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Julia, Kim, CookFight, and The Last of the Tomatillos (in More Ways than One)

Posted Oct 21 2012 8:52am
So, caramelizing corn kernels in my frying pan sizzled while I stirred with a wooden spoon. I clutched the phone with my other hand and chatted with my friend Kathy about our Stanford University Venture Lab online creativity course, which has us assigned randomly to different teams (45,000 students around the world are taking this course right now). Suddenly, things escalated, corn started exploding and shooting all over the walls, floor, and me, and I simply could not stop laughing. The noise was so loud (from the corn, my laughing, and now Kathy's) that I could barely communicate that I needed to get off the phone, like, now. My younger daughter came running into the kitchen and joined this crazy, funny, innocent-Thursday-gone-wild scene.  

See short video here
With the corn now off the heat, I called Kathy back and told her, "You know what? The CookFight cookbook authors have this recipe in the wrong chapter. It's in the Thanksgiving section, but it should be in the Comfort Food section. There is literally no way someone feeling bad could make this recipe and not have a complete mood change by the end!" (I hesitate to show you this video because, in my moments of craziness, I refer to one of the CookFight authors by the wrong name, and so, my deepest apologies, but I think you'll enjoy it.) 

Now, three days later, my sides still hurt but the mint-specked corn dish is gone. Served for dinner. Packed in lunch boxes. Gobbled up, along with the scalloped tomatoes, glazed carrots, pecan cheese crisps, corn fritters, roasted cauliflower with lemon brown butter and sage salt (which tasted like lobster to me, if you can even imagine), fried chick peas with lime (outrageously good), chocolate chiffon cake, those fancy lacy cookies that you get in the kinds of little New York neighborhood bakeries where they used to wrap white boxes with red and white string so you couldn't break into them on the way to your grandmother's house in New Jersey (not that I'm talking about me here, or anything), and many more extraordinary delectables.

I didn't mean to spend the entire week cooking recipes from this soon-to-be-released book by New York Times writer Julia Moskin and New York Times Atlanta Bureau Chief Kim Severson. I simply asked for a review copy of the book, and then, as they say (or I say, usually about gardening), I fell down the rabbit hole. It started when I opened the package. The heft of it reminded me viscerally of . . . . my Jamie. You know about me and my Jamie.  I wrote about our relationship here and here .  I (and I still can't believe this) donated my Jamie. And there is not a single day that has passed since then when I have not missed my Jamie.  In fact, I was at a bookstore recently and I looked up and there he was, propped up on a shelf, looking at me. I actually felt my heart race, kind of like that time I ran into my childhood boyfriend, Donald, at Penn Station when we were in our 20s.  

So this book was off to a good start with heft. And then it knocked me off my feet with heart. These two very different women worked together at The New York Times in New York City and quickly established one of those intense office friendships, like I had with Brendan at MetLife, or Katherine and Tom at USA TODAY, or Brad, Chris, Terry, and John at Turner Broadcasting, or Amy, Brenda, Julie, Janet, and Mindy at UPS.  (Hi, everyone! Miss you every day, just like my Jamie!) Having worked alone in my home office for the last 17 years, I found myself really missing that everyday-work-buddy stuff while I read the book (the book chapters are set up as themed challenges between the two authors). The stories are sweet, funny, and honest (expect book reviewers to latch on to Frank Bruni's mention in the Foreword of Julia having grace and Kim having gusto, although how Kim interprets the "Fancy" challenge is about as graceful a gesture as I've ever heard, and my goodness, that Julia can cook with gusto)The photos are engaging (I am so making those chanterelle and pear bread stuffing muffins for Thanksgiving this year).  The recipes are completely approachable, and told like a friend would tell you on the phone--when Julia says to heat the oil until it ripples, by God, it ripples, and when Kim warns you that the cayenne pepper will make you cough, well, yes, indeed, you do cough.  

Most of the recipes are less than a page long, with extremely short lists of ingredients that are mostly already in my pantry or growing in my garden. In fact, my shopping trip was surprising quick and inexpensive (although I couldn't find tangerines for the tangerine/vanilla floats and I forgot to get pasteurized whole milk for the ricotta--this isn't specified in the recipe but I know from previous cheese-making experiences that the commonly-sold ultra-pasteurized organic milk simply will not work, at least not with the mozzarella that I had made). What's more, some of the recipes took less than five minutes to make (seriously). And, although there is a "Vegetarian" challenge chapter, the veg-friendly recipes abound through the book (in fact, I, a vegetarian, haven't cooked any from the veg chapter yet, although they look terrific). And although there is a "Farmer's Market" challenge, CookFight is sprinkled with seasonality from beginning to end and provided me with the opportunity to feature mint, jalapenos, tomatoes, sage, and even my bumper crop of tomatillos.

Ah, the tomatillo story . . . . well, yes, I guess that's why I cooked all week. It started with the tomatillos on Monday.  I made Kim's tomatillo salsa right before my kids got home from school. My older daughter, a high school senior, hadn't been home in the afternoon in months as she is heavily involved in theater (as is my younger daughter) and was just in another play. This week was her first week without a rehearsal commitment. Long-time readers of FoodShed Planet or those who've read my book will know this is the girl with the chartreuse driving shoes in Teen Learning to Drive. Mom Learning to Meditate , the one from One Stitch, One Step, at a Time , and the one whom I joined for the lacrosse toss in the garden where the smell of cilantro lingered on my hands ( that little tiny story always gets me).

Anyway, so the girls come home and they suck down the tomatillo salsa with chips and by itself, and they proclaim it a hit. They tell me to make it again soon but I say that all our tomatillos are now gone so we most likely won't have this again until next year at this time. And then we realize. Next year at this time, my older daughter will not be here. 

And then I realize, to myself. But she is here now, this week.

And so I cooked. And just about every day this week, my girls were here with me at a time of day they usually aren't anymore. I placed each dish on the kitchen table as it came out of the oven or off the stove, no candles lit or table set for dinner as in the past. The sun streamed in, and we ate and talked and laughed. And Julia and Kim gave me gift after gift after gift--not just the time I had with my daughters but the chance to witness them having such special time with each other.

I called Kim on Friday and I shared some of this with her as she was walking from her home to soccer practice for her young daughter, juggling motherhood and work and life the way we all seem to be doing, wondering if technology hurts us (making us available 24/7) or helps us (enabling us to go to soccer practices mid-afternoon). Kim has been in Atlanta for two years now and I asked her what surprised her about the South and what she would miss if she left, and she answered, "I was surprised how little I knew about the South, and how there are layers and layers of complexity here. And I would miss the people. The spirit of the people.  The soul."

I thought of my girls, our hands in those pans, our moments together fleeting, this week now a precious shared memory. I thought of the complexity of meaning food has held for us over the years, the simplicity with which Julia and Kim (both mothers, like me) share their most meaningful family favorites, and the stories that elevate them to classics in their excellent new book CookFight. I thought of next year, when the leaves once again change color and my Southern-born older daughter is elsewhere, and how much we will miss her, her spirit, her soul. And I thought of Kim's simple words on the phone when she had to switch from the land line to the cell phone so she could transition from work duty to mom duty.

"You know how it is" she said. "You know."

And that's the thing about CookFight (release date: October 30--purchase it here ). Julia and Kim know. And, in all honesty, I cannot imagine anyone not finding something (or, most likely, many things) to love about this book--whether it's a recipe that will make you laugh out loud, a fancy technique finally explained in a way that makes you say, "now I get that," a story that will grip you with its (yes, Frank) grace or gusto, or make you want to bake date nut bread in saved coffee cans and ship like a piece of your heart to family or friends (such as beloved former co-workers--John, one's coming when you least expect it) or even a daughter far away (I'll start collecting coffee cans now). If nothing else, you want (trust me) the simple, magical recipe for what we've been calling "the puffy cheesy things" but which Julia calls cheddar gougeres (I know there's an accent on that but am having trouble adding it--apologies again), and about which Kim commented to me, "People always love puffy cheese things, in my experience." 

For days now, I've been finding corn kernels in odd places in my kitchen, and the house smells like heaven, and there are many more recipes from CookFight I'd like to make. But auditions for the next plays are coming up for both my daughters, and my global creativity team's project is due Tuesday. And time, like cookies, continues to disappear in record speed.

But at least I'm finally okay about my Jamie now.

(I think.)

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