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On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:


Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook


  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter


  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.


Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook


  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper


  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.

Two Brownies You’ll Love to Hate

Peter Pearson Chocolate There’s a special joy in preparing something for the second time — or maybe the thousandth, whatever the case may be. It has to do with a flow, an organization, an ease in the kitchen, feeling a command over the various elements at play. I’ve heard Ina  Garten say something to the effect of, “Every cook needs just needs a rotating repertoire of about 10 recipes.” This tends to happen naturally when you enjoy home cooking, but I like the idea of being more intentional about the process of testing new recipes, and the process of organizing and refining the keepers.

What I do know for sure is that it’s essential for brownies to be a part of the rotation. Otherwise there’s a voice in my head that pushes me out the door and along the all-too short path to a convenience store, where I will buy a pack of m&ms and I will graze on them in a manner that is unhealthy. I’m working on that. I am learning that according to Buddhist principles, cravings are inherently toxic to general well-being because they indicate a lack of mindfulness, that is, a disciplining of the mind to discern the difference between reality and the subjective thoughts and feelings that we project onto reality. But enough of that high brow talk — back to brownies. And chocolate. And baking.

Baking is kind of like penmanship. It’s a bit old-fashioned, it requires steady hands, and the ability to follow instructions well. Baking is not life-changing. But baking is life sustaining, feeding us, literally, but on another level, guiding us to toward the present, physical moment, which heals.

I’m really attached to the role that baking has in my life. There was a preteen summer of my childhood during which I requested to my mom that we bake a cobbler most days, and most days we did. My mom was cool like that. Still is. These days, I make enough of a mess cooking, so I have less patience to hand make my own baked goods, special occasions notwithstanding. But I’m no less obsessed with baked goods.

There’s a running list of “stuff I want to make” that I e-mail myself whenever I’m early for an appointment or an exercise class or you name it. There you go — that’s my secret — that’s what I’m doing when I look so “busy” on my phone. For a food obsessed soul who doesn’t always like to be alone with her own worries, perusing food blogs is what I do best. And it pays off. It really does. I tend to know what I’m bringing to the next potluck, or meeting, or family party. (For example, I think it’s about time to test out my mini donut pan and Joy the Baker’s Baked Brown Butter Pistachio Donuts.)

Most recently, I found myself perusing The Vanilla Bean Blog, and in particular, this chocolate loaf cake, adapted from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s book, How To Become a Domestic Goddess. (How’s that for a title.) At the top of the post for this “sunken, squidgy, chocolate masterpiece,” blogger Sarah quotes Lawson’s book on the draw of baking:

“In a way, baking stands both as a useful metaphor for the familial warmth of the kitchen we fondly imagine used to exist, and as a way of reclaiming our lost Eden. This is hardly a culinary matter, of course; but cooking, we know, has a way of cutting through things, and to things, which have nothing to do with the kitchen. This is why it matters… Sometimes, we don’t want to feel like a postmodern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.”

Amen sista. Here are two recipes I tried this past week and then consumed with a fervor. Now I hate them, because even my gym clothes are feeling a bit tight. (It’s probably telling enough that I made both in one week and I live in a two person household.) So dive on in, but watch out — these brownie beauties are goooood.

Walnut brownie Dana Lipárová

Walnut Brownies, Rich and Chocolaty
Adapted from Big Bowl of Love by Cristina Ferrare
Makes 12 large brownies

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for greasing the pan, or baking spray
1 8 oz box of Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 pinches of salt
2 large eggs, slightly beaten, room temp
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped and toasted in a dry skillet for a few minutes

Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
8-inch square baking dish
Spatula or wooden spoon
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
2 mixing bowls
Whisk or fork
Vanilla extract
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Sifter (for homemade cake flour)
Small skillet
Pot holders
Butter knife

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (I use an oven thermometer, and I’d highly recommend it. My oven is never accurate and I’d be lost without it. For these brownies I had to press 400 and keep checking the  internal temperature. Ugg.)
  • Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the sliced butter in a saucepan. Use the butter wrap to grease the baking dish, using extra butter if needed.
  • Coarsely chop 3 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate. Add the chocolate to the saucepan. If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
  • Place the saucepan on the stove and over low heat, melt the stick of butter and the chocolate. Regularly stir the mixture, but do so gently. I like to use a heat-resistant, silicone spatula, but a wooden spoon also works. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes, allowing the mixture to cool (I like to use the kitchen timer on my microwave).
  • Meanwhile, crack the 2 eggs into a small mixing bowl and gently beat them together with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.
  • Measure the cake flour into a separate mixing bowl. If you don’t have cake flour on hand, make your own by following these simple instructions: Measure 1 cup of flour and place it in a sifter over a large bowl. Measure 2 tablespoons from the 1 cup and toss them back in the flour bin. Replace those 2 tablespoons with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour and the cornstarch together about five times.
  • Measure the walnuts, chop the walnuts, and toast them in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until they taste fragrant and extra nutty.
  • Coarsely chop the rest of the Baker’s unsweetened chocolate.
  • Add the eggs and vanilla to the chocolate/butter mixture and stir until all of the ingredients are fully incorporated.
  • Add the cake flour (if you made it yourself, 12 tablespoons equals 3/4 cup) and stir until just blended.
  • Add the coarsely chopped Baker’s chocolate and the walnuts. Stir to combine.
  • Pour the batter into the baking dish and spread it evenly. Tap the dish on the counter to get rid of any bubbles.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out almost clean. Don’t overbake. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, if you can resist ‘em. Run a butter knife along the outer edge to loosen the brownies from the pan and then slice into large pieces.

Single-Serve Brownie Pudding
Adapted from Back to Basics by Ina Garten
Makes 6 servings

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for the dishes
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons good cocoa powder
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Vanilla ice cream, for serving, if desired

Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
6 crème brulée dishes, or single-serve gratin dishes
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
Paring knife
Cutting board
jelly roll pan
Large liquid measuring cup

  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
    If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
  • Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the pieces of butter in a mixing bowl. Melt them in the microwave. Set aside the melted butter and grease each dish with the wax paper. Make sure all the dishes are generously buttered.
  • Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat for 5-8 minutes on medium-high speed, or as long as it takes for the mixture to get very thick and light yellow.
  • Meanwhile, place the cocoa powder and the flour in a sifter over a mixing bowl. Sift them together and set the mixture aside.
  • Add the vanilla extract and the cocoa powder/flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Then slowly pour in the melted butter, mixing until just combined.
  • Use a 1/4 cup measure to fill each dish with the batter. Place the dishes on a jelly roll pan and place the pan on the stovetop. Fill a large, liquid measuring cup with hot tap water and fill the pan with enough hot water to come halfway up the side of each dish.
  • Carefully lower the sheet pan into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out mostly clean. They are supposed to be underbaked in the center. Carefully transfer the gratin dishes to a baking rack using a large set of kitchen tongs.
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