The Element of Surprise: Moroccan-Style Burgers with Apple-Balsamic Reduction

Moroccan-style burgers with balsamic-apple reduction (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Cinnamon had been a rash last-minute decision. It settled on the mound of ground almonds and beef like a smug crop dusting. I looked at my hand in surprise. Who told you that was a good idea? my brain said to my hand. The body works in mysterious ways, my hand said to my brain. But by then there was nothing to do but move on with the bold decision, adjusting the plans accordingly.

In Chopped, it’s all about surprises anyway. It’s a game where you have to create an entire, cohesive dish from three disparate ingredients on the spot. There’s no time to research or prepare. You have nothing, and then suddenly, you have to have an idea. You’re already thinking creatively, open to the unexpected.

Whole almonds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Almonds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Chopped almonds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When we made these burgers the first time for the family Chopped competition in Italy, the ground, toasted almonds mixed with minced garlic and onion piled on pillowy beef reminded me somehow of chicken bastilla, one of my favorite meals in the entire world. Bastilla is a Moroccan dish in which saffron chicken, egg, and toasted almonds are sweetened with orange water and cooked inside crispy, thin phyllo dough. Though it’s garnished with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the filling is a perfect blend of savory and sweet, crunchy and soft.

Ground beef (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Toasted almonds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Ground beef and spices (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Burger mash (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I don’t think my thought process at the time was as rational as all that, but adding the cinnamon to the burger mash felt right, even though my brain was surprised at quickness of my hand’s action. » Continue reading this post…

Tuscan Summer

Italian gelato (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Back when I used to lead backpacking trips, we had this saying: Finish with style. It meant ending the hike with as much aplomb as you had when you started. It meant neatly packing your bag on your last morning and calmly, strongly walking into the valley rather than slopping down the slope to civilization and a warm blueberry pie.

Let me tell you how our vacation ended, and you can tell me how much style we finished with: For lunch, we passed a yogurt bucket full of cold cooked chicken in tomato sauce around the car and piled it on Saltines with our fingers. The car was cramped, and at least one of us always had to sit in the so-called “dungeon” back seat, named for the lack of leg room and the pile of luggage towering up the left side. We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours as the Alps softly unfolded outside the windows, and a drizzly rain sent slim sheets of mist through the crags. The dog, fur filled with nubby burrs, sent white and black hair tufting through the car.

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And here’s how we started the week: A rose and peach sun set over dusty olive trees and yellow sunflowers, heads heavy with seeds. The red sand city of Arezzo shimmering beyond the hills. Behind us, the villa cool and impassive; stones worn by 14th century nobles and servants scurrying with firewood and food, and later, the soft pad of praying nuns. For dinner that night, we walked down the gravel path to the nearby hilltop restaurant, where the only thing to think about was how many the grill platter should serve and when to uncork the wine already sitting on the table.

There was very little waiting to begin, as the waitress brought out platters of food. » Continue reading this post…

On a Sticky Summer Day: Coffee & Cocoa Chili Con Carne

Chili con carne (Eat Me. Drink Me.) I know it’s summer. I can feel the sweat dripping down my back, the wet air making my elbows peel from my desk as I type. My eyelids stick when I blink. And yet… Call me crazy, but I made chili for dinner. I thought about calling this breezy summer chili. Fresh, seasonal meat and beans magic? And then I realized that there was really no point in telling the story any other way than the way it was. It was too hot to make chili, and that’s exactly what I did. Stick, stick, says my elbow, letting me know I spent too long thinking about that last sentence. Chopped vegetables (Eat Me. Drink Me.) Diced garlic (Eat Me. Drink Me.) You know that feeling you get when you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown? That quiet, manic calm that feels watery and full of cracks? I feel a little bit that way. There’s too much to do. I’ve had to read piles of poetry for SAND, the literary journal where I work as the poetry editor. I’ve been working on a translation competition, getting my own poetry collection finished, visiting with family, keeping the apartment clean, working on home improvement projects and crafts, answering emails. It doesn’t even sound like much to write it out, and a lot of it is things I generally enjoy doing – but all those little things add up. And when I think about tackling just one of those things, I go… ah! GIFs on the internet!

Oregano (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Fresh vegetables for chile con carne (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Bacon! (Eat Me. Drink Me.) So logically, after a full day of work, I pedaled to the grocery store to pick up beef and peppers, coffee for breakfast tomorrow, bacon, sour cream and green onions. My project was herculean, considering the weather. Stand by the hot stove, sweat streaming, to slow-cook some chili. At least I remembered to pick up an icy Hefeweizen to take the edge off. » Continue reading this post…

Tooooooooooooor!: The World Cup Cocktail

Lemon and melon cocktail (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Since the day I saw Robben superman dive a head ball into the net, I’ve been enamored with the World Cup.

No really, I promise it’s not the finely muscled men running around and showing off those fine muscles in skin-tight shirts. Or the slow motion shots of grimacing coaches flailing on the sidelines like birds stuck in pudding. Or even the drama – bites and broken backs, sneaky fouls and field-side shoves.

Ok, I lied. It’s all of that – but it’s also the beauty of the game.

Sliced lemons (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sugar in a shot glass (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I didn’t grow up in a very sports-minded household. I neither understand, nor care about, most major sports. My family never hosted a Superbowl party, I never bothered about which team won, and the only reason I went to high school football games was because I was in the band. The closest I ever came to really caring was back at Davidson, when Stephen Curry led the team to the Elite Eight. Those games were fun to watch – cheering for people you knew with people you knew, while people you didn’t know across the country were cheering for them too. I still remember sitting in the dining hall, crammed shoulder to shoulder, trays of food clutched in our laps, sighing as one body to the big screen rolled down to project that final game.

Then I graduated, and poof, that was the last time I cared about sports.

So it’s surprised me how much I’ve loved watching these games, how passionately I care about my team (the Netherlands, of course. Hi, Robben.), how closely I follow their footwork and appreciate a good passing play. Granted, I still can’t comprehend off-sides, can’t remember for the life of me how many points each team has, or figure out when they call a corner kick, a penalty, or you know, that other one. » Continue reading this post…

On the Beaches of Barcelona

Raw oysters (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The best part of Vilassar de Mar was the blue. In the mornings, we woke to the bright glare of the ocean pinching sunlight from the sky and pitching it in through our window. The early hours were cool and dry, lulled by the soft crash of waves and shattered by the Renfe searing down the tracks with a load of commuters headed for the city center. In Barcelona, the merchants in La Boqueria would already be unrolling the shutters from their stands to reveal hanging hocks of jamón and stacked fruit, and the bleary-eyed tourists would be marching down Las Ramblas with bulky black Canons strapped to their chests. But in Vilassar de Mar, there was only ocean, a multi-hued blue dotted with sailboats and solitary paddle boarders cutting the surf.

Balcony, Villasar de Mar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

What we couldn’t figure out in Vilassar de Mar was when things were open. On the day that we arrived, just after lunchtime, the little town was shuttered. We wandered uphill from the shore, the only direction to wander, and passed cafés and shops, all closed. Even the grocery store participated in the afternoon siesta hours, only opening again late in the evening. We were still hesitant of ourselves, the only tourists on the deserted streets, slow in our Spanish, when what we should really have been speaking was Catalan.

Fresh mussels (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Choosing somewhere to eat is hard when you’re so fresh to a new place, when you want so badly to make the best decision, but are too hungry to decide. At least there weren’t that many options. Halfway up the hill, we found a small bakery that was still open. One lazy couple sat beneath a yellow umbrella, slowly picking at fish bones. The tables were covered in clean white cloths and inside the windows, glazed pastries billowed beneath the glass. » Continue reading this post…

Currant Status: Ripe Red Currant Cake with Almond Meringue

Red Currant Cake with Almond Meringue (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I had approached the situation with misguided optimism. Upon waking this morning and like a sleep-stupored zombie wandering to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and some toast, I snipped open the brand new bag of grounds just as I saw the word “decaf.” Hoping for a placebo-like effect on my brain, I made a cup anyway, tossing grounds into the French press and dousing them with hot water. Mixing the strained coffee with a little fresh milk and sugar.

A sunshine of egg yolks (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Oh, oh, oh what a horror. My eyes and my limbs lisping back into sleep. Heaviness settling into my bones. My fingers thudding on the keyboard as if there were little bricks attached to each one.

Oh, no, this would never do. Real coffee needed to be procured immediately. I grumbled my weary body onto my bike and slugged to the nearest grocery store to right the wrong.

Fresh red currants (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Home again, I said good riddance to the failed morning and lay back down in bed. I’d restart the day. And when I woke up, I’d make a cake.

Status: 15 minutes later

Coffee and baking (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Powdered sugar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Coffee and currants (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

At least, we know that caffeine is real. I’m standing at the wooden bar in the kitchen, sipping a nice, strong (maybe overcompensatingly strong) cup of coffee and whipping up butter, powdered sugar, and an egg yolk into dough.

Butter (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Powdered sugar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Modern art (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Yesterday, as Germany faced Portugal in far-off Brazil and the canons began to sound not long after, I was in a garden in Schöneberg picking currants. The bushes were full of ripe little fruits, clustered like grapes, with thin translucent skin bursting red. I filled my bag with one bunch after the other and still found branch upon branch hiding jeweled bunches of berries.

The vuvuzelas blared out into the balmy Berlin evening.

Johannisbeeren (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Meringue (Eat Me. Drink Me.

I grew up calling red currants Johannisbeeren, which is what they’re called in German, and Germany being the only place I’d ever seen them. » Continue reading this post…

Berlin to Burladingen, and Back

Opa (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The weather was unseasonably warm on the Alb. While Berlin’s skies were overcast and gray, raindrops dripping from every balcony and eave, Stuttgart’s sun was shining. A filmy blue sky unrolled over deeply green hills as we drove away from the city and into the rural landscape of the Schwäbische Alb. It’s called the Swabian Jura in English, but that feels so wrong to say, I just won’t.

I forget how pretty the Alb is when I’m not there, especially in late spring and early summer, when the trees have bloomed and the fields sprout full of wild daisies, dandelions and purple wildflowers. I love the unreal color of green coating the grass, the way the landscape looks freshly dipped in dew.

Flowers on the Alb (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

My brother and I are on our way to our grandfather’s house. My uncle is driving, we’re chatting about the upcoming world cup and which nations are the happiest on Earth. He outlines our program for the weekend. When you only fly south for a long weekend, your hours are tightly regulated. My aunt and uncle are coming for dinner, the next day, if the weather holds, we’ll go grilling on the Eichland. There’s talk of Eurovision.

Burladingen is all talk, it’s always all talk. By which I mean, we start a constant stream of visiting and chatting and catching up from the moment we set foot in my grandfather’s house to the moment we leave. And in the Southern Germany I know, there’s no talking without something tasty to go with it – creamy mushrooms wrapped up in crepes, Danishes and coffee, homemade pizza finished with a round of my grandfather’s bootleg raspberry liqueur, dark bread for breakfast with butter and jam, cake and cake and cake. “It’s not my fault if you go home hungry,” my grandfather says. » Continue reading this post…

Baking My Own Birthday Cake

Birthday party (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

One of my greatest fears in life has always been that no one will come to my birthday party. I’ll invite everyone I know. I’ll send out pretty invitations on cardstock with glitter ink. I’ll promise party favors and food and fun beverages loaded with crushed ice. I’ll promise home-baked cake. But on the day of my party, people will just trickle in and out, if they come at all, and stare sadly at the limp, swaying streamers.

There’s generally very little anyone can say to allay these fears. My boyfriend said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” My brother said the same thing. I’m just always afraid that something else will come up – an apocalypse, a Backstreet Boys reunion tour – and I’ll be left tearing through the sugared crumbs of cake and piles of party food like a lonely Godzilla.

Birthday guest (Eat me. Drink Me.)

Grilling in Tempelhof (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I celebrated my birthday last Saturday with a grill in Tempelhof, a shut-down airport featuring a runway-turned-park where Berlin’s citizens gather on sunny days to rollerblade and bike down the long runways, lie in the sun, and cook on small, portable grills that send up a haze of smoke.

That morning, I’d picked up one of my best and oldest friends from the airport, and like a tyrant, pushed her through her jet-lag by making her go to the market to buy fresh strawberries and herbs, cheeses, vegetables, dirt-crusted potatoes and stalks of bright red rhubarb. Then I made her help me cook. We made my family’s German potato salad, tabbouleh chock full of bright, sweet tomatoes and parsley, and a rhubarb frangipani tart baked on puff pastry.

Picnic potluck (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Sun in Tempelhof (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

We were gathering together the ingredients for mojitos, packing paper plates and picnic blankets, when David asked me, “When did you tell people to meet us?”

“Three PM,” I said.

“So around four?” he said. » Continue reading this post…