Cookbook Countdown #2: The Silver Spoon

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In 2009, I had the briefest of flirtations with substance abuse.

The kitchen at my new job was built with reality show cash, and stuffed with glorious snacks. Lunch became the appetizer to my main course, string-cheese-and-chips medley. I laid out generous platters of red vines in my office and refreshed them daily, “for guests.” Habit matured into problem when I noticed I was standing up from my desk every day around 3 pm to eat two whole Twixes. Let me clarify that is four cookie bars, because eating two is entirely reasonable. Then I crashed and fell asleep at my desk. Every day! Did you know you can eat so much Twix that you stop ovulating? You can, if you build insulin resistance, which I did, according to my doctor. I felt nauseous, erratic and exhausted, but I couldn’t stop forcing it down my gullet and stumbling back to my office, like a sugar-addled kid teetering through early November.

If the craving hit and I wasn’t at my desk, I swerved into the nearest gas station. If I triumphed over an afternoon without a fix, I woke up at night dreaming of chocolate and unable to fall asleep until I found it. Who knows what the neuroscience of it was, feeding my reward center or whatever, but I’m the only 35 year old working in entertainment who has never seen cocaine, so this is the closest I can imagine to what a drug spiral feels like.

Because LA is a goldmine of onerous fixes to simple problems, a friend claimed the only solution was (of course) a hypnotherapist who specialized in eliminating compulsive behavior. His area of expertise is cigarettes, but I knew a standup who had been to him for stage fright, and a writer for internet addiction. The road from Michigander to Angeleno is paved with “wellllllll, why not,” and I crossed an unmarked border when I called Kerry to make my first appointment. Friends argued that if it worked I’d be miserable, that life wasn’t worth living without sweets, but other than this hiccup, my loyalty had traditionally lain with salt. I would never want to be brainwashed out of, say, a creamy sheep’s milk feta, but no candy was worth my ovaries. Don’t you agree, Mr. President?

Anyway! After three soothing chats on a La-Z-Boy in Kerry’s Santa Monica garage, I stopped fiending, and my pre-diabetes regressed. I didn’t “go under” or anything, but I remember clearly that Kerry said every time I wanted a Twix, I was viewing it through a pinhole, and through that pinhole, all I could see was a Twix bar. He told me I had to expand my field of vision to inventory everything else I also wanted – my health, my energy, my job, (at risk, from Too Many Naps). He also, incongruously, segued into his recipe for black bean soup, which is by the way delicious.

This is a roundabout way of saying I know why I suck at dessert, and why my last dinner party ended in disgust and depression over a chalky mousse. With my upcoming dinner party schedule, I’m worried that sugar indifference will make me a bad host. After last time I was embarrassed, and determined to improve my guest experience. I’m not expecting miracles, just aiming for edible. If my mother, a vegetarian, can make a perfect Rogan Josh, surely I can end a meal on at least a neutral note.

Our guests were Alex Gregory and Jessica Scott, married couple and parents to sweet, intelligent, hilarious 9 year old twin girls. Alex is a cartoonist comedy writer, and old friend of my husband. Jessica parachuted from the entertainment industry to become a school therapist, which has clearly come in useful, because their kids are a delight. They’re the kind of children we’d like to raise, so we’ll be mirroring this family’s choices, in a creepy way, for a long time.

This week’s dinner was from The Silver Spoon cookbook, the Rosetta Stone of Italian Cookery. Because I majored in Italian and spent so much time there, I knew the recipes were going to be cheerful suggestions, rather than accurate roadmaps. If you’ve ever tried to ask for directions in Italy, you know what it means to cook with this book. A friendly local will leave out mundane details like street names, and encourage you to navigate via landmarks. You’ll notice that there are different terms for “go straight” and “go really straight,” which is warning enough, but you’ll probably end up near the right spot, with a belly full of yum.

Starter: Ribollita

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I was bored and nervous halfway though making this, a bunch of ordinary vegetables in boiling water. I apologized before serving “just” vegetable soup. But if this is just vegetable soup, I’m the Hope Diamond. There is no reason for it to be delicious, it just is, like an ugly perfect tomato. The directions say to simmer for two hours , but it would have done well at a slightly higher heat, to break down the veggies a little more and reduce the liquid. My memories from Italy are that ribollita sits on a plate like a mound of risotto, but that’s what I get for using the Ezekiel bread I had on hand instead of buying some starchy tasteless Tuscan rolls. Next time, real bread for an A+.

Main: Spring Lamb with Potatoes

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Mine was an eyesore, but melt-in-your-mouth and easy, even for someone who never cooks meat. I don’t know why it’s called spring lamb, because we should all be eating this when it’s cold. Unless it’s cold in spring? I don’t actually understand weather any more, because we don’t have it, which is why a newborn in New Jersey just received a tiny sunsuit from me (sorry, baby Luca).

The recipe calls for 4 potatoes, but American potatoes must be much bigger than Italian, because 2 overwhelmed the pan. Instructions get a little higgledy-piggledy after braising the meat in wine, but the blueprint is basically foolproof. My only adjustments were keeping it covered in the oven to cook the potatoes fully, and then taking off the lid to brown them at the end, soft and soaked in fat.

Dessert: Chocolate soufflé

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Alex and Jessica brought carrot cake, and I’m wondering if Rodney warned them. Dessert was edible! It was definitely less a soufflé than a boiling hot cake, and I could barely taste it because it was same temperature as the oven. It started to fall immediately after serving, but the caving was hidden under a mound of whipped cream. Our guests willingly ate their portions, and followed them up with two slices of carrot cake. The next day, one leftover ramekin contained a rubbery mess, and I might as well have cooked it in the microwave. It was not exactly a triumph, but not a failure, so I’ll tally it as an improvement.

I’m especially pleased with myself given a disturbing trend; six years after hypnotherapy, I don’t even think about sweets, but I do have to mute myself from shouting “THAT’S REPULSIVE” when people order dessert at a restaurant, because I want friends. Could my original neutrality toward sugar have blossomed into disgust? I called Kerry last week to ask if he had heard of such a thing. “It’s possible,” he said. “It could be a defense mechanism you’ve erected in order to stop yourself from falling back into bad habits.” This all sounds very reasonable, and despite my defense mechanism, I feel like I’m on my way to dessert competence. If this time our guests actually ate dessert, perhaps next time they might even enjoy it?

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Next up: A cancellation, and a pox on 1080 Recipes

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