Discover more from Aleka Gürel
Slow is fast
Plus leaf peeping, apple pie, and a dozen excellent novels
I have an embarrassing admission: prior to this week, I never really believed the hype about fall in Vermont.
In all fairness, none of the times I’ve come up here over the past fifteen years have coincided with peak leaf-peeping season. Well, I’m fully bought in now. The hills are awash with yellow and orange and blood-red leaves, to the point where I exclaimed “UNBELIEVABLE!” about every five minutes during our afternoon walk today. I knew, intellectually, that it would be beautiful, but there’s an almost unbelievable quality to the scenery around me; I feel like I’m seeing through an infrared lens that distorts natural colors into stunning alien landscapes.
I need that little extra sweetening to get my butt out the door and on a walk these days; my careful morning and bedtime routines are fraying around the edges. One really late night leads to difficulty dragging myself out of bed in the morning, and then a later bedtime as my internal sleep clock shifts, and so on, a familiar pattern. But I’m trying to claw back those quiet mornings and and disciplined bedtimes, hoping to reclaim snatches of feeling more rested and present.
For the past week or so, my motivation to get in bed on time (though perhaps not so much to turn out the lights) has been Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which I finally finished last night. It’s an alternate history that imagines what would have happened if a meteor had struck the earth in 1952, leading to a global climate catastrophe. Specifically, it focuses on Dr. Elma York, a WASP pilot who wants to become an astronaut. (Real-life Turkish fighter pilot Sabiha Gökçen also makes an appearance as one of the first female astronauts, which was a really fun little detail.)
There’s meticulously researched science and 1950s sexism but also a number of really supportive marriages, which is something that’s increasingly interesting to me in fiction as I approach that stage of life. One of the takeaways currently bopping around my head is the mantra slow is fast, apparently used by real life astronauts, meaning that you’re more efficient in the long run with a slow and careful approach than with a rushed one. Critical in space where errors are often fatal, to be sure, but also in general professional life and say, when you’re trying to bake biscuits. (More on that later.)
To tell the truth, I’ve had no shortage of excellent reading in recent weeks. I’ve sped through The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. All are excellent, which also makes it harder to stay on track for lights-out. Alas, I am now Fresh Out of Fiction™ so would welcome any and all suggestions you might have (particularly speculative fiction, which seems to be my preferred attempt at escapism right now.)
In terms of cooking, all of my recent endeavours seem to be either recipes I’ve made repeatedly in the past month or else never before. Topping the list in the “familiar” category is Stella Parks’ take on buttermilk biscuits (recipe in her wonderful book but also here, just skip the sesame seeds.)
I’ve made these many, many times - at least four since we finally caved and bought a cast iron skillet here - but apparently still can’t remember the right oven temperature. This morning I put them in at 350 and not 400 and then wondered why the tops weren’t browning. Happy to confirm that they’re still excellent even if you are prone to self-sabotage, but the takeaway here is: slow is fast! Always check the recipe.
I’ve raved about it before, but Leela Punyaratabandhu’s recipe for pad ka prao is now firmly in my regular rotation. With a pound of ground meat, a big handful of holy basil, and a short list of pantry/freezer staples, you can have a truly excellent dinner on hand in about 15 minutes. I’ve only made it with beef so far, but am excited to try it with pork and tofu in future.
On to the new stuff. One of the really lovely things about having my grandmother up here with us for so long is that I got to learn how to make several of my favorite recipes, like her hot pepper jelly and spaetzle. For the uninitiated, spaetzle, or more accurately, spätzle, is a German quasi-noodle that’s made by dropping little bits of an eggy dough into boiling water. Some people do this with a cutting board and a knife, but my little sister managed to find this spätzle maker online and it is magical.
Most of the other new recipes I’ve tried have been enabled by the recent shipment of “Sichuan pantry essentials” (read: Sichuan peppercorns, dried chillies, and spicy fermented bean paste) that I ordered from Fly By Jing after not having much luck tracking down an Asian grocery store within reasonable driving distance. Most exciting among them has been a successful rendition of mapo tofu, my go-to “I had a crummy day” takeout order which I’ve been sadly without for months out here in VT.
I’ve also really enjoyed getting to use said ingredients to finally make a proper attempt at fish-fragrant eggplant, plus stir-fried spicy rice cakes and the mapo beans I’d bookmarked from Lucas Sin’s Instagram highlights a few months back.
Another favorite new-to-me dish is spiced braised beef shank - well, chuck, just given what was available at our local butcher. The recipe was given to me by my friend Eva, but basically you braise your cut of beef for hours in a heavily spiced broth that includes tons of whole spices (including star anise, cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorns) and ideally let it sit in the liquid for a day before slicing and eating it cold or (as I did) in a noodle soup. It made the house smell amazing and was the perfect transition to fall; definitely going to be making this again.
Lest you think there’s been no dessert around here, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion. A few weeks ago my mom and grandmother stopped by Alyson’s Orchard in New Hampshire and picked up enormous quantities of amazing peaches, so naturally, there was a lot of Smitten Kitchen magic cobbler. But then my sister moved in to her new apartment and in a hunt for said magic cobbler recipe, reminded me of a different cobbler from the Smitten Kitchen - a crispier, more fruit-forward version.
I’ve made this recipe only once before, when I needed to use up a dozen peaches and for some reason chose to make three cobblers at once. Luckily Sam had friends visiting that night and I was able to persuade them to eat huge bowls of peach cobbler before heading out for drinks. (An odd choice of pre-game, perhaps, but at least on brand for me.) In any case, I’m pleased to report that it is as good as I remember, although a little more involved than my standby.
I was also excited to find that, true to form, our local grocery store here has a huge selection of Bob's Red Mill flours, including buckwheat, rye, and tapioca. The rye flour went straight to feeding my sourdough starter, but I used the buckwheat to make David Leibowitz’s buckwheat chocolate chip cookies. A friend made similar cookies for a picnic a few years ago and the concept has been hanging out at the back of my mind ever since. For good reason, too - they’re both delicious and beautiful. (Plus, a fun fact I learned from the recipe: buckwheat flour sold in France is more refined than the kind you find in the US, leading to a totally different color of cookie!)
Back to the tapioca starch: I was excited to find it because it’s Stella Parks’ favorite thickener for fruit pies - apparently it forms a nicer gel than cornstarch. The problem is that, having never been able to find it in a store before, I’ve never been able to make one of her pies, as tapioca sets differently than cornstarch and is not a straight swap.
In any case, we had tons of apples left over from apple picking at Wellwood Orchards, so I finally made her old-fashioned apple pie. This involves slicing and macerating apples for hours in sugar and spices, which gets you shrunken apples and lots of apple syrup. Due to some misfortune including a weird-sized oven that won’t fit a regular baking tray to catch drips and probably also more convection-related errors on my part, the pie gave off tons of smoke while baking.
Happily, it turned out great in the end (her pie crust is a winner every time) and in the process of googling “why is pie smoking” I learned that many people actually make pies in their smokers! So that’s one thing to look forward to in the hypothetical future when I’m someone with a large backyard and a Big Green Egg.
What’s on the menu this week? We are potentially heading back to San Francisco in early October, so probably lots of packing. If I’m ambitious, I might try to use the rest of my tapioca flour to make Pão de Queijo (my #1 favorite dish when I studied abroad in Brazil) or maybe some other apple dessert to use up the remaining four pounds of apples in the fridge. Send your recommendations my way!