Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cowgirls Are My Weakness: Inaugural Q&A w/Deanne Stillman!

"American Progress" John Gast, 1872
This is the tale of two women who came West, inspired by their parents, their own Manifest Destinies, true grit, and relentless longing for that desert-meets-the-sea shimmer.
At the end of a sun-splashed, kooky-transformative staycation summer unexpectedly filled with simmering, chopping, baking and cooking, it is time to speak of origins.
Of Manifest Destiny.
Tree in misty lake, by Delgaudm
 Of roots and rootlessness, of the history of the West,
of why you're here,
of why I'm here,
of why cowgirls are my weakness, and how it all figures into eating. Or, something like that.  
My mother owned this album, and it deeply infected my young girl's mind
It's Labor Day weekend. To celebrate, I'm laboring. Never let it be said I'm not patriotic. Perversity rules, and when others return to work, that is when I'll take a vacation. Or a breather, anyway. For now, it's blood, sweat and tears as I continue to jam on this unexpected journey into the clattering land of bubbling pots and pans and even the piggish siren call of bacon grease. Perhaps after this post, I will even try my hand at a recipe for Cowboy Biscuits from 1922. Because I have yet to figure out something for which to use that bacon grease. I'm also considering trying it in a cake, the way Southerners do. Here's the recipe. Let me know if you try it and I'll do the same!

Cowboy Biscuits
The two main types of biscuits made by chuckwagon cooks were soda and sourdough. Their only method for baking was the Dutch oven. This portable iron pot sat up from the fire on three small feet. This allowed air to flow through the bottom. The lid was lipped, making it easy to pile heated rocks on top for more even baking. It was reliable but had no scientific temperature controls.

"Baking powder biscuits
3 cups flour
6 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoon fat (lard or bacon drippings)
Approx. 1 cup of milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Sift together dry ingredients, then rub in lard with fingertips, until flaky. Pour about a cupful milk to moisten. Turn out on well floured board and pat about 1/2 inch tricknesss. Cut with biscuit cutter and place in greased dutch oven that has been slightly preheated. Biscuits should be touching but not crowded. Place preheated lid on oven and cover with hot coals. Place on bed of good red coals and let bake about twenty minutes or until brown on top and bottom."
--Clair Haight, Hashknife Outfit, Winslow AZ, 1922 (reprinted in: Chuck Wagon Cookin', by Stella Hughes [University of Arizona Press:Tuscon AZ] 1974 (p. 123))
Chef Maili Halme Brocke
To recap, this journey began with a rip-roaring, steam-shooting, knife-slicing catalyzing bang -- the life-changing first cooking class with Chef Maili Halme Brocke on June 10th, courtesy of my dear friend of twenty-five years, Anastasia.  Then Chef Maili, amused and perhaps overwhelmed by the deluge of idiotic basic cooking (and other ridiculous, non-commonsensical) questions I streamed her way, suggested she either gather all my questions together - kind of as a primer for seriously spaced-out clueless non-cooks -- or maybe I should write a book about my journey. How cooking changed your life at middle age. Something women's mags would appreciate.
My heart leaped when she suggested there was a story here, one that would reach other people. After promoting the previous book, Love Junkie on Kindle, I'd run out of creative steam as sometimes happens when you've been activating a side of yourself that's antithetical to the meditative slow-moving, deep-drilling self that mines material for the actual page. I was afraid I wouldn't find inspiration again. That it was over, kaput, finito. This gave me hope, even if her concept was something on which I'd have to chew.
First hors d'oeuvre:  Tuscan melon w/Proscuitto & Fresh Mint (Chef Maili's secret weapon!) on stolen Yale dining hall plate
The next day,
the writer Deanne Stillman came to eat. I wrote about our feasting earlier, in the August 5th post, "Brown Bananas:  Think Twice Before Tossing." What I didn't write about was how Deanne was instrumental in reformulating the project-in-process then -- a project more like an improvised recipe with crucial chefs along the way. Now's the time to acknowledge one of those chefs.
Deanne, ever blunt and sage, instantly disabused me of the midlife angle as she powered through the fresh banana bread.
Second hors d'oeuvre:  Medjool dates w/Goat Cheese & Smoked Apple Bacon blurry 'cuz we'd already scarfed a whole plate
"Take it outta the women's mag ghetto...this isn't a census report...your audience is much bigger."
Main course:  Leftover Triple Citrus Tiger Prawns w/Thai Chili Sauce over Cucumbers
Deanne was adamant about shifting direction, widening the audience. She went on to remind me, duh, that the zeitgiest was currently swarming with cooking shows, food channels, iron chefs, people staying home to eat 'cuz of the recession, and and on. Timing was ripe. She made sure I understood, hello, late as I was to the communal table, there was a seismic cultural shift underway. Others would gobble up the stories from the pov of a clueless non-cook -- especially a former love junkie turned culinary virgin. She chuckled. Why don't you know how to cook, anyway. Then she asked me this:
How To Solar-Boil Water for Tea at Burning Man
"Didn't your mother at least teach you how to boil water?"
This gave me pause, but only briefly. Because I realized, with great enlightenment, the answer was very clearly, "No!" No wonder I couldn't cook!
"Then why don't you call your first chapter, How I Learned To Boil Water. And go from there."
We clinked glasses as the sun spilled pretty random patterns onto the deck. She also suggested revisiting M.F.K. Fisher, who'd written the brilliant and elegant classic The Art Of Eating which is equal parts food and food as metaphor for life. A book that awes and intimidates. A book you want on your side. What about "The Art Of Boiling Water"! I blurted.
Deanne w/background of, no not sheep, barrel cacti! (Photo credit:  Mark Lamonica)
Deanne nodded, popped another Triple Citrus Tiger Prawn w/Thai Chili Sauce in her mouth (why eat forward when you can eat backward?!) Thus the new angle and new title was born -- for the blog, and perhaps for the book-to-be.
Then I insisted Deanne try a final piece of banana bread, topped with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and cherry sauce. 
But let's back up a bit. Because just as certain ingredients marry well, so in this case the combo of Deanne and me created the necessary early stage elixir. Together, maybe we were a distillation of disappointed mothers, broken childhoods, and dreams of the West.
"The Prince and the Pauper" 1937
Deanne and I share a background of rags & riches. While Deanne's story was riches to rags -- from lobster bisque to Mac 'n Cheese after a nasty divorce -- mine was more about pressing my nose to the window of wealthier families, watching them eat filet mignons wrapped with bacon, sipping martinis, nibbling fresh clams. The families just happened to be my own. Because my mother was a black sheep, and mentally unstable, that world was close enough to touch -- but would never be ours. We were not welcome. Deanne and I shared a hunger for what was, or what could've been. That hunger translated into a ravenous drive.
Mr. Ed, playin' chess
We have more in common. Horses.
While Deanne's mother was actually a great cook, she was also a professional equestrian. My mother couldn't cook, but she could ride horses, and won numerous ribbons in jumping. Her mother (a woman who flat-out refused to cook) was the first secretary of the U.S. Pony Club. Fox hunts and all.

Hideous totes crusted with fake jewels, painted horses, dogs and hunt masters.
Dean Martin's liquid diet
High-strung brown-and-white Jack Russell terriers fat as ticks fed lobster scraps from the table (probably martinis too). That type thing.
Any excuse to summon Sam Shepherd, the ultimate cowboy, man of the West, genius playwright
But my mother gave her heart to Western style riding -- and cowboys.
Real cowboy
Every summer when she was a kid, she'd go to a ranch in Billings, Montana, where she rode and crushed on all the cowboys.
"What're you lookin' at?" Cowboy
She even gave me one of the striped snap-up shirts one of these men had given her when she was young, which she'd kept all those years. My mother the love junkie, who wore jeans and cracked brown cowboy boots to the day she died.
Maybe the Slim Jims I ate at the bars where she dragged me were some nostalgic version of cowboy beef jerky. I like to think so.
Both mothers definitely had their eyes turned toward the West.

Deanne Stillman w/Mona, a rescued mustang at Wild Horse Spirit in Carson City, Nevada (Photo credit:  Betty Lee Kelly)
RR:  What's your favorite way to dine? On horseback? In a five star restaurant?
DS: I like to eat outdoors around a campfire, with my hands. Fire is so primal. It all ties in with the power of place, which is the underpinning of my work. It drives everything. The book I'm working on now, Mojave Manhunt, based on my Rolling Stone piece of same name [which appeared in Best American Crime Writing 2006], takes place in the Antelope Valley (LA County), ends in a giant conflagration in the desert in which someone who has killed a cop dies after a stand-off with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
RR: Nice! Ms. Apocalypse. Speaking of deserts, when I think of you, I see the sandy stage.
DS:  The desert is my beat. It runs throughout my writing.  My motto? "I brake for sand."
RR:  We know my mother couldn't cook. What about yours?
DS:  My mother was and still is a fantastic cook. She passed on amazing recipes, from cream puffs to Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. I used to make them. Generally I've been into lighter fare the past few years, but I still make a mean roast lamb which I learned from my mom, w/fresh garlic and mint.
RR:  Tease! What about your taste for the desert? Does that also stem from your family?
DS:  Yes. My father used to read Edgar Allan Poe's poem El Dorado to me, among other things. This carried me out of Ohio and to a land of great promise, and I knew I wanted to live there some day. That combined with horseback riding, which I learned from my mom, who was one of the first women to ride professionally on the racetrack -- as an "exercise boy." Riding was also an escape. In my fantasies I would ride with all the great Western characters I was reading about -- Calamity Jane, Jesse James, Crazy Horse.
RR:  Calamity Jane! That was my nickname for my mother! I remember one Christmas she tried to make a fancy stuffing. Next thing you know, she's howling in agony because of chestnut slivers stuck deep in her nailbeds. She also never taught me to ride horses. I'm actually terrified of them. I'd rather bungee jump off a sheer cliff than go within a hundred feet of a horse. Do you cook Western style food?
DS:  Love to make buffalo stew.
RR:  Would you share the recipe?
DS:  It's a secret!
RR:  Does your diet differ when you're writing and when you're not?
DS:  Good question. During the ten years I was working on Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave, and also ten years on Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, my diet was the same as when I wasn't writing. Lots of organic everything, a lot of protein. But when I'm traveling and in the field for research, I eat what's there. In the case of Twentynine Palms, where I was living for most of the 90s, I ate a lot of bar food -- Happy Hour snacks, "Taco Tuesday." For Mustang, I was in Nevada a lot. We're talking casino buffets or in more remote areas, steak and potatoes, fried stuff. I got into eating buffalo then. Buffalo burgers are available in lots of places. I really started liking buffalo meat. Then I found it at the Farmer's Market in Venice and started making stews. It's very lean. No fat. Comfort food's a must while working. I like to bake -- pies, in particular. And I have a sweet tooth.
RR:  I saw that with the banana bread! Hey, why do you think people are responding to my desserts with so much enthusiasm? Am I a better baker than cook, or is it something else?
DS:  Desserts are so politically incorrect, I think you might be letting people out of jail!
RR:  Love it! Always did fancy myself a jail springer what with all my ex-con exes. By the way, I seem to have a hang-up about cooking that feels like residual feminism. In the past. when I'd think of cooking, I'd flash on a fifties housewife stuck in the kitchen, oppressed and miserable. So I just refused. You?
DS:  When my parents got divorced, my mother often turned to fast food because she was working then, but when she could, she still whipped up great meals. She always swore by Julia Child. I've always liked cooking and never had a problem falling into the role with boyfriends. I had one boyfriend who liked to cook and especially bake bread -- it was fantastic! Had another one who used to bring pizzas from the family pizza biz...and excellent ones they were! Men arriving with food is a nice thing.
RR:  Amen to that. There's a reason one of my exes was a gourmet chef. Were there key places you ate when you were writing these epic books?
DS:  There's a great casino buffet in Carson City, Nevada. Used to go there a lot with two of the characters in Mustang. The Casino Fandango. While working on Twentynine Palms, I used to hang out a lot at the long-gone Casa De Java, the first coffee house in the town. It was run by a Marine and his wife. I was also a regular at Jeremy's in Joshua Tree, which boasted "the first cappuccino maker in the high desert." These places were real lifesavers because the only other coffee available was the weak stuff at gas station mini-marts. The Inn at Twentynine Palms had and still has an excellent restaurant, with homegrown greens in salads and Marine-sized portions of whatever's for dinner, which is always good. Plus nearby Desert Hot Springs has a great Hungarian restaurant. I forget the name. Best red cabbage in the Mojave.
RR:  There's a bumper sticker. Hey, has eating every gotten out of hand for you? Especially when writing?
DS:  During Twentynine Palms, I gained a lot of weight. I was eating more than usual. I needed protection, I realized later -- a buffer between me and the world I had become part of, having ventured deep into the nooks and crannies of a very gnarly story. I was emotionally raw and the extra layer of protection literally provided some distance. With Mustang, sometimes I lost my appetite. Living inside a horse massacre is rough stuff. Then when out on the range with wild horses -there was an immense sense of clam. Everything was right.
RR:  That makes total sense. Our first official The Art Of Boiling Water interviewee! Thank you for your time, and for being so frank. Now if you'd only spill your secret recipe for buffalo stew, desert cowgirl! Maybe if I ply you with another banana bread? Or what about peach cobbler? Plum tart? Grapefruit cake? Chocolate Bete Noire? Nothing? You just want to watch me twist in the dusty wind here?
DS:  You're making me hungry with that list of desserts! How about something on fire? Cherries Jubilee. My mother used to make that.
RR:  I take that as a challenge. A dessert quickfire duel out on the range. Any excuse to purchase a blowtorch. You're on!

And now, a little cowboy tune to send you on your lonesome way, one that captures another side of my own often entertaining maternal Calamity Jane. Enjoy! Tex Ritter's Blood On The Saddle

If I can cook, anyone can.

Deanne and Bugz, survivor of the 1998 Reno Horse Massacre (Bugz passed away in 2009. Photo credit:  Betty Lee Kelly)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ful Medames: In Praise of Fava Beans, Friendship & Psychedelic Hooping

Ful medames? Foul Maddamas?
This is what I prepared for lunch today. Food fit for a peasant. Simple, tasty, filling. Frugal.
Chocolate Bete Noire for Linda Renaud's birthday!
There have been some complicatedly decadently irresistible chocolate bete noires (post TK!),
ambitious and delicious racks of lamb worthy of reverie and rant,
Ruby Grapefruit & Avocado salad
and even some royally dressed salads drizzled w/blood orange avocado balsamic vinaigrette.
Ricotta & Leek Gnocchi w/Butter, Sage, Sauteed Fava Beans & Shaved Parmesan
There have been whole sticks of unsalted butter melted in pans to the tune of crisped sage leaves and paired with equally rich and raucous ricotta & leek gnocchi w/fava beans,
Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake
or whole sticks of butter mixer-whipped to a frenzy in precise cake batters drawn from legendary L.A. eateries --  but what about the staples? What about the meals you can afford to eat -- financially, and healthily, on a more regular basis?
What about the humble lunch?
Enter the ancient Mediterranean dish:  ful medames.
That one fancy gnocchi dinner from last week yielded some leftover fava beans. Not knowing they were dried beans, more mature, not realizing how much they grew when soaked, I'd prepared what amounted to an extra potful of bursting fat beans. Skin me. Cook me. Transform me, they called out. What to do? I decided to boil then simmer them as long as it took to reduce them to a consistency I could then use for ful medames. Or was it foul maddamas?
Uninspired man
The boiling and simmering took maybe 1 1/2, almost 2 hours. Way longer than I'd anticipated. The result -- a chunky gray paste -- didn't inspire. Plus by that point it was bedtime. When are fava beans in season? I found myself craving the fresh ones. Still, I'd purchased the dried. It was time to learn how to handle beans. Or begin to learn. I would make this bean paste into something tasty. Watch me!
After researching various recipes, I plopped some in a bowl, chopped garlic, added that plus olive oil plus cumin plus a pinch of kosher salt to the mix, squeezed a half a lemon. Done. Heated up some Mediterranean flat bread in the oven. Chowed down. Not so bad. Still, it wasn't flavorful enough.
Anthony Bourdain, smoking
Next go-round, I sauteed some chopped yellow onions, added them to the impoverished (refrigerated) paste. Chopped garlic, mixed that into the paste along with olive oil (Colavita), cumin, kosher salt, juice from two lemons this time -- then added chopped tomatoes and parsley as garnish.
I'm in the midst of reading Anthony Bourdain's riveting Kitchen Confidential, and paid heed when he urged us poor homecook slobs to at least garnish. After all, wasn't eating about pleasing the eye as well as the palate? "Plating" as well as serving it forth? Now I was getting somewhere.
Flavor Flav back in the day
This time, the dish was delicious. Another level better. Next attempt, though, I would cook the beans down with garlic, onion, salt and tomatoes so there was more flavor and color in the paste itself. Then add an additional mixed-in boost, then the rest of the garnish.
Since I've been reassembling my spices after having had to dump almost 50 bottles of old, dead spices and herbs, I didn't have any cayenne (yet). I only buy spices and herbs as I need them, to avoid another disaster like a collection of bottles I never use -- and have to throw out. But the dish could stand some kick. Maybe I'll squirt in some Siracha.
It's also vegetarian, so finally I have a dish for those friends with dietary restrictions or philosophical preferences.
One dish leads to another! I love how one dish will provide inspiration for the next. You have leftover fava beans. Now what? Your eggs are going to go bad tomorrow. What can you make? Is it time to dare a quiche? A frittata? What about the wilting chives? Can you build a meal around that? Or the ripening figs? A friend promises to bring fresh pears -- your brain starts whirring about what dishes feature pears. This call to inventiveness and use of produce before it ruins keeps the momentum going.
Sandi "Sass" Schultz
And now, the blog itself seems to've reached and inspired a beautiful friend of mine, Sandi "Sass" Schultz, who used to live in Topanga Canyon,
Good Vibe Hoop Tribe (Sandi far right, next to Ana Reichenbach, founder)
was a member of the now-defunct Good Vibe Hoop Tribe (enjoy! This one captures their groovy ravy sexy Burning Man vibe Cool video Hoopalicious featuring founder Anah and here's one of a doc about the hooping scene featuring some demo vids w/Sandi and the hoop she gave me as a gift when she left Topanga The Hooping Life w/Demo Vids of Sass on Waist Hooping, Stalling & Stepping) -- and now lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa where she plays a doctor on a popular TV show,
"Binnelanders." Another avowed non-cook, or mostly non-cook, she actually shared a recipe in her recent blog entry! Enjoy her post and homage to our friendship, this blog,
Wikus of "District 9" flick w/his prawn arm gone to clear Souf Effrica of alien prawns?
and the "famous Souf Effrican icon" the wikus! I can't wait to try the recipe out, invoke Sandi's gorgeous spirit and hooping flair. In this way we can connect even across oceans and continents. Here's the link: Sandi "Sass" Schultz's F$kken Prawns
Sass, on left, w/Athena and Mutaytor on stage
I have so many vivid memories of Sandi. Deadbeat, uptight Hollywood parties which would part like the Red Sea when she entered,
Sass in ring of fire
glittering, sexy, swinging fiery lights in her signature hypnotic style -- or busting out a colored hoop, or flaming poi.
Sass in one of her inventive outfits
Her dressing me for readings and performances, pulling clothes until the whole room is piled thick as a sultan's den --
or jumping in the truck and taking a spontaneous roadtrip to Vegas.
Us rollerblading on the beach, me pumping with feral competitiveness, sweating, clumsy, barely noticing the sands, the water,
the Ferris Wheel wheeling through the sky while she glides far ahead, dancing and bopping in a sensual, easy rhythm.
Stylish and theatrical even on blades. A feast for the eyes.
Sass, herself
Or us talking the secret language of old pain, swapping tales, sipping rosehip tea at the Cafe Mimosa, her stripped bare of theatrics, flash. Unadorned, honest and beautiful --
We are at the Mondrian Hotel, sitting on the clean white bed in a suite filled with people. Anastasia's bachelorette party.
Sandi's wearing her Shakira wig, the tangled mane framing her face perfectly, she in psychedelic tights and tutu, while I'm rocking a black dress and red feather boa.
We share one lone ball of a chocolate cake from the Erotic Bakery, the cake shaped like a monstrous, chocolate-iced phallus.
A performer known for her skills sculpting potatoes into various naughty forms writhes on the carpeted floor in a special bachelorette dance, dragging two young men down there with her, men I'd recently found downstairs at the Sky Bar and invited up to supply my friend with a steady stream of eye candy.
R. Crumb brilliance
In honor of the occasion, I've boldly (for me who's a drug virgin practically) taken what I think is Ecstasy (for the first time!), but in fact will turn out to be speed (also the first time, ha, and not a good idea for me, never to be repeated),
mutating me into a raving controlling cleanfreak bitch who ends up running around the party scolding  people for I don't know what, shuttling new men in and out of our revolving door party so fast their heads spin off their necks and fly away into the hotel air like UFO's, frenetically tweezing up microscopic chocolate bits from the white upholstered furniture, floor, windowsills, guest's forearms, off their tongues, you name it, for the whole cranked-up debauched endless-night party --
Clownfish...say no more...
but that comes later. For now, all is fluid and flowy and fabulous. Slow-mo and underwater dreamy. Chocolate crumbs spill over our lips, and we are laughing, shaking the pristine white bed, the music's pulsing, someone tosses a suggestively shaped potato across the room and someone else catches it,
while one of the young boys leaps atop a white armchair and strips off his shirt, whips his belt through the air as his jeans slip down and hug his hips,
exposing the sexy crease where torso meets leg otherwise known as the Polyclitus girdle, while Sandi rests her hand on my thigh and we melt in a moment of pure being there, a radiant Wordsworthian psychedelic sunspot in time...
The Odd Couple, w/Jack Lemmon & Walter Mathau
If friendship isn't one of the most savory of all dishes, if serving forth meals either for these friends, or paying them homage with a shared recipe, an invoked spirit, isn't the missing spice the ultimate hooping groove the necessary musical note that will bring a dish to flavorful harmony, I don't know what is.
Sass hooping in the New Year 2009 on Goa Beach, India