See, here's the thing...
I'd planned to finish writing my post about Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper today. I spent the weekend with family and friends celebrating babies, engagements, and other lovely things. First thing on my to-do list for this morning, this Monday morning, was to wake up early, finish that post, and push it out to the blog so it could greet you as you checked your feed or your bookmarks before diving into your busy day.
And then, this happened:
When I went to bed last night, after having had my neighbors over for dinner followed by dessert and a glass of scotch by the fire at their house, there was maybe a half-inch of snow on the ground. Because we'd been told ALL DAY SUNDAY we were under a HOLY CRAP YOU'D BETTER GO BUY DIAPERS AND MILK AND BREAD AND TOILET PAPER WINTER STORM WARNING BECAUSE YOU MIGHT STARVE TO DEATH OR HAVE A CALCIUM DEFICIENCY OR NOT BE ABLE TO WIPE YOUR ARSE BECAUSE THERE IS 6" OF SNOW ON THE GROUND, PEOPLE, AND DON'T FORGET TO DRIVE LIKE A MANIAC AND ACT LIKE A HUGE JERK THE WHOLE TIME YOU'RE AT THE STORE BUYING THOSE ITEMS BECAUSE YOU ARE CLEARLY THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE ENTIRE PLACE, I was totally bummed that, once again, the big old winter storm warning turned out to be nothing but a misting of rain and a light dusting of snow.
Before heading off to bed, grumbling about stupid-idiot-meteorologists-we-never-get-snow-here-anymore-blah-blah-blah-bittercakes, I checked my calendar and to-do lists for the morning, certain I'd have to work and that it would be business as usual. It was going to be a killer of a week with meetings, events, deadlines, and media interviews with clients.
I woke up just before 6 o'clock this morning (which I never do on my own) because it was quiet. Too quiet. The kind of quiet only a blanket of snow can bring. I quietly edged out of bed, peeked through the blinds, and was face-to-face with a tree limb covered in snow. I shoved my feet into my slippers, threw on a robe, ran downstairs, flung open the front door, and just took in everything around me.
I've written before about how much I love snow, and that magical things happen when it snows. But today's snowfall was the most significant one we've had all winter and granted us something we rarely ever get here in these parts: a snow day.
I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Washington, DC, snow days are special. School closings aside, they're a tacit agreement that work can be suspended for a day. That while you'll still probably check your voicemail and email every few hours, you don't have to respond. That it's okay to go back to sleep for another hour or two, then wake up to make a big breakfast, and abandon whatever plans you might've had for a day in which you get to press the pause button and just stop and take it all in.
I've lived in and around this city for nearly 23 years, and snow days don't come around all that often. Here in the nation's capital, like other cities, we work hard. But, the one thing we don't do well is play hard. We like to think we do or tell people we do, but we don't.
Living in Washington, and working in politics especially, means you work 24/7. Not that you're always in the office or on the phone wheeling and dealing, but I feel like in this city, the lines are blurred or nonexistent between politics, work, the news, family, and friends, which can be really great, but can also lead to feeling like you never really have a day off. Don't get me wrong: some of the best and deepest personal relationships I have came out of a professional setting at first, but it's hard to live here and not talk shop when you're technically supposed to be off the clock. It's common for a dinner party or night at the movies to end in a quick round-up of something you read in the Post or the Times, or who's going to call whom on behalf of someone else to make sure someone votes a certain way on a piece of legislation or hires the right lobbyist or gets involved in one coalition or another. It's neither good nor bad. It just is.
That's where snow days come in.
They allow those of us who take ourselves way too seriously a day to hole up at home, not answer the phone if we don't want to, not go into work, and not feel guilty about ignoring our to-do lists for 24 hours. It's a chance to stare out the window at the birdfeeder, watch crap TV, and not make the bed because you may crawl back into it a few hours later for an afternoon nap.
Snow days bring out the best and worst in people. In my case, today's snow brought out the best in one of my neighbors who, with his son, not only shoveled my front sidewalk, but also shoveled a path around my car and to their front door so we can easily get to one another's houses until the snow melts.
So, to thank them, I decided to make Cream of Walnut Soup from The French Laundry Cookbook.
But wait, Carol, I hear you saying. Isn't this blog supposed to be all about cooking your way through the Alinea cookbook?
But I realized something today that I hadn't really thought about, and I credit the snow and the gift of a day off it brought for making this connection.
Two years ago (almost to the day, in fact), I made Cream of Walnut Soup for the very first time. I was only six weeks into French Laundry at Home and was still holding the book at arm's length. I was intimidated by that book and felt like it was almost too pristine for me to touch, let alone cook from. I was still figuring out the hows and whys, and was nervous as hell every time I opened the page to a new recipe. But this one dish, the Cream of Walnut Soup, I'd made on a day it unexpectedly snowed and it was the first dish in that book, now in hindsight, that I feel I really nailed and got right. I will forever associate this taste with feeling like I'd stepped over a giant threshold into some kind of acceptance and warmth, and I'll always associate it with a snowy day when I got to have some welcomed, needed down time.
It's never felt right to make it since then. It just doesn't taste the same without snow on the ground and grey clouds straddling the sky. It only feels right to make this on a day like today.
So, when I saw the snow on the ground this morning and had the ingredients on hand, I knew I wasn't going to finish my other post, and instead reached for The French Laundry Cookbook, which has a permanent home on my kitchen counter propped up alongside the refrigerator. Opening that book again reminded me, almost startlingly, of what it felt like two years ago to be cooking my way through it. And, as I pulled ingredients from the pantry and fridge, it made me think about what it's been like to cook from the Alinea cookbook so far.
Am I still a little nervous when starting a new recipe? Sometimes.
Do I keep the book at arm's length? Yes. But not in the same way as I did The French Laundry Cookbook.
Cooking my way through the Alinea cookbook has felt different because it is different. Not only are they different restaurants and books, I'm cooking my way through them from different perspectives. I never ate at The French Laundry before cooking my way through that book, but I did eat at Alinea before starting this blog. I never met Chef Keller until I was nearly done with that blog, but I met Grant Achatz before starting this one. The French Laundry Cookbook had been around for nearly ten years before I started cooking from it and writing about it, whereas the Alinea cookbook had been out for ten minutes before this blog went live. I was bored and restless and needed something challenging to engage with when I started French Laundry at Home, but started Alinea at Home at a time when my personal and professional lives were and still are the busiest they'd ever been.
I guess what's interesting to me in all this is I, like many others, I think, am a creature of habit and really, really, really don't like being outside my comfort zone. The funny thing is, I'm great at counseling my clients to reach out in new and more creative and risky directions, but when it comes to me, I like my routines, and the things and people I'm comfortable with. I've been this way my whole life. Seriously, ask my parents; they could write a freakin' encyclopedia on how to raise a daughter who is stubborn and likes things the way they are so don't alter anything or she might have a conniption. And while I'm sure experts would say it stems from some deep-rooted psychological something or other from when I was probably a minute old, it's just who I am and I make no apologies for it. And even though my being this way actually works in my favor more often than not, I do get frustrated with myself from time to time because it has the potential to translate to missed opportunities and laziness... two things that I hate more than I hate the notion of change.
Truth be told, I'm envious of people who are really creative and innovative risk-takers, and whose brains work in ways mine doesn't. I admire people who can sit down with a guitar and an empty page of sheet music and pull together a song, or who can paint and draw, or do an architectural rendering. And when it comes to food, I am mesmerized by and a little jealous of someone like Grant Achatz, who can do what he does in the way he does it, because my brain is just not wired like that at all.
And that's why I think I was drawn to the Alinea cookbook above anything else. Because it's so not me, but represents traits and skills I admire in others, but had not yet been willing to take the risk to figure out how to adapt or embed in myself. I don't know if it's possible for me to change in that way or explore the possibility of rewiring (or even just tinkering with) my brain in this manner, but I knew I needed to get better about breaking out of my comfort zone, and doing it with food seemed to me to be a path that would make me the most willing to learn.
While The French Laundry Cookbook seemed daunting at the time I first took it on, as I now look back on it now, it was full of ingredients I recognized, measurements I was familiar with, and techniques that I mostly knew but needed to perfect. The Alinea cookbook has far more ingredients I've never heard of, techniques I've never tried, and measurements I was resistant to (using a scale) but now can't believe I haven't adopted sooner.
Cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook enabled me to walk into the grocery store without a list and still be able to figure out what I could cook based on what looked fresh and good. It strengthened the techniques and thought processes that eventually got me away from cooking from recipes and, instead, relying on my intuition and experience.
I have no idea what the Alinea cookbook is going to have taught me when I push that last post to this site, and that's weird, yet oddly comforting, because while both books are very different, I'm still the same person cooking from them. Today, as I was peeling a pear and toasting some walnuts, I thought about what my Cream of Walnut soup will be with the Alinea cookbook. What will be the dishes I most associate with certain times, places, moods, and events? What techniques or flavor profiles will I learn that two years from now will be commonplace in my own kitchen? Instead of stepping out of my comfort zone, I wonder how far my comfort zone will expand. What will I excel at? What will be dismal failures? What will frustrate me? What will create, cement, or remind me of certain moments and memories?
Two years ago, when I celebrated a surprise snow day with Cream of Walnut Soup, I never could have guessed that that would be a significant taste memory today. Even bigger than a taste memory, I suppose. A state of mind memory. And, I'm grateful for it because it's so unexpected -- I mean, I already loved snow and snow days more than anyone I know. How awesome to have something so delicious to layer on with that. And the layering takes on a whole new perspective when I think about pears and walnuts in their raw form, and what taste memories I have of them individually over the years. To then have this extra association of Cream of Walnut Soup on top of all that is pretty cool.
So, I guess today's snow day has made me even more curious as to what, in the future, I'll be able to look back on from the Alinea cookbook and think (and sorry for the convoluted math-like equation I'm about to drop on you), "Man, I already loved W, X, and Y on their own because of reason A, but when paired with Z and then made together as B during this certain time of my life, it's created this whole new association, which is even cooler than the original ingredients were to begin with."
Do you have any really, truly significant food/taste/situational memories? Wanna tell us about 'em? Comment away, my friends. Comment away.
Up Next (I promise): Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper (and the winners of the dried hibiscus!)
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