It’s hard to choose. 

“Which purse should I use?” she asked.
“Hmm?” I said politely. 

“Could you just help me decide which purse to move my stuff into?” she repeated. “It’s just so hard to choose, sometimes.”

I finally looked up. We’d come to Santa Cruz for big-city grocery shopping, and we’d stopped at a taqueria afterwards. G had kept Orion occupied while I scarfed down two tacos, and now he was eating and I was on baby duty. Orion and I had roamed out of the restaurant, down the sidewalk, and into the neighboring laundromat. When we’d come in it had been deserted, except for one woman of rough middle age. I’d given her the once-over and evaluated her as Not A Threat, then politely ignored her. Now she wanted to interact. 

I thought about blowing her off. I’m not proud of that, but I did think about snapping something, grabbing Orion, and taking off. But she wasn’t hostile, and I didn’t get that feeling like she wanted to hustle me, and so what if she did, anyway? I’m a firm believer that “no” is a complete sentence. The worst thing that was likely to happen was an uncomfortable silence after some awkward conversation.

She was holding up two small purses, smiling hopefully at me. 

“I like the leopard print one,” I said, smiling back.

“Yeah? It’s just hard to choose, you know,” she said again. She was clearly relieved, clearly happy to have a little human connection. 

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

“I’m just trying to put my makeup on, get my stuff together without sitting down,” she explained. There was a lot less bitterness in her voice than you’d expect. “Any time I sit down, the cops tell me to move along, tell me I’ve gotta do that at home. If I had a home to go to I would!”

So that was out in the open. I’d been pretty sure she was homeless, but it’s like asking a fat lady when she’s due – the stakes are too high to be wrong.

We made small talk about the baby for a few minutes. 

“Eleven months, huh? He’s the perfect size for his age. I raised four girls. The youngest is at Berkeley on a scholarship.”

“Wow!” I was truly impressed – and heartbroken. 

I’m still in the in-between stage where I halfway identify with kids and halfway with parents, and the first thing I thought was how hard that girl’s life is. Can you even imagine getting a scholarship to Cal and your mom’s sleeping rough in Santa Cruz? All the other kids in your classes, their parents work in the South Bay, or the endless fields outside of Fresno, or down in the smoggy LA suburbs, going home to apartments or tract houses or meticulously restored Craftsman bungalows. And you just don’t talk about your family. Deflect. Talk about Dad, maybe, or Grandma who let you stay with her to finish high school, but you just keep your mouth shut when the other girls complain about their moms.

“They’re all grown up and they’re all good people. None of them have ever been arrested or anything,” she said. 

“You did good,” I said, and I meant it. 

“That’s all that really matters, you know?”

And I did, actually. I’m wrinkly and grey and mostly held together by the scars of my previous mistakes, and I look at Orion and he’s so perfect and full of unspoiled potential. I think all parents feel that way, regardless of how badly they’ve actually fucked up. We’re just trying to do better for the kids. 

Then Orion tripped and almost fell. He started to cry, and I picked him up. “It’s nap time,” I explained. “I’m gonna see if my husband is through eating. Nice talking to you!”

I headed next door to get G, and when we came back out to the car, I stopped at the laundromat window and tapped on the glass. The woman was still in there, sorting her stuff on the folding table. She looked up, and that time I made sure to meet her eyes as I smiled and waved goodbye. 

I don’t know what the point of this story is, really. Be careful. We’re all so close to the edge. A couple of catastrophes and that could be you, putting on your makeup in a laundromat. 

And be cool with strangers, y’all. People just want a little human connection. She wasn’t trying to hustle me or explain herself. She just wanted to talk. 

Funder’s gluten-free Dutch apple pie

Baking continues. Sometimes I almost have a thought that’s worth sharing, or I almost manage to write something, but those moments blip past pretty quickly. So here’s a recipe.  

  

Ingredients

Preamble: 

For the pastry, I’m giving you volume (cups) and weight measures. Scales are cheap and weighing ingredients is so much quicker, easier, etc., but you do you! The crumble topping ingredients are much less precise – I’ve made tasty apple crisps with “a couple of heaping spoonfuls” of each ingredient plus “the rest of that stick of butter.” 

Also, I have this weird convention where I capitalize Tablespoon and lowercase teaspoon, because it’s so easy to mix them up. (Was that supposed to be a big spoonful of sugar or a small one? Crap…) The big-T thing helps. 

If you’re really scared of pastry, just make an apple crumble – omit the pie crust, follow the rest of the directions. 

Crust:

  • 1 1/4 cup / 185 g King Arthur gluten free flour
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum (optional, but if you want to get some, it might be near the gluten free flour) 
  • 3/4 stick / 6 Tablespoons / 85 g butter 
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar 

Filling:

  • 3 pounds (8 medium) baking apples, like Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch

Crumble topping:

  • 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup gluten free flour
  • 1/2 cup quick-cook oatmeal (NOT steel cut!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 1/2 stick butter 
  • Pinch salt

For the crust:

Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together. Cut in cold butter til crumbly, with some pea sized chunks remaining. Whisk the egg and vinegar together til smooth, then stir in to flour mixture. The dough should barely hold together in a ball. Add cold water a few drops at a time if necessary. Form dough into a flat disk, wrap or bag in a quart bag, and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Do not cheat! 

When you’re ready to bake:
Preheat the oven to 425. Put a cookie sheet on the lowest rack. 

Most recipes call for 2 1/2 lbs of apples but apples come in 3 lb bags, so just use the whole bag. Peel, core, halve, and slice 1/4″ thick. Toss in a large bowl with lemon juice, sugars, salt, and spices. 

Let dough warm on countertop about fifteen minutes before you’re ready to roll it. Roll on a well floured piece of parchment paper or silpat, checking to make sure it doesn’t stick. If it does, slide the whole thing in the freezer to firm up before you peel the paper off. When you’ve got a big enough circle of dough flop it into your pie dish and stick in the freezer while you deal with apples. Don’t bother trimming the edges of the dough. 

Carefully pour the juices off of the apple slices into a nonstick pan or skillet. Add the butter and bring to a boil over medium heat. While the juice is reducing, toss the apple slices with the corn starch. Add any extras – dried cherries are nice – and pour the apples into the pie shell. When the juice and butter has gotten slightly syrupy, pour it in too. 

The filling is adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s apple pie recipe, and she calls for reducing the juice by half. I’ve tried it that way and ended up with dry pie. I suspect it’s the apples – if you’re using really juicy fresh apples, reduce the liquid more, but if you’re using Granny Smiths in the mesh bag trucked in to your local grocery, just boil the apple liquid for a few minutes. 

For the crumble, mix the dry ingredients together, then use your hands to squish the butter in. The topping will just barely hold together when it’s mixed enough. Add it on top of the apples. Fold the rough edges of the pie crust down in an attractive rustic fashion. 

Bake at 425, on the lowest rack, until the apples are tender and the juices bubble thickly, about 60-75 minutes. If the topping starts to brown too fast, turn the heat down to 375 after the first 30 minutes. 

You can assemble the pie ahead of time. Freeze the whole thing, unbaked, and just bake straight from frozen. It will take a few minutes longer, maybe an hour and a half. The gluten free pastry doesn’t brown as well as the real deal, which works to your advantage with pie. 

Transition

I’m thirsty, but Orion shrieks when I try to leave him on the couch, so I scoop him up and take him with me. One-handed, I carefully twist the lid off my spill proof grown-up sippy cup. I’m carefully pouring water in when I realize: this phase is almost over. I’ve been holding this baby while I get water for ten months. Not all the time, of course, but it feels like more often than not. But now he’s starting to walk, so my days holding the baby are numbered. Sure, he’ll want to be held for years to come, but it’ll be a sometimes-thing, not a usually-thing. 

There. There’s the little pang of oncoming nostalgia. There’s the “it goes so fast!” sentiment. Damn, y’all, it does. 
I did cherish every moment, though. From when he was an itty bitty thing, curled up like a pillbug, to now, with his legs splayed around my hip and his strong arms clinging to my shirt, I really did cherish every moment. 
A little nostalgia, but just a little. Mainly, I can’t wait to see what’s next. 

  

Funder’s red-braised pork belly

I am more of a consumer of recipes than a creator, but this one. Yall, it’s so good. And I’ve tweaked it into something different enough from its source – I feel like it’s adding something to the English-language body of cooking knowledge to put this online.

I started with this, from le jus d’orange. But that’s not the world’s clearest recipe, and while the finished product tasted amazing, it really wasn’t tender at all. I made it a second time, simmering the meat even longer, and it was better, but it still wasn’t as good as pork belly I’ve had in restaurants. I started over, and here’s what I came up with.

You will probably need to make a trip to an Asian market, or an “ethnic” market with an Asian section, for the double black soy (or something that says dark soy sauce will also work) and shaoxing cooking wine. Get a handful of whole star anise while you’re there, or get it at Whole Foods with the pork belly.


Funder’s Red Braised Pork Belly

FEEDS SIX PEOPLE

Ingredients

2 lb. pork belly (if your usual grocery doesn’t have it, try Whole Foods)

about 2″ ginger, roughly chopped

1/4 c. soy sauce (I used Kikkoman – any “normal” soy sauce will do)

1/4 c. double black soy sauce

1/4 c. shaoxing cooking wine

3 whole star anise

3 Tbsp. brown sugar, plus 2 Tbsp for browning

1 1/2 c. water

If your pork is frozen, let it thaw overnight. You can cut the skin off if you want, but the finished dish is so tender you really won’t know if the skin is there or not. Cut the pork into strips so it will fit in the cooking dish better. I cut mine into knife-blade-widths, which ended up being about 1 3/4″. Put it in a crock-pot or a braising dish. Add the ginger, soys, cooking wine, star anise, 3 Tbsp brown sugar, and water. Your cooking liquid should mostly cover your strips of pork; add more water if it doesn’t.

Braise til very tender, about three hours. Crock pot on high, stovetop on low, or oven at 325 should all work as long as your dish is covered.

When the fatty part of the meat is meltingly tender, carefully transfer the meat to a covered dish. Strain the cooking liquid in there, let it cool for a while, and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, make rice. We are really fond of sushi rice, but basmati rice is okay too I guess. When your rice is almost done, get the pork out. Pry off the enormous layer of congealed fat and discard, or save it for heavenly roasted potatoes or something. Pull out however much pork you need. Cut it into bite-size slices – I sliced mine into 1/4″ strips. The cooking liquid will be congealed; scrape it all off the pork and melt it and strain it to go with the rice.

When your rice is ready, get a NONSTICK skillet or wok REALLY HOT and drop the slices of cold pork belly in. Sear them til they’re crispy, flip them over very carefully, and sprinkle the last 1-2 Tbsp brown sugar on top. Sear the other side and the sugar should be melted into gooey caramel. Serve on rice with sauce spooned over.

Tasty accompaniments: roasted brussels sprouts and Black Tuesday. Life is short; diet tomorrow.

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