri’s car to eat Peruvian while Bri called every fifth driver a motherfucker for driving like one. I liked her immediately. Bri is all heart, tough as nails, and just shy of a hundred pounds. She came over the next night and taught us how to fry cabbage the Deep South way with bacon and onions. Cal and Brandon came too, and Cal made his mother’s famous fried chicken, a recipe he’s known how to cook since he could reach the counter to season the flour. We piled on Annie’s couch and chowed until it was time to fry a second batch. Annie and I got dressed up on Sunday morning and loped to Abyssinian Baptist Church, craving gospel music and ice water and sweating buckets in the heat before we’d even arrived. When we finally did, a straight-faced woman wearing pantyhose and bifocals told us services were finished for the day, so we hailed a taxi for Bloody Marys at Vinateria instead.

At the end of the week, we celebrated our survival at Red Rooster over shredded lamb tostadas topped with rosy pickled onion and dabs of grainy mustard. We drank a Savoy and a PYT and watched a wave of characters pass through the doors. The food was good, not great, but you felt the place come alive as the night wore on, and when Annie asked, “How can I leave this?” I had no answer. New York is panoptic, hypnotic, and much sexier when you’re away or on your way out. Like any love/hate relationship, New York is a place you can’t fully appreciate until you no longer wake up to it everyday.   

minneapolis apartment_2Annie wavered between staying and going up until the very morning we left. I told her I’d be okay if she changed her mind, and that was mostly true, or would have been eventually. She told me she’d made a commitment to me. That meant something, even if it felt heavier than what I’d bargained for. In the end, we packed up the moving truck with the help of Bri and three guys from Bri’s security staff. With Annie at the wheel, we pulled away from the curb and sailed down Seventh Avenue to Iggy Azalea like the whole trip was already in the bag. Ten minutes later we were in a tunnel, then a bridge four or forty lanes across when the first of several truck drivers honked and yelled that our back ramp was down. Within seconds, we were protected on all sides by a fleet of semis until we could exit, pull off to the shoulder and assess the situation, first panicking, later cackling like a couple of once-wild grandmothers with stories of skirting the law. After nine hours of driving, we stopped somewhere in northern Ohio, checked into a Super 8, and walked to the Lone Tree Tavern next door through a field of grass with a walking path carved for truck drivers who likely kept both places in business. Tom was the front desk manager and a retired principal with a few opinions on migrating west, all of them favorable. At that hour, whether or not Annie found them comforting was moot.

It took another fifteen hours to reach home, and it was after midnight at the start of the third day when we did. I told Annie I felt like I’d left a critical piece of my heart behind. She said she thought she’d made a mistake, and we laid in bed staring at the ceiling, exhausted, dejected, and confused. We slept hard, woke up early, and drove the truck to the new apartment to meet a crew of family and friends who gave up their Saturday morning to help us move. My brothers got straight to work by opening all the windows in the house for fresh air. My dad pulled the refrigerator from the wall to plug it in and tore two holes in the vinyl floor, battle scars that are going to remind us of that day every time we see them. Annie’s friend Jessie did most of the heavy lifting, while her dad loaded up his car with bags to donate and came over later to hang curtains and put together chairs. We unloaded Annie’s stuff, drove to my youngest brother’s apartment to pick up some of the stuff we’ll store while he lives in Phoenix, then drove back to Mary Ellen’s to load up the truck with my stuff. Brian bought us welcome back burgers and beers at Pat’s Tap when it was time for a break. Brad and Megan brought their baby over in the afternoon, Tony and Niki came with felt pads, a power drill, and a reading chair, and Tippy brought us our first plant. Long after the sun had set, we spread out at the front of the house and ordered delivery for dinner. That all of these people were so happy we were home was impossible to ignore, and I think we both fell asleep feeling lighter, protected even, which makes a hell of a difference in any sort of big life change.

Grandpa's cactus

Now that we are here, a new brand of culture shock is settling in, and that’s the kind related to stuff. Buying a sofa last week, you see, felt major. Annie keeps telling me I’ve been able to wait 31 years without buying any furniture, as if this is some stroke of good fortune! At IKEA, it was my turn to panic, and if she hadn’t have been there, I might’ve left a full cart in the checkout lane and bolted for the horizon. At this rate, I guess I should be ready for marriage by age 62?

Speaking of commitments, I walked forty-five blocks from Annie’s stoop on 133rd and Lenox to Kitchen Arts and Letters one day, and that’s where I found this recipe for tomatillo salsa. More specifically, where I found the book with this recipe, and where I decided it would be our kitchen’s bible for the upcoming winter. Annie loves Mexican, and so do I. All this late blooming must have put me in the mood to start something early, as I assure you I’m not at all ready to think about colder days. Salsas are great because you really can’t fuck them up, so long as you use prime ingredients. It never hurts to have a recipe to reference, however, and this one’s a definite keeper.

Tomatillo Salsa (makes 1 1/2 cups) from Truly Mexican
1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6), husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, coarsely chopped, including seeds
2 tablespoons chopped white onion
1 good sized garlic clove, peeled
3/4 teaspoon fine salt, or 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Add the tomatillos to a food processor or blender, then add the rest of the ingredients. Blend until salsa is very smooth (you’ll still see the tomatillo seeds, and that’s good), at least a minute. Season to taste with additional chile and salt, and blend again. If you can make this ahead of time to let the flavors meld, do it–a few hours or an overnight makes a big difference. Serve with tortilla chips, black beans and rice, salmon, pork, chicken, roasted vegetables, or an omelette with cilantro and goat cheese.

Blueberry Pie

Sunday, August 3, 2014

blueberries box

Summer in Minnesota is a burst of perfection, and I am clinging to it with a white-knuckled grip and a pining for summers of the past. All seasons remind me of New Ulm, a small town in southeastern Minnesota where my grandmother lived in the same house until she couldn’t live alone anymore. My mom and her sisters grew up in that house, and sometimes I fantasize about knocking on the door and asking the current owners if I can take a quick walk through, just to see if I can still smell it. I’d bury my head in the coat closet and wait for the scent of mothballs and fur coats I only saw her wear in photos until the owners, reluctant but obliged, tapped me on the shoulder and said ok now, time to go. But summer, especially, is the time I miss it, her, the most. Even if she didn’t like to cook, she loved to feed, and her attention to small details at meals left an impression that rooted deep. In fact, we spent more time around my grandmother’s kitchen table than anywhere else in her house, towed back by an unseen force after too much time away. We didn’t know it then, but we were building traditions there that lately I am seeing in pieces as they surface in a flashback, a story, or a keepsake that’ll spark a memory long forgotten.


Tippy’s kitchen is built and maintained with the same traits. Petite as it is, there’s always room for everyone, and even with two people in the corner at the stove, one person at the sink, another with a chopping knife at the counter and three on chairs around her red wooden table, somehow you never feel the old, no good adage of too many cooks. No task is too grand. This speaks more to Tippy’s circuitry than the layout of her kitchen, and I can only hope to give people the same fortifying sense in my own kitchen, come the day. We make sense of our lives by building up from the foundations we were given, adding our own twists, but leaving space, always, for the traditions that were laid before us, for us. So that when the time comes, we can hand them down, and ultimately, let them live.


Last weekend, with our ticking time bomb of blueberry loot, Tippy, Laurel, and I took root in their kitchen and didn’t much move until we’d made our way through twelve and three-quarters of the thirteen pounds Laurel and I had picked days before. We chopped red pepper and minced ginger and squeezed lime for blueberry salsa. We picked lavender and steeped vanilla bean to pour over blueberries in jars for an infused, sweet and floral syrup. We folded warm blueberry sauce into wonton wrappers and fried them until they turned bubbly and crisp, then tore them apart too soon, too hungry to wait. Mike, Tippy’s oldest son, left a box of homebrewed ale in the basement, and that saved the Sunday when liquor stores are closed in Minnesota. We upended four bottles in a stockpot with sugar, lemon, allspice, and star anise, then mixed in red onion and whole berries and boiled it all until it gleamed to a thick, textured jam. We made our grandma’s strawberry honey, sub blueberries, and a hot chutney with curry, dried currants, and jalapeno. We made pies that we took breaks to eat by the forkful straight from the pan.

blueberry wash

The two pie recipes we used were about as different as they could be. Rush River’s version is mostly uncooked and totally uncovered, so that the whole berries maintain their shape and texture, and pop with each bite–sweet, tart, uncompromised. First you make a sauce with sugar, water, and a cup of blueberries that you let simmer away for what seems like eternity until the berries break down and the color turns definitively purple. The Gold Standard of Purple, it is a vision worth waiting for. Then you let it cool, fold in the rest of the blueberries, pour it all into a prebaked 9-inch pie shell, and let it chill (if you can stand waiting). We used a crust recipe aptly named, “Mom’s Pie Crust,” which has been handed down from mothers to daughters in our family, and of whose original identity is unknown. It is a dump crust that calls for corn oil, because that’s what Tippy’s mom uses, and what our grandmother used, what her mother used, and so on, and it just never occurred to anybody to write in an alternative suggestion.

The second pie is from Lan, who I’ve met virtually by way of her captivating, redolent photos. Her interpretation of food is striking, both the recipes she chooses and the way she presents them through her lens, and so when she endorsed her husband’s go-to recipe for pie, I knew it was going to be good. With this recipe, you pulse together a crust of flour, orange zest, pecans, butter (or a vegan alternative) and sugar, and then you dribble in cold vodka and pulse again. Vodka evaporates quickly, resulting in a very flaky, tender crust, and leaves no trace of itself behind. Once you’ve chilled and rolled out the crust in a deep dish pan, you mix together some cornstarch, orange juice, flour, sugar, and blueberries and pour that on top of the crust. You top it with a crumbly sprinkle of oats, cinnamon, sugar, and fat (she uses coconut oil, we used butter) and bake it until the top is golden. A slice of warm pie she told me, is excellent with coconut cream or vanilla ice cream. She was right about that, too. See the full recipe here, and her blog, More Stomach, here.

Now go get yourself some blueberries, and hurry.

Blueberry Pie (from Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, where we also picked all our berries)

9″ Pie Crust**
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
5 tablespoons all purpose flour, unbleached
4 cups fresh blueberries
Pinch of salt

Mix the cold 1/4 cup of water with the flour and salt to make a smooth batter. Boil 1 cup of blueberries with the 1/2 cup of water and all the sugar. Add batter and stir with a whisk until it thickens. Remove from heat and let cool. Once it’s cool, fold in the remaining 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into the pre-baked pie shell.** Chill.

**Mom’s Pie Crust recipe:
Sift these into a pie tin:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, unbleached
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, mix 1/2 cup corn oil (or a different neutral oil of your choice) with 2 tablespoons of milk. Pour liquid into the center of the flour mix. Mix with a fork. Spread with your fingers across the bottom and up the sides of the pie pan. Prick with a fork all around. For pre-bakes, bake at 425 degrees F for 12-15 minutes.