Pool

So, we’ll get back to cooking shortly after this delay caused by life doing what it does in the little ways that distract me.

But here’s the thing from today.

There’s a pool at my apartment complex. It was something like 90 degrees today. I got it into my head that maybe I would go swimming.

This is for a few reasons. For one, I wanted to move a little, and I can’t pound on treadmills every day (as I did yesterday), because my knees have a hard life. I’d like them to get an easier one soon, but they still have a hard one. Pools are good for knees - or so I’ve heard.

For another, it was 90 degrees.

For a third, I will never get my life to where I’m trying to get it if I don’t continue, day by day, the process of getting over myself.

Here’s what I mean: I frequently tell people I don’t like swimming: don’t like the beach, don’t like the pool, don’t like it. It’s true that part of this is because pools and beaches are often outside, and I am pale and fry like an egg on the sun.

But let us not be silly: it is also because beaches and pools and getting wet mean people looking at you wearing less than I ever, ever wear in public. (Ever.) I never learned whether I liked swimming, because I never didn’t hate that, even as a little kid.

So thinking about going to the pool at my own building involves this series of thoughts: (1) I have to find a swimsuit. (I actually already have a couple from a family trip a couple years ago.) (2) I have to walk through the halls. (3) I have to be on the elevator. (4) I have to walk through the lobby. (5) I have to walk out to the pool. (6) I have to get into the water. (7) I have to get out of the water, which usually looks ungraceful to me even when normal people do it.

I caught myself having this thought: “I’m just trying to be … considerate.” This meant, “I am trying not to exist in front of people if they’d rather I didn’t.”

Soooooo yes, had to do it then. Once you catch that thought rattling around in your mind, it’s like knowing you have mice. You can’t quite rest until it’s handled.

So at the appointed time shortly after the pool opened, I put the suit on, I put a terry robe over it, I doused myself with sunscreen while wondering if I’d be able to stay long enough to need it, and I went down there.

There was nobody at the pool but the lifeguard, who apologetically said I’d have to wait maybe a half-hour while she cleaned the pool after a storm last night. Oh, I told her, of course. Take your time.

It was THE PERFECT EXCUSE. Go back upstairs, oh well, try another day. Give up! But I did *not*. Instead, I came upstairs, got more sunscreen and my sunglasses, went down there and LAY IN A POOL CHAIR IN THE SUN IN MY SUIT AND SHADES FOR A HALF-HOUR. (Don’t worry - I basted myself with SPF 50 and haven’t a trace of pink.)

While I was sitting there, actually listening to my current audiobook (THE MARTIAN, riveting) and watching clouds cover and uncover the sun, I suddenly realized the pool faces, as you’d imagine, an entire side of the building with maybe a hundred apartments that have a view of it. And it was just me lying beside it and the lifeguard cleaning. This was a tiny bit unnerving.

And then a dude came out onto one of the high balconies, and it really felt like he stared straight down at me. He was then joined by another dude. Then another dude. I chanted to myself, “Who cares even if they are, who cares, who cares.” I closed my eyes, listened to the story, and waited. The sun was hot, and sprawling in it was the strangest, most decadent feeling.

And when the lifeguard was done, I eased my way into the water, and let me tell you, it was so, so, so worth it.

These Urglebleeping Flagglesoxing Ravioli

Look, I don’t have a great excuse for having wanted to make ravioli. It pretty much goes back to the same place a lot of this goes back to: I saw it done, and it seemed cool. When you see it done, they stamp out of the little mold thing (I got one of the trays that you put a sheet of dough over, then you put a thing over it that creates dents, you put filling in the dents, you put the top on it, and you slide over the whole thing with a rolling pin. (It looks like this.) They make it look reasonably easy. They really do. 

Of course, before you can do that, you have to obtain sheets of pasta dough, which you get by rolling them through a pasta machine. The other day, when I made fettuccine, it really wasn’t that difficult. Of course, I speculated at the time that I’d wildly overworked the dough, which may have made it a lot tougher and easier to handle in the same way that it made it a little rubbery to consume. 

Anyway. I made the dough, and it seemed to be in good shape – I hand-kneaded it this time instead of making it in the food processor, and I was pretty sure I had it right, although it was, once again, incredibly finicky in its tendency to seem too dry and then too wet and then too dry. But it seemed to be in very good condition as I put it to rest for a bit. 

I made a cheese filling that I found on Cooking Light (specifically this) and put it in the fridge while I let the dough rest a while longer. 

The instructions that I’d seen for ravioli had stressed that you had to get the pasta quite thin, since it would be doubled at the places where the seams were and you didn’t want it to be super thick. So I worked to get it as thin as I could. The problem, though, is that the thinner I got it, the harder it was to get it through the machine. And when you put it through the machine, it’s hard to control the shape in which it emerges, and I kept getting pieces that were too long and narrow to really fit correctly over the mold. And the more I worked with it, the wetter it seemed, and the thinner it seemed, and it kept sticking to itself and basically being a huge jerk. That’s all I can say about it: this dough was being a real jerk. 

I figured I was at about the end of the road, so I tried one last time, and I managed to get a beautifully thin sheet stretched over the mold! Victory! I carefully created the indentations, and to my surprise, the dough did not tear. I spooned the filling in, and the dough still didn’t tear. I managed to come up with another sheet, and I laid it over top. I rolled it with the pin. 

But they wouldn’t come out, and now, they were starting to tear. The cheese was coming out, the dough was torn, and they were stuck fast to the mold and couldn’t be removed. It was a complete, utter disaster. All mush, all a mess. In total disgust, I tore them all from the mold and, after concluding I didn’t know how to rescue any of it, threw it all out. I felt awful – it was a lot of work, it was a lot of time, it kind of makes a mess, and it was just an unrescue-able flop. Got nothing. Sat on the couch, had a cocktail, and felt extremely bummed. 

A little while later, while I was trying to figure out what very low-effort thing I could bear to put together for dinner when I was this angry at pasta, I had this thought: That was only half of the filling and half of the dough. And then I had this thought: Oh my God, I’m going to try it again. 

I got a bowl of flour. I resolved not to try to get it so thin. I promised I’d be patient with myself. I patted the dough with flour over and over as it got thinner. I worked to ease the sides outward so it would get wider and not just longer. I gave up on getting it as thin as it was theoretically supposed to be. I worked quickly but deliberately, so that I could catch the dough as it came out of the machine and keep it from sticking to itself. I paused to cut it into pieces when it got too long. I floured the heck out of the mold. 

I finally got it to a workable shape and thinness. I wished it was a little wider, but it just didn’t work out that way. I made the wells, spooned in a little filling, and put on the top. I rolled it with the pin. I flipped it over and very, very carefully eased off the individual ravioli. All 12 came free (that’ll feed me twice). Not always easily, but they all came off. None of them broke at that stage. I let them dry for a while, flipped them over (flipping them over was when they felt the most delicate, actually), and then cooked them in boiling water for about two and a half minutes. I topped them with some of the great tomato sauce I made back when I was declining to moralize about olive oil. 

I couldn’t bring myself to take their picture. They still weren’t very pretty. They weren’t perfectly shaped, some of them looked very bad indeed, and by the time they’d cooked, a couple of them had cheese easing out of a seam. But they were ravioli, and they were pretty good, and I made them myself. There is lots to learn about this process so that I don’t always wind up throwing out half of what I made, but if I can ignore the level of frustration that these FREAKING RAVIOLI delivered to me, there is a world of possibility. 

Fresh Pasta For The First Time Ever

I’ve watched a lot of Top Chef. And a lot of other cooking television. I’ve always been fascinated by the sight of people making fresh pasta on a machine with rollers, where you crank the handle and it stretches and stretches, and then you put it through again and it cuts it into noodles. It seemed like a cool idea, and I’ve never been more than a modest fan of the texture of dried pasta when it’s cooked (I mean, it’s fine, and it’s a staple, but it’s something I never, never actively crave). So I thought … that would be an interesting thing to try. 

I got myself a pasta machine from Amazon (I’ve been investing strategically in a few things for the kitchen), clamped it to a table, and gave it a whirl. 

One of the disconcerting things was the massive difference in recipes across sources I consulted. The ratios of flour to eggs, as well as what else gets thrown in there, were really, really all over the place. I sort of threw up my hands and started with a halved version of the recipe from Serious Eats that calls for five ounces of flour, one whole egg, and two additional yolks. (As well as a little salt.) I put it in the food processor, waiting for it to turn into a ball of dough, the way it says. 

Not even close to becoming a dough ball. Not even close. It didn’t seem like much more than slightly damp flour, like extremely modestly moistened sand. I was patient, but was clear that there was no amount of whirring that was going to make it turn into a ball the way it was supposed to. It was just sand. And it wasn’t changing. 

I had the egg whites left from the yolks I’d added, and I knew a lot of recipes used whole eggs anyway, so I just added a little egg white to try to make it moist enough for it to turn into dough. Tried a little; it didn’t do it, though it did seem to be just thinking about getting sticky or even coming together. Tried a little more. In the end, I added most of the rest of the egg white, meaning instead of one egg and two extra yolks, it was just three eggs. Maybe two and three-quarters. But then it suddenly seemed too wet. So I added a little flour and it seemed too dry. You get the idea. Dough can be like this, like you’re trying to find a balance point that may or may not exist.

The bottom line is that by the time I got all this ironed out and felt like it was a workable dough, I had beaten it senseless in the food processor because it took so long to be right. I knew it was going to take some time or it to be remotely workable, so I left it on the kitchen counter with a towel over it for about a half-hour. 

When that was over, the outside was quite dry, but the inside seemed really sticky again. Dusted it with a little flour, figuring this might very well just be a plain old disaster in the making, and knowing it would probably not be an especially pleasant texture, so far had I wandered from what I was supposed to do. 

I rolled it out a little with a rolling pin, then started running it through the machine, folding and turning it a couple times along the way. It pretty quickly took on the jaggedy look of the dough in the Serious Eats post that wasn’t rested. This sort of made sense: I knew I had rested it modestly, and I had developed more gluten than four bakeries put together, so it probably was going to be like that. But as the post says, the more I rolled it through the thinner settings, the more (1) it really was lovely and thin like I’d seen on television, and (2) the less it had that strange, pockmarked appearance. 

Rolling and cutting it, in short, was much, much, much easier than I expected, even doing it by myself and sort of rolling it in with one hand, pulling it out with one hand, and turning the crank – which seems like three hands, right? You just have to figure out how to always be not doing at least one of those three things. I managed to produce some fettuccine that … looked like pasta! (I suspect how tough it was made it easier to keep it from tearing or misbehaving even as it got thin. Trade-offs at work.)

It really, really helped that I had homemade tomato sauce from the other night. I cooked the pasta (well, a quarter of what I’d made) in boiling water for about three minutes, drained it, added a little of that sauce, and it was … good. It was a good dinner. It was better than dried pasta, at least to me. More satisfying, more like real food, and with better flavor. It was, however, tougher in texture than I know it’s supposed to be. I got it rolled out, and it worked, but I did indeed beat it entirely too much to death in the food processor. (On a weekend night, I might have tried to make it and knead it by hand, but it was 7:30 when I got home, and I was hungry.)

It’s very interesting, though, knowing that it’s something that now I know how to do. There are a lot of things like this, I’m sure – things where even what doesn’t come out quite right is well worth knowing how to do. 

Madeleines

I think it was watching The Great British Baking Show on PBS (The Great British Bake-Off in the UK) that got me interested in madeleines, these little buttery tea cakes made in seashell pans. It seemed like a reasonably simple thing I could try making and then giving to other people. (When I’m trying not to make delicious things and then … you know, eat them, it often helps to make small, discrete things that I can decide to have one of, rather than things I have to cut off a piece of. It’s so easy to have another sliver of … anything.) (They’re also more lovely than they are decadent, which means other people feel better about trying one, too. The ones I made have about 100 calories to a little cake, which is a very workable amount for a nice midmorning treat.)

So I got some madeleine pans, and I found a simple recipe, and I tried them. 

Basically, according to this particular recipe, you make madeleines by mixing flour with a little baking powder in one bowl, melting butter in another bowl, and then beating eggs and sugar in another bowl for several minutes until it’s very light. Then you add the flour mixture, fold it in, and drizzle in the melted butter, then combine it all gently and spoon it into the little pans. 

Up to this point, my recent experiments have been pretty much completely successful. The bread was just like I wanted it, as was the sweet potato hash, as was the pasta sauce, as was the pizza I didn’t even write about making but made from scratch. (Seriously, if it’s been a while since you tried making pizza crust and sauce from scratch, I have to tell you: it’s very easy, and the crust is absolutely delicious instead of being sort of a pointless cheese tray.) But I’m upping the level of difficulty – I just got a fresh pasta machine, so look for lots of photos of dough sheets with holes in them in coming weeks. 

So I was really looking forward to the little madeleines popping out with their perfect little seashell patterns. Which isn’t exactly what happened. 

I think the issue is that the recipe I have calls for spraying the pan with nonstick spray, but I had nonstick pans, so it didn’t really need that. And because I wasn’t cognizant enough of how small the molds were, I sprayed them too much and they wound up with a little too much oil. The result was that instead of a delicate cake with that distinctive shell pattern, they came out with a sort of bubbled fried crust on the seashell side, like they’d been pan-fried in oil. (They also may have been a skitch overbaked – or at least some of them were. This was also a good lesson in how my oven heats itself unevenly.)

The thing, though, is that they were still delicious. They weren’t quite as light as I wanted, though, although they tend toward the pound-cake texture as I understand it, traditionally, so they may have been closer than I thought to how they’re supposed to be. I thought they were very very yum, at least the one that I ate. 

I was going to give you a picture [UPDATE: they took one at NPR Books!], but fortunately, the lovely people in my office gobbled them up. Making 24 madeleines, eating one, and giving 23 away is such a great example of treating yourself well across several dimensions, I can’t even tell you. 

The Morality Of Olive Oil

I got it into my head to have pasta for dinner with a good tomato sauce, so I turned to the book Modern Sauces by Martha Holmberg, which both makes good sauces and is fun to read. The last thing I made from there was a vanilla bean creme anglais that, for a modest nutritional cost, made a simple store-bought angel food cake I bought on sale taste like the best dessert ever.

This time, I worked from her basic tomato sauce recipe, which involves sauteing carrots, celery and onions in olive oil, throwing in some garlic, adding two big cans of crushed tomatoes and some parsley (you can also use fresh basil, but I didn’t have any), and letting it simmer. 

After I had prepped all the vegetables, I went to get the olive oil heating, and I saw that for roughly six cups of sauce, she calls for a half-cup of olive oil. I automatically cut it in half when I poured it into the pan. Just automatically, almost without thinking. 

This is what’s left over from the fact that I grew up worrying about everything I ate during the don’t-eat-any-fat era, when the advice was to base your diet around carbohydrates (this, for instance, was an influential book on me when I was a teenager, and the subtitle says it all) and to eliminate as much fat as you could from your diet, with the exception of what you absolutely needed in order not to die, basically. (It was acknowledged that humans could not survive with absolutely zero dietary fat, so you shouldn’t insist upon dropping it to zero.) This was the anti-butter era, the anti-egg-yolk era, the cooking-in-dry-nonstick-skillets era, the dress-your-salad-with-just-lemon era. 

It was all well-intentioned, and it was based on what people thought at the time; nobody was trying to give terrible advice. But of course, the conventional wisdom is now much more nuanced, saying that it depends on what kind of fat, and that fat in your food doesn’t necessarily translate to fat on you, and that carbohydrates of course must also be chosen with care. Plenty of fats aren’t really treated as problematic in moderate amounts in what I read now. 

Olive oil, for instance.

But it’s hard to get used to measuring oil in cups rather than spoons, really. When I look at an entire half-cup of olive oil, it just looks … ridiculous, like something I would never do. It’s not how I cooked when I was learning how. And in tomato sauce? You put in the tomatoes, you put in the other stuff, it’s still going to be tomato sauce, right? I can make this without all that oil.

And don’t get me wrong – if you have some dietary reason to do it, you can make a perfectly good tomato sauce without a half-cup of olive oil. There are people who are under orders to be stingier than I currently have to be. But the oil isn’t in there for no reason except recklessness, either, the way I was kind of acting like it was. After I started cooking the vegetables in the quarter-cup I’d measured out, I thought better of it, so bit by bit, I put the other quarter-cup in (slowly, so it wouldn’t drop the temp). After all, it’s making 12 half-cup servings of sauce (it actually made 13, when all was said and done); the half-cup means that each serving has two teaspoons of olive oil. I can fit that into the rough guidelines I’m following, particularly since today, I’d had fresh bread with jam for breakfast and super-healthy black bean soup with modestly constructed cornbread for lunch. (In fact, if my day was a skitch out of balance when I ran the numbers, it was a skitch too carb-y.)

The thing is, olive oil helps make tomato sauce taste really good, as it turns out. When it finished cooking and I had some with a little spaghetti, I could definitely tell it had a good slosh of oil in it. Particularly if you’ve eaten a lot of things where other things (especially sugar) have been swapped in and all the oil has been taken out, you can tell when something has a shot of butter or oil for richness. It feels a certain way to eat, and it took me a while to realize that this was part of what I instinctively treated as “like restaurant food.” It’s a rich and complex sauce – and that’s despite the fact that I forgot the tiny hit of hot sauce it’s supposed to get at the end. As with not all things but many things, the difference between what’s in a jar and what you can make yourself is pretty staggering.

The lady whose recipe it is has a book called Modern Sauces – she knows how you make sauces, you know? She puts olive oil in her sauce because it’s better, not because she’s trying to live la vida loca. I can remember thinking when I was younger, “Why do people ever cook eggs in even a small amount of butter when I can make a perfectly good egg in a dry nonstick skillet and save all that monstrous poison?” But I also remember thinking, “Why do people bother eating fried eggs?” And, of course, it didn’t exactly help me improve my health.

I still own nonstick, which is great for some things. But I use it much less than I used to. (I actually do still use it for fried eggs, because I cannot get eggs not to stick to my stainless steel skillet, even with butter. I include a little butter in the nonstick, though – maybe a half-teaspoon – because it really helps a fried egg out.) I cook in a little oil – olive, grapeseed, sesame, peanut, whatever – some of the time, and I cook in a little butter some of the time, and because I get the little brown bits on the pan when I sear meat, I make weird little pan sauces with wine or cream or whiskey. I also switched from skim milk to 1 percent at some point. I just like it more, and the difference is not huge, given the limited amount of milk I drink. 

Olive oil has no morality, you know? It just fits or doesn’t fit in with whatever you’re doing. And it has a place in a sauce when the sauce writer says it does. That doesn’t mean I can’t elect to do without it, but it means that I’m trying to work on that instinct. 

Bread

I’m a reasonably good cook. And one of the things I always say about cooking is that it’s just … not actually that hard, when it comes right down to it. If you have a recipe and you follow it and you know what things are (you know the difference between tablespoons and teaspoons), you can make a lot of things that are very good, and it’s not that much harder than following the directions to put together an IKEA coffee table. You do what the thing says. 

Baking bread is great, because it’s not like that at all. It actually does have that feeling of sorcery, and you really do have to do some of it by feel. I mean, it’s literally affected by the weather. It involves yeast, which is still alive. You can do the same thing on two different days and two different things can happen, and you have to know as many of the things that make those different things happen as you can. When I’ve baked yeast bread in the past, it’s been sandwich-style breads made in loaf pans, mostly, and they’ve been fine. Tasty, even. But I don’t usually bother, because they’re not markedly better than similar stuff I can buy in a store. The margin of error isn’t enormous. The need for instinct is present. You have to do things or add things until something happens that you can only see or feel. No matter how careful you are with the recipe, that recipe may very well tell you, at some moment or other, to kinda feel around and see what you think. Feel “smooth and elastic”? Feel resistance? Seem too sticky? Too dry? Touch it a lot!

I have a cast-iron Lodge Dutch oven now, so I decided to take a crack at something I hadn’t tried: a rustic crusty bread made with just flour, water, salt and yeast. Fittingly, I worked off the basic recipe (called “Saturday White Bread”) in the Ken Forkish book Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals Of Artisan Bread And Pizza. He recommends a method where you mix the flour and water with your hands, and then it sits for a while. And then you add the yeast and salt with your hands, and then it sits for a while. And then you fold it (it’s like a very light knead that takes only a minute or two), and then it sits for a while. And then you fold it again and it sits for a longer while. And then you divide it in two (if you’re turning it into two loaves, as I was) and shape it, and then it sits for a while. And then you bake one loaf at a time in your Dutch oven – first with the lid on, and then with the lid off. 

It’s a lot of steps to patiently follow with four ingredients involved, and there aren’t many real signals along the way that you’re doing anything right, except that the dough does eventually – after about the first five hours, using this method – triple like it’s supposed to, so you know the yeast isn’t dead. 

When I was folding it early in the rise, the dough felt weird. A little pebbly, like the flour wasn’t as dissolved as it should be, even though I’d done everything as it said I should. It seemed much too wet (it’s a method that uses a wet dough, that part is true). I wasn’t sure what it meant when it talked about pulling on the dough until it had tension, or had resistance – it was sort of yeasty and stretchy, but was I doing it right? Did I fold it enough? Did I fold it too much? There were certainly enough specifications: it said how warm the water should be, and that you should use a thermometer to check, and I did. IT said how warm the dough should turn out once you’ve mixed it, and that you should use a thermometer to check, and I did. But who knows? 

By the time I divided it in half and put it to proof in two bowls lined with tea towels, the dough seemed qualitatively different in this really great way. It was kind of soft, and I could see great big bubbles in it as I moved it around as delicately as I could through the process of shaping it into balls. And once it had proofed for a little over an hour, the consistency of it was amazing. It was like something you’d give a person to handle while they were meditating, it was so marvelously puffed and velvety and mysterious. I plunked the first loaf as gently as I could into the super-hot preheated Dutch oven (one of the tasks for dwellers in smallish apartments is to learn to mute the smoke alarm if it goes off every time you open a hot oven as mine does – you will bake this at a raging 475 degrees). 

Even though I’d meticulously followed every step as it was outlined, I was surprised somehow at how pretty it looked when I first took the lid off to move to the second part of the baking. And when I took it out after those last 20 minutes, I was shocked at how pretty it looked. It looked like, you know, bread from a bakery. 

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If I didn’t know I made that, I wouldn’t know I made that. Just like the book suggested, it was as baked as I dared without burning those crispy edges. This particular book recommends not scoring the top neatly so that you get those big natural craggy splits in the top. 

I had read in the book, and then forgotten in the meantime, that if you did all this right, when you removed the bread from the oven after 30 minutes with the lid on and 20 minutes with the lid off, as it hit room temperature air and you put it on a rack to cool, the loaf would crackle. When I read it, I thought, “Weeeell, mine probably won’t do that; that sounds like wizardry." 

But when I went back out to the kitchen to put the second loaf in once the Dutch oven was re-preheated, I heard this funny little noise. The loaf of bread was crackling away. I leaned down toward it and listened, and I laughed. 

There’s only flour, water, yeast and salt in here. Four ingredients total, counting water and salt as ingredients, which you often wouldn’t. I didn’t use a mixer, I didn’t use a food processor, I didn’t use one single tool to touch the dough, ever. Only hands, washed and washed and washed all day. That’s why it feels crazy, and why it feels great: it feels like it’s actually you, making something from nothing because somebody wrote you a note that told you how.

I waited the minimum prescribed half-hour before I cut into it – yes, yes, two or three hours is optimal, but that was not happening. I had skipped dinner so that on this special occasion, I could have bread and butter and a glass of red wine for dinner. And to be honest, it was even better to eat than it was to admire. The crust was almost overdone but not overdone. The inside was nicely substantial but not dense. Smeared with butter, it was good enough, I realized, that if I’d eaten this bread at a restaurant, I’d have said, "This bread is amazing,” and I’d have wanted to go back just for the bread. I’m not used to liking my own cooking that much, and definitely not when it doesn’t involve any ingredients you can’t buy in the worst grocery store you can imagine.

It was, I think, the perfect thing to do when it was six degrees outside.

Snow Day Sweet Potato Hash, Or: Why We're Here

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Oh, hello This picture is terrible. Future ones will be better.


It’s a snow day. It seems like a good project day. 

I’ve been cooking more in the last few months, and I’ve begun to bore Twitter with tweets that amount to “[thing] might have too much [thing] in it.” And believe it or not, I tweet that kind of stuff only about one tenth as much as I think about it. So for those of you who prefer to buck conventional internet wisdom that nobody cares what you had for breakfast, this is literally a discussion of what I had for breakfast. (It won’t always be breakfast.) 

I woke up this morning with a half a package of diced sweet potato in my fridge from making this peanut stew, which I absolutely adore, and which I always doctor up with sriracha. (As I do with many things.) I knew I wanted something with bacon, because it’s a day whose name ends in “day,” so I was thinking about eggs and bacon, and then I was thinking about something to sit next to an egg and a little bacon, so I thought about making a little sweet potato hash. I’ve never really done this particular thing, but it seemed like it should work, right? Ehhhhh, a little onion, a little pepper, a little … hmm, not brown sugar. My brain at work!

So I mentioned it on Twitter, and I got two crucial pieces of help.

Kevin gave me the answer to what had been kicking around in my head, which was that I wanted something a little sweet but not brown sugar, and that I wanted something besides sweet potato and onion. Apples were exactly what was missing. And in my head, I was thinking … cumin? Cardamom? Not cinnamon, exactly. I was all around it. And when Rachel said “garam masala” – which is a savory spice the guy at my spice shop once told me to try in cookies, if that gives you an idea of how versatile it is – I knew she was right. 

I’d also pretty much already decided one of the two pieces of bacon I was cooking in the oven should be crumbled up into the hash, and that I’d put a poached egg on it, so they were right in the same place I was. 

Let me pause for a moment before I start cooking and explain why I called this “The Opposite Of Less.” First, read at least the first few paragraphs of this, so I don’t have to type it again, because it’s very hard and it almost broke me the first time. 

So, that, right? Okay. 

This is not the point of doing this, nor is it what it’s about, but I’ve finally started seeing those numbers move in the right direction, which I always believed would be the result of my development of superhuman strength and discipline. When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom really was “character defect.” I cannot tell you how true – and how basically unchallenged – this was. 

I remember one time when I was at a Weight Watchers meeting with my mom when I was in middle school (they had a Youth program), and she took care of something or other, and I went next door to the grocery store to buy some Weight Watchers-brand ice cream. Like I said, I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, tops? When I went through the line, the young guy working the register said to me, “What are you going to do? Take this home and eat it with a big cake?” Somebody nearby said something to him, like his name, or “hey,” or whatever the mid-‘80s version of “not cool” would have been. And he shrugged, and he handed it to me, and he said, “What? That’s what they do.” Like I said, I was maybe 12?

I can’t tell you how much bare-knuckled meanness there was, even for me, with incredibly kind people in my life. Really. Truly. And the conventional wisdom was, “This is allowed, because you are a bad person.” This didn’t come from my family (my parents always, always, always both told me they loved me and tried to help me be healthier), and it didn’t come from my friends; it came from everywhere. And there’s only so long you can hear that as a 9, 10, 12, 15-year-old before you cannot unbelieve it. And so the quest becomes: less. 

For a very long time, it seems to me, all of the advice from doctors and books was around the idea that I was self-indulgent – that I gave myself too much and didn’t know how to do without and didn’t know how to suffer. That I was a ball of self-pampering, you know? There is an extent to which the advice really was, “You can’t expect to treat yourself this nicely all the time; you have to learn to deny yourself.” Right?

How I wish I had called bullshit on this much, much, much earlier. I was so painfully far along in all of this when I realized that I denied myself the things I wanted all the time. I wanted to be normal, I wanted boys to like me, I wanted to be comfortable, I wanted to buy clothes where everybody else did – I went without my whole life. And when they offered me a solution that was pure, distilled, unaltered self-denial, when they let me not eat for 12 weeks, just like Oprah, I was great at that. I killed at that. It was performative self-discipline, and I killed it, and I wasn’t even 18. 

But when it wasn’t that, what it became was a suggestion that you drain all the joy and all the pleasure out of food. All those exchange plans, like Weight Watchers was then, relied on eating off exact food lists, so they’d recommend things like a poached egg on dry white-bread toast with an orange on the side. 

Have you ever actually eaten a poached egg on dry white-bread toast other than when you were perhaps recovering from something gastrointestinal? Or a plain skinless chicken breast? I still remember you could have six Saltines instead of a piece of bread, but you could not have a Ritz cracker, presumably for the rest of your life. There is a very real way in which this was a version of [social/cultural] prison food, birthed from the notion that what was terrible for people like me was liking to eat, and if you could only make us dislike it or not care about it, that was the battle. Remember “eat to live, don’t live to eat”? First of all, “eat to live” sounds like what you do on Survivor after you lick water off your tent. And I never lived to eat, but if a person is living to eat, it seems to me the problem isn’t what they’re eating – it’s how they’re living. I mean, can you imagine? “Your only joy comes from food, and this is making you fat, so the obvious solution is to stop getting joy from food so you’re not fat.” There is another problem, Magnet Slogan, and it’s in your first independent clause, so come back to me when you get it. 

Listen to me, because this is the most important thing I’m going to tell you about myself and this whole thing: if I gotta eat several times every day for the rest of my life, you’re fucking right I’m going to like it. I take nothing away from people for whom incredibly rigid plans are effective or lifesaving, because nothing is true for everyone. But for me, learning joylessness and drudgery surrounding a daily habit – or joylessness and drudgery interrupted by WHEEEEE TODAY I GET A COOKIE – ain’t happening. That’s not me, and it will never work. 

You know what’s been working in the last couple months? 

(You’re going to love this, because it’s super ironic.)

Doing a lot more for myself. I sleep more. I get my nails done. I buy clothes I like. I get my hair cut at a better place. I keep my house neat. Because at some point, it occurred to me that what all the things I struggled with – I was disorganized, I didn’t eat well, I didn’t take care of myself, I felt slob-like – came from the fact that I put no energy into anything if the main beneficiary was myself. I have done some wackadoo things for my friends and my family, but I could barely be arsed to make myself breakfast, because who cares? Only me.  

Okay, we’re going to talk about all this more, but for now, here’s what I did. Measurements are approximate, obviously. What is this, Paris, France? 

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A CHEF. THIS IS LITERALLY A LITTLE STORY CALLED 'WHAT I DID’ ONLY IN RECIPE FORMAT. 

Snow Day Sweet Potato Hash: What I Did

1 thick slice of bacon
1 c. diced sweet potato
¼ c. diced onion
a tablespoon or so of red/yellow/orange bell pepper, diced small
about a quarter of a Granny Smith apple, diced pretty small
a healthy sprinkle of garam masala
½ t. canola oil
salt and pepper
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 400. Put the bacon on some foil on a sheet pan (it might make sense to make more than one slice, since you’re doing it). Stick it in there about 25 minutes before you want to eat breakfast; you’ll cook it for about 20. 

When the bacon has about five minutes to go (when it’s been in for about 15), cut up the onion and pepper and apple, and put the sweet potato in the microwave until it’s quite soft. (This took my microwave a total of three minutes. Obviously if you like a little more crunch, you can cook it less. This is verrrrrry unscientific.) Get the egg-poaching water, enough to cover or just about cover your egg, up to a bare simmer (just the bubbles coming up off the bottom). Around this time, you can pull out the bacon and drain it on a paper towel. Take about a half-teaspoon of bacon fat, or whatever you have, and put it in a little skillet. Add about a half-teaspoon of canola oil. Saute your onion-apple-pepper business for a couple of minutes, sprinkling it with some garam masala and salt and pepper.

Somewhere around here, slide the egg into the water (you’ve seen this done, right? out of a little bowl so it doesn’t spread out too much?). I went back at this point and put the sweet potato in the hash and scooted it around for a while while the egg cooked, and I crumbled up the bacon into it. I poached my egg for about four minutes, spooning the water over it a couple of times along the way to make sure the very top got done. Then the hash goes in a bowl and the egg goes on top.