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We are at that amazing time of the year, well at least in the Midwest, when all that beautiful local summer produce is having its final hurrah. With not much happening due to Covid restrictions, cooking has been one of the only things that has brought me some joy. Grocery and farmers market shopping is the only thing getting me out of the house and as such, things are starting to pile up. Add to that the goods from my little community garden plot and the massive haul I brought home from a friends robust garden and I was drowning in produce. The clock was ticking; it was time to form a plan of attack. Here’s what I did with those key summer treats – Tomatoes, Peppers and Zucchini –  and some other ideas too.

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In the great wide recipe universe, there are probably more for brownies than any other. So many versions, so many methods. For me, it comes down to fudgy versus cakey and I am firmly in the fudgy camp. For years I’ve used an Alice Medrich recipe made with two kinds of chocolate and a very small amount of flour that is intensely fudgy, chocolatey and wonderful. Sometimes I add nuts or peanut butter swirls or coffee powder, sometimes fruit like port soaked cherries or fresh raspberries and sometimes I just leave them plain. They’re fabulous. Then last week, after an hour call in which chocolate was discussed at length, I had a craving for brownies but not a speck of chocolate in the house. This is highly unusual. Highly. Not wanting to run to the store, I shifted through my pantry and noticed I had a lot of cocoa powder. Not my usual but that could work. I looked for a cocoa based recipe and came upon one I’ve crossed paths with for years but never made: Katherine Hepburn Brownies.

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I have a remarkable cadre of friends in Southwest France, mostly retired, who are truly living their best lives. They are constantly posting beautiful, luscious, envy inducing photos of meals they’re enjoying through this pandemic and it’s been enough to make me tear up a few times. Maybe one day we’ll be able to enter the country again. Maybe one day, I’ll see them again and share a lovely meal.

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Have you discovered chili crisp yet? That crunchy, spicy, umami bomb of a Sichuan condiment everyone has been talking about for the last year or so? Oh my friends, let me tell you. Whoa. Get on it. It started with Laoganma’s brand, found in Asian markets, and branched out into homemade recipes and variations. I even posted a recipe in early 2019 and have made it numerous times since. Its dried chili based and spicy, but not overly so, and packed with crunchy shallots, garlic and peanuts, a ton of ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and umami rich mushroom powder and yes, msg. Let me tell you, that msg is key. I’ve tried versions without, and they are not nearly as good. They just aren’t. Embrace the msg.

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About a week ago, author Emily Nunn (@emilyreesnunn) posted a very simple frozen treat on her Instagram feed that she called “peach soft serve” – just frozen peaches and buttermilk whirled up in a blender. I swooned a little. Not only do I love peaches and buttermilk, together and separately, I loved the simplicity of it all. While I had no frozen peaches, I did have a big bag I’d just picked up at the farmers market that smelled so good it made me a bit dizzy. I had buttermilk hiding in the back of my fridge (that stuff lasts forever.) I had a blender. More pressing, I had an ice cream canister hogging up all kinds of space in my freezer and a need for that space. I was inspired.

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At the start of the pandemic, I was baking up a storm. Big loaves of bread, foccacia, cinnamon rolls; the whole thing. I had no problem cranking the oven up to 500°F for a crusty sourdough or a blistered pizza. Then April moved into June and July and the heat came. There was no way I was going to turn the oven that high for that long. Not happening. So I struck upon a nice alternative: pita cooked on the stove top.

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Let’s be frank. Things suck right now in the US. It’s really bad. A pandemic with no end in sight, a dumpster fire political situation, this energy sucking heat … its turned me upside down. On top of all that I’m eating crap. From a cooking perspective, I make plans and buy the ingredients, only to decide the next day to hit a drive thru and nap on my couch instead. To say my motivation and optimism right now is low, is a gross understatement. But sometimes you get lucky and a persistent bright light shines through. Recently, it was my friend Heather who, in addition to being a complete delight, has a magical backyard with a pool. As Chicago temperatures surged toward 90 degrees with 5000% humidity, she told me to come on over and socially distant float. It was just what I needed, mentally and physically.

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Even before this pandemic began, I was a bean hoarder. You see, I’ve got a real thing for Rancho Gordo, those utterly delicious heirloom beans. They are fantastic and live up to all the hype. I’ve bought them in stores, I’ve ordered them online, I’ve received them as gifts. I even went to the home base in Napa, CA … and bought more beans. Back in October, I received an email that their Bean Club was open to new subscribers. This rarely happens. There’s a 5,000 person waiting list and somehow, I had the golden ticket. I’d passed on it once, years ago, and wasn’t going to let it happen again. On a whim, I quickly joined and a month later, a box with 6lbs of beautiful beans arrived in the mail. It was glorious. A few months later in the midst of a nationwide lockdown when everyone was clamoring for beans, and these beans in particular, my little whim seemed pretty damn smart.

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This one came about in a very self-serving way. Over the holiday weekend, I got together with a few friends for a socially distanced bbq/gathering type of thing. It was hot as blazes so we opted to drink vodka lemonades in tall glasses with lots of ice. To make it simple, our host had bought premixed lemonade in jugs and here lies the problem. Premixed lemonade is fine as is but as soon as you add anything too it, the flavor weakens resulting in a vaguely lemon flavored drink. I greatly enjoy a sparkling lemonade cocktail kind of thing and adding vodka and club soda to a premixed lemonade just throws the whole thing off. Much discussion ensued and we came to the conclusion that you’re just better off in that case having a vodka soda with a twist, which is an entirely different thing. These are the trivial matters that consumed our conversation that afternoon. This can be better, we all agreed. I can make this better, we all agreed.

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It’s a strange time. Isolation, fear, uneasiness and anger. We are in the midst of a change, a much-needed change. Oftentimes, I’m not too sure what to do or say, fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing but I am so over that right now. I’m listening. I’m reading, learning as much as I can to better understand my privilege and implicit biases. I’m asking questions. I’m thinking. And I do what I do when I have a lot of thoughts rattling around in my head that need sorting: I’m baking.

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