Cowboy Cookies with Peanut Butter Chips

Ninth grade was a time of transition. I never have been good at transition. In middle school – sixth through eight grades – I was profoundly awkward. Now, every supermodel and high functioning grown-up will insist that she was a gawky tween, and I’m sure this is true in their hearts. But I really was an adolescent mess: Sally Jesse glasses. A bad perm, which is just redundant. Sprayed up bangs. Pimples. Too smart to be cool, and too self-conscious to be completely invested in schoolwork. In my seventh grade class photo, I wore a paisley vest from J.C. Penny over a puffy white shirt. Sometimes, classmates would leave dog treats under my chair and throw things at me on the bus. I had a lot of stomach aches those years.

But I also was a dancer and cheerleader and made my friends crack up with silly impressions and the ability to coin new words. I discovered a wicked gift for mean girlishness, because I could suss out exactly what was odd about our rivals. I was the one who ghost wrote the notes and drafted the petitions we circulated. I spread gossip and exaggerated the truth. It was self-preservation, I rationalized. We were all just trying to survive. The boys I liked never noticed me. I cheered for them from the basketball sidelines and slow danced all seventy-four minutes of Stairway to Heaven with the kid who lived in the motel next to Stop ‘n Shop because I felt sorry for him. And when the lights came up in the gymnasium, he walked back to his friends and made barking noises as I slipped into my turquoise windbreaker and went out to look for my mom’s Caravan.

The fall of ’92 arrived, and so did I. Taller and well-proportioned, with better skin and contact lenses. A classic ugly duckling story. But I didn’t feel like fitting in. I couldn’t understand why the older boys who used to tease me suddenly wanted to take me out. Cliques were torn apart, as classes were stratified by level. We sorted and resorted our social alliances, and started reading Dante in English. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” was written over my homeroom door. Freshman year was circles of Hell even more confusing than the purgatory of terrible middle school. I took my lunch alone in the last rows of the auditorium, where I could think and cry and read. Every day I had a bottle of water, because I was on a diet, and a package of three crispy chocolate chip cookies, because I was sad. Such is the logic of a 13-year-old.

Fall always makes me think of that period of flux, when innocence to experience happened overnight. It’s been twenty years since I was that crying girl. I wish I could time travel back and give her a hug and these homemade cookies, instead of the crummy ones I bought from the school cafeteria. I’d tell her that transition never gets any easier, but never to give up hope, which is an infinite resource that never diminishes, like the Hanukkah oil or Everlasting Gobstoppers. Gah, what a bummer of a story for a Friday. Sorry.Yay weekend! Make cookies! These are awesome and packed full of chunks and chocolate and oatmeal and nuts and are so, so good with coffee.

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Nuts 4 Nuts Copycat Sugared Street Nuts

I got my first job in New York in the Fall of 2000, working as a graphic designer for an incentive marketing startup in Midtown, on 5th Avenue and 31st Street. At the time, the internet industry was still recovering from the recently-burst dotcom bubble that had left the landscape littered with lots of very bright kids that had been showered with millions of dollars from investors, only to suddenly find themselves out of work after their second round of fundraising. For many, the self-destruct of their companies had been deserved; a company whose best idea was to sell pet supplies on the internet really didn’t need to reward employees with $5,000 desks and profit sharing programs that would never actually come to fruition. At the same time, many good ideas (like the company down the block from us, who wanted to serve streaming video online long, long before the technology of the medium was ready,) got caught up in the bad press of the companies that were spectacularly flaming out all around us.

While my friends and I considered ourselves fortunate to be working for a company who had an idea that we all basically believed in, and that even had a few million bucks in untouched investment money in the bank, there was definitely a spooky mood in the air. We crowded around one another’s workstations each morning, where websites like F*cked Company brought the dismal news of each new day, and Odd Todd made us laugh with his crude Flash animations that seemed to tap specifically into the hopelessness we all felt. Looking back, it seems like a very strange way for all of us to have started our careers, with the marked cynicism and a basic mistrust in management that should have taken many more years to develop.

As I reflect on those years, however, it’s also with a fair amount of excitement. You’re only 22 once, and getting paid to live and compete in the greatest city in the world during those first few years of my career is something I feel lucky to have experienced. When I first began working there, I still lived in New Haven, and would take the Metro North commuter train in to the city in the mornings, before walking through the crackly Autumn air to the office. Some nights after work, I would couch surf at one of my coworker’s places (in the way that only seems possible at a company where the CFO is 26), but most of the time, I would hop a late-night train back home to Connecticut. When I close my eyes, I can still remember that walk back up 5th Avenue, brain fuzzy from a few post-work pints of commiseration with my new friends. I’d stop outside Grand Central, and buy two bags of piping hot Nuts 4 Nuts sugar-coated peanuts to stuff into my coat pockets for the ride home. They’d warm up my hands enough to get the heavy door to the train station open, to buy a train ticket and a can of Foster’s for the ride back North.

The smell of these “street nuts” from the Nuts 4Nuts cart is burned into my memory, and is something that I will always associate with the descent of Winter in NYC. You can smell a fresh batch cooking from a block away, with big clouds of sugar-scented steam billowing off the tiny chrome and plexiglass carts. Though the company has never released the “official” recipe, it has to be simple enough to prepare on the side of a busy city street, which should make recreating them at home even easier. As it turns out, it is; sugar and water are all you really need, though I like to add a little vanilla extract, as well. You can also experiment with adding cinnamon, or even cayenne or sea salt. The only constraint is that the peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, or pecans you use must be raw; the oils present in roasted nuts prevent the sugar from crystallizing and adhering properly to the nut.

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Pork Marsala Saute

A few weeks ago, Jillian began working a new job that keeps her away from home for most of the evening, most notably during suppertime. I usually work at home all day while she takes care of Violet, and then in the late afternoons, I assume baby duty. My amazing parenting style usually amounts to sitting on the couch with the baby watching Judge Mathis together, while I try only half-successfully to keep her from eating the down feathers from the throw pillows. Needless to say, she absorbs nearly one hundred percent of my attention, and because I am terrible at planning ahead, the evening meal has of late become a ridiculously informal affair. With the baby scurrying around at my feet and only myself to feed, I can usually manage to rustle up some frightening combination of leftovers from the fridge, which I pile into a saucepan, heat up, and then tilt down my gullet while Violet occupies herself with whatever her latest sticky rice-cracker obsession is.

In an effort to continue eating at least somewhat like a grownup (the packed freezer full of frozen burritos and Pillsbury Toaster Scrambles notwithstanding), I’ve been working on a collection of easy-to-prepare, comforting dishes. The criteria? They should be relatively inexpensive, comforting, and take less than a half an hour to whip up, with as little danger as possible to a baby who is suddenly everywhere all at once. And if there will be awesome leftovers that I can eat straight out of the saucepan later in the week, all the better.

With this in mind, I whipped up this easy riff on Pork Marsala, a pork and mushroom mixture flavored with onions, garlic, and sweet fortified wine. Serve it over buttered egg noodles, because when you’re at the end of your rope and counting the minutes until Mom gets home, nothing will make you feel better than buttered egg noodles. Except maybe bourbon.

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Brie and Mushroom Phyllo Puffs

I love having party food for dinner. On an autumn weeknight, in yoga pants, watching The Walking Dead, under a blanket and drinking wine on the couch with candles burning in the windows and pumpkins and gourds on the mantle. Served with a green salad, it’s a perfect easy supper. As much as I would like to dress up and go somewhere fabulous in high heels and shiny earrings, right now we’re being cozy and holed up at home with a baby. It’s a good year and we don’t want to miss a moment. So, we’re laying low and being quiet, enjoying life’s simple pleasures. This hors d’oeuvre would be wonderful for your guests on Thanksgiving. But, truly, making these brie and mushrooms phyllo puffs is a quick way to make an ordinary night feel special. It’s time to hibernate, play board games, read books, take baths and get in your pajamas within minutes of walking in the door. Shake up a gin martini and treat yourself to these golden triangles of savory goodness very soon!

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Lamb Barbacoa Dip (Homemade)

Today’s sandwich is the “Lamb Barbacoa Dip.” It combines braised lamb shank and Swiss cheese on a toasted baguette.

Notes: I’m going to be perfectly honest with you on this one. My vision for this sandwich shifted gears about halfway through its preparation.

In my mind, we were going to be riffing on a classic “French Dip,” the sandwich made with thinly sliced beef on a baguette, dipped a bite at a time into a sidecar of au jus, but using the leftovers from last night’s excellent Braised Lamb Shanks.

I stripped the meat from the bone, and chopped it finely. I added it with a little of the braising liquid to a saucepan to allow the meat to heat through. I used too much liquid, though, so I decided that rather than siphon any off, I was just going to let it cook off, continually tossing and stirring the finely shredded lamb in the port wine reduction.

I was delighted to see the leftover meat start to become glazed with a thick, syrupy version of the cooking liquid, condensing and compressing the sweetness of the port and the pleasant funk of the meat into a kind of candied lamb barbecue, more like a lamb barbacoa, or more like the most upscale version of a sloppy joe you have ever had in your life, than like a French Dip sandwich.

Because I was short on other ingredients, I moved on with the rest of my plan, splitting the baguette lengthwise and griddling it in butter, before heaping it with my lamb barbacoa and topping it with a few slices of Swiss. A few minutes under the broiler, and the resulting accidental sandwich was one of the best I’ve had in weeks. Though I strained some of the leftover cooking liquid to serve on the side, I ended up not even using it; warming the meat right in the leftover braising liquid and letting it reduce and reduce imparted not just lots of flavor, but plenty of moisture.

The moral of the story (and Rule Number Three in the “From Away Guide to the Sandwich Arts”) should be this: The beauty of a sandwich, particularly one made with leftovers, is that sometimes you should allow yourself to end up someplace different than you thought you were going. The results can be delicious.

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Braised Lamb Shank with Port and Mushrooms

As the weather cools here in Midcoast Maine, and the silence of Autumn is broken only by the groan of the oil furnace cycling on, taking the edge off the chill of an October evening, our thoughts inevitably begin to turn to heavier, heartier meals. There’s something about the smell of woodsmoke in the neighborhood, combined with the crazy kaleidoscope of color that signals the changing season in the Northeast, that makes  me start craving big cuts of meat, slow-cooked in stews or braises. Because, really, is there anything more pornographic in the world of home cooking than braised beef or lamb? Slow-cooked until impossibly tender, it sits atop a pile of mashed potatoes or parsnips, barely able to hold itself together, until you drag a fork through it, breaking the meat into delicate shreds of melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness, spilling a reduction of pan sauce, port, and mushroom in its wake. Transforming tough cuts of beef or lamb into a flavorful, fall-apart braise this way is true kitchen alchemy, and when thoughts of all of those combining flavors and textures get in your head, they’re impossible to shake.

Here, we asked our butcher to cut two gigantic lamb shanks in half, before slow cooking them for hours in a combination of red white, port, and balsamic, with plenty of onion, garlic, and mushrooms for good measure. The braising liquid reduces into a slightly sweet sauce, which balances the strong flavors of the lamb beautifully. We serve ours over fluffy mashed potatoes, which come with no recipe other than this: Boil two pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, leaving the skins on. Continue to add butter and cream like a boss until you juuuuuuuust start to feel bad about yourself, then mash with salt and pepper, and serve.

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