Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: January, 2012

Turn Around, Bright Eyes

by lyzpfister

“But you have a Kochgefühl,” – a feel for the kitchen – Sylvia says to me when I tell her I don’t think I’ll ever be as good of a cook as my mother.

I’ve been saying things like this a lot lately, loosing the leash of my inner Thomas. Will I ever be a great writer? Should I even be writing? Are my dreams too outlandish? Should I just settle for some mildly literary career – if I can even find a job to begin with? Am I interesting enough? Am I pretty enough? Do I blink too much?

It’s exhausting, to doubt this much.

I’d been speaking with a friend recently about job searching and how incredibly despondent it makes us – the longer we look, the more depressed we are, and the more despondent, depressed, and desperate we are, the less likely we’ll be to get a job. Cruel, cruel circle. What we need is a turnaround. The German word for this is Wende, a word I find incredibly beautiful. It floats, a gentle turn, like a child tucking into his shoulder as he falls asleep. I stand by this interpretation of the word, even though in a historical context, the word Wende is fraught with the political and emotional turmoil following the fall of the Berlin wall.

But maybe that element isn’t too irrelevant to the metaphor I’m about to make. Because I think a Wende often begins with a sharp and incisive moment whose total import may or may not be apparent immediately. Sylvia’s comment was like an incision into the boggy doubt-world I’d been swirling around myself.

Of course I can cook. Maybe I’m not as accomplished as I might be someday, but I have a feeling for food, the way ingredients fit together. I am a cook.

Maybe I don’t have the accolades and collection of published pieces I’d like, but I have a feeling for words, the way they fit together. I am a writer.

The best adjective for doubt is insidious. It sneaks into the way you think about yourself, what you know about who you are, and wedges the heft of this knowledge apart like kudzu creeping up the side of a house. Breaking doubt apart is difficult, much like the removal of invasive plants. Though often, when you start to pull one strand, another cluster falls away.

The other night, I decided to invent a recipe, something I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve forgotten to rely on myself, my Kochgefühl to guide me in the kitchen. Sylvia had sent me home with a packet of Bulgarian seasoning, whose actual contents are unknown (lots of Bulgarian on the package, little, ahem, no English), but which is probably sharena sol (love the internet) – a blend of summer savory, thyme, basil, and lovage – along with her Wende-provoking comment.

I decided to make meatballs – something not usually in my repertoire. I sat in my little kitchen, chopping onions and garlic, guessing which herbs and spices to add, improvising a tomato sauce, deciding at the last minute to make a garlicky sauce with an almost forgotten open tub of sour cream, cilantro, garlic, and lemon.

As I watched this meal come together, I thought about doubt and its artificiality. Of course we have limitations. Of course we’re not flawless. But we each have unique sets of skills and capabilities defined by and defining a knowledge of who we are and what we need to be complete. What I do, I do because it is me. When we doubt, we undermine this knowledge of our selves.

In the days since my Bulgarian meatballs, I feel as though multiple doors on many fronts have been opened at the same time. Maybe Susan Miller saw it coming – but I prefer to believe that good things come, not to those who wait, but to those who cease to doubt. Open mind, open heart, or as Popeye said, “I yam who I yam.”

Bulgarian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Combine equal parts ground beef and ground pork with salt, pepper, paprika, Bulgarian seasoning*, cumin, 1 finely chopped onion, and 1 finely chopped clove of garlic. Mix thoroughly and thoughtfully and chill for 30 minutes. While meatball mixture chills, heat olive oil in a skillet. Sautee 1 chopped onion and 1 chopped clove of garlic until translucent. Add 1 can diced tomatoes, turn heat to low. Add splash of white wine, Bulgarian seasoning, cumin, sugar, salt, and pepper and simmer until flavors meld. Form meatball mixture into small patties or balls and cook over high heat in batches, with a small bit of oil in the pan to keep from sticking. When meatballs are cooked all the way through, nestle them into the tomato sauce. Serve over bulgur with a side of cucumber and tomato salad (cucumber, tomato, red pepper, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper) and a sour cream, garlic, lemon, and cilantro sauce which you’ve made at some point while the meatballs are chilling in the fridge and the tomato sauce is simmering on the stove.

*If you can’t find this in a store, I would suggest combining the following dried herbs to achieve a similar taste: oregano, parsley, mint, basil, thyme

A Few Things the Germans Do Better Than You (Unless You’re German, in Which Case, You Do Them Better Than Others)

by lyzpfister

And I don’t mean fast cars or being on time or fancy silver watches that also tell the temperature, your mood, and the relative velocity at which you’re moving through space.  I mean, the things that really matter.  Like food.  A short eat-list for you that I’ve compiled at the three-month mark:

1. Nutella with butter: No, Nutella with just bread is not enough.  I want my Nutella smeared thickly over a piece of bread sheened with butter. Daily decadence. (I’d like to amend this, actually, to butter with everything… butter with cheese, butter with salami and arugula, butter with salmon…)

2. Quark yogurt: Quark is a creamy curd cheese (which doesn’t sound all that good, does it…) used in a number of sweets.  Cheesecake, for instance, can be made with quark instead of cream cheese and the result is a much lighter cake, like custard pumped with air. But my favorite thing + quark is yogurt. My absolute favorite has peach-maracuja fruit on the bottom.

3. Apfelschorle: Apple juice is so boring. Seltzer is so boring. And yet, two boring things together is so unboring.

4. Mayonnaise on French fries: It’s called pommes rot-weiß, French fries served with a dollop of ketchup and mayonnaise, and it’s the only way to eat French fries, really.

5. Spätzle: I mean, they’re ugly noodles. Fat little fingers of doughy noodles pressed into a vat of boiling water and pulled out scant minutes later with just the right amount of chew.  And they’re endearingly ugly, especially peeking out from beneath a blanket of creamy, umami-laden mushroom gravy.

6. The Imbiss: The original food truck, albeit often without wheels.  Everywhere you go, stalls and carts serving snacks and small meals have people stuck to them like gnats on peaches.  For very little money, you can find anything from döner kebab to crepes to currywurst (a phenomenon I admittedly don’t understand) and eat it standing at tall, improvisational tables or carry it along with you as you walk.

7. Laugenweckle: Imagine soft pretzels squashed into roll form. Now imagine how amazing it is to have all the deliciousness of that buttery soft-pretzel taste spread over a larger surface area so you can smear even more delicious things on top of it.  Like butter and Nutella.

8. Potato salad: vinegar, broth, salt, pepper, chopped onion, oil.  Don’t you dare use the word mayonnaise.

9. Bakeries: Puddingbretzel, Beinenstich, Amerikaner – trays of delicious goodies like these (pretzel-shaped pastry filled with pudding, pastry filled with custard and baked with almonds and honey, and chocolate and vanilla iced cookies, respectively) are lined up next to ready-made sandwiches and bread baked fresh daily.  The quality of the bread in most of these bakeries is not always equally good – and very few do their own on-site baking, but I love that there are these bakeries on every corner, making buying pre-packaged bread irrelevant.  Better than the donut wall at the grocery store, and that’s saying something.

10. Affordable groceries: At the end of the day, it’s really nice to know that I can actually afford to buy nice things, like good cheese and beer, fruits, vegetables, freshly baked bread – even on just the money I make translating. Because if you can eat well, you can live well.

And though I wanted to end with a nice number like 10, there are just two more things I thought of after I wrote 1-10, and I couldn’t decide what to delete, so I decided simply to add. Bonus round.

10a. Schokomüsli – yes, that’s no false cognate.  Chocolate and müsli, together at last.  You remember müsli, that really healthy granola the Swiss love so much – raw oats, nuts, grains, and other variations thereof with fruit, yogurt, etc.? Yes, well, it’s all that healthy stuff – and chocolate. Brilliant.

10b. Glühwein – I had my first Glühwein of the year at Berlin’s Festival of Lights in late October. Walking around in the cold October air, looking at the Berlin’s big buildings lit up with bright lights, a hot cup of spiced wine was better than a pair of gloves. Of course, by the time the Christmas season ended, I wouldn’t have minded never having a cup of the stuff again. But the first one is always special.

DIY

by lyzpfister

I find it hard to wake up before eleven.

No.  That’s not true.  I find it hard to get out of bed before eleven.  I toss about on my lumpy mattress, attempting to free my sinuses from whatever invisible congestion has beset them from about 8:30 on, snatching fits of sleep, more like consecutive naps, until finally, at eleven, I insist to myself that I must roll out of bed.

It’s because I lack goals, I tell myself.  Joblessness does not suit me.  Instead of using the wide, white expanse of day to do something productive, like apply for jobs or submit stories and poems to literary journals, I fritter away the day doing things like… untagging myself from Facebook pictures.  Of course, it isn’t all waste.  I do often manage to do one good thing a day – one submission or application, putting together a portfolio – so there is a general swell in the direction I need to go.  But out of all of the hours in a day, how little I have to show for them.

I need a project, I said (as though applying for jobs were not a project enough).  And since I have been meaning to make liqueurs, have even had the jars from Ikea sitting ready, for months, I decided that liqueur-making would be just the thing.  And just for fun, I’d make a batch of homemade mustard too.

I first became fascinated with homemade liqueurs a few summers ago while visiting my grandfather on the Schwabian Alb in the south of Germany. There, nothing goes to waste, and the strawberries and rhubarb are turned into jams, the dense purple clusters of elderberries into juice, and bright red raspberries into liqueur.  I have been meaning to make my own since then, yet only once managed a successful bottling when I was overcome by the abundance of mulberries hanging on the tree outside my Brooklyn apartment.  And even then, one small sample glass and I’d shipped myself off to Germany.

At a Goodwill in Pennsylvania, I found a lovely old book called Liqueurs for All Occasions, a fancily scripted tome with aging amber-hued photographs whose opening recipe is for Absinthe. There are some really lovely recipes in the book, some quite intriguing like English walnut, or a cream marsala which calls for eggs. Some of them call for ingredients I’m not sure where to find – like fuller’s teasel (though how delightful), European mountain ash, or yellow plum seeds (under the vague impression these were poisonous).  But some sound completely reasonable, like lemon verbena or bergamont, mixed mint or pear.  I settled on two fresh, citrusy recipes to warm the winter months – basil schnapps and orange liqueur.

Oh, the joy of that smell.  Crushed basil dense like an Italian summer and sticky-bright citrus.  And how lovely to have a project – to press and zest oranges while an orange-flavored simple syrup bubbles on the stove or to watch bright green basil leaves swirl around in fragrant gin. And not to forget my mustard – pebbly brown and yellow seeds mixed with chopped fresh rosemary and thyme.

It’s not the most hands-on of projects.  I shake a jar once a day – and I have brown and yellow mustard seeds macerating in a bowl of vinegar – but there are dates in my calendar.  The day after tomorrow, there’ll be fresh mustard, next week I’ll make a simple syrup for my basil schnapps, and in four weeks there will be orange liqueur to brighten up bitter, gray February in Berlin.  I love this idea of long-term projects, this process of curating patience.  As my most adored Fergus Henderson says, “an ox tongue in brine, or a bucket of cabbage salting in the corner of your kitchen, what could be more reassuring?” (Which of course makes me think… perhaps something Fergus should be my next project? Blood cake? Lamb’s tongue?)

So who knows, maybe I’ll start making a liqueur a month (which means I’ll have to make another trip to Ikea for bottles…) or expand to canning, pickling, curing, preserving, opening my own larder in Berlin… or not.  I think I’ll keep the DIY projects to a manageable amount to keep me focused on the other things I need to do, not to mention give me something to look forward to, a reward for having been productive. Look, now I’ve done something today.

Orange Liqueur

4 large oranges (400 mL juice)
3 tbsp white sugar
200 mL water
700 mL white rum (40%)

Zest the peel from two of the oranges and divide in half. Press juice out of the oranges. In a small saucepan, heat sugar, water, and half of the orange zest to boiling, then reduce to low and simmer for five minutes until sugar is dissolved.  Allow syrup to cool.  When syrup is cool, add orange juice, stir, and the pass through a mesh sieve to remove pulp.  In a clean, air-tight bottle, blend other half of zest, juice/syrup mixture, and rum.  Seal the bottle and store in a dark place, shaking occasionally.  The liqueur is done after about 4 weeks.

The Tea and the Honey Pot

by lyzpfister

If loneliness had a shape, it would be a cup of tea cooling on a white table. It is important that the table be empty, except, perhaps, for an open jar of honey and a naked spoon, just as it is important that the tea be cooling. The things themselves, hot tea and a honey pot are comforting things, but they are starkly separated on the table like sentinels. Nearly touching, but not. The cup will be blue and the honey pot smeared with stickiness along its sides. The type of tea won’t matter, but it should be sliced ginger and mint, so that the weak wisp of steam rising from the cup carries a faint, hopeless whisper of exoticism. The spoon will rest on the table like a compass point, as if to offer an answer. But the cup and the honey lie passive, waiting for an active agent – it must be the drinker of the tea – to dip the spoon in the honey, to drop a knob, sweet and the color of corn silk, into the tea. Are they any less lonely then, the cup and the pot? Or is it like this: the honey dissolves into the hot tea like a shipwrecked man in an ocean and the ocean is a little changed, but impassive and its own thing, alone.

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Welcome Back Berlin Fritters

by lyzpfister

I rode my little Hercules down Bergmannstr., and as I did, it started to rain, skinny drops that snuck under my scarf. But even with the rain, all I felt was joy to be reunited with my bike, my little Hercules. I forgot that I need to find another job, need to meet more people, am still so new somewhere. I pedaled through the rain, a route that is familiar to me now and realized, I have stopped comparing Berlin to Brooklyn. Because coming back, even after having been in New York, in my own beloved Brooklyn, feels like coming home.

Sweet Potato and Fennel Fritters

(for 2)

Coarsely grate 1 sweet potato, 2 carrots, and ½ fennel bulb. Add 1 finely chopped onion and garlic clove. Season with nutmeg, Jamaican jerk seasoning (optional), salt, and pepper. Add 2 eggs (3 if mixture is still too dry) and enough flour so that you can form patties with your hands that don’t fall apart. At least ¼ cup – but I didn’t really measure, so I don’t really know. Sorry. Generously cover the bottom of a skillet with vegetable oil and heat over high until hot (water sprinkled on the oil will sizzle). Slide fritters into hot oil and fry on each side until light brown, about 2 minutes per side. Dry on paper towels. Top with butter and aged gouda. Or you could top with crème fraiche and parsley, which is what I really wanted to do, but couldn’t, since I didn’t have the foresight to pick up those things from the grocery store, nor did I want to walk down and then up 5 flights of stairs for a trifle.