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Dilly bread

Cooking is one of those things that is never learned in a vacuum. You do not learn it solely from books or blogs or television shows; you learn it from people. They impart their knowledge, their wisdom, and their sense of taste, and you internalize that.

For many of us, of course, much of this wisdom comes down generationally. For those who cook professionally, they learn in a school or on the job. Those of us who are passionate about food tend to learn from each other. It is our bond.

This recipe comes to us from a dear friend, who is in turn passing on a piece of someone dear to her, a colleague named Tom. Tom was an engineer, but also an avid home cook and pioneering food blogger. He would throw lavish dinner parties for his birthday, collecting his crew of fellow cooks to work with him. He was our friend’s mentor both at the office and in the kitchen.

This bread was his comfort food, something his mother used to make for him. He would make it when he was vexed by a problem, either professionally or personally. He’d also make it for friends if they were sad or stressed out. It’s not hard to see why. When this bread comes out of the oven, its aroma erases any cares in the world.

Tom passed away in 2008. We never met him, but his influence lingers on in his friends, in our friend. A recipe from a man we’ve never known has made it into our repertory. The cycle continues.

When Jerry James Stone asked me to participate in Three Loaves, this recipe sprang to mind for three key reasons. First, because it has significance. Second, because it’s delicious. Third, and most importantly, because it’s easy. I am not a confident baker, so I gravitate toward recipes that are, simply, hard to screw up.

The recipe scales linearly. The original makes two loaves, so I’ve scaled for three. According to our friend, each loaf can also be broken out into three mini loaves, though the baking time will be shorter. Serve slices warm, slathered with butter, or alongside a lovely spring salad.

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Chocolate mousse made with … bean water?

Hey, did you know that the UN has designated 2016 the International Year of Pulses? Of course you didn’t! Do you even know what pulses are? Bet not. I’m not talking the throbbing on your wrist, or the thing you do on the food processor to pulverize nuts. Pulses are dried members of the legume family that include beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas. This does not include fresh beans or peas, soybeans, or peanuts. Got it? Good.

I had the privilege to be invited to the gorgeous Culinary Institute of America Greystone a few weeks back to learn more about pulses, and get inspired on how to use them. During this weekend intensive, we heard from experts on the virtues of pulses, and then went into the kitchens to work with instructors to get our pulses racing.

Why pulses? Simple. Pulses are:

  • Renewable and sustainable. Pulses actually fix nitrogen in the soil, adding rather than depleting nutritional value like many other crops do.
  • Healthful. Pulses are high in protein and low in fat. Increasing pulse consumption has been demonstrated to aid in weight loss, even without making other dietary change. They are heart-healthy, and help regulate blood sugar.
  • Oh yeah, delicious. If you’re not already in love with them, you haven’t had them prepared right. And about that farty thing: Research has shown that once you integrate more pulses into your diet more regularly, that little problem tends to go away.

To get more people to enjoy pulses as part of their regular routine, they’ve launched the #PulsePledge, where you commit to eating at least one serving of pulses a week. In our household, that’s a no-brainer. We eat beans on the reg, most especially the fabulous ones from Rancho Gordo.

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Two daddies had Reese

Nearly nine years ago, we brought Reese home from the SF SPCA. On January 20, we said goodbye to her. 

After nearly losing her back in October, she rebounded with the help of our amazing vet. Over the ensuing weeks and months, as her war against heart failure waged ever fiercer, our victories became smaller and less frequent. In the last couple days, her breathing became more labored, she became weak, and — the surest sign of trouble — she began to refuse food. It was time.

The decision was not easy, but once made was clear as day. She brought us years of joy, laughter and love, and it was our responsibility to make her last moments as good as they could be. We took her down to the beach one last time, then the vet came. She passed peacefully in a place she loved with us by her side.

People always tell you that you'll know when it's the right time to put down your dog, but that's not entirely true. You'll always hold out hope, always expect another miracle. It was only after the decision was made, after the deed was done, and after we had time to reflect on old pictures and videos, did we realize how far gone she really was. Compared to her last days, it's hard to imagine our Reese was ever this energetic, yet it wasn't that long ago. 

Caring for a sick creature takes its toll, and again in ways we didn't fully understand until after. There were a thousand scripts running in our heads at all times. Where's the dog? Does she need medication? What was that noise? Did she have a fainting spell? Did she pee in the laundry room? Does she have water? When she was alive and fighting, we were programmed to react to a variety of things, expecting the worst. The stress was ambient, constant, and in the most literal sense devastating. It destroyed my will to create, and really to do much of anything other than nap and lose myself in my phone. It's only now, well after the fact, that I've been able to claw my way out of the abyss of depression. 

We hoped to get more time with Reese, but we treasured as much as we had. Nine years accounts for about a fifth of each of our lives, and well over a third of our lives together. The vacancy in our lives is huge. Yet despite the heartbreak, we won't hesitate to do it again.

We took some time to heal, went on a well-timed trip to Mexico with friends, and will take a trip to Southern California at the end of this month. After I return from a conference in LA the first weekend of April, we will begin the hunt for a new companion. 

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How to brew the perfect pot of tea

Though I start my day with espresso, I really enjoy a nice pot of tea, especially on dreary winter days. I keep a varied selection, to suit my moods: Bracing black to wake up the palate and inspiration, soothing green for pensive moments, and even a few herbal tisanes like mint and chamomile to settle the stomach or calm the mind’s chatter.

There’s more to tea than just adding hot water. To get the best from your brew, the devil’s in the details. I’ve picked up a few tips from tea aficionados, and have ultimately developed my own method for the perfect pot, every time.

  • Invest in whole leaf tea. For the most part, bagged tea is made with overly fine, dust-like remnants of tea leaves. Tea shake, if you will. It tends to be of inferior quality. I’m fond Steven Smith Teamaker’s products, and occasionally purchase some from DAVIDsTEA, because they’re in the neighborhood.
  • Don’t crowd the tea ball. Only use about a teaspoon of leaves per cup of tea.
  • Start with good water. Use cold, freshly drawn water from the tap, or, if your water is hard or unpalatable, use filtered water. We’re lucky to be on Hetch Hetchy water, which is among the best in the nation.
  • Check your temperature. Don’t just bring the water to a screaming boil. Different teas work best at different temperatures. Delicate white and green teas should be steeped at a barely simmering 180°F; oolong and black around 200°F. Herbal teas can tolerate a full boil.
  • Pour the water over your tea leaves. Some say this shocks the leaves, so if you’re very fussy, pour the water in the pot and then add the tea. Vintage cups and pot from a set you’ve been collecting for a couple decades optional, but highly recommended.
  • Do not disturb. Let the tea steep. Step away, check your email, play games on your phone, take a nap, etc.
  • Return to the kitchen no less than three hours later. Notice the pot of tea on the counter. Drink the tea anyway.

This method is so consistent in results, and has become my go-to way to enjoy tea, whether as a morning pick-me-up or an afternoon refresher. I’ve actually come to enjoy tepid, overextracted tea in its own right. Try it and see!

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It’s a given that we self-edit to some degree on social media. The face we present rarely reflects the whole picture. By way of example, in early October, I was posting updates and images during a trip to Italy, effusing over delicious food and life-changing experiences. On the surface, life was good. What I didn’t talk about was that our dog was dying.

We’ve known that Reese has a heart condition for over a year now. Last September, during a dinner party, she was barking out the front window, as is her wont. dpaul went to shoo her out. I heard him call my name, frantically, from the living room. As I dashed in, I saw Reese on her side on the floor. Her back arched, and she let out a strained wail. And then she was still. As we lay there on the floor, comforting her, we were bracing ourselves for the possibility that we were about to lose her right then and there. Slowly, she began to rally, and 20 minutes later she was back to her normal self.

We chalked it up to an isolated incident, a flash in the pan that would hopefully never repeat. But about two months later, it happened again, and again. A vet referred us to a canine cardiologist (yes, this is a thing), who determined after some tests that she had an enlarged heart brought on by a leaky valve. These episodes were not seizures, as we thought, but syncope, fainting spells brought on by rapid shifts in blood pressure. This would inevitably eventually progress into congestive heart failure, at which point there were some treatments we could explore that might extend her life. But we were talking increments of weeks, maybe months.

Not long after, we came home from an event on a Sunday night. Reese was short of breath. As I walked her, she collapsed. We whisked her off to the emergency vet, who kept her in an oxygen crate overnight and dosed her with diuretic pills. This was followed by another visit with the cardiologist, who ran more tests, and who wanted to run more tests in a few weeks. This was getting expensive, and we didn’t feel like we were making progress.

Four years ago, we rented a house in Bodega Bay for a weekend getaway. After a visit to the beach, we thought we saw a tick on Reese’s belly, but couldn’t seem to remove it. A quick search revealed that there was a vet in Bodega Bay, so we brought her in. It turned out to be nothing, but we were impressed with the veterinary facility, which had only recently opened, as well as the doctor himself. By the grace of a dear friend who since bought a house in the area, we’ve been spending more time on the coast, so we decided to work with him.

He put her on a regimen of medications, and educated us on how to treat symptomatically, enabling us to manage her condition better, to the point that he began to refer to us as “junior cardiologists.” She improved and stabilized. For a while.

The night before I left for Italy, Reese began to manifest symptoms again. There was little I could do; I was leading a group. dpaul upped her medications, and we hoped for the best.

Two days into my trip, Reese tanked. Along the urgent drive to Bodega Bay, she was vomiting and having more fainting spells. During a sonogram, the vet and dpaul could see her valve fluttering. Her heart was failing. He maxed out the dosages on the medications and, on a hunch, put her on antibiotics. Patients, human and canine alike, who have a heart murmur can sometimes develop bacterial infections in the atria, which can exacerbate symptoms. It couldn’t hurt to try, anyway.

Reese was a zombie, too lethargic to walk or eat. The next day, everyone, including the vet, expected that she would be put down. Friends came to see her, thinking it might be the last time.

Meanwhile, I was 6000 miles away in Emilia-Romagna, making pasta and piadina, and preparing to head to a truffle festival. To the outside world, and to my guests, life was good. They didn’t know I was crying myself to sleep every night.

Reese began to rally. Her energy improved, slowly. There was hope.

By the time I returned home a week later, she was nearly back to normal. As the antibiotics took effect, she not only stabilized, she regained a vigor we hadn’t seen in months, maybe years.

Three weeks later, while I was again traveling for BlogHer Food, she took another turn, coughing and short of breath. dpaul brought her back to the vet. Dr. Trapani felt this was a normal occurrence. Plaque from the infection was sloughing off from the valve, throwing into the lungs. For humans, this is a dangerous condition, but dogs’ pulmonary systems are different, more adaptable. As long as the vascular system could adapt at least as fast as the clots were hitting the lungs, she would  be fine, and the clots would eventually dissolve. This continued for a week, what he referred to as a “storm” of detritus being cast off from the heart. Eventually, it would stop, when all the dead tissue was gone.

To see her today, you’d never know she’d been to the brink of death and back. She’s not entirely out of the woods — she does still have a heart condition, and this can ultimately only go one way — but for now she’s stable and happy. There’s little doubt in my mind that Dr. Trapani’s hunch to put her on antibiotics were the turning point. I also have little doubt that had we stuck with other vets in the city, she wouldn’t be with us today.

So I’m thankful. Thankful for every day that we have Reese in our lives. Thankful for having found a vet that thought beyond the obvious to look for other potential treatments. Thankful for the friend who affords us access to a house where we can see the vet (and, of course, enjoy the coast.) And most of all thankful for my husband, who endured the darkest days and managed a difficult situation when I couldn’t be there to support him.

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