I had plans

I had plans to come here today to talk about chocolate cake. Nigel Slater’s chocolate cake, to be exact, made with good butter and sweet, steamed beets. I was also going to tell you about how I’ve grown suspicious of desserts that include things like beets or avocados or sweet potatoes, because the descriptions of said recipes usually include words like “guilt-free” and “safe,” and these are words and ways of thinking that I don’t like hearing or using when it comes to food. However, when David Leibovitz does it because Nigel Slater did it, my suspicions soften and turn trusting, and I make a plan to make a cake.

Ahhh, but then my plan to make the cake three(!) Mondays ago, turned into another plan to make the cake three Tuesdays ago, and, well, seeing how three-plus weeks have passed since making said plan, you know how that turned out. It’s not that I don’t want to make Nigel’s cake. I want to make most things Nigel writes about, and have not been disappointed in my endeavors. No, it’s more true that I haven’t found the right opportunity to bake, and putting unnecessary pressure on myself is bad for me. So instead I resort to splitting one or two of the French chocolates our sweet customer, Myelene, brought back for us from Paris, and, well, that’s not terrible. So the chocolate cake gets put on hold until the next day (and then the next week), and I spend the evening doing whatever pleases me, which is usually reading or watching Six Feet Under or lingering around the dinner table with Jamie or watching movies with my brothers, like the old days.

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Right now, I want to eat and make foods that require as little fuss as possible. And considering the story I just told you about the cake, you’d be right in assuming that I don’t really want to do a whole lot of making. But, there are only so many times we can eat from our food establishment’s menu before things become a little uninspiring and boring.

So a few dinners ago, while taking stock of available ingredients on hand for what would be our dinner, I set out to eat something not boring. Thirty minutes later, I had what I needed for a sort-of(?) Niçoise salad. I don’t remember when I first learned of a Niçoise salad. But seeing that, as it currently stands, my cooking ideas come from only a small handful of cooks who write, I didn’t have to look far to find a direction for what I had to work with, which was: sardines, capers, eggs, mixed farm greens, red onion, and black olives.

In my search for wisdom from some of my tried-and-trues, I came across a recipe of Molly’s for deviled eggs, which called for frying capers, and oh yes, that sounds great, I’ll do that, but, ohhh shoot!, I don’t have any tomatoes or green beans, Nigel, but, eh, I’ll use them next time. While the eggs were hardening, I pan-fried the sardines until the skin was brown and crispy, and the fat was aggressively popping out of the pan at me. Once those were out of the pan, I threw in the capers — they were much less dramatic I should add — and let them sizzle around until they popped open.

Next, I peeled the eggs, which might have been less frustrating if they were cooler, and after that I whisked together a quick vinaigrette that came from Nigel’s nicoise recipe, only I used apple cider vinegar instead of red-wine vinegar because it’s all I had. And when we sat down to eat this salad, we were very pleased with it’s simplicity and it’s elegance. It was a very good salad that required very little of me, which means it was a very, very good salad by this home’s definition.

I was going to take a picture of our plates, but they weren’t much to look at, and I highly doubt they would’ve motivated you to run to the kitchen to make your own. But, then again, I’ve grown a little suspicious of recipes that come with perfectly staged images — if I actually make the recipe, I usually end up disappointed in the outcome. It’s usually the plain, understated images that get my attention and favor. Oh look! I shared a suspicion with you after all. We’ve come full circle.

A Sort-of Niçosie Salad

  • 2 cans sardines
  • 3-4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 2 tablespoon capers
  • a few handfuls of leafy greens
  • black olives
  • red onion
  • tomatoes, if you have them

For the dressing:

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar (apple-cider vinegar works fine, too)
  • 1/2-1 tbsp Dijon mustard (if you like the kick of mustard, add 1 tbsp)
  • 2 small cloves of garlic — crushed and finely chopped
  • sea salt

Start by hard-boiling the eggs. Put them in a single layer in a large pot. Cover the eggs with cold water by an inch or so, then place the pot over medium-high heat. Let it come to a boil, then immediately cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Let the eggs sit for 12 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Next, pan-fry your sardines. I usually use one of two brands of sardines: Wild Planet Wild Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; or Crown Prince Natural Wild Caught Brisling Sardines, also in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Split the fish and remove any bones. Put about half of the olive oil from one can of sardines into a skillet and warm it over medium heat. When it’s warm and glides easily around the pan, add the sardines. If you have a lid or screen to put over the skillet, you might have it near by — the sardines pop aggressively with heat. Sear each side of the sardines for 2-3 minutes. Remove to a paper towel.

Wipe out your skillet and add a splash of olive oil. (I used fresh olive oil to fry the capers, but don’t see why you couldn’t use the oil from the sardines?) Let it warm over medium-high heat. When it slides easily around the pan, add the capers — you want them to sizzle. Fry, shaking the capers around a few times, until they split open. This will only take a couple of minutes, and you’ll want to watch them so that they don’t brown. Once they’re ready, drain them on to a paper towel.

Make the dressing by whisking the vinegar and mustard together with the garlic and a three-finger pinch of sea salt. Then, whisk in the oil. Taste and adjust to your tastes.

By this point, the eggs should be sufficiently cool enough to peel. So peel them then cut them in half, whichever direction you please — horizontally or vertically.

Fill a couple of bowls with a heaping handful of greens, then add your toppings — sardines, eggs, olives, etc. Toss gently with the vinaigrette and serve.

Learning and experiencing

Hello from Oklahoma City, where twenty one days have passed since I left the Sitka Arts & Science Festival which was held on the historic Sheldon Jackson Campus in Sitka, Alaska, put on by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Prior to visiting the town, I heard several mentions of Sitka being the town in which parts of the movie The Proposal was filmed. Now that I’ve come and gone, ha-hoooo boyyyy, is it so much more than that.

On departure day, I got up before 4am to leave for the airport with the other early-morning flight catchers. Hesitant, confused, and not ready to leave, I spent the night in a sort of half-sleep. I think part of me wanted to stay awake to experience every last minute I had left. I flicked on the small lamp that sat on the edge of my bedside table and noticed someone had slipped a note under my door. It was from Lisa, a woman from California who was in the Craft of Memoir class, the class that took me to Sitka, taught by Molly Wizenberg — a writer whose voice shapes me…and helps me understand feelings for which I don’t always have the words. I ran into Lisa on arrival day and felt an instant liking for her. A week or so ago, I discovered her Instagram profile and the reason for my inner liking. Her bio read WWLGD: What would Lorelei Gilmore Do? (One more!) Ha-hooo boyyyy Lisa, were we were supposed to meet.

I arrived in Sitka on July 16, the shared birthday of my husband and cousin Reed. There was only a handful of us at the airport and our luggage rode the carousel out quickly. I was taken to the campus in a long, dusty, black suburban, owned by a volunteer named Jennifer — the check engine light was on.

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Sitka is located on Baranof Island, a collection of, among other things, rocks made up of mostly grey wacke (pronounced wacky). “Loooots of grey wacke”, Yvonne of Sitka told me over lunch on the last day of camp. Her hair is dyed a shiny, vibrant purple, and she bought the kit to make it that way at Harry Race Pharmacy, she told me (which is a pharmacy I visited a few times during my stay in Sitka for my standard ice-cream/chocolate fix). “If it’s not called Very Berry, it’s something like that. I just picked the deepest purple I could find. They’ve got all kinds of wacky colors!” She spent the week learning about the forces that have shaped the island with Stanford’s Rob Dunbar, a man who spends a lot of time en route to and in Antarctica, among other places, on a boat that costs $200,000 a day to run (did I hear that right, SASF friends?!). He knows a lot about the place in which we gathered, shared it willingly, and frequently brought out his drone to capture all of our adventures.

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When we got to Sheldon Jackson, we were met inside the entrance of North Pacific Hall by two volunteers named Marvin and Claudia; two people I had the pleasure of seeing each day of camp. Claudia wore her hair the same way throughout the week: in pig tails, the right pony tail often a liiiittle higher than the left. Her hair is white with pale-gold undertones that were especially prominent when we crossed paths between places, which seemed to happen a lot. It was colder in Sitka — colder than the summer months I knew from growing up in Anchorage — and while I had read about this in preparation for my trip, I still didn’t have enough clothing. Early in the week, I decided to make a trip to the local thrift shop for a hoodie (aka my new writing jacket). With the help of Taylor, a camp intern who was also in my class, I found Sitka White Elephant Shop and purchased a hot pink Faded Glory hoodie for $4.00. It was Claudia who showed me to the washing machines which were located in the dark, damp basement of North Pacific Hall. It was also Claudia who sneaked my new pink hoodie into the load of towels she was washing after we failed to find the lights in said basement. “It’s probably been washed a few times, so it probably won’t stain the towels pink.” Thanks for that, Claudia.

I was up most days before 5am, charged with excitement and new thoughts and words and sentences; and also an odd familiarity. We spent our mornings exploring the craft that had attracted us there: paper cutting with Nikki McClure, who inspired me when she didn’t mean to; photography with Clark Mishear; geography/geology with Rob; and Molly’s class. The afternoons were a time for exploring, noticing, and learning the names of things. At night, most of us had dinner together in Sweetland Hall, then heard presentations from the visiting faculty members. After the day’s schedule was complete, some would gather on the front porch of North Pacific Hall, reading, talking, and half-watching Nikki’s son and his friend goof around (not on their phones!). Others would head upstairs to the common room, for reading, more watching, picture taking, or, as the more ambitious and attentive of the group undertook, color-coordinating the bookshelves. I mostly lavished the evenings in my room — full from a day of memories, unreserved expression, and chocolate-peanut butter milkshakes. The Sitka Music Festival took place at the same time as our camp, so the sound of students practicing their instruments was the official soundtrack of my evenings.

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People keep asking me about my trip and all I can do, at this point, is stumble through generic descriptions like lovely, fantastic, and special. A true description would likely be more than one is looking for because do you really want to know? Besides, I likely lost most of you at chocolate-peanut butter milkshake which is equally important, and, in my opinion, something about which you most definitely want to know.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Milkshake
On our second day of camp we spent the afternoon on a short hike that started at the Indian River Trail Head, learning about the plants and rocks and trees and such. A small group of us decided to head back at an early turnaround point, and it was then that I learned of the soda shop, which is right inside the entrance of Harry Race Pharmacy in downtown Sitka, that serves up classic milkshakes. If you know me, you know that I was 100% not opposed to hiking right past the campus and straight to said pharmacy, where I promptly ordered a small chocolate-peanut butter milkshake (and a medium one a couple of days later). When I got home, I set my sights on recreating the milkshake as quickly as possible, for another taste of all I’d had the pleasure of learning and experiencing.

The recipe that follows hardly needs explaining: Put a couple of cups of chocolate ice cream in a blender — or stainless steel container, if you’re using an immersion blender — with a small splash of milk, and a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter. If you want more peanut butter flavor, add more peanut butter. If you want a thicker shake, add more ice cream and a little less milk. On my first attempt at making this shake, I used a Vitamix blender and will not do that again. It has a bit too much power and gave me a shake that was too thin for my liking. Next time, I’ll try making it using an immersion blender. Also, regarding peanut butter: You can use crunchy or creamy peanut butter, whichever your heart desires. I used lightly roasted, crunchy peanut butter, because we had it, and enjoyed the little pieces of peanuts.

  • 2 cups of chocolate ice cream
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter

Serves one, 2-cup shake, or two, 1-cup shakes.