On Comfort: Chicken Soup, Chocolate Cake, and Ani

This week has been full of paradox: sunshine and non-stop rain, feeling stuck while also feeling propelled forward, feeling exhausted and also feeling energized, weather warm enough to not need a jacket and needing a jacket, enjoying my favorite feminist musician and being annoyed by the douchy white guy behind me. Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve been trying to accept the contradictions. Embrace all the things that are opposite but true at the same time.

I did double duty and frontloaded my week by making two things in one night. Who am I?!

The craving for something brothy and healthy struck again. M requested a chicken soup of some kind, so I pulled out an oldie but goodie: Immunity Soup from the January 2017 issue of Cooking Light. (I was actually looking for a spring vegetable chicken soup, but had to settle for this one this time around.) Indeed, another soup that purports to boost your immunity. It certainly can't hurt.

When the weather is 70 degrees one day, and cold enough to snow the next day, it feels like my body is constantly trying to find its bearings. Am I warm? Am I cold? Do I need to wear 4 layers and wool socks today or can I show off this cat print short-sleeve shirt I just got? Am I feverish or is it allergies? Am I achy from sickness or am I sore from yoga? It’s impossible to tell these days.

This soup starts out with your favorite soup base layers: a tablespoon or two of oil heated in a Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), then diced onion, sliced carrots and celery tossed in. I used olive oil, but you might use whatever you’ve got — vegetable oil, canola oil, whatever. The sizzle of the veggies as they hit that oil is so satisfying, along with that continual sizzle as they cook gently, getting soft and releasing their juices (*insert a sly Nigella look here*) into the pot.

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As I chopped and diced and minced the veggies, I decided to turn on some of my favorite Ani DiFranco tunes. Ani has been a part of my life since I was 16 or 17. I don’t actually know how many times I’ve seen her live. Her music has been formative for me in so many ways — politically, emotionally, artistically, interpersonally, worldview-ally. Her music was friend to me through hard times, and was, at times, one of the few things to get me through whatever darkness I was in.

Next comes the pound of sliced mushrooms (I got pre-sliced ones this time around, though I usually don’t mind buying a pound or so of them in bulk and washing/drying/slicing them myself) and 10 entire cloves of garlic, minced. I may have thrown in an extra 2 or 3 cloves because however much garlic a recipe calls for, it usually isn’t enough for me.

Toss these into the pot, and let the mushrooms release their moisture. Savor that sharp smell of the garlic and let it fill your kitchen. I mean, you don’t really have a choice.

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I sang along to every single Ani song that came into my kitchen that afternoon, though I haven’t listened to many of them for years. I haven’t forgotten the airiness of Both Hands or the clipped turns of Swan Dive and those lines about pulling out your tampon and splashing around in shark-infested waters. The ambitious moodiness of Gravel (“I stood out on the porch, thinking ‘Fight, fight, fight at all costs’/ Instead, I let you in, just like I’ve always done/ and I sat you down/ and offered you a beer” and “Maybe you can keep me from being happy/but you’re not going to stop me from having fun”). The raw anger and anguish of Dilate.

Next come the chickpeas, the broth, the thyme, and the bay leaves. Stir, and bring it all to a boil. Once it begins to boil, throw in two pounds of uncooked chicken breast, along with some salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.

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The very first time I saw Ani perform live, I burst into tears as soon as she stepped onto stage. The song she started that show with was “Shy.” I started crying and didn’t stop until 20 or 30 minutes later. The sobbing was uncontrollable; I didn’t know it was coming and when it came, it hit me like freight train.

That trend would continue every time I saw Ani, and it seemed that she always opened with a song that was particularly meaningful for me in the moment.

As I started making the frosting for Nigella’s Dark and Sumptuous Chocolate Cake, I could feel the sobs building in my chest as I sang along to Fire Door. I still knew every word and belted them out along with her as I combined water, espresso powder, cocoa, brown sugar, and butter in a saucepan, heated, and stirred.

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These songs felt like a homecoming. They felt like being able to finally breathe big and full in a completely safe space.

And then something happened. It occurred to me, as I was mixing the dry ingredients for the cake and checking on the soup, that I was a different person listening to these songs. The songs that got me through my adolescence and early and mid-twenties were still gorgeous and clever and everything that I remembered them to be — but I understood each song differently. I was hearing each song through ears of wisdom? Experience? Through a body and mind and heart that had finally found dry land after weathering storm after storm in a shitty, disintegrating lifeboat? I related to each song completely differently. It’s like… looking back and realizing that when I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I knew what Ani was talking about. And now, in my early 30s, I see that I actually didn’t know shit back then, but I do now.

I guess that’s just part of being a human. Growing up. Maturing.

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The Ani concert was the centerpiece of my week. Everything revolved around it. I braced myself for the tears and the swells of emotion.

I was excited, for sure. But this time around, the sobs stayed put wherever they were hiding out. Ani opened with Names and Dates and Times, a song that I actually don't know all the words to (*gasp*). She played Napoleon and Shameless and Anticipate and To The Teeth and Hypnotized and My I.Q. and Not a Pretty Girl. She played a lot of newer stuff that I didn’t know.

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The crowd was also different from any other Ani show I’ve been to. The Ani shows I’ve been to have been attended by mostly women and women-identified people. Dudes in the audience have been few and far between. In between songs, people shout things at her, like, “We love you, Ani!” The audience usually sings along so loudly that she has to stop at least once and tell everyone to stop so she can hear herself play.

At this show, some things were the same. Audience members kept yelling “We love you, Ani!” People recited My I.Q. along with her so loudly that she had to stop in the middle and say, “Oh, honey, you have to let me do this one.”

But a lot of things were different. Someone yelled, “I love you, Annie!” (Ani responded, “It’s Ah-ni, but thank you, I feel the love anyway.”) Men were everywhere. A drunk-off-his-ass douchebag know-it-all guy sat behind us and talked loudly over Gracie and Rachel, the opening act, and then continued his tone-deaf, useless commentary during Ani’s performance. When Ani sang, “I’m gonna take all my friends/ and I'm gonna move to Canada/ and we’re gonna die of old age,” he shouted, “Yeah! Let’s go!” (I stopped myself from turning around and saying, “You’re not invited, bro.”) Some people got up to leave immediately after Ani finished the main set, not realizing there’s a thing called an encore because you should and will never get enough of being in the same room with her.  

After the show, I stopped by the merch table to buy a t-shirt. When I made my way through the crowd, made eye contact with the merch table person and bought my shirt, I had apparently “cut” in front of a group of (white) women. After we left, M told me about all the passive aggressive shade they had thrown in my direction while I was buying my shirt.

One woman had said, “WELL. You know what happens when you ASSUME…”

Yes. I do know what happens. I get to buy my Ani t-shirt before you.

(Also: like, please. There are no lines at merch tables. You see your opening, you get in there and buy your shirt before they sell out of your size. It’s not hard. How many times in my 32 years have I waited politely for everyone to go before me, and when I finally get to the front, the t-shirt I want is sold out of my size. Sorry, not sorry. Get yours. I'm gettin' mine. Like Ani says in 32 Flavors, "I'm not between you and your ambition." What a metaphor/analogy this shit is in so many ways.)

After the soup simmers, covered, for about 30-35 minutes, you place the chicken on a cutting board, shred it, and dump it back into the pot. You take a bunch of kale, rip it into smaller pieces and stir it into the soup. You let it all simmer for another 5 minutes or so. It’s done when that kale is wilted just a little bit.

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Now, this cake. Nigella’s instructions tell you to make the frosting first because it needs time to cool. She says that the time it takes to make the cake, bake it, and let it cool, is the perfect amount of time to let the frosting cool. I’ll be honest — I had my doubts. When I couldn’t wait any longer to finish the cake, I took a look at the frosting and shook my head. “Nigella, I don’t know about this. This frosting seems a little stiff.” But I gave it a stir and poured it over the cake.

It was perfect.

On Nigella’s instruction, I joyously decorated with chopped pistachios. No edible rose petals or edible flowers even, but just the pistachios were perfect.

(Baking notes: Nigella's recipe is vegan -- she uses coconut butter and coconut oil. I, however, love regular butter too much to go vegan, so I used regular unsalted butter and canola oil for this recipe, and it turned out just as dreamy.)

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This week seems to have been all about comfort — the food and music of it. Chicken soup, chocolate cake, Ani. They all came as I remembered them, but with twists. Chicken soup with mushrooms, chickpeas, and chili pepper flakes. Chocolate cake with espresso and salty, savory pistachios on top. Ani with the same good songs (as well as new ones), a wiser me, and a weirder crowd.  

It’s good to go home. To bring your older, wiser self there. To love the same things, and to love how they’ve changed. To love the same things, and love them differently.

Ani sings in Good, Bad, Ugly, "Strangers are exciting/ Their mystery never ends/ But there's nothing like looking at your own history/ in the faces of your friends." It feels a little bit like that, but...different.

I'll end this week's Friday Bites with some vintage Ani. Happy eating, happy cooking, happy being, y'all. 

This week's recipes:

Banana Cream Pie, Miso Salmon, "Mole" Tacos, and Instinct

FINALLY. It is here. (At least, it was here.) That blasted Banana Cream Pie.

After I posted last week, I realized that I was actually ready to make the damn thing. My bananas had been doing the last of their browning in the freezer, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I took them out to thaw.  


If you know me at all, then you know that I follow recipes TO. THE. LETTER. In order to be able to cook any recipe with any amount of confidence, I need exact measurements, exact ingredients, exact equipment. None of this a pinch of this, a splash of that nonsense. If the recipe calls for baby bella mushrooms, but the store only has creminis? Forget it — the whole thing is ruined. If the recipe says I need to use a chinoise, but I only have a regular ol’ mesh strainer? You best believe I’m ordering that unwieldy chinoise off of Amazon.

This is why I love the Milk Bar cookbook. Christina Tosi writes with so much of the detail that I crave — not only is she very specific about the ingredients and equipment and temperatures, she also is very specific about why each of these details matter. I love that I get to learn exactly why all of these things matter to Tosi, so I can figure out whether it matters to me. Sometimes it’s a matter of chemistry; sometimes it’s a matter of preference.


So I started off with making a chocolate crumb on Friday night. I mixed dark chocolate cocoa powder (which, I’ll note, was NOT the fancy Valrhona cocoa powder that Tosi insists on) with some salt, a little bit of sugar, some flour, and some melted butter. Once it all came together to make little clumps of dark chocolate-y goodness, I spread it out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and popped that bad boy in the oven for about 20 minutes. Once it cooled down after coming out of the oven, I put those little flavor nuggets in a Tupperware container and hid them (because they were in danger of getting snacked on until they disappeared into M’s and my bellies).


The next morning, I used the chocolate crumb to make the pie crust. I threw the crumb into the food processor to grind everything down to a sandy mixture, and then mixed the sand with some melted butter. Once the mixture held its shape, I transferred it to my pie dish and smooshed it around until it resembled something like a pie crust. (This is only my third pie crust ever -- these kinds of pie crusts have lots to teach me about patience, presence, and a gentle touch.)


And then came the banana cream part. Those god damn bananas were so slimy, and smelled sweet with a hint of rot. It sounds alarming, but I put all my trust in Tosi and threw those bananas in my blender along with heavy cream, milk and some other stuff.


I won’t describe the rest of the process because it would be tedious and probably boring for you. The highlights, though: heating the cream mixture slowly on the stove and whisking the hell out of it and also feeling like I was on the Great British Bake Off. Blooming gelatin for the first time ever. The heavenly smell of the banana and the cream and the butter, all combining to create something magical. Using food coloring for the first time in literally decades.

The final product was divine and well worth the wait. The banana cream was packed with banana flavor (from only two bananas!) and sweetness with a hint of butteriness. Paired with that salty dark chocolate crumb crust to cut the sweetness a bit, it was a perfect-tasting pie.


The pie was demolished in two days.


I love Nigella Lawson and her show, Nigella Bites. (And, as I write this, I’m realizing that I’ve been inadvertently inspired to name this project after her. Honestly, I didn’t mean to do it, but it’s a lovely homage, I think.)

Nigella is deserving of her own ode entirely, but I’ll briefly say that I had no idea who she was until about a month ago. I had an episode of Iron Chef America on in the background, and became captivated by one of the judges, who turned out to be Nigella. I asked M if he’d ever heard of her, and he looked at me like I’d just asked him if he'd ever heard about a delicious treat called chocolate. So we watched the entire second season of Nigella Bites (it’s all we could find on YouTube or any streaming service), and I proceeded to fall in love.

Now, if you don’t know about Nigella, here’s what you need to know: she’s not a classically trained chef. She started out as a journalist and somehow fell into having a cooking show. She delights in the process of cooking, as well as the end result. For her, taking the time to run a finger over the “crocodile skin” of a bowl of capers as she pours them into a bowl or marvel at the brilliant red “jewels” of pomegranate seeds as she drops them over a platter of shredded pork is as important as the finished meal itself. She emphasizes that the process of cooking should bring you as much joy as eating it does. In Nigella Bites, she does not give the viewer exact measurements and she does not measure exactly, except when she bakes. She adds spices to her dishes without measuring, and tells you, “Don’t be apologetic with the spices.” I actually don't know what that means, but I like how it sounds.

If you know me, you might think that Nigella’s style might drive me nuts. And in an earlier version of my cooking self, she might have. Now though? I love her.


All this is to say that I fucked up no meals this week, and one of the meals that I did not fuck up was Nigella’s Miso Salmon recipe from the Simply Nigella cookbook. While I was making preparations, I muttered something like, “Nigella says I need xyz for this, buuutttt…I’m going to do this instead.” M looked at me and said, “Whoa. What’s going on here? Look at you, going off script!”

What can I say? Nigella gives me confidence.

Since we bought double the salmon, I doubled the marinade with no problem. And then — and then — I improvised the sides. I cooked up some quinoa with leftover vegetable broth and some smashed cloves of garlic. I sautéed some on-the-edge kale and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

The salmon was perfect — the miso, fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic all combined to make a dish that was savory, with a depth of flavor and salt that only umami can give. It was so delicious, and so easy to make. It also felt healthy. You know those meals that just feel satisfying and clean? This was one of those.

Alas, I took no pictures because I was too busy eating. I’m terrible at writing about food, aren’t I?


My other success of the week was Slow Cooker Chicken Mole Tacos from the January 2018 issue of Cooking Light.

I’m 100% aware that the stuff I made is not mole. BUT! It’s still super tasty and was so easy to make. I simply salted a little over 2 pounds of chicken thighs and put them in the slow cooker.

Then, in my food processor, I put a can of whole tomatoes, a diced onion, smashed cloves of garlic, some chopped semi-sweet chocolate, raisins, toasted sliced almonds, chicken stock, cumin, cinnamon, adobo sauce, and chipotle chiles.

Nowhere in the recipe did it say, “Oh, by the way, this is a lot of stuff and you might need to process this shit in two batches.” I also ignored the maximum liquid fill line on my processor because who pays attention to that stuff anyway. I turned the processor on, and the mixture leaked out of the lid and all over my counter and the base of the processor. So, I'm here to tell you that you should pay attention to those markings. Unless you really enjoy cleaning red sauce out of every nook and cranny in your prep space, which I do not.

And then I poured everything into the slow cooker, put the lid on, plugged it in, and turned it on low. 8 hours later — tacos. They were delicious. The sauce is not mole, but it really wants to be, which is to say it is more like a hearty smoky salsa sauce with mole-esque undertones.

The result? Tasty-ass tacos. The recipe makes a lot of extra sauce, and I’m excited to use it in something else. (More cooking improv?! Who am I?!)


While making food this week, I thought about instinct. Trusting my gut and my knowledge.

The banana cream pie wasn’t perfect. The filling didn’t hold its shape, even after a good chilling in the refrigerator. As soon as we cut a piece of pie, the filling oozed all over the plate. It oozed deliciously, of course, but oozed just the same.

The recipe had told me to heat and whisk the cream until it became a really thick glue, almost like cement. I whisked until my arm got tired and then kept going, and the mixture wasn’t thick like glue, but I thought it was good enough. I thought about continuing to heat and whisk, but I didn’t want to overdo it. I had a conversation with myself in the kitchen: “Should I keep going? No, I’ll stop here. Well, wait. Yes, maybe I should keep going. Hmm… no, I’m going to trust myself. This is good enough.”

Instinct isn’t coming out of the womb knowing how to do everything right the first time. So much of what we call “instinct” is just trusting your gut, your knowledge, your resiliency and ability to learn. It’s trusting your gut and what you know, and knowing that if you fail, you’ll figure out how to get it right the next time. Or the time after that, or the time after that. We get “instinct” from learning from others, from following directions, but also, paradoxically, from taking risks. The only way we can develop a gut instinct and build our knowledge is to learn the basics, make mistakes, adjust, and try things over and over again.

While I was heating and whisking that banana cream, my gut feeling wasn’t correct and neither was my knowledge. But that’s okay. I’m already planning the next banana cream pie, and, fingers crossed, it’s not going to fall out all over the place.

More Disasters, Stubborn Bananas, and a Meditation on Creating as a Response to Violence

Wow, y’all. I have not fucked up this much food this many times in recent memory.

I started this week off with a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook, Simply Nigella: Thai Noodles with Cinnamon and Shrimp.

It sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to make this and then eat it. My mouth watered just imagining the umami flavors of the soy and oyster sauces fusing with the sweetness of the cinnamon and cloves to create a flavor bomb of awesomeness.

What I made was the exact opposite of that. I had double the noodles and double the shrimp, so I thought I would just double the sauce, which has large quantities of light and dark soy sauces (??? I don’t know the difference ???), oyster sauce, a concoction of dark soy sauce and brown sugar, pepper, chicken broth concentrate, and water.

I thought I had everything under control. I marveled at the darkness of the sauce and the smell of the garlic and ginger and the cinnamon sticks and the star anise as it simmered and bubbled in the pot. It truly smelled incredible. Then, I dumped in my shrimp. I stirred them around and realized I had made a huge mistake. The shrimp were so coated in the sauce that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the shrimp turned pink because the sauce was so dark.

I shrugged and thought, oh well. Shrimp don’t take too long to cook, and when I put the noodles in, they will soak up the sauce, the shrimp will turn back to a normal color, and everything will balance out.

I dumped the noodles into the pot, and they also turned dark. The more I tossed the ingredients together, the more everything simply turned full dark, no stars.

And not only was every ingredient of the dish just the same shade of dark, they were amazingly, incredibly salty. I tasted one shrimp and thought it wasn’t too bad. When I ate an entire bowl, though, I had to chug water every couple of bites because I was afraid of shriveling up like those aliens in The Faculty

Even through the saltiness though, I could taste the sweetness of the spices. I could taste what the dish was like under all its darkness.

These goddamn bananas are driving me nuts. They are still ripening.

So still no banana cream pie this week. My baking fingers are itching to make something.

I’ll be honest. For the past week and a half or so, my body has been preparing to shed its uterine lining. (Yes, I’m going to talk about periods. Deal with it.) This means that my energy has been super low, my ovaries have randomly felt like they were trying to rip their way out of my body, and I’ve been hungering for moderately salty foods  (i.e. NOT the monstrosity I made of Nigella's recipe) and deeply chocolate foods. Sometimes, even at the same time. (Gasp.)  

On Wednesday, I could feel the cramps coming. It’s like watching a train come down the tracks really slowly. I can hear its whistle, I know it’s on its way, and I know I have only a brief amount of time before it flattens me on the tracks.

So I hurried and made this Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light. Cooking Light reports that the soup is immune-system boosting. It’s brothy, it’s spicy, it cleans out your sinuses. It’s got a million cloves of garlic in it (okay, fine, it actually has only 15+ garlic cloves), it’s got little nuggets of beef, crisp baby bok choy, and earthy mushrooms. It’s delicious.


Two hours after I finished the soup, my cramps hit. I spent the rest of the night on the couch with my trusty heating pad and a comfortably full belly.

Usually, when I mess up a dish, I want to forget it ever happened. I want to bury the recipe and my mistakes in a cemetery along with all my other botched things (food and otherwise). I usually make notes on the recipe for myself, for when I've forgotten the disaster at hand and want to try again. But that amnesia and ensuing motivation usually comes long after. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years.

I was so disappointed in my Thai noodles miscalculations. I was disappointed that I didn't get to enjoy what I could tell was a tasty dish underneath all that salt, and I was disappointed in myself for not trusting my intuition (which had been yelling and waving its arms at me frantically as I ignored it and continued to pour unthinkable amounts of salty ingredients into the pot).

This time, however, I wanted to get right back on the horse. I wanted to try again. I want to try again.

I’ve been waiting around for these bananas to ripen because I really want that banana cream pie. But it occurred to me that I don’t have to wait around to bake, just because the bananas aren’t ready. I can bake something else while I wait.  I don’t have to deprive myself of baking for however many weeks, just because these bananas are taking forever to rot.

So simple a revelation, and so duh, but, man.

And so, I’m ending on another culinary cliffhanger this week. I’m going to make a Nigella chocolate cake. I have no idea where I’m going to find edible rose petals for this thing, but I trust that I will find a suitable substitute somewhere. 

Who knows. Maybe next week’s Friday Bites will chronicle the making of a dark and sumptuous chocolate cake and the world’s tastiest banana cream pie. Here’s hoping.

I’ve realized that cooking is nice and all, but baking is what makes me feel like everything is going to be okay in the world. The precision and order of baking is comforting in times of chaos and violence, which is the world we live in. It's not a coincidence that my need to create something tangible and nourishing reared its head after I read the news about the18th school shooting of year. When I feel powerless and devastated, the instinct to do something comes.

There are so many things to do. Call your representatives. Protest. Petition. Lobby for change. Write op-ed pieces. Tweet angrily.

I often struggle with what feels like the most effective thing to do in the moment. What if the thing that feels best and right is to create something? To bake a fucking cake? Does it do anything to create something - a dish, a cake, a pie, a pastry, a poem, a blog post, an essay - and put it out there? What if you create it and put it out into the world with love and revolution in your heart and mind? Is that something?