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As a kid, I spent about 99.5% of my summer bouncing from one neighbor’s pool to the next. Such is the life of an Arizona suburban kid. As soon as our mothers would set us free in the morning, we’d race out the door in our bathing suits, gather our posse together – the Martocchia twins across the street, the Higgens girls to the left and the Janovski girls to the right – and descend upon one of our houses like a pack of rabid, swimming wolves. Our days were filled with endless games of Marco Polo, complicated synchronized swimming routines, diving competitions, gymnastic tricks and hundreds of rounds to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest. We were a group of deeply tanned, bleached blonde kids with chlorine induced bloodshot eyes. Summer zombies. Occasionally to break up the daily swimming sessions, we’d jump on our banana seat bikes and ride to the 7-Eleven several blocks away for a treat. Indicative of the time, we were probably barefoot, definitely helmetless and absolutely unaccompanied. Ah, the freedom of the 70’s-80’s!

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Somewhere a while back I read that we should be using pickle brine to marinate chicken. What?!? I’ve been brining meats like chicken, turkey and pork for years with a simple solution of water, salt, sugar and spices. Which, with the addition of dill and garlic, is essentially pickle juice. It’s so simple and so obvious, that’s probably why I didn’t think of it. How many times have we tossed that jar of pickle juice in our lifetimes? The smart ones among us might throw in some carrots, or more cucumber spears or jalapenos but for most of us? Down the drain and into the recycle bin. Well, let me tell you, there’s a better use for that juice (well, besides picklebacks but that’s another story.)

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Every year I tend a small plot in a community garden not far from my house. I coddle and baby it all summer long and am usually rewarded with an abundance of something as well as a complete failure of something else. It’s always a learning experience. As September moves into October and fades into November, my interest and enthusiasm wanes a little with the season. It’s cooler and rain is more frequent so I don’t have to worry about wilting or watering like I do in the hot summer months. The plants still produce, especially the tomatoes which don’t seem to realize it will snow in a few weeks, but do slow down as the days get shorter. At this point, I just let it do its thing. In early November when it’s time to shut down for the winter and put the plot to bed, I throw anything remaining in a bag and deal with it back home. This final harvest usually contains greens, big bunches of green herbs, the string beans which seem to peak the day I have to clear everything out and a surprising amount of cherry tomatoes in all shades, mostly unripe green.

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Not long ago, I was flipping through Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, Michael Solomonov’s excellent cookbook based on recipes from his Philadelphia restaurant of the same name. His hummus is legendary, rightly so, and the twice cooked eggplant is something to behold. I was fascinated with a recipe for a Yemenite condiment called schug. I have zero knowledge of Yemenite cuisine and the recipe sounded fantastic – green chilies and lots of fresh parsley and cilantro. Given that I had a lot of the ingredients on hand from my garden plot that needed a purpose, I decided to give it a shot.

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When the squashes start appearing in the farmers markets and grocery stores, I get a little twitchy. First, it’s a harbinger of fall. Summer’s over and the grey and cold where I live is inevitably on its way. After all these years you’d think I’d be used to this but I’m not. Second, the site of the first squashes and pumpkins make me want to cook warm, comforting, homey things. Then it happens: I’ll buy a bunch and they’ll sit on my kitchen table for weeks.

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The summer of 2011, I was in Southwest France for the first time, about to start a stagiere at the Michelin stared restaurant of Chef Dany Chambon, Le Pont De l’Ouysse. I’d met him the previous fall at a food and wine event in Bangkok and when he offered to come work in his restaurant, I did. It changed my life. For the first few days, I stayed in a little b&b in the tiny town of LaCave. The owner was a very opinionated woman, who proceeded to tell me much of what I knew about French cooking, particularly that of the Dordogne Valley, was wrong. I kept my mouth shut and let her lecture me because I found it amusing but one morning she proudly presented a cookbook with a strange padded cover and declared it the best thing ever. It was by Yotom Ottolenghi, a strange name I’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce. I took the book up to my room that night and never looked back. That book was Plenty.

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Hey guess what? It’s October first. That means another year of Unprocessed October, my 7th if you’ve been tracking. This is the time when I commit to giving up processed food for 31 days. It really shouldn’t be that hard to stick to; it shouldn’t. And yet, despite many strong starts, somewhere along the way I skid sideways. Life intercedes every damn time. That doesn’t really bother me too much because I’ll do it again; I like the challenge and the reminder to avoid the garbage ingredients. It is SO easy to backslide without even realizing it. I have always been an end goal oriented person. So here we go.

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