Eat Me. Drink Me.

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

Category: Comfort Food

Comfort Food & Christmas Coming Up: Jansson’s Frestelse

by lyzpfister

Jansson's Frestelse recipe

Is it just me, or does it feel like holiday food necessitates buckets of heavy whipping cream and gobs of butter? Not just me? Alright, fine, let’s proceed.

At my other job, I’m already knee-deep in Christmas things. We like to stay a couple weeks ahead of the curve, and I spend my days translating articles about the best Christmas gifts, pretty sugar-cookie scented bubble baths and artfully wrapped cosmetics. The end result being that all I’ve wanted to do for the last few weeks is bake gingersnaps and indulge in a few “harmless,” late-night, online shopping sprees.

onions

pre-cut potatoes

Jansson's Frestelse

So when my other job said, photograph some Christmas foods for us, I said, absolutely and instantly ran to the grocery store to purchase buckets of heavy whipping cream and butter. Obviously.

Jansson’s Frestelse is a traditional Swedish Christmas casserole in which starchy potatoes play an understated backdrop to buckets of heavy whipping cream, butter, lightly caramelized onions and salty anchovies. When it’s all baked together in an oven, it becomes a rich medley of hot, bubbling cream beneath a crackling bread crumb crust. Holiday food at its finest.

swedish anchovies & potatoes

It was about the time I was halfway through the dish of Jansson’s Frestelse (also known as Jansson’s Temptation for good reason), that I realized I had just single-handedly consumed one 250g carton of heavy whipping cream.

This brought me to the conclusion that holidays are meant to be shared with others not simply because they are about family and friends and togetherness, but because we should never have to eat so much butter by ourselves. (Or at least a holiday dinner allows us to do a better job of managing our feelings of guilt at having eaten so much butter by displacing them onto the rest of the assembled company.)

onions, anchovies, potatoes

Jansson's Frestelse

Anyway, I’m sure the extra lipid layer will come in handy here in Berlin as the Christmas markets start popping up around the city and all the boot-shaped mugs of Glühwein in the world won’t keep me warm…

Jansson's Frestelse

Jansson’s Frestelse (Jansson’s Tempation)

5-6 medium potatoes, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, sliced
15 Swedish anchovy fillets (usually from a tin, in oil)
3 tbsp butter
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp sugar
½ cup bread crumbs

Sauté onions in 1 tbsp butter with a pinch of salt and pepper and 1 tsp sugar until translucent and lightly browned. Set aside. Butter a glass baking dish (approx.. 8 ½ x 11 inches). Layer 1/3 of the potatoes in the dish and top with ½ of the onions and ½ of the anchovies. Repeat the layer, then cover with the remaining 1/3 of potatoes. Dot remaining butter over the top of the potatoes and pour cream over potatoes. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 400ºF for 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle with bread crumbs, and return to oven for another 20-30 minutes until potatoes are tender and the bread crumbs have browned and the cream is burbling.

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If on a Winter’s Night…

by lyzpfister

lentil stew

I haven’t taken my hat off for days. I’m beginning to wonder if I still have hair, and if I do, whether or not it matters. I’m supposed to be working. Instead, I’m chipping the nail polish from my fingers, staring outside at the falling leaves, debating whether or not to buy a monthly metro pass. (At the end of the story, I will end up buying one. I will not regret it.)

Some days it rains and in the coffee shops the crowds grow a low murmur. Outside, the smell of damp leaves and everywhere, I swear, I smell a roasting turkey. I’m reading a book of short stories by Italo Calvino and at the same time a Harper’s magazine from May I’ve been working on for months. In the news, it’s a blur of politics and hurricanes and I wonder what I’d be doing in New York if I were still there. I think of my McKibbin apartment, where I didn’t close up the three-inch hole in the window with duct tape until winter.

sliced Hungarian peppers

garlic for lentil stew

What I most look forward to are afternoons wrapped up in a blanket and my love, a movie laughing in the background and sleep in my limbs.

Don’t tell anyone, but I like these days. The damp, the leaves, the candles lined up on the windowsill. The snuggled in slippers, the garish green hat.

the beginnings of lentil stew

When I cook on nights like these, I cook for comfort. I want the seeping smell of garlic and spice. I want to feel the thin skin of a tomato crack beneath my knife and hear the familiar sound of a peeler’s swish against a carrot. And when I eat my stew, I want it to mean the day is done. The shutters can be let down and soon, soon, I can go to bed.

curried lentil stew

Easy Winter Lentil Stew

2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion
1 large carrot
2 small Hungarian peppers (or 1 red bell pepper)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp berbere
Salt & pepper
2 large cloves garlic
1/2-3/4 cups chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1/2 cup quick-cook lentils
1 cup beef stock
Basmati rice (opt.)

Finely chop onion, carrot, and peppers. Heat olive oil in a skillet and sauté onion until translucent, then add carrot and peppers. Season with salt, black pepper, cumin, and berbere and cook until vegetables have just softened. Add lentils to the skillet and stir to coat with spices, then add tomatoes, coarsely chopped garlic, and beef stock. Give everything a good stir and turn heat to medium low. Cover with a lid and allow to simmer until lentils have cooked through, about 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally, and if it starts looking dry, add more water. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve with basmati rice.

In the Beginning, There Was Butter

by lyzpfister

bagna cauda

“You start with nine sticks of butter,” my aunt says, giving me the recipe for a dish which, at the end of its life, will contain fourteen sticks. Her voice is a Florida twang, an accent no one else in my family seems to have picked up as strongly, though when I am with her, I find my own vowels stretching out. I becomes Ah, as though I’ve been stuck into a Twilight Zone dentist’s office and every personal statement is a chance to glance at my sweet tea-ravaged cavities.

“This is the easy way, but the real way is, you’re going to want to chop up about three things of garlic – at least.” Except it sounds like, Yer gunna wunna

My aunt is referring not to cloves of garlic, but to heads, because this is the famed family recipe for banyacotta, which is the phonetic spelling for a dish which is actually a famed Italian recipe called bagna cauda. The recipe is basically the same. But I think my family uses more butter.

minced garlic and anchovies

Banyacotta is a familial rite of passage. Lovers, fiancés, new spouses, children – you’re not a part of the family until you’ve eaten banyacotta. This is mostly due to the fact that for a full two days after eating it, you trail the scent of garlic behind you thicker than Pepe le Pew on an amour trail. It is imperative, for this reason, that everyone in the family partake, so that we don’t notice our stench, naïvely wandering through the world in our own little garlic reek.

For a long time, I had no idea that banyacotta was not just something that had been handed down in my family from generation to generation. All of the friends I told about the dish – it’s a dip of butter, garlic, and anchovies and you eat it on cabbage – were disgusted (but then again, that isn’t quite the favorite foods lists of an eight year old). No one else had even heard of the concoction.

cabbage for dipping

One day, while I was perusing a food magazine, I found a recipe for bagna cauda. The recipe called for butter, anchovies, and garlic… and I thought… this sounds a lot like banyacotta… And when I sounded it out in Italian I realized, oh my God. This is banyacotta. My family just can’t spell.

Regardless, this is tradition, and my aunt still makes her banyacotta (sorry, the spelling stays…) in my Great Aunt Dorothy’s electric skillet. At one point, the Davis clan used to add cream – which is also a part of the original Italian recipe – but somewhere along the lines, the cream was lost, and what now remains is a giant pile of melted butter, six cans of salty anchovies, and four heads of minced garlic simmered into a rich, salty mess.

bagna cauda

white bread plates

When the banyacotta is done, my family huddles around the pot. We each grab a cabbage leaf and dunk it in. Some prefer the garlic-infused butter from the top which just slightly wilts the cabbage – others scrape the bottom for anchovy-laden scoops studded with garlic. For plates we use slices of white bread, and after we’ve eaten as much cabbage leaves as we can, we eat the bread, soaked through with butter.

bagna cauda

Don’t tell anyone, but this is what I really came back to America for. Butter, garlic, salt – and a reminder that I’m part of the family.

Banyacotta

This makes a lot of banyacotta – and let’s hope it does, or else that’s a lot of butter shoveled through your arteries at once. My aunt freezes any leftover banyacotta and slices off pats to melt on top of a hot-off-the-grill steak. I add fresh parsley and capers and toss it with cooked pasta for a quick dinner (provided I’m not going anywhere later that night…)

14 sticks unsalted butter (give or take)
6 cans anchovies
4 heads finely chopped garlic
2 heads of cabbage leaves (Napa or bok choy), whole but removed from core
1 loaf of thinly sliced artisan white bread

In an electric skillet set to 200°, melt 9 sticks of butter. Keep a close watch on the temperature to make sure your butter doesn’t start browning. As soon as it starts to bubble, turn the heat lower. When the foam has started to clear from the top of the butter, add your chopped garlic. Take care that your garlic doesn’t burn. If you’ve burned the garlic, the banyacotta is ruined, as is the world. Throw it out and start over. Better yet, don’t burn your garlic.

Add anchovies whole, scattering evenly around the skillet. They’ll break down on their own. Increase the temperature to a low simmer – but if the bubbles get too high, turn it down. There’s a good chance that at this point, you’ll need to add more butter to the skillet. If your mixture looks a little chunky, add 3 more sticks of butter. Either way, you can do no wrong. If I learned one thing from my aunt, it’s that you can never have enough butter.

After you’ve added the anchovies, be sure to let the whole mix simmer for about 10 minutes (the whole process should take about 15-20 minutes). Don’t let the butter bubble too much – but don’t let the temperature get so low that it doesn’t bubble at all. Give it a slow and thorough stir every now and then.

ideal butter bubbling

When you’re ready to eat, dip cabbage leaves into the banyacotta and eat over slices of white bread. Be sure to finish your plate. Literally. Your plate is white bread. Keep the banyacotta simmering on about as low as you can go for another couple hours while you go have real dinner (something like… caramelized ham, corn puddin’, tomato puddin’, mac & cheese, and pot roast… or something), then come back and have some more for dessert.

corn and tomato puddin' count as vegetables in my family

Before you freeze the rest, melt the remaining sticks of butter into the skillet to even out the proportions and better prep you for a heart attack.

What I Learned in Brooklyn

by lyzpfister

tacos with roast chicken and habanero salsa

They may not be authentic or conventional. But as long as they’re made with 100% corn tortillas (preferably pressed in the back of a tortilla factory in Brooklyn), they’re real.

When my friend Akiko asked what I wanted her to bring me from America, the only thing I could think of was real tortillas. Not big, floppy flour mats, but small, imperfectly round discs with traces of char.

I’m not a taco Nazi, and I think there are many ways to build a beautiful taco. Often, I don’t even think it’s necessary to include traditional taco ingredients. In Germany this is hard to do anyway, since The Great Cilantro Hunt is a time-consuming task and limes are not, as they were in Brooklyn, ten for $1. But we make do with what we have – and though the tacos I made a few weeks ago on burrito wraps were good, these tacos, with the Brooklyn tortillas Akiko brought me, were great.

habaneros

brooklyn-berlin tacos: roast chicken, habanero salsa, red cabbage slaw

roast chicken with garlic and herbs de provence

Roast Chicken

Before I decided to make tacos, I actually started to make roast chicken with vegetables and herbs de Province. Right after I got the whole pan ready, I thought, but I have these habaneros and I have these tortillas – and herbs de Province or not, I decided to make tacos. Though it might not sound like a great combination, this chicken was so moist and delicately seasoned that it didn’t compete at all with the spice and vinegar of the taco toppings. Now that I think of it, though, the lemons I used instead of limes (no limes at the grocery store today… thanks, Germany) might have been a nice bridge between the two flavors.

Preheat oven to 500°F (260°C) – my oven is an old model and therefore not the strongest; if you’re working with top-notch appliances, you can roast on a lower temperature. Place 1 whole chicken in a shallow baking dish. Rub with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stuff the inside cavity with 2 carrots and 2 onions, cut into 2 inch chunks. Scatter remaining carrots and onions outside the pan (you might want to cut up some extra – these turned caramelly sweet after roasting and I wish I’d had more…). Make 6-8 slits in your chicken with the tip of a knife and stuff with garlic cloves. Season chicken liberally with herbs de Province and maybe another round of olive oil. Place in oven and roast for approx. 45 minutes or until skin has crisped up and chicken is cooked through but not dry.

roast chicken with garlic and herbs de provence

red cabbage & green pepper slaw

red cabbage and pepper slaw

Red Cabbage & Pepper Slaw

In a bowl, combine ¼ cup thinly sliced red cabbage, 1 small green pepper, 1 green onion, and 1 small tomato (all chopped). Add ¼ cup rice wine vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil, and 1 tsp sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir. Make this while your chicken is roasting so that the flavors can blend together.

habanero salsa

Habanero Salsa

Finely chop 1 habanero (you might want to cover your hands with plastic wrap or be prepared to burn for the rest of the day) and 1 small onion. Onions in Germany can be very small, so if you’re in the US, you might want to only use ½ an onion. Your habanero to onion ration should be around 1:2. Add the juice of 1 lemon and plenty of salt. Stir and allow flavors to meld.

I also added sour cream and feta cheese to my tacos. But most important, corn tortillas, re-heated in a skillet – or even better straight over the flame if you have a gas stove.

from Tortilleria Los Hermanos in Brooklyn

Anger Cooking/Comfort Eating

by lyzpfister

Don’t even ask me how my day was. Don’t do it.

My roommates asked – and twenty minutes of ranting later they said, “Well, look how… peeled those potatoes are.

And it’s true. They were quite thoroughly peeled and then quite thoroughly chopped. And the onion made me cry. And the eggplant never saw it coming. And I beat the yogurt and lemon juice until it never knew it had been two separate things.

I threw the pan in the oven and sat down. We talked about not me. I took a breath.

My vegetables took an hour to roast (in the way things never really go exactly like you had in mind), but my roommates and I sat in the kitchen. We talked it out. And the aroma of roasting vegetables crept into the kitchen. Soothing.

I heaped the vegetables onto my plate because being angry makes you hungry and sat down to eat, even though I wasn’t even very angry anymore. Just a little bit exhausted.

It took one bit to realize I’d confused the paprika for chili. My mouth burned. A just on the cusp of too much burning, there with the sweetness of onions and rich eggplant, the homey, comforting potatoes. Like the residue of my anger, not overwhelming, not too much for me to bear – just present, just persistent.

Bread/Love/Bread

by lyzpfister

I’ve been in sandwich mode again. How could I have forgotten what a lovely lunch it is: curried chicken or ripe tomatoes and basil, crumbled feta or camembert, peppery arugula, spicy mustard, caramelized onions or chopped olives… All stuffed between two warm, toasted slices of bread.

Sandwiches are like edible hugs. Right arm, left arm; top bread, bottom. Only good things in the middle.

Caramelized Onion and Tomato Sandwich

Thinly slice 1 yellow onion into rings and do a quick caramelize: heat 1 tsp oil in a skillet, add onion and 1 tsp brown sugar plus a pinch of salt. Sauté on medium heat until onion is deep brown and looks melted. In the meantime, toast 1 cinnamon bagel (preferably one you’ve gotten for free from a tray of dumpster-dived baked goods after the bartender has spilled an entire beer on you and given you complimentary tequila shots. But a regular cinnamon bagel could be good too…) and prepare the rest of the ingredients: 3 sliced cherry tomatoes, a handful of fresh arugula (washed, bottom of the stem removed), and a few slices of feta. When the onions are done: assemble.

Curried Chicken and Raisins on Ciabatta

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a skillet. Add about ¼ cup thinly sliced chicken breast, 1 tsp curry powder, and a healthy pinch of the following spices: turmeric, berbere, cumin. Add a handful of golden raisins to the skillet. When the chicken is cooked through, add ¼ cup tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes, pureed tomatoes, etc.) and simmer on low for five minutes. In the meantime, coarsely chop ½ red pepper and 1 tomato. Add juice of 1 lime, salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. Prepare other ingredients: a few rings of thinly sliced red onion, 4 leaves of lettuce. Toast a split ciabatta roll. Assemble.

Egg, Cheese, and Pesto Sandwich

Melt 1 tbsp butter in a skillet. Crack 1 egg into the skillet – cook it over-easy so that the yolk is still deliciously runny. Prepare other ingredients: sliced white cheese (I used Allgäuer Bergkäse, similar to an Emmenthaler), chopped parsley, pre-made pesto. Toast 2 slices of bread (this one is carrot-studded). Assemble.

You Say Tomato, I Say Potahto

by lyzpfister

When I think about things that go well with potatoes, the first thing that pops into my mind is tomatoes. There’s a great possibility that this is a vestige of some ingrained-in-my-childhood-brain Fox in Socks trickery, but there’s an equally great chance that this is simply because potatoes and tomatoes taste like magic together.

Let me be truthful – I haven’t cooked in a long time. For the last few days, I’ve been eating toasted slices of bread topped with a plethora of interesting things: garlic-ginger butter with aged gouda and arugula, mini peppers stuffed with goat cheese and marinated in oil, mettwurst with raw onion and cracked pepper, pink roe paste with piquant goat’s milk cheese, or absolutely, absolutely sinful Biscoff cookie spread. And while all of these things are delicious, there is only so much toast you can eat before you never want to see a slice of bread again.

(As an aside, I really hate the word “plethora,” and I’m not really sure why I felt the need to use it here. I suppose that sometimes, words just want to be, whether we like them or not, just as sometimes, it’s not at all bad to be kind to people we don’t like.)

Part of the problem is that I haven’t really had time to cook – and the other part is that I haven’t really been home. I’ve been out having fun. Going to music festivals, entertaining visiting friends, sitting in cafés. Oh yes, I know, my life is hard.

But really, I’ve missed cooking. The quietness of it. The focus of it. The to-do-list-fading-away-ness of it.

So today, for lunch, I whipped myself up a little something something. Nothing fancy – just some simple roast potatoes married to a bacon and sweet Hungarian pepper tomato sauce. As I sat down to eat, I picked up the old issue of Harper’s my dad had just brought over from the states for me and began to read an article on the benefits of fasting.

Potato, potahto.

Roast Potatoes with Sweet Hungarian Pepper Sauce

Preheat the oven to 460°F (though my oven is quite weak – you might want to adjust the heat accordingly). Peel and slice about 5 medium-sized potatoes into wedges. Spread them across a baking sheet along with 1 yellow onion sliced into rings or half-rings and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt, cracked black pepper, paprika, and an Italian herbs blend (alternatively, you could just use oregano and parsley). Stick it in the oven and roast those beautiful potato wedges for about half an hour, giving them a little nudge around the baking sheet once halfway through.

Right after you do your nudging, start the tomato sauce. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add 1 finely chopped onion and 2 tbsp chopped bacon. Sautee until the onion is translucent. Add 2 chopped sweet Hungarian peppers (if you can’t find these, yellow peppers are probably the closest approximation) and cook until softened. Add ½ cup (or more if it still looks too thin) tomato sauce or pureed tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Add a pinch of red chili flakes and cumin, since tomatoes love cumin. It’s like date night every night. Put a lid on your pan and let the flavors come together. You want to give the sauce at least 10 minutes of melding.

When your potatoes are done, transfer them to a plate. Top with the sauce and garnish with shaved parmesan and basil.

Beautiful, Beautiful Bacon

by lyzpfister

I miss bacon.

There is no bacon in Germany.

There is speck. There is pork belly.

But there is no bacon.

Bacon is what love is made of. Bacon is salt and fat, gnawed-upon muscle with crunch. Lips licked of grease and an old-timey taste of applewood or hickory. Bacon is hot Christmas morning and hungover brunch. It is the marriage of egg and potato hash, the slash of red on a diner’s cream plate. Bacon is being fed in bed and being too small to reach the stove. Bacon is getting your hand smacked for stealing strips still hot and popping. Bacon is burning your tongue. Bacon is burning your tongue again. Bacon converts vegetarians or is what vegetarians dream of even when they don’t dream. The scent of it sinks into clothes like the damp whiskey smell of campfire seep. Like a hazy summer morning on the East coast. Without bacon there is no baked beans, there is no avocado sandwich, there are no dates wrapped in bacon blankets set on a plate in a restaurant in Seville, next to tiny octopi in oil, olives, and chopitos. Bacon is the what I make for you because I like you and the what you make for me because you like me. It’s also the what I make for myself when no one’s looking. Germany, oh land of beers and brats, oh land of cheeses and sausages, spätzle and baked breads – what I wouldn’t give for bacon.

Let It Rise

by lyzpfister

There’s been a lot of yeast dough in my life lately. First there were Fasnet’s cakes, then I made donuts. Ok. So there were two instances of yeast dough in my life. But two yeast doughs within weeks of each other is more yeast dough than usually makes an appearance.

There’s something incredibly soothing about yeast dough. It takes time. And I think we spend far too little time taking time. What I mean is, I read this book called Momo, by Michael Ende (yes, yes, the very same Neverending Story mastermind) when I was living in New York, spending a lot of time regularly hyperventilating about how there wasn’t enough time.

Momo is a book about time and how humans construct it cleverly disguised as a children’s story. The sweeper tells Momo, “it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept. And then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you.”

I read that and I thought, Oh my God. Momo knows my life.

There’s this moment in the book where the grey men, bankers of time, visit each of the townspeople and convince them to put their spare time in a savings account. And when the people wonder how to save time, the grey men tell them, you know how to save time – spend 15 minutes less on each haircut you give or don’t drive all the way to the nursing home to eat with your mother –

I read that and I thought, My life is full of grey men.

I began to see them everywhere – they’d been invisible before, but now I felt them tapping against my elbow as I angrily stormed along the subway platform when I missed my train. I smelled the acrid smoke from their perpetually burning cigars as I stressed myself around a sales floor. I felt their cold hands on my chest as I started ten different projects without being able to sit still and finish any one. They whispered, Save time, save time, save time.

Like the people in the town, it seemed as though the more time I saved, the less I seemed to have.

I started kneading around this time. Rolling into dough required time. Although I had begun to cease thinking about time as a rule. Kneading dough is like breathing with your fingers. Your body slows to the tempo of your hands, and your breaths slow your beating heart. The dough demands you.

We ate a lot of bread those months. A lot of pizza and pasta and naan. I don’t know if it was the dough that cured me. The dough or the Momo or the yoga I started doing around then as well. But all three things taught me pliability and presence. That you must be where you are and yet flexible enough to change where you thought you’d be.

Every time I knead dough now, I think of that time, then, when I couldn’t let time be, but tried to mold it – the one thing you shouldn’t try to shape. Yes, time is fluid – but we don’t shape time by trying to control it. Time shifts when we are fully present in it. “Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.”

Sweet Yeast Dough

500 g flour
20 g fresh yeast
¼ L milk
80-100 g butter
50-80 g sugar
1-2 eggs
pinch of salt

I’m sorry for the lack of specifics. But you should know me well enough by now to know that I’m not good at that sort of thing. This recipe was scrawled on a piece of paper by my aunt, who had gotten the recipe from another aunt, and who probably changed things around as she made the dough. So here goes: Make a well in the center of the flour, pour in half the milk, the yeast, and a bit of sugar, and stir into a rough dough. Cover with a towel and let rise for half an hour. Add the rest of the ingredients and knead into a smooth dough. Place in a clean bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Your dough is now ready to use – to make the Fasnet’s cakes I talked about in my last post, briefly knead the dough again and roll out on a lightly floured surface. Cut into diamonds and fry in a pan of hot oil (about 1 inch deep – you can test for “hotness” by sticking a wooden spoon into the oil – if the oil bubbles, it’s hot enough), about 25 seconds per side. This is a highly subjective number – you might need far less or more, depending on the thickness of your dough. Rule of thumb – when it starts turning brown, flip it – it will brown more as it cools. To make donuts, check out this recipe: hot pink donuts (the one I used…), and to find a less vague recipe for yeast dough: search the internet.

A Fish Out of Water Springs Back In

by lyzpfister

I wonder if I can run some water over it, I said, as I held the fish in my hand.

Then I realized what I’d said.

And truthfully, I can’t say for certain whether I said this or thought this, since, living alone, one develops a lingual fluidity. Since there’s no one there to hear what you say except yourself, the words you say aloud and the words that stay inside your head reach exactly the same audience. Which means, you may quietly slip into insanity without noticing that it’s happened.

I often find myself speaking out loud as I’m unchaining my bike in my building’s courtyard. The courtyard is a gray space between my apartment, where it’s ok to talk to myself, and the outside world – where it’s not. There, in that small patch of stone and weeds and rows of bikes which in winter always look a bit brittle, it’s as though a switch flips in my mind, one that says, hey, it’s not ok to talk to yourself out loud anymore. Of course, I usually say that sentence out loud. It’s followed by: Um, you just said that out loud. Then: Wait, you just said that out loud too. Followed by: Ok, you really need to stop talking to yourself out loud. Ad infinitum.

I’m hoping to curb this habit now that I’m a working woman once again (isn’t that a lovely phrase?). Every day, from 9-6, I sit inside a neo-industrial building near Checkpoint Charlie and write advertisements for a company’s online marketing department. Then I bike home and write more. (Perhaps the slip into insanity has already occurred?)

What’s nice about actually going to work – versus schlepping myself to a coffee shop for five hours where I pretend to write – is that it forces me to interact with people for a large portion of my day, where I apparently fulfill an unmeasured daily public communication quota which prevents me from talking to myself. Bonus.

What’s also nice about work is that cooking once again becomes a way to unwind, instead of just something to do to fill my long and empty days. (This is a melodramatic – I’ve actually slipped into a comfortable Berlin lifestyle. I guess what I really mean is, when I don’t work, I waste a lot of time. Which is, I think, a euphemism for I play a lot of spider solitaire.)

I ran my fish under cold water. I don’t know what kind of fish it was – fish species never made it to my German vocabulary list – but it was smaller, silvery-brown with black speckles and a soft, white underbelly.

It had little fish eyes and a little fish mouth which reminded me of my elementary school cafeteria lady. Like the Gestapo, she’d patrol up and down our neat, seated child-rows on the cafeteria floor and every so often would point to her sour mouth and say, It takes twice as many muscles to frown as to smile. Look what you kids have done to me.

I roasted the fish simply, with tomatoes, lemon, garlic, and fennel, lots of olive oil and cracked black pepper. While it roasted, I thought quietly to myself, like most sane people do, read a bit, wrote a bit, did the dishes. And it was nice to know that the things I did were done because they had to be done in the two hours I had between the end of my work day and going out to meet someone in the evening. Schedules. I love them.

Though really, I’m not sure how long I’ll love this being busy thing. When I’m not, I say I miss it. When I am, I only want a break. It’s all that green grass. Yet, somehow I manage to make it work – there is only one of me and what I have done is what I have done and what I didn’t do mostly doesn’t matter since it wasn’t what I chose to do.

For now, I’ll be content with the productive bursts I feel in my few free hours, enjoy the experience of sitting in front of the oven, watching a fish roast, watching tomatoes and lemons leech juice. And of course, taking my leftovers to work and knowing my lunch is by far the best.

Roast Fish with Tomatoes, Lemon, and Fennel

Finely chop 3-4 tomatoes (depending on size), ½ of a yellow onion, and 2 cloves of garlic. Add a healthy splash of olive oil, ½ lemon’s worth of juice, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. I made this faux-bruschetta the day before, which I think really allowed the flavors to intensify. But I don’t think you have to do that if you don’t have time. Preheat the oven to 410* F. Place 1 whole fish (scaled and gutted) in the center of a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and rub with salt and cracked black pepper. Stuff the fish’s cavity with the tomato mixture and spoon the remaining mix on top of the fish. Nestle some coarsely chopped fennel around the fish and garnish with fennel fronds and lemon slices. Roast for about 30 minutes total, flipping at the 20-minute mark, until the flesh is white and the tomatoes have sunk into little, shriveled knobs.