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Category: cooking

the things we do on terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. or try, anyway.

we all have them.

poor dear alexander had one. alexander, of one of the all-time best-titled tomes in the land of children’s literature. or children’s books, anyway.

poor alexander went to bed with gum in his mouth, and woke up to find it in his hair. he tripped over his skateboard while getting out of bed. and dropped his sweater into the sink — while the water was running. and then when his two best pals found a.) a Corvette Sting Ray car kit, and b.) a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in their breakfast cereal boxes, all alexander found was, well, breakfast cereal.

it was neither gum in my hair, nor skateboards, nor sweaters in sinks — not even the lack of a decoder ring that got in my way. but, it turned into one of those days anyway. like i said, we all have them. there’s not a one of us who skates through a month, or a year, or a lifetime without tumbling into the occasional pothole, or skinning our knees on the rough edges of daily existence.

and, so, i decided to cook.

cooking, following steps from 1 to 2 to 4, seemed like it might be just the thing to soothe me (and maybe the fact that i seem to have skipped right over 3, there in my count, led to the outcome i’m veering toward). hauling out cutting boards and chopping devices, yanking bottles of spice from the shelf, eyeing the crucifers i remembered to buy at the store, it all seemed like the ingredients i needed for a healthy dose of self-soothe.

it was all seeming swell as i gurgled the olive-y oil into the bowl, dumped in coriander seeds, apple cider vinegar, a fine grainy mustard (french, even!). i chopped cabbage into one-inch wedges, as instructed. i sliced a purple onion into rings. but i went clearly awry when i reached in the fridge for the chicken i needed to cook before its due date had passed. i must not have been paying attention (always a downfall), but the chicken i reached for was that swanky somewhat-newish thing in the poultry department, a thin-sliced breast. which translates to slightly-better-than-cardboard. no fat, no skin, no taste. barely any meat to the bonelessness. all the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, could not make for taste. or anything close.

i swooped on anyway, following closely every step of the rest of the way. i pulled out my silicone pastry brush, slathered my mustardy brew all over the flanks of that cabbage. drizzled olive oil atop the onion circles. bathed my boneless hen in blankets of spice, as called for. i piled it all on a baking sheet (my cooking vessel of choice these days), and awaited the clouds of enticement rising from the cracks in the oven. it smelled mighty fine. and my terrible day was melting away.

but then the old metal timer clanged, and i pulled my tray from the oven. right away, those skinny breasts hollered “failure!” (i’ll even show you the picture; you can judge for yourself–>)

unwilling to surrender, i made a last-minute dash to the “farm,” where the last of the herbs haven’t yet been sheared to the ground. i grabbed a few fine handfuls of flat-leaf parsley, and did what any self-respecting soul in search of salvation would do: i let it rain bitlets of leaves all over my tasteless, rubbery, very thin breasts, the original meat with no point.

all of which is to say there will come days that leave us limp like raggedy dolls. days that, like my chicken, strip us to (or of) the bone.

and it is a good and wise thing to have a coterie of tricks up your sleeve for shoving yourself over the hump. no matter the stumbles and falters.

once upon a time i had no clue, really, how to make the hurt go away. or maybe, truly, it’s that once upon a time i never knew how to sit with the hurt, to let it be, to understand just how strong i could be, to find my way to the clear on the days when the fog was so thick and so dense, and the hurt was so much. it’s taken a lifetime — all the days up till now — to learn the few things that i know.

what i do know is that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is behind me now. and it’s the next morning. and there’s leftover cumin-bathed slabs chilling in the dark of the fridge. should anyone care to swing by, i’m putting them up for the taking. not even the possums who prowl my back stoop are likely to take me up on my offer.

what’s your cure for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?

p.s. i’m not saying that chopping cabbage gets to the root of whatever it is that afflicts us, all i’m saying is sometimes we need something soothing to get to the other side, where we can begin to see through what hurts or what haunts us….

here’s another something i did this week, to leave you a wisp of the beautiful…..i was trying to hold onto a wee bit of summer’s bounty, by making my own potpourri. (martha stewart said to pluck the petals, strew on baking sheet, oven-dry at 250 for an hour.) it, too, was a flop (bad week for baking sheets at my house), as the glorious marigold and nasturtium and monkshood all turned a strange shade of bllkkh (variations in brown). so i started over, and decided to dry my petals the old-fashioned way: under the sun, strewn on my window sill. a work still in progress….

xoxo

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

a peek inside: a new book and the story behind it

in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…

The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line. 

The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year. 

Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again? 

The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly! 

So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders? 

I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves. 

As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month. 

The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.

Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection. 

And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods. 

The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed. 

I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.  

But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.

I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting. 

bookplate

Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….

so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…

and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…

*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths. 

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts Ive bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along? 

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.

*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):

The January Kitchen:

As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge. 

Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon. 

(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)

Worth-the-Wait Porridge

Elixir (Bread) Pudding

Cure-All Mac and Cheese

Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice

Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange

*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar

Fourteen Blessings for February

Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.

Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights. 

Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.

Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.

***

hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.

questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?

a short bit in praise of laze

i might have had you there at short, the adjective for brevity, synonym for “this’ll be quick; over in a jiffy.” perhaps you heard a sigh of exultation as your cognitive wheels sputtered and spilled out a soft hallelujah. not much to read today. oh, joy. (too lazy here even for exclamation marks, when a simple dot of ink — the period — will do.)

today, amid the incoming heat waft, the plumes of furnace-fueling Fahrenheits rolling in across the prairie, building steam as they leap the Big Muddy (the mighty mississippi, among the few rivers whose spelling wove its way into my girlhood jump-rope ditties), we turn our collective attentions to the myriad ways the month of hot july invokes slo-mo, stalls us to the lower-grade velocities: we amble to the garden, plonk our toes atop the wicker settee or into the water’s edge, set a spell in the summer porch, toss back fistfuls of inky-bursting berries, dawdle under the stars, lose track of day and time…(and make the most of ellipses while we’re at it, the original non-committal punctuation, the one that trails off into whisper, allowing any sentence to unspool at its own sweet idle…)

in celebration of indolence (lazy‘s grown-up fancy twin), a short list of praises:

sleeping till your eyelids — or the window shades — flutter open. determinedly silencing the bells, whistles, radar tones, and radio blares that dare to launch you into yet another full-on, get-it-done day.

making no plan for the weekend beyond the turning of pages.

cicada song, the rising reverberations of the hollow belly of the male bug the old latins called “the tree cricket,” from the superfamily Cicadoidea; perhaps a noxious noise to you, but to me it’s a lullaby i sink into every summer. a sound not unlike the endless sawing of blocks and blocks of wood, it’s a song that indeed puts me in a mind to saw my own endless strings of zzzzzzz’s.

sauntering the farmers’ market, guided only by whatever bounty stirs your fancy, leaving home any iteration of a grocery list (yet another domestic harness by which we are too often, too tightly bound).

pinching off fistfuls of pungent basil leaves, stuffing them into the maw of the countertop wiz-master, along with cloves of garlic, chunks of parmesan, and rivers of the fine green olive oil, and, presto, calling it a pesto (aka the unction of choice for any summer feast).

speaking of which, here’s a little video that inspired my presto pesto trials most of yesterday afternoon, interludes of herbaceous joy amid yet another afternoon sprawled in my window perch, up amid the serviceberry boughs where my turning of the pages is accompanied by duets of robins getting tipsy on the fattest, purplest berries just beyond the windowpanes.

and here, if you’re too lazy to click on any hyperlinks, the read-along version of summer’s long-awaited green and chunky goo, the one best slathered on anything that dares to cross your platter….

food52’s best basil pesto

Makes about 3/4 cup

Prep time: 5 min 
Cook time: 3 min

  • 1/4 cup raw pine nuts
  • 10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/2 ounce)
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5 loosely packed cups basil leaves (from a 2-ounce bunch)
  1. Set a small strainer over a small bowl. Combine the pine nuts and 4 tablespoons of oil in a small pan set over medium-low heat. Swirling occasionally, toast the pine nuts until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the pan’s contents into the strainer. Let nuts cool completely.
  2. Once the nuts are cool, combine them and their oil, the cheese, garlic, salt, and remaining olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped, scraping down as needed. Add the basil leaves and pulse just until the pesto becomes smooth, again scraping down if needed. Use immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks (though, the sooner you use it, the better-tasting it will be), or the freezer for up to 3 months.

and, poof! there you have it. a short meander through the delights and surrenders of a day — or even a weekend — spent in unbridled serendipities. a necessary antidote to madness. most emphatically amid pandemic.

how do you define lazy?

p.s. all this laziness comes at the end of yet another wrenching and tumultuous week: putting boy 1 on airplane, bound for a big cross-country move and, alas, a bar exam that — unlike dozens of other states — illinois is insisting on holding in person come the start of september; and boy 2 found out that only freshmen and sophomores are now slotted to return to campus in the fall, a decision that means — among many other things — he has to give up the dorm room he considered one of the best in the leafy little town of gambier, ohio, a room in an old stone manse, a room complete with leaded glass bay windows, peering down a wooded hill, in the great company of his best coterie of college comrades. all in all, given the horrors that abound, these are not by any measure trials, but they wrench the heart nonetheless, and after months of this, our heart walls are somewhat thinned….

riding the COVID-coaster*

U.S. Hits Another Record for New Coronavirus Cases: New York Times graphic

we are all — all of us, red states, blue states, striped states, star-dappled states — strapped into this unplotted, unprecedented, unpredictable pandemic roller-coaster ride (*aka “COVIDcoaster,” a term introduced to me by my brilliant friend amy). the season of COVID, long past its toleration date, is gearing up for a wallop. or so it seems as summer cranks up the heat, and what’s ahead grows hazier.

we seem to be lurching upward and off-the-charts at breakneck speed, as if some giant-sized foot is pressing the proverbial pedal to the floorboard.

at this old house, the summer feels a bit like a COVID chess game. us v. the invisible virus that takes our smell and taste away. i need to put on speed dial a beloved ER doc friend of mine, the one who answers every inane puzzle and quandary i conjure. (and, believe me, i conjure.)

just this week, boy No. 2 found out his best friend’s sister — and another dear friend’s cousin — had tested positive — fever + sore throat, the sweet girl’s symptoms. of course, boy 2 had been out hitting golf balls the two previous nights in a row with her brother. and, to double the trouble, one of those nights he’d taken a long sidewalk-straddling walk (without masks), with the COVID girl’s cousin, who’d just gotten back from a week of sharing a summer cottage — and a bedroom — with the newly diagnosed one.

from the minute boy 2 got the news — at the end of a hot sauna of a day mowing grass and chopping trees for the park district — he had his KN95 mask strapped on so tight it musta made it hard to breathe. he insisted on eating his dinner on the far side of the kitchen, a good 12 feet from the rest of us. and he holed up in his room as if protecting me from nuclear fallout. just now, as he loped out the door for another day of tree-chopping, he triumphantly announced his test (taken yesterday afternoon at one of those one-day testing sites) just came back negative, as did his best friend’s and the cousin’s. halle-holy-lujah! i’m thinking it was a close-enough call to maybe add an extra 20 seconds of hand washing to the regime from here on in, though the perceived invincibility of teens prompts me to hedge that bet.

then there’s boy 1: the one who is here, asleep under this very roof, spending his days studying for the bar exam and waiting to move to portland, oregon, where a federal clerkship awaits. you might think — with five scheduled cross-country flights and two separate moving crews, a new job, new apartment, and that bar exam — that we set out to plot the most complicated itinerary imaginable in the age of COVID (though we assure you we did not). as it stands now he is due to fly back to new haven on monday, where the first of the two moving crews will crate every last fork, spoon, and tome in his law school apartment, and ship it all oregon way. the plan had been to come back here for the duration, till it was time to meet the movers in portland, but with the COVID charts skyrocketing in the exact wrong direction, we ditched plan B. and have moved on to plan C in which the poor kid will wait it out for 10 days in a stark empty apartment (save for the old lumpy mattress he is not moving), fly new york to portland, meet the movers, and then — drum roll here for the most mind-bending part of the plot — fly four-and-a-half hours back to chicago to take the bar exam, which in itself is a legal petri dish of COVID waiting to engulf the entire law school class of 2020. the geniuses who plot bar exams are currently planning to stuff 2,000 illinois test takers into a ballroom for two long days at the start of september. some of those test takers, like our very own, will be fresh off airplanes, having flown into chicago for the exam. others, waiting to take the exam before they can start drawing a paycheck, might well be inclined to go ahead and take the test even if, say, they can’t smell a thing, feel a wee bit hotter than usual, and might have started sniffling or coughing. how this is allowed to happen is beyond me, but then it’s the COVIDcoaster, and we are all whipping around the course, bracing ourselves through all its undulations.

so i do what i do best: i worry the night away. i pony up for the higher-cost health insurance, haunted by visions of the kid sick as a dog and turned away from the best hospitals in town if he doesn’t flash the right insurance card. we canceled the plane ticket on the airline that no longer keeps the promise to not fill every seat on the plane, and grabbed a new one for an even-longer ride on a plane that promises a few inches more breathing room. and we are leaving the kid to sleep in an empty apartment for 10 days — all because we’re haunted by the very real fears that COVID is a fire-breathing, smell-stealing dragon that’ll come up and nab you from behind.

meanwhile, we watch germany and south korea mostly trot back to work, no longer so encumbered by this awful terrible invisible virus.

by the hour, awful terrible numbers are flashing before our eyes — cases climbing, death rates certain to follow.

and those of us who swear allegiance to masks and 75-percent isopropyl alcohol hand sanitizer, we begin to wonder when, oh when, will it end? and who of the ones we love will be caught in its vice — snuffed out, or left with lingering scarring for who knows how long?

it’s enough to wear you down, and wring you like a soggy rag. we’re weary of all the lysol-wiping of every last milk carton. and navigating the variations of rule-following among those we love is no summer picnic. (i’m among the self-avowed scaredy cats who takes tony fauci at his every last word; if he tells me to mask up and not share even a fruit bowl among friends, i’m wearing two masks and lysol bleaching like nobody’s business.)

it all makes for strange times. surreal times, really. but, thank God, we are — so far — living to tell about it.

and in the meantime, i’m baking.

almond joy cookies, hot out of the oven

here’s the latest summer joy from the cookie jar, and they couldn’t be easier. four ingredients, stir, scoop, press flat, await the slightest gilding of the coconut edges. then watch ’em fly.

almond joy cookies

these wicked little coconut cushions, studded with semi-sweet chocolate and bits of sliced almond, are what happens when your favorite grocery store peddles a similar confection at $5.99 for five of ’em. because those pricey little mounds are practically inhaled in this old house, i was determined to make ’em myself. a bit of prowling around the internet, my cookbook without end, led me to these, courtesy of some lovely someone named trish on momontimeout.com

she writes: “These easy Almond Joy Cookies take just four ingredients and don’t even require a mixer! No beating, no chilling, just mix ’em up and throw ’em in the oven EASY! You’re going to love these ooey gooey fabulous cookies!”

Prep Time: 5 mins

Cook Time: 12 mins

Ingredients

  • 1 14-oz bag sweetened coconut flakes
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup chopped lightly salted almonds (trish used Blue Diamond Low Sodium Lightly Salted – light blue bag, but i couldn’t find, so i used sliced almonds and added 1 teaspoon salt)
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk regular or fat-free works

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 325F.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  • In a large bowl combine coconut, chocolate chips, almonds, and sweetened condensed milk.
  • Stir until combined.
  • Scoop out dough with a cookie scoop onto prepared baking sheet.
  • Moisten the tips of your fingers with water and shape into discs. Pat the tops flat.
  • Bake cookies for 12 to 14 minutes or until tips of coconut are just starting to turn golden brown.
  • Let cool on baking sheet.
  • Store cookies in an airtight container.

Notes

Parchment paper is critical for these cookies to turn out right. Silicone mats, waxed paper, etc. will yield a slightly different result.

chime in and spill your COVID-coaster stories. do tell. misery loves company. and by now we are all worn thin from the red-ringed worries.

(p.s. i am not making light of one drop of this, merely recounting with a journalist’s eye the absurdities of what the summer’s bringing….)

summer vacation

even the sound of it, those two easy-does-it words hammocked together: summer + vacation = kick back, fling your shoes across the yard, sink your toes in the sand (or the dew-dazzled grass), take your to-do list and tear it into confetti.

it’s the necessary pause. the shot of pure oxygen to the suffocating soul. the certain truth that, even for a day, we can–and must–call time out. all but scribble the long-forgotten permission slip, giving our weary little selves a break from the unrelenting everyday.

never more than now.

this year, maybe for a day we can shelve the motherlode of worries, revel in the tiniest of wonders: the firefly, the cucumber vine’s improbable curlicue, the invention of the blueberry.

maybe for a day, or a whole string of days, we can make-believe we’ve piled in the station wagon, rolled along the back roads, taken a turn at the windmill or the “raccoon crossing” road sign, listened for the gravel spitting up from our wheels, unpacked at the ramshackle cottage deep in the woods (minus mosquitoes), packed the fridge from the nearest farmer’s market, and unfurled the beach towel or aforementioned hammock (see first sentence above), settling in to the preferred posture of the day.

can you hear your old bones sighing? or whistling along to their happy tune?

sometimes all it takes is the mere whiff of vacation ahead to slow the heart’s staccato, ramp up the oxygen content of the lungs. sometimes the magic is in the imagining. maybe that’s why God gave us doodle pads for brains.

there are a million and one ways to dawdle through a day. to seize emphatically the indolent season. to master the art of doing next to nothing (it’s harder than you’d think). to make the turning of the page, the slicing of the tomato, counting firefly flickers be the most arduous task of your day.

irony of ironies, you might scribble just such a litany onto your to-do list of the day: 1.) plop your bum on the nearest ledge under the sun. 2.) stay put for a good half hour. 3.) tick off three whimsies in which you rarely indulge. 4.) do them. 5.) call it a day.

it is always a fine thing to upholster your indolent day with proper feasting. i find the blueberry–that swollen burst of summer–to be synonymous with a july-fourth fete. think backdrop to stars on betsy ross’s american flag. i’ve used them as inkblots in pancakes, embroidered the top of a summery flag cake, plopped them by handfuls straight into my mouth. but the way i find them most apt for the moment is that wonder of indolence i call blueberry slump*.

and wonder of wonders, here–from the pages of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing–is your very own road map to blueberry confection.

From the Summertime Recipe Box…

No-cook summer, the aim. Pluck tomato from the vine. Shake with salt. Consume. Repeat with the sweet pea, the runner bean, the cuke. And who ever met a berry that demanded more than a rinse — if that? Thus, the blueberry slump. A no-frills invention, concocted — lazily, one summer’s afternoon — in the produce aisle. Even its verbs invoke indolence: dump, splash, dash…spoon and lick. With lick, though, comes a sudden surge of gusto.

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Cinnamon, a dash

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour.

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….

fat and sassy blueberries

*my beloved friend paula, who is in fact idling by a lake house this weekend, asked me for this recipe yesterday, so she could carry it along in her beach bag. it reminded me, and both of my boys, that we could not make it through the weekend without a few scoops. so thank you to paula for the tap on the recipe tin.

how will you idle away your indolence?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

rice pudding trials

rice pudding trials

it must trace back to the breast. yes, the original suckling breast. (forgive me for shocking so early in the morning, but, yes, this is where we begin.) imagine the soft fullness of the mother’s breast, engorged with milk, tubes and ducts surging with all a little one needs. imagine the heartbeat just beyond the milk. imagine the baby’s cheek pressed against flesh; pillowed, you might say. imagine the countenances, eyes locked in a channel of concentration, mother to babe and back again. imagine the wee little curls of finger, grabbing hold and not letting go; flesh entwined with flesh.

that must be the original comfort food: sustenance. warmth. insistent and unceasing rhythm of heart, the original lullaby, non?

and so, we humans are hard-wired to seek it.

it should not surprise, then, that in a moment of global paralysis, when you can’t get out of the house where you grew up (and your mother and father have nothing more to do than indulge you in their too-lavish attentions), when your college campus is far beyond reach, when the springtime you imagined has gone up in red-ringed vapors, there might come urgency in the department of cooking.

comfort cooking might be the call of the day. comfort cooking might teeter on the sharp edge of survival. comfort cooking might be the handiest cure for the stuck-at-home blues.

which brings us, oddly, circuitously but certainly, to the subject of rice pudding.

what began as almost an afterthought at the grocery store, a last-minute swipe for some plastic-tubbed goo on the shelf, a goo labeled “rice pudding,” took on a bit of a life of its own. it started with an off-handed, “i wonder if you can make that” (for one of us grew up in a house in the space-age food revolution days when true kitchen liberation was found in the form of boxed mixes for everything, and scratch-cooking was so yesteryear; in the house where i grew up, brownies came from betty crocker’s red-spooned box, and not once did i witness rice stirred into pudding).

because one of us is in the business of gobbling down whatever is put before him, and another of us is especially in the business these days of reaching beyond the ho-hum, trying valiantly to infuse a touch of indulgence into the day, it became something of a quest in this old house to stir our way to rice pudding perfection. or, at least, a pudding sans gelatinous lumps, a pudding with just the right kiss of sweetness, a pudding so lick-your-lips-able that it might have you sneaking into the fridge in the wee, wee hours. a pudding with raisins, of course.

despite my protest and preferences, brown rice was immediately ruled out. forbidden, more like it. if this pudding was going to provide one ounce of comfort it was going to be washed out and white through and through. in a pinch, mark bittman (our go-to guy so very often, for he lures with his promise of “how to cook everything“) provided the road map: water; rice; salt; milk; sugar; cinnamon.

what resulted was soft, sweet, and passable. but that only taunted. we somehow locked onto the notion that what was needed was something spectacular. something so comforting it just might fill up every null and void, just might make us forget for one flash of a moment (as long as it takes to swallow a mouthful of pillowy softness) how hungry we were to get on with our once-ago lives….

and so the pudding trials commenced.

we sought out a coterie of experts: nigella lawson (she indulges with double cream, arborio rice, and muscat wine). the pioneer lady (she soaks her raisins in whiskey, for heaven’s sake, adds a splash of cream and — because she’s the pioneer lady — dollops a fat pat of butter). ina garten, aka the barefoot contessa (she takes it over the top with dark rum, basmati rice and — get this — 5 cups of half-and-half). we had ourselves a holy trinity of comfort makers, each with her own derivation.

and then, along came an heirloom from a friend, an unsuspecting formula for rice pudding confection. we knew it might be a winner as soon as we saw that the provenance was simply, “mother.” as in a nursery recipe passed from mother to daughter, one of the kitchen bequests that brings back whole moments in time, conjures up storybook scenes of kitchen comfort. that after-school moment when a pudding is spooned in a bowl, and along with fat grains of rice, afloat in a creamy perfection, there is a mother’s voice, soothing. perhaps even a hand rubbing the back, kneading the knots out of the shoulders clenched from a long day of worry or heartache.

that’s what an heirloom recipe does. that’s what comfort cooking is all about. it’s alchemy in its very best form: the power to heal, to chase away the blues, to restore your faith in the long days ahead.

here is my friend’s unadorned, utterly simple roadmap to rice pudding perfection:

Raisin Rice Custard
(Mother)

3 eggs
2 1/2-3 cups milk
2-3 T. sugar for each cup of milk (make as sweet as you like!)
1 t. vanilla
generous pinch of salt
nutmeg
1 cup or so cooked white rice (day old is best)
1 cup or so raisins

Scald the milk (heat slowly until little bubbles around edge of pan). Beat eggs lightly, add sugar and salt. Slowly add the scalded milk, stirring. Add vanilla and about 1/4 t. nutmeg.

Pour this mixture over the rice and raisins in a buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake custard in a pan of hot water at 350 for 50-60 min. or until knife comes out clean.

and here is nigella’s (note: it’s written for cooking in merry old england; translation necessary):

Nigella Lawson’s Muscat Rice Pudding
“I am not suggesting that the basic, plain version of rice pudding is in any way deficient,” says Nigella, “but this muskily ambrosial version is mellow heaven. Perfect dinner-party comfort food.”
Ingredients
500ml whole milk
500ml double cream
50g unsalted butter
150g pudding or arborio rice

250ml muscat wine
50g caster sugar

Pinch of salt
Fresh nutmeg to grate

Method
Preheat the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2.

Combine the milk and cream. In a 1.5-litre, hob-proof casserole dish, melt the butter over a medium-low heat, add the rice and stir well to coat, then add the muscat. Stir well and let the syrupy liquid bubble away for a couple of minutes. Then pour in the milk and cream and add the sugar and salt, stirring as you do so. Bring it back to a gentle bubble, stir well again and grate over some fresh nutmeg.

Put in the oven and cook for 2 hours, stirring after the first 30 minutes. Check the dish after 11⁄2 hours – the depth of the dish and the nature of your oven may make a significant difference. The rice should have absorbed the liquid, but still be voluptuously creamy. Remove and cool for at least half an hour before eating.

what’s your roadmap to comfort on those days when you’re ground to the bone?

in the dregs of winter, follow along…

IMG_1321

it was, to put it somewhat crudely, the armpit of the week, in the armpit of the winter. it was a wednesday night and one of us had broken out in spots. it was february and the snow could not decide to come or go. and the hoary shade of gray out the window was unrelenting.

so i turned to that source of so much solace (and heartache) over the years: the pages of the news. specifically, to the squat square pages the new york times had generously tucked into sunday’s paper. ONE pot|pan|skillet: 24 brilliant recipes for everyone who hates doing the dishes. while i am not among the doing-dishes haters, i am hot on the trail of hauling only one vessel from the depths of where i stash those things. i flipped pages till i came to this: IMG_1327

perhaps it was the orange and red mosaic that reached out and grabbed me. perhaps it was the whisper of my lovely doctor, nudging me to eat more fish, to interrupt the endless nights of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. perhaps it was that nip of spatula en route to plopping a mound of mouth-watering hake onto my dinner plate.

mostly, i think it was the february doldrums, the pitiful sight of the man i love covered in spots we thought were shingles (turns out, they were not), and the simple hope that i could cook myself out of the late-winter rut.

i set out with shopping list, promptly scooped up peppers red and orange and yellow. zipped past the vinegar shelf and got myself a jug of sherry-tinged such stuff. stopped by the olive bar and scooped up a quarter pound from the briny vat in which they swam. oh, and i waited in line for the fishmonger to pluck from his case a hefty chunk of midwest hake (aka plain old cod).

i’m not usually a follower of recipes, but this day — in need of being pulled deep into something other than the news squawking from the box, and the spots at home — i sunk right in. i played along. step 1 to 2, all the way to 5.

IMG_1319i chopped myself my own peppery mosaic, in shades matisse or van gogh would have applauded. i skimmed the itty-bitty leaves of thyme right off their stems. and then i chopped (chopping in the end of winter is highly therapeutic; i recommend).

at last, as the chilly afternoon turned to chilly twilight, i cranked the oven. there began the shifts of submission, as heat turned peppers into succulence, and then raw fish — and olives and olive oil and scattered bits of thyme — became magnificence, as if lifted from aegean seas, and the kouzina of someone’s expert greek grandma.

what wound up on dinner plates was nothing short of wait-who-made-this?! had he not been busy scooping up every last bit with knife and fork, the gent across the table might well have lurched to his feet, and pressed palms in rapid-fire rat-a-tat (aka applause). instead, we both took certain note of what a difference a bit of concentration in the kitchen, the mere act of following instruction, submitting to excursion in the land beyond routine, could do to an otherwise humdrum wednesday.

it’s those nearly invisible moments, the ones we lift out of the ordinary, make sacramental through the sheer gift of our attention and our intent to lift them up, to hoist them from the ho-hum, that in the end makes each day count. and turns out swell eats, besides.

should you care to play along, here’s a very fine place to begin:

Sheet-Pan Roasted Fish With Sweet Peppers By Melissa Clark

YIELD 3 to 4 servings (i made for two, cutting quantity of fish in half, but keeping all the peppers)

TIME 40 minutes

Quick to make and very pretty to behold, this easy weeknight dish has more verve than most. The roasted bell peppers turn sweet and golden, while olives add a salty note that goes nicely with the mild, flaky fish and a garlicky parsley dressing. If you can’t find hake, cod or flounder make fine substitutes, though you may have to adjust the roasting time. The thicker the fillets, the longer they will take to cook. (i cooked cod at 475-degrees for 8 minutes.)

page1image48832576

INGREDIENTS

1 small bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme

1 1⁄2 pounds hake fillets (for two, i used 3/4 pounds cod)

Fine sea salt and black pepper

3 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red, 1 orange and 1 yellow, thinly sliced

4 1⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1⁄4 cup pitted, sliced black or green olives, or a combination

1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus more to taste

1 garlic clove, grated

1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves, chopped

 

PREPARATION

Step 1 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pull 1 tablespoon thyme leaves off the bunch and finely chop.

Step 2 Season fish all over with a large pinch or two of salt and pepper and rub with chopped thyme leaves. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare peppers.

Step 3 Spread peppers on a rimmed sheet pan, and toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the black pepper to taste. Top peppers with the remaining thyme sprigs. Roast, tossing occasionally, until peppers are softened and golden at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 4 Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Push peppers to the edges of the pan, clearing a space in the center. Lay fish out on that empty space and drizzle with oil. Scatter olives over the top of fish and peppers. Roast until fish turns opaque and is just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.

Step 5 Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by combining vinegar, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, then whisk in parsley. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, or both, if needed. Serve fish and peppers drizzled with vinaigrette.

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i intend to cook my way through at least a dozen of the double dozen choices the times has laid down before me. we’ll be almost at the cusp of the vernal equinox by the time i’m there, and that, i’m certain, will all but save me.

what’s your sure cure for late-winter doldrums? have you heard the shift (and acceleration) in birdsong? that’s hope on a limb, if you ask me…..startles me with joy each and every morning…..

IMG_1318

eddies of joy

IMG_0623

for months and months, and especially as august drew near, and september tumbled upon us, as this old house turned quiet and oftentimes hollow, it was a question i fielded over and over and over again: what will you do now that you’re an empty nester? or, the variation: how will you handle this empty nest?  

one friend came to the door with a jumbo-sized carton of kleenex. it was an apt gesture.

the truth about our lives is that, more often than not, it’s a current that’s rushing and there’s little, quite frankly, we can do to alter its course, to slow it or stop it from running down rapids, to re-route the channel it’s gnawed through the earth.

but the thing about rivers is this, a thing that i learned long long ago in the woods where i played on the banks of a creek, tracing the course of the flow with a long pointed stick, or by tossing a log or a leaf or a twig and watching it go, making the invisible visible: sometimes rivers — or even a rain-swollen creek — run fast, and run wild; sometimes, the river runs lazy, its waters scuttled off to the side, caught in a pile of leaves, or tangle of sticks, idling or whirling in some extra-deep groove spooned from the oozy bottom.

in river talk, that’s an eddy.

ed·dy /ˈedē/ noun: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.

in life talk, it’s the wholly unexpected moment that seems to come out of the blue, the ones we hadn’t seen coming. in this particular case, at this turn in the bend of my particular river, it’s a dollop of joy. the sudden awareness that, without a whole heckuva lot of planning nor thinking too hard, you find yourself idling in a nook or a cranny you’d not wholly imagined, in a newfound pool of something that soothes you.

turns out that in these vast stretches of days where it’s mostly just dinner for two, where my most frequent companion for hours on end is unbroken silence, the dinner party is my newfound eddy of joy. aside from the fact that our overdue list is long enough to leave me penniless if life was charging fines, i’ve unwittingly found myself delighting in the joy of dinner table equations: mixing and matching various combinations of conversationalists — the deep and quiet listeners, the ones who say not a lot but whose words when they do choose to speak are the ones that rumble for days in your head, the laugh-out-loud storytellers, the ones who lean in and soak up each word, the ones who always know something you’ve never heard of.

i consider the ones to seat around the table, and then i consider just what to concoct for a multi-course feast intent on striking a particular note: autumnal warmth. winter cozy. and i never stop at the food. that’s just a part of the stage set. to me, all of it matters: the crackling logs in the fireplace, the fireworks-worthy explosion of blooms soon as you walk in the door. the candles flickering on the table, yes, but all along the window sills, too. what i’m after is a whole-body immersion, a wrap-it-around-your-shoulders sense that you’re in a house that wholly and emphatically welcomes you. we want you here. we want to hear what stirs you and strikes you. we want you lavished in welcome.

the dinner party — unlike my other most favorite gathering, just the two of us, leaning in over hot mugs of tea, pouring our hearts out — is all about the alchemy of a particular cast of characters. it’s less certain than the tete-a-tete. there’s a sense of adventure, of risk, of putting yourself more on the line (especially if you’re the one practicing prestidigitation at the stove).

and, as i am wiping dry the very last glass or the fork at the wee end of the night, when i awake the very next morning to the afterglow of a leftover-stocked fridge and the lingering echoes of laughter, i am reminded that sometimes the river of life — even when you’ve been nervously cowering on the side of the bank — will carry you into nooks and eddies you’ve been seeking forever and ever.

so here’s a recipe that practically made me jig with joy. a friend who’s a vegetarian was coming for dinner, and this one tickled my fancy. it’s a variation of nigella lawson’s roast stuffed pumpkin. whether you make it for one or two or eight, it’ll carry you to an eddy of joy. that’s a promise.

roasted stuffed pumpkin, ala nigella + me

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 6 1/2- to 7-pound sugar pumpkin, or other pumpkin suitable for eating
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 halved
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon 
  • 10 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large handful spinach leaves
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill a kettle with water, and bring to a boil. About an inch below the top of the pumpkin’s ”shoulders,” about where it would be cut to carve a jack-o’-lantern, slice a lid from top of pumpkin, and set it aside. Remove seeds and fibrous flesh from inside.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the walnuts for a minute or two, moving constantly. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Using the same saucepan, heat the oil, and sauté the onion until it is softened. Add 2 minced garlic cloves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, and cook for one minute. Stir in the cranberries, and spices. Add the rice, and stir until it is glossy. Pour in stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile rub the inside of pumpkin with cut garlic clove, and rub with some salt to taste.
  4. When rice has cooked for 15 minutes, it will be damp and not very fluffy. Adjust seasoning to taste, and spoon into pumpkin cavity. Press lid firmly on top. It may sit above stuffing a bit like a jaunty cork. Wrap bottom two to three inches of pumpkin in a double layer of foil to protect it from contact with water during baking. Place in a roasting pan, and add about 1 inch of boiling water to pan.
  5. Bake the pumpkin until it is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 1/2 hours. (If there is resistance when pumpkin is pierced, allow more baking time.) To serve, remove pumpkin from pan, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Discard foil, and place pumpkin on a serving platter. Slice into segments like a cake. Place a wedge of pumpkin on each serving plate, and mound with rice stuffing.

what are your eddies of joy? what are the ones you never saw coming?