The Year of Magical Thinking Ginger Scallion Soup

by Cara Nicoletti on March 3, 2011

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I have gone back and forth about whether or not to post a recipe for this book, especially after having put up such a light-hearted post only two weeks ago. The last thing I want to do is seem glib about Didion’s tragedies, but as a person who has experienced loss firsthand I found that Didion’s discussion of what grief does to a person’s body—specifically what it does to the appetite—in The Year of Magical Thinking to be one of the most profoundly interesting and accurate pieces of food-writing that exists. I have been thinking about that chapter a lot recently. This past month has been one of the most challenging in recent memory for a variety of reasons, and has left me seeking solace both in recipes that comfort me and in authors whose words I cherish. Joan Didion holds a special place in my heart as an author who pulled me out of a particularly deep rut and I’ve found myself turning to her writings lately and pulling every bit of wisdom I can from them.

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Last May I visited California for the first time. After ten days of adventuring from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I arrived home to a rainy and unseasonably cold New York, still smelling like In-n-Out Burger and thoroughly depressed. After a particularly difficult first day back, in which I bought $60 worth of cheese from an old man at the farmers market because I felt badly for him, and cried at a wooden flute rendition of Chariots of Fire playing in a nail salon, I crawled into bed and wallowed for almost 36 hours. Just when I thought nothing could pull me out of the “am-I-still-in-love-with-New-York” pity hole I had buried myself in, I noticed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem sitting on my bedside table. I had meant to pack it to read on my trip but had forgotten, and there it sat, still unread and giving off that wonderful new book smell. I cracked it open and read: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country” (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream).  For the next four hours, as the light outside of my apartment window went from yellow to orange to blue to black, I devoured every essay. By the time I got to Goodbye to All That and read the first paragraph I was crying like I hadn’t cried in years.

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It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

When I finished I felt somehow fortified. I got out of bed and took a nighttime bike ride and smelled the early springtime smells of Brooklyn—think grass, perogies, hot garbage, deli coffee—and rather than feeling, like Didion, that I should flee back to California, I felt my love of New York renewed.

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When our garlic cloves started sprouting, my sister planted them with our money tree (lotta good that’s been) to grow bulbs. The shoots that grow above the soil are just as deliciously garlicky as the cloves, I used them in my soup!

The next day I went and bought every book of Didion’s I could find at the Strand and spent the rest of the week reading them. When I got to The Year of Magical Thinking I had to take a solid two weeks to get through it.

A little while after Didion’s husband dies she suddenly asks herself “Had I eaten?” (30).  This question comes with the realization that “if I thought of food…I would throw up” (30). In chapter four Didion quotes from the chapter entitled “Funerals” in Emily Post’s book of etiquette published in 1922, in which Mrs. Post talks about the way food should be presented to the grieving. Mourners should be offered “very little food: tea, coffee, bouillon, a little thin toast, a poached egg. Milk but only heated milk; Cold milk is bad for someone who is already over-chilled.” Stress is placed on the fact that food should be offered in very small portions, “for although stomachs may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order.” One should present the grieving with food “without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need.” Didion goes on to say:

There is something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions, (“changes in the endocrine, immune, autonomic nervous, and cardiovascular systems) later catalogued by the Institute of Medicine….[N]othing in my body was working as it should. Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view…In the end Emily post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of a friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat (60-63).

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Recently, when a deadly mixture of sleepless nights, stress and sadness had my body all out of whack I remembered this chapter. I couldn’t quite stomach the thought of congee, it seemed too heavy and dense, but I found myself craving a huge bowl of ginger scallion soup. I had no recipe but knew exactly what I wanted it to taste like, and as I stood over the steaming pot, adding things and taking them out, tasting and re-tasting and writing down each adjustment, I finally started to feel like myself again.

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The Year of Magical Thinking Ginger Scallion Soup

Ingredients:

  • 4.5 quarts water
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 2 chicken breasts—bone-in no skin
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • 14 chopped scallions-white bulb removed, reserve two to chop for garnish
  • 4 inch piece of ginger peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon (slice and add both juices and rind to pot)
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 8 tsp white vinegar
  • 8 tsp soy sauce
  • 6 beaten eggs

Noodles or rice for serving

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DIRECTIONS:

Add all of the ingredients besides the eggs together in a stock pot. Let them boil for 30-40 minutes (longer if you can bear it). Strain broth into a bowl and removed chicken from strainer. Pick chicken off of the bones and break into small pieces, then add back to the stock pot. Put burner on medium and take your bowl of beaten eggs. Stir constantly and add eggs in a slow stream, they will start to cook and rise up to the top. Garnish with remaining scallions and pour over rice or noodles to serve.

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NOTE: I don’t like too much ginger, I think it starts to taste medicinal, but if you want your soup to taste more gingery peel and roughly chop the ginger then place it in a food-processor with 1 of the quarts of water that is going into the stock pot. Grind to make a ginger slurry and add that to the soup. You will need a fine strainer to get it all out of the broth.

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Twilight Blood Orange Panna Cotta

by Cara Nicoletti on February 14, 2011

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I don’t care what anyone says, even if you aren’t in love Valentine’s day is fun. It’s cheesy and it’s commercial but what’s so bad about eating lots of chocolate and celebrating love?—any kind of love! Know what else is cheesy and fun? The Twilight saga. I’m a firm believer in not criticizing or ridiculing something unless I myself have formed a first-hand opinion of it, so when everyone started talking about (and making fun of) these novels and I found myself unable to intelligently add to the conversation, I went out and bought all four.

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Four days later I emerged from my room—starving, dazed, and feeling a little bit like I had just been punched in the brain, heart, and gut repeatedly for 96 hours. And now that I can give an informed opinion here it is: these books are achingly romantic, atrociously written, and people…they are weird. The entire premise of the novels is that these two characters, Edward and Bella, are more attracted to each other than any two beings have ever been in the history of the universe, but they can’t physically consummate their relationship because Bella smells so delicious to Edward that there is a chance he will literally tear her apart and drink her blood if he loses control.

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Explaining why he recoiled from her the first day they met, Edward tells Bella:

“To me, it was like you were some kind of demon, summoned straight from my own personal hell to ruin me. The fragrance coming off your skin…I thought it would make me deranged that first day. In that one hour, I thought of a hundred different ways to lure you from the room with me, to get you alone” (273).

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All of this sex-before-marriage-leading-to-physical-destruction-and-eternal-damnation is especially poignant when you think about the fact that the author, Stephanie Myer, is a devout Mormon.

For a series that mentions food all of maybe five times, these books are wrought with hunger. My sisters and I read them together and for all of the talk of werewolves and vampires, mind-reading and glittering skin, the thing that we all had the hardest time wrapping our minds around was how good Bella possibly could have smelled. We spent more time than I care to admit theorizing about what her skin could have smelled like to torture this poor vampire so much that he had to flee to Alaska just to escape the scent. Ande decided on french fries, Gemma said warm chocolate cupcakes, and I thought probably sticky toffee pudding or hot sourdough bread. In the following (hilarious) exchange Edward tries to describe his hunger for Bella using first food, then alcoholism and narcotics addiction as examples.

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“You know how everyone enjoys different flavors?” he began. “Some people love chocolate ice cream, others prefer strawberry?”

I nodded.

“Sorry about the food analogy—I couldn’t think of another way to explain.”

I smiled. He smiled ruefully back.

“You see, every person smells different, has a different essence. If you locked an alcoholic in a room full of stale beer, he’d gladly drink it. But he could resist, if he wished to, if he were a recovering alcoholic. Now lets say you placed in that room a glass of hundred-year-old-brandy, the rarest, finest cognac—and filled the room with its warm aroma—how do you think he would fare then?”

We sat silently, looking into each other’s eyes—trying to read each other’s thoughts.

He broke the silence first.

“Maybe that’s not the right comparison. Maybe it would be too easy to turn down the brandy. Perhaps I should have made our alcoholic a heroin addict instead.”

“So what you’re saying is, I’m your brand of heroin?” I teased, trying to lighten the mood.

He smiled swiftly, seeming to appreciate my effort.

“Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin…I did my very best to stay as far from you as possible. And every day the perfume of your skin, your breath, your hair…it hit me as hard as the very first day.” (273)

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Gemma is going to hate this.

Because blood is the main cause of hunger throughout this novel I got obsessed with finding blood-related recipes to post here. I couldn’t bring myself to give you a recipe for blood pudding, or something involving blood sausage, so when I remembered that it’s blood orange season I could hardly contain my excitement. There are so many wonderful and delicious ways to use blood oranges–both sweet and savory–but this blood orange panna cotta is perfect for Valentine’s Day. Not only is it easy to make, it’s scrumptious, fun to eat, and bright pink to boot!

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Blood Orange Panna Cotta
Makes 4
INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder
  • 3 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 cup fresh blood orange juice (about 6 blood oranges if they’re small like mine were)
  • 1 cup heavy cream (buy more than 8 oz so you can whip the rest)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon good vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk

DIRECTIONS:

Squeeze blood oranges, reserving half of one for garnish. Set aside.

In a bowl, sprinkle gelatin over cold water and set aside for about five minutes to form.

Pour blood orange juice into a saucepan and bring to a low boil until the liquid is reduced by about half—7-10 minutes. Pour the reduction into a bowl and allow it to cool.

Pour cream and sugar into a sauce pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer (not a full boil!). In the meantime, put hardened gelatin into a saucepan or microwave and heat until melted. Whisk gelatin and vanilla into simmering cream until fully incorporated and pour mixture into a metal bowl over an ice bath, stirring constantly until cool to touch. Whisk in buttermilk and blood orange juice and transfer to four ramekins (or teacups, in my case). Let set at least 2 hours but ideally more like 12-24.

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When you’re ready to plate the panna cottas it helps to let them sit in a shallow dish of warm water first to help the edges pull away from the ramekin. You may have to cut around the top edges a bit and guide it out with a knife.

Whip remaining cream and add sugar to taste. Top with slices from remaining half blood orange.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! TEAM JACOB!

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Gone with the Wind Ratatouille Tart

by Cara Nicoletti on November 11, 2010

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As an eighth-grader reading Gone with the Wind, I loved the quippy dialogue, the ridiculous characters, and the mind-bending melodrama. But mostly, mostly I loved the food—skillet-baked cornbread, “yams covered with butter,” piles of “buckwheat cakes dripping syrup,” thick slices of ham “swimming in gravy.” What had me thinking for days, though, was the scene in which Scarlett, wretched with hunger and Tara smoldering around her, goes to the field to gather withered vegetables for dinner.

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Ignore the red pepper, I decided to.

Her search was rewarded but she was too tired even to feel pleasure at the sight of turnips and cabbages, wilted for want of water but still standing, and straggling butter beans and snap beans, yellowing but edible. She sat down in the furrows and dug into the earth with hands that shook, filling her basket slowly. There would be a good meal at Tara tonight, in spite of the lack of side meat to boil with the vegetables. (Chapter 25)

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Last week, faced with a refrigerator full of rapidly wrinkling farmers market veggies I was reminded of this scene.What did Scarlett do with those wilted turnips and cabbages, those yellowing snap beans?  The best solution I know for vegetables on their way out is a big, hearty ratatouille. Perhaps because it is often used as a solution for avoiding waste ratatouille can easily become a mushy, depressing side-dish rather than a delicious and comforting main course.

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To avoid this I turned my ratatouille into a tart, giving it a crispy cornmeal crust as a nod to skillet-baked cornbread and adding feta cheese and a tart homemade tomato sauce.   Using the crust and sauce as a base the veggies in this recipe could easily be swapped out for whatever vegetables you need to use up, and the feta could be changed to any soft cheese you prefer.

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Gone With the Wind Ratatouille Tart

Serves 3 very hungry girls (more like 5 if you aren’t as piggish and have a side-dish)

Adapted liberally from Ellie Krieger

Vegetables:

  • 1 smallish ripe eggplant (you can tell an eggplant is ripe if you press your thumb to it and it leaves an indent before springing back)
  • 1 yellow zucchini
  • 1 green zucchini
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

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Directions:

Before making the crust and the tomato sauce slice vegetables as thin as you can and lay them on a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and season with salt. Roast at 350 for about 20 minutes or until they are just beginning to get tender (I didn’t pre-roast the veggies, but I would next time. They can roast while you make the crust and the sauce which makes for more evenly roasted vegetables and a quicker cooking time once the whole thing goes into the oven). Meanwhile, make the crust and the sauce:

Cornmeal crust:

  • 2/3 cup yellow corn flour (believe it or not, no grocery stores in Brooklyn carried cornmeal! if you can find it, use it, but if not corn flour makes for a softer, more crumbly, but still delicious crust)
  • 1/3 cup whole-grain pastry flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons water

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Directions:

Mix together corn flour and whole wheat pastry flour in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add butter and canola oil and pulse until mixture resembles small pebbles. Add water and pulse until dough forms. Remove dough and press it into a 9″ tart or pie pan. Cover with tinfoil and weigh down with pie weights or uncooked rice and cook at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

Tomato Sauce:

  • 1 28 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano work best if you can find them)
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons hot pepper or hot sauce (optional)

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Directions:

Pour tomatoes into a sauce pan and using clean hands squeeze them until they resemble a fine pulp. Cut butter into big pieces  (about 4) and add them into the sauce. Slice and peel the onion and add that in along with two whole peeled garlic cloves and the hot pepper (if you’re using it). Let all the ingredients simmer until the onion halves are wilted (about 30 minutes), stirring occasionally. Remove the onion and garlic cloves from the sauce.

Assembly:

Spoon tomato sauce into the crust and cover liberally with feta cheese. Take veggies out of the oven and once they are cool enough to handle arrange them in layers on top of the cheese. Bake at 350 for another 20-30 minutes.

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