Taos, New Mexico + Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

Last month, I was fairly obsessed with this archived interview David Foster Wallace did with Terry Gross, which Fresh Air replayed in light of the recent release of The End of the Tour. The interview is from 1997. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, had just come out in paperback and he talks about his impetus for writing it: he was about 30 and he had a lot of friends who were about 30, who despite having relatively good lives—they’d grown up with top-notch education, good healthcare, political freedoms, etc.— were fairly miserable.

Terry asks him, “Well, when did you realize that all the benefits you had in an educated middle-class life weren't bringing you happiness?”

Markedly uncomfortably and with great reservation, he begins to try to explain to Terry: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness.”

What I ultimately took from the interview is that David Foster Wallace wasn’t made happy by our culture-at-large’s unspoken definition of happiness / the achievement of a successful life, which, he sums up quickly and with a note of self-admitted crassness as: “…let's see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it's a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible...”

In Wallace’s words, this brand of happiness “ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” And since, there seemed to be very little to replace these values and assumptions in our culture, he and his friends ended up feeling miserable.

As you may already know, Wallace hanged himself in 2008; I don’t know too much about the specifics, but I’ve heard other writers who knew him well talk about the intensity of his mental illness towards the end of his life. That said, after hearing this interview, I couldn’t help but think that if he was miserable and/or frustrated and/or fed up with our culture’s definition of happiness in 1997, he would’ve been even more miserable now in 2015.

Because, in my opinion, in 2015, not only are these cultural values and assumptions still the same, but if you are an active social media participant, they are unavoidable. They are streaming live from your all-too accessible smart phone during each and every moment of the day. Ironically, these photos of us in Taos, particularly if absorbed without reading this text, are probably examples.
I guess I was reminded of this interview and its complexity because of our trip to Taos, New Mexico, which either coincided with or kicked off a major period of growth for Teddy. He is talking, talking, talking. Sometimes, you can almost see his brain churning, putting things together, e.g., If I take a nap, how am I going to ride that tractor that’s just sitting outside completely unmanned? 

One of our favorite things he’s taken to saying is a sing-songy repetition of the word happy. “Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-py!” (It’s almost to that tune that sports’ fans use to taunt a player on the field/court: Last-name, Last-name, Last-name.)

Matt and I just about always respond with: “I’m happy too!” Occasionally this spurs a face off of alternating I’m happy toos. It’s ridiculous and amazing.
As you might already know: modern-day air travel with a young child isn’t easy. On our red-eye from Los Angeles to Chicago on the first leg of our August trip to Portland, Maine, Teddy surprised us by completely resisting sleep. When they finally turned the cabin lights off, I thought he might lie down and give it a go. But instead, he began reaching for the heads of the passengers sitting in front of us. Holding him back from doing so took both arms; I looked to Matt and said: “I want to die.” (It was past midnight and we still had three hours to go!)

Matt frowned at me (he’s not a fan of talking about death while on an airplane) and then did God’s work by picking Teddy up and walking up and down the aisle until he fell asleep, some twenty minutes later.

But then there are moments traveling that would simply and straightforwardly suck without Teddy. At LAX, en route to Albuquerque, our tickets, which I’d purchased through United.com, had erroneously led us to the US Airways terminal. (The people at US Airways were like, “You got the wrong airline. We don’t fly to Albuquerque. Bye!”) Finally in the right place, which turned out to be American Airlines—though no mention of American was made on our tickets or our confirmation emails from United—we discovered that we had to catch a shuttle (our second of the morning) to actually get to the gate.

Quickly, we reorganized our things, broke down the stroller, and held Teddy as we waited in another line. But then the minute the shuttle bus pulled up, Teddy began cheering, “Shud-dle bus! Shud-dle bus!” (If you think about it, buses are highly revered objects in toddler culture, what with that never-ending song, “Wheels on the Bus.”) Crammed on the shuttle bus, I patted Matt on the back, thanking him for handling Teddy. His back was warm and damp with sweat. Teddy sat on his lap, smiling widely. “Shud-dle bus!” We were both laughing. 
Because this baby’s due date falls just one day after Teddy’s birthday, I’m finding it almost impossible not to compare the two pregnancies; every time I hit a milestone, I’m reminded of where I was two years ago at that time. Two years ago, I wasn’t just younger but I was also still a member of a two-person-plus-dog family. Two years ago, for the first time in my writing life, I had a contract and a hard deadline. My past pregnant self went to yoga, took longer walks, cooked more varied dinners, and was, at least on a much more quantifiable level, quite productive.

Of course, this way of thinking isn’t very positive or even productive for that matter. Two years ago, my days were still essentially mine. To illustrate this point: I started writing all this down last Monday. The next day, Teddy’s daycare texted me just an hour after I’d dropped him off saying he had a fever. Within 20 minutes, I was picking him up. I tried to drop him off again Friday only to get another call after an hour. He was too snotty. Could I please come get him? As I got back in the car, I thought of all of the things I’d meant to do that week and that obviously hadn’t happened. As it turned out, I hadn’t written: Take care of my sweet-and-active-despite-being-sick toddler on that week’s to-do list.
I’ve been slowly, very slowly, reading this book, Outline by Rachel Cusk, and recently came upon these lines: “We are all addicted to it, he said… the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.” 

I think this particularly resonated with me, having written a book (a memoir, not a novel) that basically ends with the birth of our first baby. And because of this, I’ve grown to see my book as this comprehensive summary of my life before kids. Everything gets tied up by the end. By the end, I think I have things figured out. And the thing is that it’s accurate. My life did feel pretty tied up. I thought I did have things figured out.

If the book hadn’t ended there, however—if there were an extra chapter or two—everyone, myself included, would have realized that nothing would ever be quite so tied up again, that, in fact—surprise!—I had very little figured out.
Did I mention I turned 34-years-old two weeks ago?

Teddy bursted into many Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-pys while we were in Taos. He drank a lot of raw goat’s milk. He ate a couple pints of just-picked raspberries per day. He walked around with a half-eaten just-picked apple in his hand for the other parts of the day; he obviously spent some time on the tractor and feeding the goats (who surprisingly weren’t interested in his apple core when he finally reached it and offered it to them).

To be clear, I don’t think that having children is a way to bring you happiness. Not at all; particularly so if one doesn’t feel compelled to have children in the first place. But I do think it’s often refreshing to try and see the world from a differing point of view for a bit—be it that of a 20-month-old who freaks out with joy at the prospect of riding in a dirty un-air-conditioned airport shuttle bus, or someone who simply might not ascribe to the seemingly understood definition of a successful life that the world spits out at us consciously and unconsciously each and every day.

My Aunt Martha sent us back home with six jars of goat cheese and two pounds of dulce de leche. On the afternoon of my birthday, inspired by the batch of black cherry and chocolate ice cream we made in Taos, I thought I’d make a quart using the dulce de leche as the main ingredient. I followed this recipe, which directed me to “quick-chill” the base. In my previous ice-cream attempts, I’d always chilled the base for at least four to six hours in the refrigerator. But I decided to give quick-chilling a go anyway. 

Thirty-minutes of churning later, the base looked exactly the same as it had when I began. I gave up on the idea of having homemade ice cream that night. I put the base mixture in the refrigerator overnight and the freezer bowl back in the freezer. Just shy of 24-hours later, it churned up nicely. And later that following night, we finally had our ice cream.

I hesitate to come to any grand conclusions, certainly any about happiness. But as I sit here, six months pregnant, I do like the thought of abandoning this idea of life as a progression; of this idea that the longer I live the more I might figure things out; and of this idea that life might be a vehicle to, in David Foster Wallace’s words “experience the most favorable ratio of productivity to work.” At the very least, I’d like to stop pitting myself against myself. And maybe eventually, I’ll even stop pitting myself against other women and against other people’s ideas of success? Who knows? It could happen.

Here’s to 34 and all the unknown that lies ahead.
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream slightly adapted from Gourmet
makes about 1 1/2 quarts

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound dulce de leche(about 1 2/3 cups; preferably La Salamandra brand)
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted (optional)

Bring milk and cream just to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, then remove from heat and whisk in dulce de leche until dissolved. Whisk in vanilla and transfer to a metal bowl. 

Chill in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for at least six hours or overnight.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker until almost firm, then fold in coconut.

Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours.
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Video: Shrimp with Salsa Verde

Hi, guys!
Here's the latest video from our new cooking series with mom.me. It's an old school recipe for us, hailing from one of my very first cookbooks, Sara Foster's Casual Cooking. Point being, don't let Teddy's reaction fool you. It's delicious.

Shrimp with Salsa Verde adapted from Sara Foster’s Casual Cooking
Serves 2 to 4

2-3 cups cooked white basmati rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, cored, seeded, and minced
½ cup white wine
½ cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups store-bought Salsa Verde (If you can find the brand Casa Sanchez, use it!)
4 oz. goat cheese
1 package of corn tortillas

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté for about 30 seconds per side, until they just begin to turn pink. Add the garlic and jalapeno and sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Transfer the shrimp and vegetables to a plate.

Add the wine to the skillet and simmer over medium-high heat to reduce slightly. Add the cream and simmer the sauce for about 2 minutes. Return the shrimp, garlic, jalapeno and their juices to the skillet. Pour the salsa over the shrimp and sprinkle with the goat cheese. Stir to distribute the cheese and then cover the pan. Remove it from the heat and let sit for about 1 or 2 minutes until the cheese fully melts.

Using tongs, heat the corn tortillas over the open flame of your gas burner. Assemble soft tacos using as much rice, shrimp, and sauce in each one as you’d like.
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Minted Summer Couscous With Watermelon and Feta

The bad news is that it’s 98 degrees outside today and as per usual, it looks like us Angelenos are in for a very hot September and October. The good news is that Matt and I’ve been eating really well. Everyone has their priorities in life, and well, really good weeknight dinners is one of ours. Last week, for example, I made some BLTs with the crispiest bacon and heirloom tomatoes so ripe they were almost falling apart. I paired them with a salad of romaine, homemade croutons, avocados, and more tomatoes, which I tossed with a dressing I recently invented: a mix of lemon juice, whole milk yogurt, olive oil, thinly sliced onions, grated Parmesan and salt and pepper. It’s the kind of salad you could eat for the rest of your life and know that you’re not really missing out on other salads.

Most weeknights, once dinner is made, Matt and I sit down and have a meaningful conversation about the world and the ways we can better it... Yeah, right!

This is our weeknight routine as of now: I pick Teddy up from daycare, drive home, and then sit in the car (in the driveway) with him for about ten minutes while he “drives.” (Driving for Teddy is sitting in the driver’s seat and messing with every single button, knob, and switch he can get his hands on.) After I finally convince Teddy we’re done driving, we go inside and I feed him some manner of dinner. Matt comes home soon thereafter and then Teddy asks him if he can drive. After he and Matt are done driving, Teddy gets a bath and I start prepping dinner. At some point during the next hour, between cooking and hanging out with Teddy, Matt and I make eye contact for the first time all day. “Oh, hi!” we’ll say to one another. By the time we put Teddy to bed, dinner is ready. We plate our meal within minutes of closing Teddy’s bedroom door, and then we sit down and eat it along with some television.

I’m making a bit of fun of our domestic situation here, but it’s actually pretty great, especially when we’re eating good food and watching good television and/or movies, like Show Me a Hero or The Drop or Citizenfour or The Armstrong Lie or Love and Mercy, the latter of which I didn’t really enjoy but I have since enjoyed re-familiarizing myself with “Pet Sounds.”
All that said about weeknight cooking, I actually made this salad over the weekend. It felt like the perfect Labor-Day fare, and it was. I loved the brightness of the lime juice in the dressing mixed with just a touch of honey; it mixed superbly with the watermelon and celery. Teddy specifically loved the watermelon and feta. (The couscous confused him—he’d pull a tiny granule from his mouth and look at it like: what the heck is this tiny piece of food?)

The recipe comes from Maria Speck’s Simply Ancient Grains, a cookbook filled to the brim with inspiring dishes. Next on my list is her farro salad with roasted eggplant, caramelized onion, and pine nuts. And as soon as the weather cools down, I’m making the mac and cheese with Greek yogurt and leeks.
Speaking of cooler weather, all three of us are headed to Taos, New Mexico in a couple of weeks! My aunt and uncle live there on a veritable farm (there are goats!) and tell me that the peaches are insane right now. I can’t wait. Then, in October, I’m taking a solo trip to Madison, Wisconsin where I’ll be giving a reading as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. If you live in or near Madison, please come! I would LOVE to see you. People seem to adore the city of Madison, so I’m extra excited. Plus, this trip will be my first night(s) away from Teddy. Plus, my brother is meeting me there. Plus (literally?), I will be 29 weeks pregnant by then.

OK, that’s everything for now. Talk to you guys soon!
Minted Summer Couscous With Watermelon and Feta from Simply Ancient Grains
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/4 cups water
1 cup whole wheat couscous
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of saffron, optional
2 or 3 medium limes, preferably organic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 to 2 teaspoons honey, depending on your preference
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups seedless watermelon, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup celery, cut into 1/4-inch-wide slices (about 1 stalk)
1/2 cup loosely packed torn fresh mint leaves, plus a few leaves for garnish
1/2 cup crumbled mild feta, preferably sheep’s milk

Add the water to a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Stir in the couscous, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and the saffron, cover, and set aside until the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork and transfer to a large serving bowl, spreading and fluffing the grains again. Set aside 
to cool for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, zest the limes until you have 2 teaspoons zest. Squeeze the fruit until you have 3 tablespoons juice. Place the zest and juice in a small screw-top jar and add the olive oil, honey, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Shake vigorously until the dressing is amalgamated.

Once the couscous has cooled, distribute the watermelon, celery, and mint across. Drizzle the dressing across and gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste (keeping in mind that feta can be quite salty). If you have time, allow to sit for 30 minutes for flavors to meld.

To finish, toss again, top with the crumbled feta and the mint leaves for garnish, 
and drizzle with a touch more olive oil.
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Sesame-Peanut Bars

For those of you who told me I would love Portland, Maine, you were right! For those of you who haven’t been there yet, go ahead and go. You’ll love it.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon after taking a red eye from Los Angeles (that connected in Chicago where we missed our connection by 15 minutes), and instead of crashing in our hotel room when we finally got there, we decided to eat lunch. It was a good decision. Matt’s sister and then fiancé, now husband (Hi, Jonny!) took us to Miyake, a beautiful sushi restaurant in downtown Portland. And though Miyake isn’t exactly kid-friendly, the staff was very kind to us anyway. (Also, Teddy loved the miso soup, the blueberries in their house salad, and the pork belly Matt ordered.) (Don’t worry. Teddy’s not a total food snob, yet. A lot of his dinners are two string cheeses and fruit.)

Afterward, on our walk back to the hotel, we picked up something I eternally crave in the summer and something that is borderline impossible to find here in Los Angeles: a soft-serve chocolate and vanilla twist cone. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we swung by Standard Baking Co. and picked up some pastries—just, you know, to have in our room in case we got hungry. One of the items we picked up was their granola bar. It would be the first of many granola bars that I purchased from them during our five days in Portland. These granola bars are also what I wanted to eat this Sunday back in Los Angeles though the craving wasn’t strong enough to get me to go to the store for the missing ingredients to actually make them. Instead, I decided to settle for the above sesame-peanut bars—the ingredients for which I did have on hand. And honestly, these managed to fit the bill…for now.
Other highlights of the trip, apart from spending time with family at the rehearsal (lobster) dinner and gorgeous wedding right there on the water, were our lunches at Eventide and Central Provisions
Also, while we were away, mom.me aired the first two videos we did with them. Both feature simple recipes (and Teddy), which is kind of the Bon Appétempt normal these days, wouldn’t you say? (You may recognize the famous plum cake.) Point being, I’m obsessed with simple recipes, e.g., these sesame-peanut bars. And if you have any you want to share with me, please do! I’ve recently realized that most of my go-to simple recipes revolve around starch, cheese, and sauce. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think we could stand to mix it up a little.

In the mean time, I’ll be bringing the pasta water to boil.

Sesame-Peanut Bars via Bon Appétit

unsalted butter (for pan)
1¼ cups white and/or black sesame seeds
¾ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup unsalted, roasted peanuts (I used cashews.)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter an 8x8" glass baking dish; line with parchment paper, leaving a generous overhang on all sides. Mix sesame seeds, coconut, peanuts, and salt in a large bowl. Mix honey, peanut butter, and vanilla in a small bowl. Add to sesame seed mixture and mix well. 

Scrape mixture into prepared baking dish; press firmly into an even layer. Bake until golden brown around the edges, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool until firm, 30–40 minutes. Lift out of baking dish (if it starts to crumble, let cool longer) and cut into 16 bars. Let cool completely. 

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Today we leave for Portland, Maine for a family wedding, but before we go, I thought I’d let you know what we’ve been up to. In the best moments, hair-wise, it has looked like the above.

In the worst moments, it has looked different. But I don't have any pictures to show you. Sorry! That’s just how the Internet works.

Or, put another way by writer Eva Saulitis in her fantastic essay, "When No One is Watching" from the August issue of The Sun magazine:

"This morning someone posted a video on Facebook of two young women salsa dancing. They were sexy and completely at home in their bodies. Before I saw those dancers, I'd thought I was over being called "sir," had added it to my collection of peculiar cancer anecdotes. But the video unsettled me. I'm a self-conscious dancer. I've never inhabited my body in that fashion. I wouldn't say I'm nostalgic for my twenties—I like being fifty-two—but I was envious of those women's relationships to their bodies, of the easy way they moved together, of the way their dance communicated a message people want to hear: life, not death."

This is also why our Teddy Ages 0-1 video now has over 1 million views. (This is also why we're having another baby!) (And maybe explains why, on a whim, I checked out a Danielle Steele novel from the library?) (It's a digital copy, which makes it somewhat less embarrassing, I think.)

Though I don't have any new recipes to share today, the good news is that I have been doing some cooking. In fact, Matt and I are now working with the website mom.me. In the next few weeks, I hope to share with you the inaugural episode of our new cooking show: "In the Kitchen with Amelia and Teddy." A goal of the show is to highlight recipes that we actually make on a regular basis. Thus, the first episode is pizza. I would also love to do an episode on picking up takeout from Pine & Crane, the most delicious Taiwanese-Chinese food you will ever eat—ever!
The last thing we've been up to is taking Teddy to the zoo. Well, Matt has been doing this. (Every Sunday morning, I teach a writing class in our living room and Matt and Teddy go to the zoo.) Teddy is 19-months-old now and his language is exploding, so it's been a lot of fun/ amazing to hear all about the animals he saw. (He's mostly obsessed with the lions.) (Matt is showing his true colors as a complete and total softy, purchasing Teddy both a stuffed lion and a stuffed monkey at the zoo's gift shop.)

OK, time to pack. See you soon!
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