Monday, December 29, 2008

Would I or wouldn't I?

One of the things I love most about this profession is that I get to meet all kinds of people and talk about food, a subject that is the world's common denominator (I dare say, I've even bonded with a few double-Bush voting Republicans when we stick strictly to the topic of food).

In my conversations with people, I get asked a similar set of general questions: what is your speciality? How do you stay so skinny? What is your favorite thing to cook? What is your favorite restaurant in Seattle? A recent favorite is: Would you or would you not want to go on Top Chef?

I'm completely addicted to this show, which is sort of funny because we don't even have a functional tv, so the wine goddess and I watch week-old episodes that we download from the web on our 12 inch Mac PowerBook. I'm mesmerized from the first second to the last, albeit for those moments when Padma "I speak this slowly so the camera can linger on my cleavage" Lakshmi comes on the screen and then I'm fascinated, but for entirely different reasons.

I love this show because I'm intrigued by what chefs under intense stress and public scrutiny create when faced with extremely challenging tasks. On last week's episode, they were asked to come up with a small plate to impress 300 VIPs at a nonprofit function. They were told they'd have no help, limited funds and 2-3 hours of prep time. After an intense evening under these circumstances, they will then be ripped apart by famous chefs on national television. They will also be ripped apart, albeit hilariously, by bloggers (kudos to this blogger for saying what I never could by calling the chef contestant Melissa "bang-face" among other things).

I'll admit, some days I'd love to see how I would stack up and not just against Padma. This particular batch of chefs is less than impressive and I think I might just do okay, but in previous years I think I'd be somewhere in the middle. What I would do, unlike many of the contestants, is prepare myself. Perhaps this is my age speaking (most of the contestants are younger than I am) but really, it's not like they were whisked off in the middle of the night to join Top Chef. Once you are selected, I imagine you have time to mentally prepare yourself. This preparation could include memorizing a few signature dishes for each course of a tasting menu (including dessert, chefs! It just makes me laugh that some of them can turn out some really impressive dishes and then visibly pale in fear if they need to come up with a dessert). I would memorize dishes that are both simple enough to execute with confidence under pressure but have one or two elements of distinctive panache that would set you apart. A unique touch, an unusual use of spice, a deeply flavorful sauce; a set of dishes that give thought to color, composition, flavor and seasonality. I would only cook things that I had worked with before (unless forced). A competition is NO time to figure out how to get the meat out of a conch (and no, a mallet is not a good tool). An ostrich egg might be novel, but you'll look like the tool trying to crack it open if you have no experience doing so.

And then there are the egos. My, my. You take a large group of artistic, control-freaks that are used to running their own kitchens and throw them into a fishbowl with sharp knives, form them into small teams and make them compete under stressful conditions. It gets ugly.

"Typical chefs," says my jaded wine goddess. With years of working for ego maniacal hotheads that harass front of the house staff for sport under her belt, she feels entitled to her opinion. I always flinch when she says this; there's truth in her words and yet, I hate being painted with the same paintbrush when, for the most part, I try to keep my ego away from my kitchen. "What's that, honey?" Oh sorry, our kitchen.

There's all the difference in the world between confidence and bluster. You simply stop learning when you think you have all the answers. And besides, it's just so terribly unattractive in a person. It's food, people. You're not finding the cure for cancer.

It's easy to sit back in my chair, with my Mac television slash lap warmer and think I could do better than the contestants but at the end of the day, I'd never want to deal with the stress that they go through. I'm not sure I would hold up well under the lights and scrutiny. I can see myself beading up like a bad meringue, full of air and promise, with a lot of opportunity to weep and deflate. I give them a lot of credit for what they do. I wouldn't want to put myself through that, even if I think I could do better. At the end of the day, I don't think my ego could handle the failure if things went down the shitter.

Typical chef.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Think outside the sled

I wasn't kidding when I said I had visions of sledding on sheet trays last week. To be accurate, these are serving trays not sheet pans but they made for excellent and surprisingly speedy downhill vehicles. We met some especially crafty Seattle-ites who propelled themselves down the steep hills of closed streets in letter-carrier boxes, hefty bags, on skateboards with no wheels, mattresses, real-estate signs, cardboard boxes; or the most Darwin-award ready, inside a recycling bin, Niagra-Falls like. Some sprayed the bottoms of their makeshift sleds with nonstick spray and we heard tell that some folks couldn't figure out what the strange smell was until they figured out it was garlic-scented Pam they were using.

I thought about using my extra large Paella pan (with handles!) but I worried I might damage it and that would put the kibosh on my good time. Just in case you may be wondering if I plan on serving food from these trays to unsuspecting clients in the future, you should be comforted to know that yes, indeed, I plan on using these trays again. I believe people can taste the love and care I put into food. I'm hoping they'll feel the fun when they eat from these trays (a la Like Water for Chocolate). I'll even wash them.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sushi, tequila and the pursuit of happiness

This just in: 3-4" of snow completely shuts down Seattle. Completely. Utterly. As in everything grinds to a halt. As in Bubkus, capital B.

This week, my fair city regressed into a little city-baby, crying out for succor, so totally freaked out by the fluffy white stuff that our local NPR station found it necessary to direct an entire hour of programming to the scintillating topic "are Seattle-ites weather wimps?" Now one could argue that if you are doing an entire program on public radio on this topic than I do believe you have your question answered.

While people debated back and forth, I had a somewhat unexpected work-week holiday (cooking class canceled 2 days ago - due to inclement weather and a dinner canceled tonight -couldn't drive my car up the massive hill to Queen Anne). Instead of cooking on my sheet pans this week I have visions of sledding on them.

I'm lucky for many reasons, but one of them is that I live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, right in the middle of the city, walking distance to everything I could ever need (except a hardware store, r.i.p. City People's). When the snow started coming down, we rallied our neighborhood friends and found warmth and conviviality on a leather banquette at Liberty, just a ten-minute walk from home.

Owner Andrew Friedman is nothing but if not hospitable and his bar turned makeshift ski lodge (my friend's cross country skis leaning up against the steamy windows) turned out to be our home both last night and tonight. Why two nights in a row? Because last night we were offered a bourbon tasting (gratis) and 5 of us sipped, swirled and discussed a beverage that many of us never really drank or knew much about. This brought us back for night #2.

I've been to Liberty before. It's known for its fabulous cocktails and rather odd mini-sushi bar. I remember when I first came here last year I thought it might have been trying to be too many things, a cafe with wireless, a hip yet laid-back cocktail bar, a sushi joint (but oddly without sake). I was a little confused by the concept(s), and truth be told I still sort of am. But no matter. Tequila and sushi are two of my favorite things and goddamn if it isn't just convenient to have them in the same place. I can come here to do some writing, have some good coffee and then when the lights go down (the first turn-down comes just as you finish your first drink) you can feel secure knowing that if you are peckish, there's a yellowtail roll just over yonder, right next to the elaborate absinthe decanter, and the espresso machine.

The service is friendly and slow, like your elderly next-door neighbor who's in no rush to get down the street but when he stops in front of your house, oh he has stories! Sometimes you need to repeat your requests (they say short term memory fades with age), which in any other kind of place might be irritating but not so at Liberty. I remember that when I traveled in Italy, many Italians told me that it is rude if the servers are constantly at your table, pushing you along. It is especially rude, I was told, if they drop the check. Americans, on the contrary, find it utterly rude and unacceptable to be left alone in a restaurant or bar. We've become so used to and demanding of this constant attention that servers often ask, "still working on that?" like your food is a term paper or a dog bone and we are collectively okay with this because at least it is some form of attention.

Here's the thing: when you do get attention at Liberty, you and your friends are suddenly the only people in the bar. Andrew spent at least 20 minutes with us tonight pouring us a tequila tasting (gratis, again), freely passing on his knowledge and patiently nodding when one of us, nose fully in glass, felt like we had something, oh-so-brilliantly profound to say about the subtle flavors, the burn on our lips or the fact that none of us liked the aged Anejos. He didn't flinch when we noted the complex aromas - "yes, I'm getting a little scent of sweaty horseman high up in the mountains of Zacatecas, back in '47, wasn't it? Yes, yes, saddle and musk and hay, a little horse dung on that last one."


Andrew playing the shell game with some fine tequilas

Finally, he moved on to some other patrons and I saw him linger with them for a good long while. You may have to ask twice for your beer or for your glass of water and it may take awhile to get it, but at Liberty you own that table for the night - you are part of their family and as such you can lean your skis at their door, bring in takeout when the snow has kept their fresh fish from being delivered, and be trusted - honor system-like - with 5 bottles of fine tequila left on your table for the majority of the evening.

We're snow-wimps, for sure, and proud of it yo (and this isn't the tequila speaking... no, not the tequila, or the very fine wild-harvested sotol but it could be my very first taste of mezcal speaking right now. And how did that taste?

Sweaty horseman, back in '47.

peace.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Are those beets in my closet?

Beet salad with goat cheese, dill and DuChilly hazelnuts

When people who claim they "eat everything" and "hate nothing" are really pushed on the issue, inevitably a few items are dredged out of their past and brought out into the light. Topping the list (if we exclude certain gimmes in the offal category - liver, tongue, sweetbreads - nothing sweet or bread about them) are Brussels sprouts (aka "little green balls of death"), eggplant, lima beans, mushrooms and beets.

When you peek into my closet of old culinary foes, you'll see that bunch of beets staring back at you. No, scratch that - you'll see a can of beets blinking into the light. If we roll the tape, you'll see my nemesis with a can-opener, then a quick tour in the microwave, maybe or maybe not a run-in with salt and pepper and then an unceremonious dump onto an extremely unhappy child's plate.

To my young palate, beets tasted like a very unholy trinity of sugar, dirt and metallic can. While, now, I do eat beets from time to time and love me some borscht, the thought of sitting down to a big plate of beets turns me off. I can't erase the bad memories.

Some vegetables need absolutely nothing more than a pinch of salt to bring out their beauty - think potato, fennel, tomato, asparagus - others do best when you minimize certain aspects (or downright hide them). In the later category I would place kale. Kale can be unbearably bitter and strong sometimes. A quick dunk in some boiling, salted water before sauteing in some flavored oil, with just a pinch of something sweet to contrast with the now-muted bitterness will do wonders. I will use a bit of raisins for the sweetness, a pinch of brown sugar, a tiny drizzle of honey with collards, or get the sweetness from reduced balsamic vinegar.

When I graduated from canned beets to real beets, with green, leafy tops and dirt stuck to the skins I noticed a distinct improvement. Nevertheless I still couldn't get around the cloying sweetness and the taste of dirt in my mouth. Or maybe I was stymied by the color, as the author Laurie Colwin says in her classic book More Home Cooking, "you expect me to eat something magenta?" No, no, that wasn't it. It's that I never had beets prepared correctly. When something is so sweet they make sugar out of it, for god's sake, you need to balance that sweetness to distribute the sensations all over your palate. You know that guy (everyone knows that guy) who keeps prattling on and on and on about his career. A one-tune guy at a cocktail party is not so different from a vegetable that just keeps screaming one thing at you. It's boring, frankly. Jesus, I must still hate beets.

I'm going to give you a recipe that is not a recipe at all. It's more of a palate exercise. Take a medium-sized beet, slap some olive oil on it and some salt and pepper and roast it on a foil-lined sheet (you'll thank me later) at 375 degrees. When you remember it later, about an hour later, slip a knife into it and if it comes out easily the beet is done. Let it cool for a little bit and then don some highly attractive latex gloves or not, if you're content looking like you murdered someone earlier in the day. Slip off the skin from the beet (you can do this under running water if the beet is still really hot.) Dice the beet into small cubes.

Now. Gather the following ingredients... some sea salt, some pepper, a bit of sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, some soft goat cheese, dill and some toasted hazelnuts (I am crazy for DuChilly hazelnuts, which we get locally). Finally, go find some raspberry vinegar.

Here is the experiment. Take the beet cubes and divide them evenly into ten small bowls.

Bowl #1: Plain beets
Bowl #2: Beets + salt
Bowl #3: Beets + pepper
Bowl #4: Beets + sherry vinegar (just a drop or two)
Bowl #5: Beets + olive oil
Bowl #6: Beets + goat cheese
Bowl #7: Beets + dill
Bowl #8: Beets + toasted hazelnuts (chopped)
Bowl #9: Beets + all the ingredients together (but not the raspberry vinegar)
Bowl #10: Beets plus raspberry vinegar

Record all your opinions, paying close attention to what you notice on your palate. Note how the taste of the beet changes a bit when it is combined with different things. When you are done, continue reading.

When I'm teaching students about flavor, I try to demystify things by simplifying them. If you go all crazy mad-scientist on your pot of soup (you know who you are) then it's much harder to isolate what it is that made the flavors really shine or, conversely, what made you chuck the whole thing into the sink in a fit of disgust. Add one ingredient at a time and then taste, taste, taste. This is the only way to educate your palate.

In the preceding experiment, I hope you notice that the nuttiness of the sherry vinegar is a good match with the earthiness of the beets, that the tart tang of the goat cheese and its inherent creaminess smooth the edges of the earthiness so that you can taste the earth but not taste dirt itself. I hope you see that there is a good reason why your raspberry vinegar was deep, deep, deep in the back of your pantry (and should stay there) and how it is not a good match with beets. Too sweet! The beets have sugar going for them, lots of sugar. It's best to tone that down with a little savory (dill), tart (sherry vinegar and/or goat cheese), pepper (spice), hazelnuts (just a touch of bitterness).

My friends who are avid home cooks long to know how chefs know what ingredients go well with other ingredients. They want to know how chefs know how to coax the most flavor out of the foods they are working with. My friend Traca was having a conversation with a chef the other day who said that the essence of excellent cooking begins with knowing your ingredients. Know them inside and out, like you know yourself, like you know your lover, like you know your best friend. What makes them tick? What goes well with their personalities? What makes them sour, bitter, sweet? What makes them make you sleep on the couch? When do you dress them up? When do you just leave them alone?

When you know your ingredients like this, your food will reward you. You just may stay off the damn couch, too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้ ไหม

a little slice of heaven

I've long since forgotten the name of the little restaurant in Chiang Mai, the one where I sat down and said in my most earnest and embarrassingly inept Thai the equivalent of "I'd like your regional speciality." I had been taking Thai lessons with a friend back in Seattle leading up to my trip. I had the numbers down pretty well and could speak fairly fluent "menu" (my favorite language), but Thai is tonal and that means that one little inflection here, some trailing off on a last syllable there and suddenly, "I'd like your regional speciality" could be "Give me your town's virgin pig."

A popular tongue-twister that my teacher taught me was: "mai mai mai mai mai." In English transliteration, it would seem that this is the same word five times, but in Thai it's five distinctly different words with different pronunciations.

In Thai it looks like:

ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้ ไหม

It means: "new wood doesn't burn, does it?"

So when the server came back, I was pretty damn pleased with myself that she had a bowl in her hand, no virgin pig trailing behind, and that she was presenting me with what I later learned was, indeed, the speciality of Chiang Mai. (Then again, perhaps I've been patting myself on the back all these years. "Just give her some khao soy," the cook probably said to the server, "she's a hungry farang who just butchered our language, but extra noodles for the effort.")


mise-en-place

When I got back to Seattle I was distressed to find that it is only the rare Thai restaurant that serves this dish. Luckily, it's fairly easy to make at home. Once you purchase the requisite tub-o-curry paste, you should be good to go for a few to ten years. I made the noodles from scratch but you don't need to, just find a good supplier of fresh egg noodles. One ingredient I highly encourage you to seek out or perhaps make yourself is the pickled mustard greens (or cabbage). I love the contrast between the vinegary, crisp, and slightly spicy greens with the tender noodles, creamy curry-coconut broth and fresh lime and cilantro. I'm fairly sure the duck is not traditionally a part of Khao Soy (I had it with chicken), but so very good you won't really care. In fact, last night I made this for my good friend who swore she hated duck (twenty years ago when she last tried it). Turns out, not so much.




Khao Soy noodles with seared duck, pickled mustard greens and cilantro

Ingredients

1 pound duck breasts -- fat scored
2 tbsp Panang curry paste -- (or use 3 for a spicy good time)
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp yellow curry powder
1 can coconut milk
2 cups chicken or duck stock
2 Limes -- 1 juiced to season curry, the other cut in wedges for garnish
1 tbsp fish sauce -- add more to taste if you like
1 pound fresh vermicelli egg noodles -- sold in the cooler at Asian markets (look for Chinese egg noodles), or at Italian shops, or made at home
1 tbsp salt
2 cups oil, such as peanut or canola
1 pkg pickled mustard greens -- sliced, sold at Asian markets (or pickled cabbage)
1 small shallot -- sliced paper thin
1 bunch cilantro

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Prepare the duck: Score the fat side of the duck into a grid pattern (slice only through the fat and not the flesh). Rub 1 tablespoon of the Panang curry paste all over the duck breasts, both sides. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the coconut oil and when hot, add the duck breasts fat side down. Turn the heat down to medium-low and render the fat out of the duck breasts until you can see only a thin sliver of fat on the breasts and you’ve developed a nice crust, about 10 minutes. Turn the breasts over and cook for 2-3 minutes only on the flesh side. Remove to a plate and cover loosely with foil.

Prepare the curry: In the same pan that you cooked the duck add the remaining curry paste and cook until it turns a nice dark rust color, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook 30 more seconds then add the coconut milk and stock. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the curry with some lime juice and fish sauce. Slice the duck into thin slices (it should be medium rare). Add any duck juices that remain on the board to the curry. Keep the duck warm.

Cook the noodles: Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the boiling water. Reserve a cup of the egg noodles for frying. Boil the rest of the egg noodles for 2-4 minutes (depending on thickness). Don’t overcook! Meanwhile bring a small pot of oil to 350 degrees. Fry the reserved noodles until brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels.

Assemble the dish and garnishes: Add the cooked noodles to the curry. Arrange the duck, crispy noodles, mustard greens, shallot, cilantro and lime on a plate. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes
  • Panang curry paste has more dry spices in it than red, yellow, or green Thai curries. If you can't find it, you can substitute with Thai red curry paste.
  • Coconut oil can be found at PCC in the Seattle area or natural food stores elsewhere. You can substitute with peanut oil.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Naughty and Nice


I like lists. Rather, I like to cross things off lists.

I used to have this habit of collecting other people's shopping lists that I'd find abandoned in carts, partially crossed off, or stuck to the floor of the local grocery store aisle. I'd pick them up at farmer's markets and shove them deep into my pockets. I'd see them at convenience stores in people's hands and read them, on the sly, sideways, eluding detection, catching "beer" and "cigarettes" before moving past them on my way to retrieving what was on my list, "Mike and Ikes" and "tp". These passing looks like small windows carved into their lives, or mine.

When I was a teenager I was a checker at the Grand Union, in Landing, New Jersey. I used to love to see what came across my belt and imagine the meals that would spring forth from the raw materials. The food spoke volumes about the people. Lots of frozen food, buffalo wings and cheap beer and you just knew there was a big t.v. and lots of couch time in that person's immediate future. Overweight women came through with their track suits, sneakers, bottled water and lean cuisines and I secretly rooted for them. My favorite type were the inconsistent ones. Piles upon piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats and then, a technicolor addition, hidden, rather poorly, beneath a banana is a lone box of Nerds. I loved these types because I am one of them, with my mostly healthy diet supplemented liberally with Donettes and Zours.

When I make a to-do list, it's like I'm throwing out a challenge to myself. I never make one with just a couple of things on it, because that would be far too easy. I think I purposely lengthen my lists just to see if I can possibly accomplish the job. I consider this to demonstrate ambitious tendencies, but my wine goddess thinks this reveals deep neuroses.

Show me a to-do list maker and I will show you one organized mofo who can't relax. Maybe I really, secretly, hate to-do lists.

But there are other kinds of lists. An old friend and I used to laugh at each other because we kept lists in the backs of our datebooks. We had been talking about which restaurants we wanted to check out and almost at the same moment, we pulled out our "restaurants to try" list at the back of our books. Rationalizing my behavior I might just say that it's because I have a terrible memory (true) but if I'm really honest I have to admit that lists are neat, orderly and appeal to my internal sense of order kicking chaos' ass (in between my ears if not in actuality).

Finding a fellow list-maker in each other made us giddy and then, of course, we had to compare notes. It was both embarrassing and liberating. We'd go back and forth sharing our little secret scribbles we kept hidden from the world. "I keep lists of movies I want to see," she said, "or books I want to read."

A different friend sent me a book as a present. It's called (straight-forward enough) To-Do List, from buying milk to finding a soul mate, what our lists reveal about us by Sasha Cagen. It's so entirely voyeuristic you will feel a little strange reading some guy's list of 10 ways he could be a better husband, or you may feel a little dirty reading another's list of what makes a perfect sexual mate and that is precisely why you now want to go read this book.

"I keep lists of my favorite movies and my favorite books," I told my friend, and then with my voice a bit lower, "and a list of my favorite foods". I'm not sure why this was embarrassing to reveal but it sort of was. It's not like it was a "who I've slept with" list or something (and oh, I've made those, giggling with friends over beers and comparing numbers or lack thereof). Truth is, those times when I lose perspective and feel cranky or worried or am just having a shitcrap day, it makes me feel better to look at my list of favorite foods. Call it my list "binkie" if you will. Nothing need be accomplished. Certainly nothing to cross off, unless your tastes change. This kind of list roots you in the moment, into your senses and is an antidote to the to-do list, which moves me through the world on hyper-drive, so goal-oriented I gobble up time, totally out of touch with the present, on a one-track course to crumpling up that piece of paper just so I can pull out a fresh one and start all over again.

The "favorite food" list is faded, worn and in a good life, has a smudge of some favorite food stuff like my well-loved cookbooks.

1. Matzo ball soup, stock made from scratch, matzo balls made with chicken fat. Eat early and often.

2. Braised short ribs, lots of time, lots of wine. They must fall to the plate in a heap of rich, meaty loveliness at the slightest prod of the fork tine.

3. A perfect hamachi hand roll, nori is crisp, rice is just slightly warm, lightly tart, lightly sweet, hamachi is in thick, unctuous slabs, wasabi is applied with a delicate hand, with just the smallest amount of soy so as to not overwhelm the delicate flavors of the fish.

4. A slice of New York cheese pizza, thin crispy crust a must, grease dribbling down chin a requirement.

5. Raspberries, off the bush, still warm from the sun, in little green baskets.

6. A New York bagel, with cream cheese, with Nova lox, with a tomato, with a squeeze of lemon and my grandmother smiling at me at the end of the table.

7. A bag of hot, tiny, powdered donuts from The Daily Dozen Co. known as the "little bastards" because no matter how many they make, they always sell out.

8. Oysters on the half shell, Pacifics from Jack's Fish Spot in the Pike Place Market, eaten on newspaper overlooking Puget Sound, or native Olympia oysters painstakingly shucked for just the smallest, most delicately sweet reward, or cluster oysters eaten in South Carolina with my family.

9. A New Jersey tomato eaten out of hand like an apple, like my grandfather did, with salt, standing in the garden one pace from whence it came.

10. A big steaming bowl of Khao Soy, a speciality of Chiang Mai, Thailand (delicate egg noodles in a rich, coconut, turmeric-colored curry broth with fried egg noodles on top, shallot, pickled cabbage and chicken or beef).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Close your eyes. Smell.

Guinea pig, smelling the world, waiting to be adopted at the Seattle Pound

Outside Charleston, South Carolina: We're over at my cousin's house and I'm eating for 2, but I'm not pregnant unless you count my growing "food" baby as a separate entity from myself. I've been eating my way through our visit here, giddily slurping down piles of local "cluster" oysters thrown on the grill, savoring shrimp and grits (briny, sweet meat with creamy, silky corn meal, just a bit of texture left in the grain), and then some double-cut pork chops so full of flavor and juice it was obscene (or maybe it was just obscene how I ate it - like a Neanderthal, bone in hand, right off my uncle's plate at the Fat Hen, this low-country French bistro with soul food and jelly jars of good cheap wine).

We're all from New Jersey so we try on this Southern thing like a borrowed jacket, not a bad look if a bit ill-fitting. My aunt and uncle, cousin and grandmother relocated here a few years ago and where we used to gather around our matriarch's tables at the houses on the lake, just an hour from New York City, we now fly into Charleston, wind our cars through the live oaks and descend upon Johns Island to the big house between the marsh and the swamp.

We take walks on the beach, say hello to the friendly locals and beat down deceptively and almost quaintly-named "Palmetto bugs" as they dive-bomb our heads late at night. Around this time of year, stuffed fatter than the turkey we brined, we rub our stomachs like happy Buddhas and play hyper-competitive Scrabble matches (not even pretending it's just a friendly little game), hoping that our sheer concentration and intense wordplay burns calories.

We lay out on the couches like turtles on logs, the football game our sun. We read our books (I'm just finishing up Julie & Julia, snorting out loud at her humor and her way around an f-bomb). We attack the Sunday New York Times crossword with gusto. My 96 year old grandmother throws me a bone every once in a while and lets me fill in 2 or 3 answers; she's been solving the puzzle for the better part of 40 years with very little outside assistance, although my aunt might beg to differ.

Back at my cousin's, we're finishing up dinner, stacking plates and telling stories while we dish out the pecan Bourbon pie and ice cream that no one needs and everyone wants. Out of the corner of my eye I see her 5 year old's PlayDough stash and in an impulsive move I reach over, open it up and stick my nose - no small feat - right into it. I resist taking a nibble, although I saw my childhood friends do this often (I preferred a smidgen of Chapstick for a snack, thank you very much). I then move around the group beseeching my family to close their eyes while I stick the iconic mustard yellow container under their noses.

Smell. Guess. Tell me what you think it is.

I love the part when the recognition comes over their faces; a slow, half-smile forms as they realize the smell, the unmistakable aroma of post-70's childhood.

I do this at home, when friends come over. It's one of my favorite games, my party game. I pull spices off my spice wall, un-clicking them from their magnet home, opening them up and making my guests close their eyes and guess. I start in easy with no-brainers like cinnamon and mint and work my way up, passing cumin and rosemary on the way to fenugreek, saffron and sumac.

Certain smells can turn my mood around like music can for most people. Sticking my beak into a jar of cloves is an instant serotonin booster. I don’t know why. I have no distinct memory of clove, per se, being directly connected with something wonderful. There are just those smells that do it for you.

The smell of a wood fire, marshmallows burning, crisp cold air. Coffee. Garlic and onions slowly cooking in olive oil. My wine goddess' perfume, Jo Malone Orange Blossom, one hour after application, right where her neck meets her collarbone. Chocolate, as in cookies, as in brownies, as in cupcakes. Red wines that are earthy, almost musty with a strong rush of fruit and pepper, as in Syrah. The mingled smells of cut grass and my father's Old Spice, circa 1978, as he mows the lawn. Roses, in my grandmother's garden, and the smell of the beauty salon in her hair as she bends over them.

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