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The bean doctor

I believe everyone should know how to doctor a can of beans. I also believe that, having said this, I have become my father. I also believe I would do anything, anything, absolutely anything to get R. Kelly’s "I Believe I Can Fly," which lodged itself in my head as I was typing those first two sentences, back out of my head again. Spread my wings and fly awaaaaaaaaaay

I come from a family of bean doctors. The beans we ate most often were baked beans - Bush’s brand, I think - to which my dad added brown sugar and Worchestershire sauce. We ate them whenever my mom was out for the evening, usually with boiled hot dogs. It felt like a secret that only he and I were in on, and it was my favorite meal as a kid. It might still be, because you can’t improve on a combination like that. Burg could also be known to crack open a can of cannellini beans, rinse them, and dress them with pesto to make a quick salad. If he was feeling frisky, he would then plate his cannellini salad by carefully piling spoonfuls of it onto individual endive leaves, as though he were making canapés for a banquet. He could throw down.

I married a bean doctor. We always have canned chickpeas and black beans in the cabinet for Brandon’s chickpea salad with lemon and Parmesan or his quick black beans with cumin and oregano. One night last week, when he needed a late dinner after work, he drained and rinsed some chickpeas and tossed them with warmed leftover sauce from a batch of penne alla vodka. As for me, if I happen to have pinto beans around, I make Luisa’s, or rather Melissa Clark’s, fake baked beans. (The. Best.)

I know that some people look down their noses at canned beans: maybe they don’t taste or feel quite the same as perfectly cooked-from-dried beans, and they can be higher in salt, and then there’s the specter of BPA in the can lining. I do keep dried beans around, and I cook them often, and sometimes I do a good job of it. But there is nothing inherently wrong with a canned bean. Being told otherwise makes me tired. Canned (or jarred in glass, if you prefer) beans can be very good - especially brands like Progresso, Bush’s, or Goya - and it doesn’t take much effort, or much time, to make them great. VIVE LE BEAN DOCTOR.

My cousin Katie makes something called Creamy Beans, and she shared her method with me a few weeks ago, when I called to pick her brain about seven-minute eggs. You upend four cans of beans - black or pinto are best - and their liquid into a saucepan, add a chunk of butter, and shake a bottle of hot sauce over the pan for ten seconds. You stir it all up, and then you let it simmer gently until the liquid is thickened and the beans are starting to break down. Katie learned about Creamy Beans from a co-worker, and now she and her husband Andre usually make a batch once a week, have it with or for dinner, and then eat the leftovers in the mornings that follow, with seven-minute eggs on top.

I’ve made Creamy Beans twice since Katie told me about them, once with pinto beans and once with black beans. Pintos don’t break down much - it’s mostly about letting the liquid thicken and get creamy - but with a long simmer, they become wonderfully tender, even more than the average canned bean. Black beans break down more easily, though I stopped cooking mine before they really did; I let them cook just until they were fudgy, gooey. In any case, the butter gives them a quiet richness and heft, while the hot sauce brings acid to offset their natural earthiness. It’s sort of a cheater’s version of refried beans, sort of. June cheerfully ate bowlfuls of Creamy Beans on their own, while I topped mine with eggs and more hot sauce - and once, feta, though it didn’t totally jibe. Next time, I’ll slice avocado on top and grate some sharp cheddar.

Have a happy week, all.

Creamy Beans
Adapted from Katie Caradec

I’m no fan of the liquid in cans of beans - it’s just so... slimy - but this is a recipe where it really is useful. Take a deep breath, and dump it in.

As for butter, Katie doesn’t measure it, but she told me that she probably uses two tablespoons for four cans of beans. I prefer mine with more butter, ideally with a tablespoon per can. Brandon also suggests adding garlic, pressed or minced, and that’s very nice, too. It adds a faint depth of flavor. But I defer to you.

Also, note that this recipe can be scaled down as needed. When I made it with black beans last week, I only had one can in the house, and it worked just fine - and in less time.

4 (16-ounce) cans or jars pinto or black beans
4 tablespoons (56 grams) unsalted butter
Hot sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot (my choice) or Yucatan Sunshine (Katie's choice)
A garlic clove, pressed or minced (optional)

Pour the beans and their liquid into a medium saucepan. Add the butter, maybe ten or fifteen shakes of hot sauce, and the garlic (if using; see above). Stir to mix. Place over medium-high heat, and bring just to a simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened and looks creamy and the beans are very tender, maybe even falling apart. For pintos, I let mine go for about 1 hour, though Katie says hers only take about 30 minutes. You can cook it as long as you like, really. Cook it to your taste. (And keep in mind that the beans will thicken further, and get creamier, as they cool.)

Serve hot, with seven-minute eggs and any other toppings you like: hot sauce, avocado, cilantro, grated cheese, etc.

Yield: enough for dinner for two, plus three or four breakfasts, depending on how you serve it


Doing it right

I believe in everyday cake.

I may have remembered to floss four times last week, up from my usual count of zero. I may have had avocado toast one sunny morning at Vif, with za'atar, aleppo pepper, preserved Meyer lemon, and celery(!). I may have even rediscovered R.E.M.'s superlative Green after forgetting about it for twenty years and then sung along loudly and with feeling to "World Leader Pretend" and got goosebumps during the bridge like I used to when I was seventeen. But nothing makes me feel like I'm really living, really doing it up right, like having a cake on my kitchen counter on a weekday.

About a week ago, my friend Shari posted a photograph of a cake on Instagram and declared, "New favorite, I think!" Instagram has more shots of cake than there are particles in the Milky Way galaxy, but then again, you may remember that Shari is the person who, six years ago, introduced me to sweet potato pound cake. Her opinion is not to be questioned. And as I studied her photo, I realized that her cake, pale gold and splotched with berries, was from a recipe that I had read and dog-eared only the night before, as I thumbed through the March issue of Bon Appétit: a simple, single-layer cake enriched with whole-milk ricotta and spiked with frozen raspberries. Ding ding ding!

So I picked up some ricotta over the weekend, and on Monday afternoon, when I found myself with a free half-hour, I made a cake. This is a cake that you can actually throw together, not just in word but in deed: there's no mixer required, just a spatula and a whisk and an arm. The batter is thick and rich, like a mousse, and bakes up light, pillowy, terrifically moist. (I know everybody hates the word moist now, but I don't mind it. British recipe writers seem to be into damp, but that usually reminds me of basements, or other people's towels, or the point in a day at the beach when your bathing suit starts to itch.) A few people on the Bon Appétit website have commented that they would reduce the sugar, but I wouldn't: it's just right, especially against the tart shock of the berries.  If anything, I'd up the amount of raspberries by a third or half - or, whoa, hey, maybe try it with frozen sour cherries instead? Ricotta and sour cherries. That's doing it right.

Happy weekend.

P.S. If you've got time to make your own ricotta, do. There's a recipe in Delancey, and what you don't use for the cake, you can use on crostini, on toast with jam, in pasta, on pizza, stirred into eggs, you name it.

P.P.S. More everyday cakes here. And this looks a little more involved, but man oh man.

P.P.P.S. Earlier this week, I wrote on Saveur.com about one of my favorite things, the seven-minute egg.

P.P.P.P.S. Luisa started a good discussion about food magazines, and I'd love to know what you think.

And this P.S. thing is getting ridiculous, but P.P.P.P.P.S. My favorite (ancient) photograph of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe.

Raspberry-Ricotta Cake
Adapted very slightly from Bon Appétit, March 2015

1 ½ cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups (325 grams) whole-milk ricotta
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (100 grams) frozen raspberries, divided

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan (I used springform), and press a round of parchment paper into the bottom.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and kosher salt. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, ricotta, and vanilla until smooth. Gently stir ricotta mixture into the dry ingredients until just blended. Then fold in the butter, followed by ¾ cup of the raspberries, taking care not to crush them. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it evenly, and scatter the remaining raspberries on top.

Bake the cake until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding. Cool completely before serving.

Yield: 8 servings


While the house is quiet

Today is our Sunday, and everyone but me is napping, sleepy after a lunch of cheese toast and cucumber salad. While the house is quiet, I should probably be doing tax paperwork and résumé reading and other sacred rituals of small business ownership, but:

- I’ve never felt confident about picking favorites: my favorite movie, favorite song, favorite food, favorite whatever. I don’t have many favorite anything. But I do feel confident about saying this: Michael Chabon is my favorite novelist. His first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been my favorite book for two decades, since I first read it at sixteen years old. He also wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and plenty more since that. I finally got around to starting Wonder Boys, his second novel, and I like it so much that it’s taken me almost a month to get through only the first two hundred pages, because I want to read and reread every sentence over and over and over, just sort of roll myself around in it. For example, this: "'Is he kidding?' said Miss Sloviak, all of whose makeup seemed in the course of the ride from the airport to have been reapplied, very roughly, an inch to the left of her eyes and lips, so that her face had a blurred, double-exposed appearance." I MEAN.

- Also, This American Life is killing it. Amateur Hour!

- Also, Invisibilia. They’ve only made a handful of episodes, so you can catch up quickly, and you should. The Secret History of Thoughts is fascinating, and Fearless, too. (I particularly like the idea that fear = thinking + time, and that if you take away either one, and you can’t have fear.) Good stuff.

- Speaking of fear, ha ha HA, I’m helping to lead a class called "Varying Your Voice: A Workshop on Writing in the First, Second, and Third Person" at the IACP conference in Washington, DC, on Monday, March 30th. I’ll be co-teaching with Jess Thomson and Kathy Gunst, both longtime pros and forces of nature, and while our workshop does unfortunately require a separate day pass, it’ll be worth it.

- My friend Natalie brought over some Persian cucumbers one night last month, and I had forgotten of how good, and how versatile, they are. They’re not exactly winter food, but we’ve been eating them every day, in salads (usually with a mustard vinaigrette and feta) or on their own, as a snack. Our family of three took down six of them at lunch today.

- It’s handy that we’ve been eating so many cucumbers, because when we’re not eating cucumbers, we're eating cheeseburgers. Brandon spent the better part of last year testing and perfecting a wood-fired burger for Essex (using grass-fed beef from Skagit River Ranch, with not one but two secret sauces), and he put it on the menu last October, as a Sundays-only special. But now, as of a couple of weeks ago, it’s available five nights a week, Wednesday to Sunday. June pronounces it "booger," and she eats a full half of the thing. She’s an animal.

- I’ve mentioned before that every Tuesday is Taco-&-Tiki Night at Essex, but I haven’t told you what’s for dessert: our own choco taco. (There’s housemade ice cream in there.) It isn’t entirely in my interest to tell you about it, because any that we don’t sell on Tuesday are mine to eat for the rest of the week, but I’m trying to get better about sharing.

- Our friend Edouardo Jordan, the supremely talented chef de cuisine at Bar Sajor and a supremely nice guy, just launched a Kickstarter campaign to open his own neighborhood restaurant. Go, go, Edouardo!

- I mentioned recently on Instagram that I, Ms. Didn’t-Learn-to-Sew-Until-Age-36.5, had sewn a hexagonal patchwork pillow from a (wonderfully clear) tutorial I found online, and a couple of you asked for the link. Here you go.

Be right back.


She knows

I first met Lecia a handful of years ago, and I can’t remember how. We saw each other around, and then one year, maybe 2011, she took a leap and invited us to her family’s New Year’s Day party. We stood on the deck and talked, and the sunlight was warm enough that I didn’t wear a coat. I guess that was the start of something, but for me, our friendship got its footing while I was pregnant and she, a former nurse, cheerfully withstood my cross-examinations about epidurals and other hot topics of the day, and it has grown in the months and years since, over many meals that June and I have eaten at her table. Lecia is the best home cook I know, and also the most thoughtful. Every few weeks, if not more often, she’ll text to ask if we’d like to come over for dinner, always on a night when she knows Brandon is working and we would otherwise be home on our own. Always, I say yes.

June ate lamb for the first time at Lecia’s, in a stew with cannellini beans, and it’s where she first had halibut, too. Lecia has cooked mussels for us, and linguine with clams, and another spaghetti that I keep meaning to recreate at home, with Spanish canned tuna, capers, and lemon zest. She also makes a deceptively simple thing, this broiled zucchini with basil, that I could eat every day. Lecia is the person who pointed me toward this total winner from Jerusalem, and she also gave me my first taste of this dark, sticky ginger cake with fresh cranberries, which is so good, so so good, that as I type tonight, I want to bash my forehead on the keyboard because I forgot, whywhywhyyyyy, to make it last Thanksgiving, when fresh cranberries were everywhere. But, most important for today’s purposes, Lecia is the reason why I can tell you about Yotam Ottolenghi’s Ultimate Winter Couscous.

Whenever I say the name of this recipe aloud, I hear it in my head in a monster-truck-rally-announcer voice - ULTIMATE! WINTER! COUSCOUS! IT'S AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME! But I’m going to stick with it, because it’s accurate. This couscous is ultimate. It’s spectacular, absolutely spectacular, golden and warming and bright, with layers of spice and a subtle heat that makes everything thrum. The technique is simple. First, you roast vegetables with olive oil and spices: turmeric (attention! it stains!), ginger, paprika, red pepper flakes, cinnamon sticks, star anise, and bay. Then you add water, chickpeas, and dried apricots. While it all braises and melds, you steam some couscous with saffron and butter. Then, just before serving, you stir harissa and preserved lemon into the vegetables, which are by now fudgy and soft, and you spoon it up, and you are glad.

Like a lot of us, I am easily put off by long lists of ingredients. There are exceptions, but most days, I would look at this recipe, sigh, turn the page, and never look back. I would have probably never eaten it, had Lecia not made it for me first. But! As it turns out, a good portion of the ingredients list is composed of spices, which require no prep work. The overall labor is minimal. I cut up the vegetables and measured out the spices one afternoon while June was napping, and the next evening, all I had to do was turn on the oven, stir it up in a baking dish, and set the timer. I even forgot to add the water with the chickpeas and apricots, and it was still spectacular. Keep that in mind when you make it: yours will look juicier, and will in fact be juicier, than mine in the photograph above. Also, you should put some cilantro on it. Details, blah blah blah.

Thank you, Lecia.

P.S. This is great, and it made me so sad.
P.P.S. Ashley lives around the corner from Delancey and has an office down the street, and a while back, she gave me a tube of her cookie mix. This afternoon I finally made it, and: Ashley. You are a genius. It’s perfect.

The Ultimate Winter Couscous
Adapted very slightly from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi

A few introductory side notes: for the stock, I used Better Than Bouillon, and for dried apricots, I like Trader Joe’s “California Slab Apricots.” For chickpeas, I used canned. For harissa, I stole some from the Delancey walk-in, wa ha haaaa, but you can make your own, or you can buy it. For preserved lemons, we make tons of them at Delancey – preserved Meyer lemons, actually! The best – and use them on pizzas and in starters, and if you’ve got time, hey, you can make some too. If not, they’re usually available at shops selling Mediterrean or Middle Eastern ingredients, and I’ll bet Whole Foods has them, too.

And really, I know: this ingredients list is long - long enough that, in my experience, it can be easy to get lost and forget to add something. I’ve tried to make it more foolproof here by dividing it up according to what is added when. Maybe it’ll help?

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks
8 shallots, peeled
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cinnamon sticks
4 star anise
3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher salt

2 ½ cups peeled, cubed pumpkin or butternut squash (from a 10-ounce / 285-gram squash)

½ cup (about 70 grams) dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 cup (about 200 grams) chickpeas, canned or freshly cooked
1 ½ cups (350 ml) water or chickpea cooking liquid

1 cup (200 grams) couscous
A large pinch of saffron
1 cup (240 ml) boiling vegetable or chicken stock
3 tablespoons (40 grams) unsalted butter, diced

1-2 tablespoons harissa
1 ounce (28 grams) preserved lemon or preserved Meyer lemon peel, finely chopped
Cilantro leaves

Preheat the oven to 375°F, and set a rack in the middle position. Put the carrots, parsnips, and shallots in a large ovenproof dish (a 9x13-inch is perfect). Add 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss to coat. Add the spices, cinnamon sticks through pepper flakes, as well as ¾ teaspoon kosher salt. Mix well. Bake for 15 minutes. Then add the pumpkin or squash, and stir to mix. Return to the oven, and continue cooking for about 35 minutes more, by which time the vegetables should have softened while retaining a bite. Now, add the dried apricots, chickpeas, and water or chickpea cooking liquid. Stir to mix, then continue to bake for 10 minutes more, or until hot.

About 15 minutes before the vegetables are ready, put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the saffron, and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous, and immediately cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid. Set aside for 10 minutes. Then add the butter, and fluff with a fork until the butter melts in. Cover again, and leave somewhere warm.

Just before serving, take the vegetables out of the oven, and stir the harissa and preserved lemon. Taste for salt.

Serve the vegetables over the couscous, with plenty of cilantro leaves on top.

Yield: 4 good-sized servings


Et voila

Yesterday morning, on my way into the restaurant, I stopped at the studio where I'm taking a pottery class and found that a little slab mug I made for June was out of the kiln and ready. I had glazed it in what was supposed to be a matte turquoise but came out more like forest green, and the handle was crooked, because I had rushed it. But in my hand, the glaze felt as smooth as a washed silk button-down I remember my mom wearing in the eighties, so I decided to get over it. I surprised June with it when I got home in the afternoon, and she thanked me with this gasp-and-swoon thing she picked up somewhere, very Lucille Ball, and then insisted that we celebrate with hot cocoa. Okaaaaay.

I wrote about hot chocolate here a long time ago - over seven years ago, now that I look it up: before Delancey, Essex, or June, and back when we still lived in that duplex on 8th Avenue Northwest with the white enamel table in the kitchen window and the neighbor who liked to do yard work by flashlight - and I still make that version often. If you're up for chopping chocolate, it's the best hot chocolate you can make. But if you're not up for chopping chocolate, maybe because it's the end of the workday and someone is standing on a chair at the counter, chanting "Make hot chockit, I wanna make hot chockit" like she thinks the words themselves will manifest the stuff, then you should make hot cocoa instead, and this hot cocoa is the best hot cocoa you can make.

I cannot take any credit for it, because I learned the recipe from my friend and Spilled Milk co-host Matthew. It is Matthew's Hot Cocoa.

It has only three ingredients - milk, cocoa, and sugar - and barely requires a measuring spoon. It's my favorite kind of recipe, in that once you've made it, you'll probably never need to look at the recipe again. It will be Your Hot Cocoa. If you are a person of class, you can serve it from an elegant teapot with teacups and everyone will think you are a wizard, and if you're not, you can serve it from the measuring cup you mixed it in and pour it into a homemade mug and seriously, get on it, before somebody "loves" the mug too hard and breaks it.

Et voilà.

Happy Saturday.

Matthew's Hot Cocoa

Matthew says that this formula makes one serving, but I find that it's also a nice amount for one adult and one young child. Be sure to use a high-fat, natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder, like Penzey’s or Scharffen-Berger.

2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons sugar
8 ounces whole milk, heated to just bubbling on the stove or in the microwave

Whisk together the cocoa powder and sugar in a mug, if serving one, or, if serving two, just do this in the measuring cup that you measured the milk in. Add a splash of the hot milk, and continue whisking until a thick paste forms. Continue adding milk and whisking until the cocoa is rich and well-blended. Serve immediately.

Yield: 1 serving, or two moderate servings


That itch

I woke up this morning with that itchy feeling I get when I've gone too long without writing. I have a writer friend who once told me that she didn't feel right if she wasn't writing regularly, that she woke up each morning needing to write, and until very recently, I didn't really believe her, because it never felt that straightforward to me. (I also wanted, uh, just a little bit, to reach out and strangle her with my bare hands; she made writing sound so easy.) I never felt that kind of imperative to be a writer - or, really, to be anything in particular. Writing sneaked up on me. But now that I've been at it for a while, I sometimes get a sense, just the faintest nudge of a sense, of what my friend might have meant. I'm best when I'm writing, even if I sit down at my desk without a thing to say, with only that itch to go on.

I am coming off a spectacular run of cooking failures. I curdled a batch of chocolate pudding - and then fed it to my kid anyway, because two-year-olds don't care if their "chockit put-TING!" has the texture of hummus. I also made a braised zucchini side-dish recipe that involved a whole stick of butter and was totally, totally not worth that stick of butter. (We smashed it to a paste, however, and used it as pasta sauce; that was tasty.) One morning, I drank half a cup of coffee too many and, while flailing around to my Guy Picciotto playlist on Spotify, made an obscure type of French cookie that, as it turns out, should remain obscure. I also made a tomato-rice soup that promised a flavor akin to stuffed tomatoes, and frankly, you know, next time, I'll just make the stuffed tomatoes. Meanwhile, the dishwasher quietly died, and one side of the sink stopped draining well, and then, late one night, I rinsed the sludge from a one-pound can of salt-cured anchovies into that side of the sink, and my status as a genius was finally, once and for all, secured!

On the upside, Matthew and I taped a fennel episode of Spilled Milk, and in doing so, I was reminded of how good, and how easy, a shaved fennel salad is. I've made it twice since our taping. And on Wednesday night, less than 48 hours after Luisa posted it, I made Melissa Clark's braised beans with bacon and wine, which is as good as Luisa promised. (I didn't soak my beans, FYI.) June loves it, though I'm not sure if her opinion will mean anything to you anymore, now that I've told you about the chocolate pudding.

It often occurs to me that nothing is more satisfying than a well-made pot of beans. Except I should add that the other night, while the pot of beans was burbling away, doing its thing, I watched this wise snippet from Frances McDormand, and that was also satisfying in its way. And then I got out the sewing machine that Brandon bought me for Christmas - which I just learned how to use on Monday, thanks to a lesson with Keli of Drygoods Design - and sewed two doll-sized pillows and one mouse-sized reversible blanket from some fabric scraps. As my friend Andrea aptly observed, my quarter-life crisis is coming along well. I love Andrea.

Ah! I feel better already.

Have a great weekend, everybody. I'll see you next week.


We adopted the habit

Oaxaca! As I said, I’m no expert, but I can tell you what I liked. I hear that some of you are hoping to travel there, and I hope what follows is helpful.

This was our second time going on vacation with our friends Brandi and John. If you can find two people you enjoy and won’t want to stab after ten days in close quarters, I highly recommend it. Traveling with friends has allowed us to feel more bold, for better or worse, about long drives on mountainous roads in foreign countries, and about traveling without making a lot of plans, doing exhaustive research, or knowing the local language. Also, at the beach, two of us invariably want to swim while two of us want to lie around and read, so there’s always someone to watch the towels and bags! And should one of us just haaaaaaappen to get food poisoning, there are not one but three able-bodied people available to hunt down Gatorade and saltines. Perfection!

I should also add that this was our second time going on vacation without June. She is lucky to have grandparents who are happy to look after her, and I am well aware of how lucky that makes us, too. (THANK YOU MOM AND KATHY AND BILL!!!) I like the person that being a mother makes me, but I’m also immensely grateful to get a chance every now and then to not be a parent, and to be only a spouse again. Also: I sleep so hard on these vacations, so peacefully relieved of my Bionic Mom Instincts, that when I wake up, it takes a while before I can see straight and my head feels properly screwed on, like I have some kind of sleep hangover.

I don’t remember, oddly, how we decided on Oaxaca, but we began preparations early last spring, and once we’d booked lodging, we got tired of making decisions and left the rest up to chance. We planned a week on the Pacific coast of the region, plus a couple of nights in Oaxaca City. In the city, we rented a handsome, modern apartment through Airbnb, and for the coastal portion, we rented an airy house just outside of Puerto Angel, roughly six hours by car from Oaxaca City, for 78 dollars per night. For a whole house! With multiple hammocks! HAMMOCKS!

Though the drive along Highway 175 from Oaxaca City was, shall we say, athletic, we were glad we sprung for a rental car over a flight, because along the way, we stopped in the mountain town of San Jose del Pacifico and ate lunch at a tiny roadside place that I think was called La Morelita, where the kindly woman manning the fire made us quesadillas of grilled beef and chewy quesillo Oaxaca served with bowl of a garlicky salsa the color of a Creamsicle, and, when we begged, a single spectacular hunk of the smoky, buttery chicken she was grilling out front for her own family, wrapped in a tortilla. A week later, we were still talking about that chicken.

We arrived at the coast at nightfall and woke up the next morning to the view below, of which I have no fewer than a dozen pictures, taken at varying times of day, over and over and over:

Puerto Angel is a working fishing town. The main road is not paved and the amenities are basic, but it was a good home base for our week. (The main grocery store was well stocked with Principe cookies, of which we ate approximately three family-size boxes. For produce, we hit the region’s largest market, which takes place on Mondays in the nearby town of Pochutla.) There was a beach near the house, Playa Estacahuite, at the foot of those cliffs up there, a seven-or-so-minute walk past a few driveways and down a series of stone steps that made our knees wobbly. It was beautiful, a chain of small aquamarine coves with a few palapa restaurants on the sand, all serving seafood, cold beer, and whole coconuts with a straw for drinking. Our favorite beach, though - because that’s what you do on vacation: you devote your brainpower to ranking beaches - was a fifteen-minute drive to the west, at San Agustinillo, where the beach was less rocky and the water slightly warmer.

Apparently, the local beach protocol is thus: upon arriving, you choose a palapa restaurant, stake out a table, and that’s your camp for the day. You can leave your belongings there while you swim, and so long as you order food and drinks at some point, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. On our first day at San Agustinillo, we happened to choose Restaurant Alejandra, mostly because they had an available table in the shade. (NB: there is generally little to no signage on the beach side of these restaurants, only on the street side. Restaurant Alejandra is toward the westernmost end of the beach.) As it turned out, we liked Alejandra so much that we spent three more days there, once even arriving in time for a breakfast of chilaquiles and staying till after sundown.

For lunch, we ate a lot of camarones al mojo de ajo, head-on local shrimp cooked with garlic and chiles and served with rice and a salad, and I usually had a Corona alongside. At some point in the afternoon, I got crazy and switched to a margarita. We also got waaaaaay into their camarones al coco, shelled shrimp that had been butterflied, pounded, breaded in freshly shredded coconut, and fried until they resembled latkes, also served with rice and a salad. You can also order any number of ceviches or other freshly caught fish and seafood preparations, or even a hamburguesa, but most of the tables around us ordered shrimp, so we adopted the habit. The local shrimp were fat, sweet, always perfectly cooked. The four of us could spend an entire day at the beach, eating two meals each and drinking beer, fresh juices, and water, and the total bill would maybe top out at 700 pesos, or about fifty U.S. dollars. Then we would drag ourselves back to the car and up the road, clean up with a brisk shower - our house, like most in the area, did not have hot water - and meet in the kitchen to muster dinner, which sometimes consisted largely of Principes.

We ended the trip back in Oaxaca City, an incredibly charming and walkable city whose architecture made Brandon think of New Orleans. I cannot say enough about how charmed we were by Oaxaca City - its abundant good food, its mercado, the apartment we rented, the artisan craft fair that happened to be taking place in the center of town that weekend. But I am hoping to wrap up this post and take a shower before my child gets home from running errands with her dad and hey, you’re probably not even reading anymore, anyway, right, so I’m going to give you the highlights in bullet form:

- We treated ourselves to nice dinners each night we were in the city, and generally, they came out to less than $25 per person, including tip. Our favorite was El Catedral. It looks a little touristy, and there were lots of us tourists there, yes, but the food was spectacular: mole amarillo, gorgeous steak, succulent pork ribs in green mole. We also went to Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes (duck tacos!!! Thanks for the tip, Alex Van Buren!), and had breakfast at Itanoni. (Reservations recommended for all but Itanoni.)

- Brandon did tastings at Vago and Mezcaloteca and brought back some killer mezcals for Essex.

- For great coffee (and, should you be needing a dose of Americana, spectacular muffins and banana bread), don’t miss Cafe Brujula. We particularly liked the Alcala 104 location, with its shady courtyard seating (and bathroom that smelled intriguingly(?) of dill pickles).

- Monte Alban! A short drive from the center of town - and utterly mind-blowing. I shot an entire roll of film there and was so excited to show it to you, but sadly, I forgot it at home when I took the rest of my film to be developed.

- And last but not least, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, an indoor food market-slash-madhouse most famous for its smoky, bustling hall of meats. Here’s how it works: at one end of the hall, there are two produce stalls selling chiles, onions that look like large scallions, and salsas. Start there. Get some chiles and onions. Then walk down the hall and choose one of the meat vendors. (If you speak Spanish or are skilled at mime, ask someone which vendor is best. That’s what Brandon did.) Order some meat, and they will grill it for you right there, placing your chiles and onions on the coals underneath so they come out smoky and tender. Then take your cooked stuff, go back to the produce stall for salsas, and buy some tortillas from one of the ladies who offer them to you. Then take your feast to one of the nearby tables, and enjoy. It sounds complicated, and it is, but do it anyway. (Don’t go in there grumpy and starving, though; it’s overwhelming at first and might take a little time to figure out.) As Rick Bayless says, this might be the best thing you eat in Oaxaca.

Happy weekend, everybody.

Note: Travelers to Oaxaca should not drink tap water. Even the locals drink only purified water. Ice is generally fine, though, because it’s made from purified water. And you should be fine to eat fresh fruits and vegetables in restaurants: they’ve been washed and sanitized in mild bleach water.

Also: As it turned out, all of the places we visited and stayed on this trip would have been great for children, FYI.