Two days on the Cape.

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Squinting at my screen in the morning light, I noticed specks on my sunglasses, a fine dust of sandy dust and salty sea spray from yesterday's trip to the beach. The water was almost warmer than the cool, heavy air; we stayed for about 20 minutes, until the whipping wind exhausted us. Rains came across the Cape last night while we slept, taking the oppressive humidity and angry skies with them. A cool breeze blew through the open windows around 7 a.m., waking me only long enough to pull the quilt up over the chambray sheets and just under my chin; I hunkered down under the covers for another blissful hour of sleep.

When I gave up on sleeping, the house Mark's family has rented for years was still quiet, though everyone was awake — probably had been for hours. I padded down the hall to say good morning, the wood floors still tacky from the lingering dampness in the air.

The kitchen was already clean, despite the disaster we'd left in our wine-buzzed wake the night before: Mornings in Harwich Port keep the Dish Fairy busy with dozens of dishes from dinner the night before — including too many wine glasses to count, even for just five of us.

Yesterday afternoon, after three dozen Wellfleets — fresh from the harbor across the parking lot, shucked on the raw bar next to us moments before they arrived on our table — and two bottles of sparkling wine, we floated across the street to Mac's seafood, where we bought day scallops, tuna belly, swordfish, salmon, all fresh that morning.

Mark, his dad and I were in charge of dinner, with Barney on the grill and the almost-weds working with our haul from the Provincetown farmer's market that morning: a plum, balsamic and ground cherry sauce for the scallops; ears of grilled corn slathered in butter, salt and pepper; an arugula and heirloom tomato salad topped with fresh goat cheese sliced like mozzarella di bufala.

As we prepared and feasted, we opened bottle after bottle of wine, each more special than the last. Mark's parents now drive each year from Illinois to Massachusetts, a most precious cargo of cellar stowaways in the backseat of their minivan.

Every night on the Cape is some version of this parade of indulgence, with a rotating cast of characters both culinary and human. A couple of days from now, another couple will join us; when Mark and I return from our long-awaited overnight on Martha's Vineyard, his brother, sister-in-law and their daughter will be settled in to finish out the week.

The skies over our home for the next week are clear this morning, with a few cotton-candy clouds drifting aimlessly past the tall trees of the backyard.

The real calm before the storm precedes this afternoon's Bears season opener, which we'll spend huddled over a single television at a sports bar in Yarmouth. For now, we sip cups of coffee and read our Kindle books silently, sports highlights blinking and murmuring on low across the room. I came outside to eat breakfast, enjoying as few minutes of solitude and dipping into another chapter of Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." (I've been reading it for the past year and a half or so, and I'm determined to finish it during this trip.)

In a few minutes, we'll pile into the minivan and head to Pirate's Cove for a pre-game miniature golf match. I will lose, handily; Mark and his father will duke it out for another year's championship title. The trip will be filled with traditions like this.

It's hard to believe this is only the third year I've joined my future in-laws on their annual vacation. Cape Cod feels just as familiar to me — as much like home — as Door County does from many childhood visits with my own family.

A simple (but decadent) night at Battersby.

Rosemary flatbread.

The dining room (and…pretty much everything else) at Battersby.April 2 was one of the first pleasant days New York saw this spring, and there were about 10 people queued up outside when we found the almost unmarked storefront on Smith Street in Cobble Hill. It was just shy of 6 p.m., just before Battersby opened for the night. Chefs and servers paced inside, preparing for another Saturday night. Battersby is the kind of place you walk into and wonder where the hidden doorway is to another, larger dining room. There is no hidden doorway. It is what it is: less than 20 seats in a sparse room. Exposed brick, exposed kitchen — and few barriers between front of house, back of house and patrons.

Even four of us — Mark's brother, Matt, and his wife, Jaime, Mark and me — in that tiny restaurant would have been a squeeze.

Clipboard in hand, the host led us past the rest of the tables, past the open kitchen, to what I assumed was a hallway leading to a cozy private space.

That cozy private space was, in fact, a dark, cramped breezeway, minus the breeze, between the kitchen and the back door, "private" only because we were wedged into a corner where no diners should have been seated.

I got over that roughly 43 seconds after our first wine, a rosé from Provence, and the first bites of food arrived.

We ordered the seven-course "surprise" tasting menu.

Rosemary flatbread at Battersby.It began with two amuse-bouches. The first: a simple white porcelain cup filled with carrot juice tinged with lemongrass and a drizzle of oil for texture. The second: another perfect plate, artfully smeared with thick Greek yogurt and topped with a root-vegetable muesli — our first glimpse into the Battersby's constant interplay of at-odds flavors and textures.

Next, a freshly baked rosemary flatbread — almost too hot to cut — served with a jar of whipped ricotta and olive oil.

The kitchen was already frenetic with activity; every few minutes, the open range popped and sizzled with what we could only assume was the kale salad we'd all read so much about. I caught the chef's eye as he plated one; he waggled his eyebrow at me.

"Just wait," he grinned. "Patience, patience."

Hamachi crudo.Finally, it was time for our first course: hamachi crudo with paper-thin radish and cucumber and a delicate yuzu vinaigrette. Jaime, who is due to have her first child in June, had a broccoli salad with microgreens and finely sifted grana padano draped over it.

We paired our first courses with a Kerner, a white wine from a German-speaking region in Italy. Dry, but with apricot, citrus and floral flavors: absolutely perfect with what we'd eaten so far.

Our second course was the famed crispy kale salad, with Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and roasted peanuts. The dark greens balanced beautifully with the peanut-spiked citrus dressing, which was so good that I picked up the bowl and slurped up the last of it.

The final savory courses…

Casoncelli at Battersby.Our next dish, casoncelli, was a loosely folded, handmade pasta filled with tender pork, topped with lemon, caper, feathery fresh dill, basil and breadcrumbs so crunchy they could have passed for Grape-Nuts. The balance of salty and sweet, mild and acidic, velvety and crunchy: perfection to the point of nearly unbearable.

Then, a spring-weight seafood stew of bay scallops, razor clams and mussels, nestled in a tomato broth, followed by a black angus corned-beef style short rib, blood red and heavily peppered, served with cabbage, apple, fingerling potato and sauerkraut-like cabbage.

Mark chose Volnay, a pinot noir from Burgundy, to pair with our heavier dishes. Alone, it tasted like a brick wall, almost too earthy for me, but with those final courses, the dark, overripe fruits emerged against the salt, pepper and savory.

We ended on a sweet note.

Our dessert wine tasted like spiced syrup, coating our mouths to meld with the flavor of buttery brown sugar Madeleines straight out of the oven, soft and pillowy and perfect.

 

Not surprisingly, our corner felt significantly snugger on the way out. Luckily, I all but floated up and over the table, past the other diners — who undoubtedly wondered where we'd been stashed for the past three hours — and out the door, into the cool night air.

 

Zagat Chicago Blog Hop: My Best Night Out

In honor of the 2012 Chicago Restaurants and Nightlife Survey, Zagat reached out to me to be part of the first-ever Zagat Chicago Blog Hop. The assignment: Post about a special night out in Chicago. So here's the skinny, straight from the fat kid herself. I was a Yelper once. I Yelped a lot.

Yelp was the entirety of my social life for the first year I was in Chicago. I made a lot of friends, and holy crap, I ate a lot of food. (And I drank even more. But those are stories for my book — maybe — not this blog.)

  • Fellow Yelpers propped my hangover-addled body up at Kuma's as we feasted on design-your-own mac and cheese and my very first High on Fire.
  • I sampled Vietnamese fare at Simply It at a girls' night out.
  • I fell in love with mole and tres leches at Mixteco Grill.
  • On a day off from work, I stood in line to experience the most enchanting corn dog ever at Hot Doug's.
  • I discovered Café Tiztal's lovely, perfectly sweetened oatmeal shake over breakfast with a friend.
  • A date got us in to Publican shortly after it opened, and…there was pork. (And, in my review, really awful pork-themed innuendo.)

Somewhere along the way, I kind of grew out of Yelp. Maybe I just moved on to greener social pastures. But more than that, I think it was the idea of going out to a meal knowing it was all for the sake of rocketing home to write a pithy review… (You know how sometimes you'll talk to certain people and you can tell they're not even listening because they're already planning out what they're going to say back to you? Yeah, kind of like that.) It just left a bad taste in my mouth.

But if there's one thing Yelp taught me — besides how to write reviews others would FUC with abandon — it's that any meal can be fantastic when eaten with the right people. My best nights out really haven't been about the restaurants at all. Some of them haven't even been nights.

Chicago has many incredible dining establishments, some I'll only dream of patronizing (ahem, Alinea)…but in the end, if you can't remember the experience and the people you shared it with, all you'll have to show for it is a food baby and a big hole in your wallet.

So I did the assignment kind of wrong. But that's my way.

Read posts from the other bloggers…here!

Then vote for your favorite local spots in the 2012 Chicago Restaurants and Nightlife Survey (open until Jan. 16). And just for participating in the survey, you'll be eligible for a free copy of the 2012 Chicago Restaurants and Nightlife Guide…or entered to win a $500 "Night on the Town."

Why I'm cooking.

The air in my apartment is layered with scents of autumn rapidly collapsing and fading to winter: dry, stale heat bangs out of radiators that have been sleeping since April; leaves fallen from the tree outside have gathered in damp gutters and under car wheels, decomposing with a familiar fragrance I've never been able to describe. Almost smoky. A cross breeze cuts through from the open back door in the kitchen, setting me shivering with warmly scented memories of peppercorn bacon and brewed coffee on Sunday morning, Monday night bread baking with cinnamon and nutmeg, dinnertime garlic and onion, baking and sautéing filling my days. This happens to me a couple of times a year: I'm seized with a mad desire to cook everything. And it's not just in fall. The urge strikes at random. In the past, this has resulted in many loaves of quick breads and a couple of pasta dishes slightly more complex than the standard penne with Italian sausage, spinach and homemade marinara.

Traditionally, I've chosen safe-bet dishes. A necessity for someone who's actually terrified of cooking. Between the commitment — time, money, refrigerator real estate — and my high risk of abject failure and subsequent need to fall back on the shameful Spaghetti-O backup plan have kept me paralyzed for life.

Yes, there have been quick breads: beer bread, pumpkin bread, banana bread. There has been pasta. But something has changed this time around, though. Maybe it's the prospect of new love bolstering my spirit; maybe it's my new health and wellness coach, Lisa, lighting a fire under my ass; maybe I'm simply sick of my pants not fitting; maybe I've realized I cannot survive on Spoon Thai's green curry with chicken alone.

I made chili. My mother's recipe, deceptively simple but daunting nonetheless to a doting, reverent daughter, finally duplicated in my kitchen to faithful specifications, though not exactly exacting. In addition to the chili powder, cumin and diced tomatoes, her recipe adds cocoa powder for a richness and depth that was a mystery to us for many years.

I was astonished at the first spoonful: a taste of my onetime home in my now home. My mother used to send me back from holidays with frozen Tupperware containers of it, wrapped in foil and sealed in Ziploc bags, packed into my suitcase to enjoy for weeks after I returned home. And now here it was, made by me…an entire batch of it, all to myself.

It's like Christmas in a bowl…every day…for the past week. (That's one of the other reasons I historically don't cook: my culinary attention span has little time for those miles of cooking-for-one-leftovers.)

Christmas in a bowl, wrapped up with the gift of self-confidence when I realize, yes, I can cook.

 

This afternoon, I played with leeks and butternut squash. I'd never so much as touched either before today, and today, I'm cooking with both.

My first-ever blended soup experiment was not without stumbles: First, I forgot to buy celery. Then, I got all the way through peeling and cubing an acorn squash, only to realize the recipe called for butternut. (Peeling a lovely, scalloped-edge acorn squash is not an easy task, by the way.) But friends assured me that the soup could do without celery, and the farmers market is right across the street, so butternut was handily acquired.

The mixture did not boil over the top of my too-small pot. The blender did not erupt with scalding soup. And when I took my first taste…it was perfect.

God, I can cook. The astonishment could wear off, maybe.

 

Tonight, I'm making pork loin and homemade beer-bread stuffing (adapted from this recipe).

Maybe I'll settle in for a couple hours of work before I start in on dinner; I've officially done nothing to generate income today. The rent's paid through the end of November…

 

For all the reasons I'm cooking right now, I think there's one that tops them all: In my head, spending hours on a single meal somehow makes it okay not to be writing. Which is where I'm funneling my fear now.

My words have gotten me in trouble lately; if I'm not pissing someone off, then no one is really paying attention. There was once a happy medium. Writing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach; I dread sitting down to write as much as I do going to the gym to burn off all this food.

My fears of squandering time and money dissipate with every meal I make; I actually look forward to the challenge, because it's one I feel I have control over. Pulling that fresh loaf of bread out of the oven doesn't leave me emotionally exhausted. Even if I screw up the meal, at least I'll have tried. I'll at least have something to show for my efforts. Even if there's a big mess to clean up when I'm done cooking…at least it's well contained. At least it's just my mess. People don't get angry when you make them dinner.

The shopping, the chopping, the first taste from a wooden spoon, the whole meal arranged on a plate — this all feels safe and warm for the moment, makes me feel like I'm growing as a person. Writing doesn't bring me joy right now, and I'm trying to be okay with that. Creativity ebbs and flows. Needs can change like the weather.

To everything there is a season. A seasoning. Pass the pepper, please.

I shall call him Squishy.

Thank you to P&G’s Have You Tried This Yet? program and Kroger for sponsoring my writing about trying new things and breaking out of my everyday routine. Click here to find great savings on high-performing P&G products at a Kroger store near you. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

 

It's pretty common knowledge that I was never really happy with my decision to attend the University of Kansas. As high school neared its close, and my perfect SAT–scoring, International Baccalaureate genius friends fanned out to various Ivy League and other top-tier institutions, and I prepared to spend the next four years of my life at Miami of Ohio, in a postage-stamp town called Oxford, I suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Kansas. (Truthfully, I didn’t even want high school to end; those were the four happiest years of my life.) So I slithered back to the admissions department at the University of Kansas and begged them to find me a spot to live somewhere in the residence halls. I enrolled at Shawnee Mission East, the sequel, and I was miserable. I didn't even try. All I could think was, "My friends are out there, living, and I'm stuck here." Killer of a self-fulfilling prophecy. No — a self-defeating prophecy.

But the summer after my sophomore year, I made plans to try something new. I moved to Philadelphia for the summer. I landed an internship and was going to learn the ropes of the big city and spend time with my best girlfriend, who I'd missed terribly since she left for UPenn. As it turned out, the internship was unpaid (and my wallet had been stolen by the end of the summer), my "big city" apartment was actually on the fringe of the ghetto, and my best friend had other plans for the summer. But life had other plans for me, too, in human form; those plans careened one night into the restaurant where I was hosting, wearing Rollerblades and a black do-rag. Those plans were named Kenrick.

Kenrick took me to see Finding Nemo the first time we hung out. He started calling me "my squishy," and I never tired of it. He was an actor, and a couple of years older than me. He was already 21, knew about wine and could convince any customer to get a bottle of the Amarone, and he sold more side dishes and desserts than I ever thought possible. On one of our first dates, we had Mexican food in a hole-in-the-wall cantina in Old City, just off the Delaware River. (I was underage and we had margaritas anyway; he could walk into any restaurant like he owned the place. I wasn't getting carded.) We strolled through the city that steamy summer evening; he regaled me with stories of his Philadelphia life so far. He talked a lot. But the stories were interesting: He had been a high school outcast in Mennonite country; he was studying fight choreography and taking trapeze lessons out in the suburbs. So I listened.

It was an education.

As we made our way back toward his place — we cut down Smedley Street, still my favorite block in the entire universe — we zig-zagged to South Street for my first-ever mojito in a dark basement bar, then stopped elsewhere for dessert. Flan, I think. And always more drinks. I stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. every night, drinking life in. Most nights, we shared the tiny twin bed in his apartment, all streaky purple- and maroon-painted walls with curtains for doors, and a kitchen stuffed to the ceiling with dishes and strange ingredients and cooking implements. We watched his favorite movie, The Princess Bride, on a tiny TV over the hum of the window air conditioner.

I got up early the next morning for work, barely conscious, and did it all again the next day.

That summer, thanks to him, I discovered red wine. Our restaurant sold a bottle with a beautiful label emblazoned with a feather, the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted; I spent months seeking it out when I returned to Kansas. Near Rittenhouse Square, there's a dangerous little shop called Di Bruno Brothers — just down the street from the equally treacherous Scoop de Ville — that sells cheese. And charcuterie. And about 50 kinds of olives. And quince paste, and about a million other beautiful things I'd never tasted until that summer.

Peter Frampton performed as we watched the fireworks in the park by the Art Museum on the 4th of July. I'd never seen such colors before.

I was in love — truly in awe, for the first time — with him and everything about the life he showed me during those few short months. He made me who I am today: the giddy foodie and wine ingénue, the city girl who forgets how to say no sometimes, the overspender, the life lover. I owe my good taste to Kenrick.

I Wish Lessons: Make sushi with me!

Do you live in Chicago?Wanna hang out?

Well, if you're free on Monday and can write a haiku, it's totally possible: I Wish Lessons let me put together a contest to give away a free entry ($50 value! BALLER!) to the March 7 sushi basics class at Trace. That's right: I will go to Wrigleyville if you promise to hang out with me.

Head to my latest blog at I Wish Lessons for more information.

While you're at it, maybe you should like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Or something.

Anyway, I have some huge news. But I can't tell you yet. So go write a damn haiku instead.