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Category: back to school

aretha + eggplant + me

there oughta be a soundtrack here. because there is in my kitchen these days. i might have found a cure for my MSNBC addiction. i spell it R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

the other morning, not long after a raucous ride to the schoolhouse door, i decided there was no better cure for the late-summer blues than cookin’ up a feast for the boys i love, especially the one whose days at my kitchen table are now in official countdown mode (i’m in the slow lane on these matters, so i make sure i get a long head start, and yes, the countdown is roughly in the 350-and-subtracting stage — and, yes, i realize this puts me squarely in the odd zone). but anyway, back to the kitchen. i decided that one more night of grilled chicken might send the kid bawking from the table, so i upped my ante. i decided lasagna — from scratch and in two modes, meatless and otherwise — was the hurdle i’d leap.

and that’s when i turned to two mavens: the barefoot contessa, who nimbly guided me through my cooking instructions, and the goddess of soul, who every time i plug her in takes my heart and turns it up a notch. or three notches.

30 greatest hitstwo minutes after i heard aretha had died, i turned toward motown and bent not my knees but my finger, the one that clicked on the iTunes. the one that bought me two hours of instant therapy. (since i seem to play it on infinite shuffle, 30 greatest hits over and over and over, i figure it cost me — in the first day alone — less than a dollar an hour.)

i rocked and rolled through “baby, i love you,” and “chain of fools,” and, oh yes, “i say a little prayer” (please, aretha, say one for me…). and all the while i read through ina’s instruction. and then, in keeping with the queen of soul, i began to scat. through my roadmap for roasted vegetable lasagna, with a side (a whole other pan) bursting with plenty of beef.

because i tend not to keep eggplant and whole-milk ricotta on hand, my efforts entailed a trip to the grocery. my simple feast wound up costing me a whopping 45 bucks, by the time i plucked top-of-the-line tomatoes and beef off the shelves. (no one said blues-breakers come without cost.)

and then, for the better part of an afternoon, i amazed myself as i roasted and stirred, chopped and dumped, plucked and sautéed. by four bells, i tell you, i was more than humming….i was wailing right along with the queens…

call me “old-fashioned” (you won’t be the first), but by the end of that long afternoon, when the sweet boy bounded through the door, took a big whiff, and exclaimed, “what in the world are you making?” i smiled a little smile deep down inside.

i’d taken a day — an otherwise unremarkable do-little day — and i’d dialed it up a fine notch. i’d used a bevy of produce — eggplant and zucchini, red pepper and mushrooms and spinach and onions and garlic and basil and parsley galore — and great glops of olive oil. i’d sizzled up beef, and stirred marinara. i’d hot-water-soaked whole-grain lasagna ribbons (a trick of ina’s i might not repeat). and then, come dinnertime, i plopped onto the kitchen table, two 8-by-8 squares of oozy, cheesy deliciousness.

there are plenty of days when words alone can’t say what i want to say: i love you like crazy. i miss you already and it’s not even september. and i fully intend to make the most of this one last hurrah of a year.

this week aretha chimed in, she belted it out for the both of us. we served up a feast, me and the queens. and we finished it off with “baby, i love you.”

should you be inclined to play along, here’s where we started. feel free to scat or to vamp or to add your own notes….(and here’s your soundtrack, to boot!)

gettin started

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna 

(from Barefoot Contessa) SERVES 6-8 

1-1⁄2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick 

3⁄4 pound zucchini, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick
2⁄3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano 

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

10 ounces lasagna noodles, such as De Cecco 

16 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta 

8 ounces creamy garlic and herb goat cheese, at room temperature 

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided 

4-1⁄2 cups good bottled marinara sauce, such as Rao’s (40 ounces) 

1 pound lightly salted fresh mozzarella, very thinly sliced 

veggies*bam note: besides the eggplant and zucchini, i decided to sauté onions, red pepper, mushrooms (two kinds) and spinach. i made that yet another layer on top of the eggplant and zucch.

** in my meaty version, i ditched the veggies and sautéed one pound of ground chuck, with onions, garlic, oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. then i added a can of whole tomatoes, a few squeezes of tomato paste, and let it all come to a fine pitch. in the instructions below, i  layered my beefy concoction in place of each veggie layer. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the eggplant and zucchini in single layers on 3 sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Brush them generously with the olive oil on both sides, using all of the oil. Sprinkle with the oregano (I crush it in my hands), 1 tablespoon salt, and 11⁄2 teaspoons pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, sprinkle the garlic evenly on the vegetables, and roast for another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees. 

Meanwhile, fill a very large bowl with the hottest tap water and add enough boiling water to bring the temperature to 140 degrees. One at a time, place the noodles in the water and soak them for 15 -minutes, swirling occasionally so they don’t stick together. Drain and slide the noodles around again.  noodles

Combine the ricotta, goat cheese, eggs, basil, 1⁄2 cup of the Parmesan, 11⁄2 teaspoons salt, and 3⁄4 teaspoon pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. 

Spread 1 cup of the marinara in a 9 × 13 × 2-inch baking dish. Arrange a third of the vegetables on top, then a layer of the noodles (cut to fit), a third of the mozzarella, and a third of the ricotta mixture in large dollops between the mozzarella. Repeat twice, starting with the marinara. Spread the last 11⁄2 cups of marinara on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of Parmesan. Place the dish on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes and serve hot. 

what’s your sure cure for the late-summer blues? and, more emphatically, what’s your soundtrack?

mangia!!!

p.s. so sorry i was a tad late this morning: i had two boys who needed a few hours of my time, and thus the chair had to wait in line. 

one last whirl: a lesson in savoring

kindergarten-bound

the little guy i love heads off to kindergarten (this was actually his “practice” walk to school): summer, 2006

i should have done this a long time ago. years ago. but, like many, many things in my life, i started late. was behind the average. way behind.

according to the centers for disease control, those fine governmental folk who track these things, the average maternal age for a second birth in the U.S. hovers just above 28. i was 44.7. i remember clearly the saturday afternoon when, knees shaking, i called my obstetrician to tell her the little white stick (aka home-pregnancy-checker gizmo) had just turned happy blue — i was, gulp, miraculously and against all odds and medical prognostications, “with child.” without taking a breath, my dear doctor rattled off the dreary stats: risk of miscarriage, 60 percent; risk of down syndrome, 1 in 32; risk of not surviving till the little bugger’s 18th birthday, 5.5 percent. (i’ve got 349 days to go….)

tell all that to the magnificent 8.0-pound baby boy born on august 8, 2001, at 3:22 in the morning, his big brother, father, and a phalanx of doctors and nurses (who’d rushed in the room when things got dicey) all in attendance. he and i plowed through every statistical obstacle strewn along the way. which is why his names, first and middle, mean “God’s gift,” (in greek), and “gift of God” (in hebrew). he was birthed — and named — in prayer upon prayer.

and now, all these stats-defying years later, said child is beginning his last year of high school this coming monday, which means this old house has entered official countdown mode. every step along the way, from now till the day we pack him up and drop him at some dormitory door, will come with modifier: “the last,” “the last,” “the last”….

what that means for me is that i dial up the savor knob, and even in the middle of a humdrum summer’s afternoon — while he’s ensconced in his little room at the turn in the stairs, and i’m chopping in the kitchen — i might just get a hankering to call up the stairs, and remind him for no reason whatsoever that i love him more than life. (to which he might moan “uh-huh” in humdrum reply.) i even find myself plucking inside-out shorts off the floor, smoothing rumpled sheets on his bed, and not minding one little bit because i know — full-well — that a year from now, i’d do anything to be able to pluck evidence of his presence off the bedroom floor.

i’ve lived — for the last seven years — with one foot in faraway-child mode, and one close as close could be. i know full well just how much that distance makes me ache. just the other morning, in faraway connecticut, i dried the tears as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and hauled me to the airport, my second-year law student disappearing behind the cars and trucks and light poles as the van turned the corner and i could see his broad shoulders no more.

like i said, i’m late to this. so late. plenty of my friends — from high school and from college — have long known grandmotherhood. know what it is to have the little rascals come for sleepovers. watch their firstborns cradle firstborns. not me. i’m still penciling in teacher conferences on my own calendar, making sure my rascal’s up and out of bed on the days the school bell rings.

i don’t know from empty nest. ours has not been empty in a quarter century. and we were married 27 years ago tomorrow. we mostly only know “nest accessorized with child.” come college shove-off next august, it’ll be the first time in 26 years that there won’t be another pair of feet clonking around the floorboards up the stairs. won’t be a soul to listen for as i lie there in the dark, awaiting the click of his key in the front door.

so until we get to that eery silence, that absence that’ll make this house an echo chamber, i’ll savor and savor and savor some more. my hunch is that i’ll be less cranky in this year to come. i’ll even relish smelly socks. and empty pie plates left overnight on the kitchen counter.

i know how absence feels. i know what it is to find myself in tears in the grocery aisle, because i’ve just reached for the something that i’d always thrown in the cart — but suddenly there’s no need anymore; the someone who always loved it is being fed by someone else now, someone in a college cafeteria. i remember full well how hard i tried to re-wire my brain, my being, to wrap my head around the notion that some kid i loved now dwelled hundreds of miles away, called home once on sunday nights in those first few months when he, too, was trying to find his place in this new equation called long-distance.

as always, i’m late to this. and i might be the oldest mama in his senior class. but gosh darn it, that only makes me wise enough to hold this year as if it’s the last. because, well, it is.

TK first day of kindergarten

at the schoolhouse door: first day of kindergarten and a boy i love gets a shoulder squeeze from the very fine school principal.

how do you intend to savor this next whirl around the seasons? 

prayer for the road

law school route

i awoke in the night, weaving the threads of my prayer for the road. 

when the car is packed with the last few things — the ones you only think of as you ramble through the last few hours before buckling the seat belts, checking the rear view mirror, asking yourself if you really did remember to turn off the stove, and lock the front door — you might bow down your head. sometimes, you drop to your rickety knees (or i do, anyway, carefully placing a pillow under the one that especially creaks).

there’s never been a road trip from this old house, nor hardly a medium-long trip to anywhere, even a far-flung soccer field, in which we don’t launch into our prayer that always begins, “holy garden angels protect us.” it’s not that we endow the patron saints of delphinium and hydrangea with any particular highway powers, it’s that long long ago, when someone’s ears were just beginning to parse the garble of vowels and consonants that tumbled from our mouths, he was certain that’s precisely what we were saying. as happens, it stuck. 23 years later, it’s the garden angels who get our road-trip salutation.

that might be the prayer i pray aloud, the heartfelt benediction in lickety-split tempo, not unlike the sprinkling of holy water across a crowd, one last certainty between reverse and drive, but the one that i will murmur all day long, it’s coming from a deeper place, a place that’s been keeping watch, a place that measures growth in fractions of a decimal, when need be, and knows full well when thresholds are being high-hurdled.

it’s the soul of the child i love that i consider my most essential watch. soul, as i sometimes define it, is a weave of heart and hope, of dreams launched and shattered pieces glued back together, the repair becoming the strong point. the repair, the place where resonant lessons are certain to be found.

and so the boy i love — a man now, to be certain — he’s off to law school at the crack of dawn tomorrow. we’re driving him there, all of us. settling him into his grown-up apartment, poking around the landscape, learning about this place, this old new england town, that he’ll call home.

and i will blanket him in the whispered words of the prayer, the motherprayer, that i’ve been weaving all his life. i will pray for solid footing, for a feeling of belonging, being embraced for who he is, and what he brings to any conversation (for what mother doesn’t pray that her child feels whole amid the current, not shoved to margins, the periphery of ill-fit diminishment?).

i will pray for laughter to animate his hours, because deep in the core of study, there is always room for the spray of great good humor, for the gleam that flashes from his eyes, because hilarity is among his strongest suits. and laughter, i’ve long believed, is the bellow of the angels here among us.

i will pray for sacred moments to graze his consciousness, for him to feel a sense of having been touched by the hand of the Divine, to gather up those daily beads of deep-down knowing that he is not alone, he is held in heaven’s light. i will pray for gentle kindness, for those who cross his path to stitch his hours with that unifying softness, the one that reminds we’re all in this, this daily grind toward tiny triumphs, we’re in it together. compatriots on the dusty road of living.

i’ll pray that the pitch of the trails he climbs is within his stride, will stretch him, strengthen his resilience, build capacities. and that the vista from the summits will fill his lungs, charge his heart, give him just the blast he needs to set out again. to take the climb up another notch.

i’ll pray that every once in a while there’s a victory so sweet he can cup it in his hands, hold it, savor it.

i can hardly bear to pray that when the heartbreak comes — and it will come, in varied doses and degrees — he is held and wrapped in arms and heart and love that temper crushing blows, that extract the sting, that salve the wounds and set him on his way again.

i pray, i suppose, that all his life, and certainly on this adventure just ahead, he lives and breathes with the full armament of undying love that i’ve been breathing into him, believing into him, since long before the day he was born, and cradled in my arms.

go with God, sweet scholar. go always always with the God of Purest Love.

xoxox, mommo

that’s my prayer for firstborn, or at least it’s today’s rendition. i never seem to run out of prayers for him. i live and breathe them.

no need to answer, but i wonder what might be the prayer you pray as you set out on today’s adventures?

all’s quiet…sigh.

allsquiet

the last footsteps have trailed out the door, down the walk, and into the alley. it’s barely half past eight. and i am blanketed, as i’ve been the last two days, in a sumptuous, seep-deep-into-my-pores afghan of quiet. it’s not silence, for there’s a clock ticking just inches away, and there’s a pesky mower off in the distance. but not even the wind is whirring. and the hum of the fridge fades into not much notice.

quiet to me is essential, is holy. is where the whispers and dreams slip in, unannounced. where they sift and drift and catch in the eddies of my soul. where they chase away the emptiness that comes from too much too much. quiet is the elemental contemplative bedrock from which my chalice is filled.

and i’ve been waiting for this, waiting for the curative tincture of being home alone, with hours unclaimed, hours unfurled in the timelessness of morning, followed by afternoon — quiet tumbled softly on quiet.

it’s the glorious gift of back-to-school, that cold shock at the end of summer when alarm clocks start clanging before 6 a.m. and the kitchen counter becomes a short-order diner, with PB&J slapped up on one end, and waffles and berries dumped on the other. more often than not, there are exhortations to hurry, and the minute-by-minute bellowing as one of us — that would be me, but of course — broadcasts the unflagging advance of the minute hand, slowing for no one.

i sometimes forget, in that deep down sort of way, how very much i need quiet. depend on it. how it’s neck and neck with oxygen in the shortlist of things that keep me alive.

yet, all of a sudden the other morning, not long after the last shoe walked out the door at 24 minutes past seven, i felt as if i’d just been submerged in a velvety bath, maybe even one spilling with lavender-scented bubbles, and for the first time in months, i felt my deep-down hollows filling in, filling up. you know the hollows, the ones etched and stretched over time, the ones that come without notice, worn down by weeks of helter-skelter not knowing what in the world to expect of a day — who would wake up at noon, who would want breakfast at 2 in the afternoon, and who suddenly needed a ride to the far end of kingdom come. those sorts of upside-down days are the bread-and-butter of mama-hood. it’s all topsy-turvy, all the time. you hang on by a cord, a frayed cord, a cord that just might snap without notice.

you weather the whirl. you look down and see that one foot is galloping (barely) behind the other, trying hard to keep up. you fall in bed at night and wonder why your bones let out a sigh. but since it’s all punctuated with those drippy peaches, and the sand between your toes, and black-eyed susans ad infinitum — the sweet parts of summer — you pay little mind.

and then the quiet comes. it slithers in through the screens still in the windows, it taps you on the shoulder, or more aptly, the heart. and suddenly, for the first time in weeks, you perk up your ears and you hear only the sounds of an old house breathing.

maybe it’s something to do with the light, the molasses-tinged light that drips across the kitchen table this time of year. this holy blessed born-again time of year.

i am, this hushed late-august morning, breathing again. breathing deep. i am savoring, relishing, the rare and blessed gift of soft, slow, deeply quiet time.

and i am whispering — quietly, quietly whispering — my most certain and soulful thanks to the heavens from which all this comes.

i’d thought i might write light of heart this morning; i’d felt that way the past couple days. but then last night something bumpy happened, and my heart doesn’t feel quite so light anymore. time — and quiet — will heal, no worries.

my sweet boy, the one now teaching in a classroom on the fourth floor of an old brick school on the west side of chicago, talks about “catching the slipstream.” it’s a wonderful phrase, a phrase that captures the magic of brainwaves and timing and that ephemeral pulse beat that syncopates writing. i feel like the slipstream slipped past me this morning, which always saddens me, leadens my heart. but there’s a beautiful late-summer morning, just outside my kitchen door. and there’s a garden where bumblebees buzz, and berries ripen on the vines. the pit-pat of my bare toes on the wide planks of this old kitchen floor, as i putter and put things in order, it is all part of the alchemy of healing that i always find here amid the blessing of quiet. may your day, too, restore you, and quench the thirst of your parched parts.

do you, too, need daily doses of quietude?

p.s. as i typed that very last sentence, i heard the cry of the canadian geese, so i walked to the door, and looked to the heavens. sure enough, the chevron of southbound geese, winging their way to where they belong for the winter…