Food for Writing

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers usually indulge their creativity in more than one way. Alas, I can’t sing or draw, and my violin skills are a good 20 years out of date (and were mediocre anyway, no matter what my father says). I really wanted to take kung fu as a kid, but my mom made me take ballet instead. You can probably guess how that turned out.

But my family also taught me many ways to love food, and indulging that love has been another art for me. I love growing food, in part thanks to many days spent hoeing and weeding my grandmother’s garden, eating her greens and tomatoes, and gathering sweet figs and pecans from her trees. I love canning and jarring and making my own preserves, when I have the time. I love catching my own crabs, thanks to long afternoons out crabbing with my mother. Even today, living in the middle of New York City, I still find ways to get down and dirty with food. My favorite thing to do on a quiet weekend is to visit the farmers’ markets and bring home inexpensive, locally-grown veggies and fruits and cheeses and meats. I even helped start a CSA, before I realized I couldn’t do it and hit the farmers’ markets without wasting food.

But what’s food if you don’t eat it? I’m no chef — though someday I’d like to take some courses, if I ever get the time and cash — but I do all right in the kitchen. And since I’ve apparently been tormenting the folks on my Twitter feed with my latest experiments, I figured what the hey; let’s spread the joy.

Herein follow some of my favorite recipes for “writer food” — a one-dish meal that can be eaten for a week or stored for months, hoarded for one or stretched to feed twenty; and desserts that are quick and simple to make but intensely satisfying. Writers don’t have to eat ramen, dammit; it’s possible to have good stuff yet live on a budget. I know. So try these.

Recipe #1 is gumbo — or specifically my Heebie-Jeebie Chilled-Down-For-Northerners Amp-Upable-on-Demand Gumbo: a compilation of various recipes from my family, friends’ families, and recipe books. I’ve fed this to my writing group every year at our annual retreat; it’s amazingly easy to “scale up” and make mass quantities. Also easy to tone down for varying spice tolerances and food sensitivities; just leave out the offending items, or use the alternate suggestions I’ve listed. There’ll be plenty of other stuff left.

1/2 stick butter
3/4 cup flour
1/2 pound small-to-midsize* okra, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small or 1 large onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, sliced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp diced garlic
1 cup diced green onions
2 32-oz cartons of chicken broth (or more, if you want to stretch it)
1 tbsp gumbo file powder
Spicy pepper to taste (green chile or scotch bonnet is good)
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
1 pound cooked chicken, diced
1 pound sliced sausage (preferrably andouille; Trader Joe’s has a good chicken andoille) or smoked fish; be sparing if it’s salty
1 pound peeled shrimp (save the shells!) or lump crabmeat (save the claws!)
Cooked rice for serving (I prefer Indian basmati, but your choice)

*Never get okra more than 3 inches long. It looks impressive, but it doesn’t cook down soft; parts of it may be woody.

Peel & devein the shrimp ahead of time and make shrimp broth by simmering the shells for at least 1 hour. Strain out the shells and and reserve liquid. If using crab, pick bodies for meat, but save claws and legs.

Make a roux by heating the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Keep heat low or the roux will cook too fast and burn. Add the flour in small increments until it’s all in, then stir continually for 20 minutes or until the flour has turned a nutty tannish-brown.

Add the vegetables to this mixture (start with the celery) and stir continually until vegetables have softened and begun to turn translucent. Add the shrimp and/or chicken broths, then stir and bring to a boil. Add the sausage and/or fish and chicken, file powder, bay leaf, cayenne, and crab claws. Slit the pepper on one side (don’t chop up unless you want the gumbo REALLY hot!!) and add to mixture. Use a tasting spoon to check the flavor at this point; if it’s too salty, add more broth or water. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off heat. Add shrimp and/or crabmeat. Serve over cooked rice. Makes a whole lotta servings, but that’s OK because gumbo freezes well.

Recipe #2 is New York Minute Peach-Rhubarb Cobbler, or so I’m currently calling it. I didn’t discover rhubarb until relatively recently, and then completely by accident. I got a community garden plot while I lived in Boston a few years ago, and inherited this bizarre-looking thing that I thought was a really big burdock. Just as I was about to take a shovel to it, a neighbor spotted me and pulled a slow-motion nnnooooooo just in the nick of time. Other folks in the garden begged me to give them the stalks if I wasn’t going to do anything with them, and after seeing how giddy they got about it, I decided to take one home, cut it up, and make a compote to see what the fuss was all about. Two hours later, after I recovered from the holy WTF, that was good shock, I realized I had discovered a new love.

Never liked strawberries with rhubarb, though. Southern girl that I am, I decided to try combining it with peaches. Only works with peaches at the peak sweetness of the season, note — and since that peak is late summer, and rhubarb is early-summer, this treat requires some advance planning. I stock up on rhubarb when it comes out, cutting it into one-inch segments and then freezing it dry. Then when the peaches are ready, I’m good to go.

Fresh or frozen rhubarb, cut into one-inch segments
Brown sugar, to taste
Tree-ripened peaches, peeled and diced*
Dash of sweet white wine — I’m fond of Riesling
Whatever crust you feel like (To be super-quick, buy a pie crust cut it into pieces; I’m fond of a simple granola crumble. But y’know, you could just be like, “Crust? We don’ need no steenkin’ crust,” and top it with ice cream.)

*Canned will do, if you can’t get really ripe peaches. Don’t buy that half-green, rock-hard crap they sell in most grocery stores. Even if you bag-ripen them, they won’t be sweet enough.

Cook all of the above in a saucepan until it tastes the way you want it. If you add crust, then bake in an oven long enough to drive small children and disliked neighbors mad. Remove, generously apply ice cream, and earn your high blood sugar for the day.

Recipe #3 is a work in progress. A few months ago, fellow writing-group member Greer Woodward wrote a lovely little story in which the protagonist baked lavender madelines. I don’t understand why, but I have been obsessed with attempting this ever since. So having found a good basic recipe, I’ve set about customizing it. The first batch was a little dry, so I’m going to up the butter-to-egg ratio — though part of the problem might’ve been that I used fresh-from-the-chicken’s-butt eggs; a friend of mine keeps her own chickens down in central New Jersey, and brought some when she came to visit for New York Comic Con this weekend past. They’ve got beautiful rich yolks, but not much in the way of white; might’ve been insufficient liquid in the mix as a result. Also, the lemon zest works nicely, but I think kaffir lime zest would be better; it’s got a nice perfume without the blatant citrussyness that made these taste like lemon madelines. (I know “citrussyness” isn’t a word. I’m a writer; I make stuff up sometimes.) Fortunately, since I gave Dad a mini kaffir lime tree as a present a few years ago — it’s just now starting to produce fruit — I know where to get that, next time I try. Meyer lemon might do the trick too, and Trader Joe’s carries those.

But what did work, and beautifully, was adding lavender flowers. Contact these folks about buying some of the “for baking/tea”-quality flowers; it’s English lavender, rich and powerful. But use sparingly! I added maybe a tablespoonful to half a batch of the above recipe, and that was perfect. Rub it between your hands as you add it, to release more of the scent.

Then nosh while writing or, in my case, proofing the galley of The Shadowed Sun. Read a chapter, nom a cookie, write a chapter, nom a cookie…

(Then be sure to go for a bike ride the next day. I love food, but don’t plan to let it kill me. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to try green tea madelines next.)

4 thoughts on “Food for Writing”

  1. I had this all typed out and my phone ate it. HMMPH!
    Anyway, Tiffany, if you’re scared of making a rioux, you can buy it in a jar. At least you can here in the south. It’s not as good, but it’ll do you.
    But don’t be afraid of making a roux! It’s just like making a gravy. And if you mess up, no worries. Toss it out and try again, or go with the jarred stuff. You’ll not have put your other ingredients in yet, so they won’t be wasted. Let me tell you, when a roux’s burned, you’ll know pretty much immediately. It’ll make your whole house smell like burned popcorn, possibly forever. I’m convinced that when I change our A/C filters, I can still smell it up there in the ducts.

  2. Hope this doesn’t come through twice – my first attempt to post it seems to have been eaten. I’m so glad I have a form-information saving add-in to Firefox installed.

    Going to pass these on to my lady, who is the cook in our family. I think she’ll be fascinated by the lavender cookie concept. Personally I like the rhubarb cobbler, although peaches never occurred to me. I enjoy it just stewed by itself with plenty of sugar. It’s something we always had in the back yard when I was growing up, and conveniently the house I bought came with some, although since we put up the new garage it’s not really getting enough sun any more.

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