pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: cooking

new year cleanse

despite being a fundamentally punctual soul, i tend to be late for plenty of things. in life, that is. 

got married at 34. first baby at 36. last one at just shy of 45. so i shouldn’t be too surprised that we’re two weeks into the new year and i’ve finally gotten around to realizing it’s high time for a cleanse.

i’m not talking refrain from fuzzy bubbly, nor gulping goopy green drinks in an effort to roto-root my insides. i’m talking one of those good old-fashioned retreats from the noise and the headaches that too often encumber the festooned days of fa-la-la december.

fact is, after a string of weeks that brought to this old house canceled christmas eve flights, hacked bank accounts, more late nights than i’m used to, a general level of cacophony, and too many comings and goings, i am full-on frazzled. 

i dream of hot bubbly baths. and towering monastery walls (of which i’m on the inside, safely ensconced, and far from the harsh, harried world). i imagine quietude. not a decibel louder than that of a page turning, a firelog crackling, or a kettle of soup lazily simmering. 

i long for unfettered days, with nowhere to go, and no one to answer to.

it takes some of us a good bit of time to snap our synapses into order again, to de-frazzle our wee little nerves, to fill our heads and our souls with pure fresh breathable oxygen. 

i basically long for a DIY friary, with compulsory silence. and menial chores. 

yes, chores. and, yes, the more menial the better.

since this is a prime time of year to be confessional, and confession is a fine first stop on the monastic road, i’ll go first, and––ahem––admit to one or two quirks when it comes to the ways i unjangle my nerves: over the years, i’ve found uncanny pacification in hoisting bucket and mop. yes, i’m a serial cleaner. i often reach for fleece-lined yellow rubber gloves when i’m in need of mollifying. vacuuming dehydrated bits of the vacated christmas-y tree (wee little thing that it was) tends to quell my wobbliest self. scrubbing spots off the floor puts me together again. de-greasing the stove = the short route to nirvana.

you can bet your brill-o pad that soon as the college kid slips out the door and onto the tarmac this weekend, i’ll be peeking behind the bedroom door he’s all but barricaded these past many weeks (the better to bar me from tsk-tsking the mess). i’ll be switching out sheets, spritzing sweet herbal poofs in the air, rinsing the crud out from the drains. call me loony (if you didn’t already) but i tap into rarefied bliss when armed with squeegee and lysol. 

only then, when every last wrinkle is smoothed, and the faucet and sink twinkling like venus, will i settle into my preferred mid-january posture: squished in a nook with a book. decidedly monk-like. and i might not look up for days. should the phone ring, i’ll not hear it. should the phone ping, i’ll play possum. 

of course, this isn’t the only way to take on the starter month, the one roz chast (yet another of my new yorker supernovas) vividly declared the “cruellest.” (see new yorker cover above)

i realize i’m hardly alone in pondering new-year restoratives. just the other day, blithely turning the pages of the new york times, i found––in the food section, no less!––even the recipe mavens were proffering thoughts on how to muddle through the 31 days. here’s longtime writer melissa clark on the matter: 

“maybe there’s another way to look at it,” she begins. “what if january could be quiet and centered, a period of calm reflection when it’s too cold to go out and no one wants or expects anything social from you anyway? to me this is the ideal moment to hide in your house, cozy up near the stove and simmer a nice pot of stew. go low and slow—after all, you’ve got plenty of time this month.”

sign me up, missy!

while i set my sights on the distant shores of far-off february (when things might really turn dreary), i’ve decided to up my january game, and thus will subscribe to a slight monastic upgrade: 

as a firm believer that one shouldn’t starve while immersed in abstemious mode (a fancy way to say spartan), i plan on stocking my make-believe monastery with sumptuous soups, breads so grainy they give your incisors a run for their money, and, true to time-tested friarly ways, a good vintage to wash it all down (mine will be an $8.99 prosecco from ol’ trader joe).

here’s what i’m stirring this morning: 

Carrot-Leek Soup With Miso
By David Tanis* (annotations by babs) 

4 servings

INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups peeled, cubed carrots (from about 6 medium carrots)
2 medium leeks, white part only, chopped
Salt and black pepper
8 cups water or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons yellow or white miso
1 small lime
Thinly sliced chives, for garnish (optional) 

PREPARATION
Step 1
Heat olive in a heavy pot over medium heat. When the oil glistens or ripples (both signs that it’s hot enough), add carrots and leeks. Season generously with salt and pepper, and stir to coat well. Sauté for a minute or 2, then add broth (Tanis insists lightly salted water simmered with leeks and carrots is plenty tasty enough; count me among the not-yet-convinced). Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. As soup simmers, taste and add salt as needed. Cook until carrots are soft, about 15 minutes. 

Step 2
Once the soup is cooled, reserve 2 cups liquid, then purée the remaining contents of the pot in a blender. (Alternatively, use an immersion blender in the pot.) Use reserved liquid to adjust the purée’s thickness, adding just enough so the consistency is that of a thin milkshake. 

Step 3
To serve, heat soup and whisk in miso. Divide among 4 bowls. Grate a little lime zest over each bowl. Quarter the lime and add a good squeeze of lime juice into each bowl. Scatter with chives, if using. 


well, that was a long-winded way to bring you a root-vegetable recipe. but this space for me is what a gym might be to a gymnast. it’s where i practice my twists and turns, and aim to stick my landings. as a long-ago failed athlete, i ply no bodily tricks, and confine myself to maneuvers of nouns, verbs, and a host of dangling modifiers. 

because levity is a proven balm for most ails, i’m adding a bonus here this morning, and showing you a snap of what this ol’ monk shall be wearing during her retreat from the world. if it seems i’m on some sort of new yorker binge, it’s unintentional, and pure coincidence. but the one thing i got for christmas this year was this fine pair of cat’s pajamas (new yorker cartoon cats splattered up and down legs, sleeves, and even the pockets), which arrived in the post just the other day and which i just might never take off (the ad on the new yorker shop site shows new yorkers wearing these things out and about. even in art galleries, and on the stoops of their brownstones). i solemnly vow only to wear mine inside the friary.

what’s your preferred prescription for those chunks of the year when you’re in need of deep hibernation?

p.s. thank you roz chast for your eternal and forever brilliance. new yorker cover above, by dear roz!

packin’ it in. . .

at one point yesterday afternoon, five of six burners were occupied on the carrier ship of a cookstove that occupies this kitchen: one boiled a vat of water for soon-to-be-roiling pastas; one simmered the beginnings of roux; one held a pot of tomatoes and basil and a chunk of parmesan cheese; one simmered chunks of apple and pear and cranberry into a compote; and one awaited the tea kettle’s whistlings.

even the cutting boards had taken assigned seats: one for the stinky onions and garlic; another for apples and pears.

we were packin’ it in.

stuffing as many favorites onto the stove, into one afternoon, into one ultra-condensed week of days jam-packed together. four of us––aka, all of us––are home this week. bedsheets are tossed in two of the rooms, the floors seem to be serving as closets and drawers. why unpack when you’ll soon be packing again, heading back out the door, into the air, and home to those faraway places?

packing it in seems as apt a way to live a life as any i can imagine. squeeze in as much as you can. (as long as those super-thick times are bracketed with spells of the monastic quiet that seems my most natural habitat.)

when it comes to loving, i’ll attach lavish every time. i don’t think an hour’s gone by this week––or maybe in my whole motherly lifetime––when i didn’t deep-down marvel at the miracle that two human beings were born to me. born from me, as a matter of fact. a feat i somehow never ever thought my wobbly old body would be able to do. i’d never put quite enough faith in my physical capacities. finish lines felt far beyond my reach; i wasn’t one to get where i needed to go by sinew and bone. and, besides, i’d mucked it up plenty along the way.

and so, the sound of their newborn cries in two dimly-lit delivery rooms is a sound that lifted me out of my body. it’s never faded.

in birthing both of them, volumes and volumes were birthed in me. i began to redefine love. and loving. i was filling in blanks, inserting my own particulars, and reaching toward the surest truth i’d ever been told: love as you would be loved. it was sacred instruction made flesh.

and all these years now––decades now––i’ve been stumbling, and bumping into walls, and trying and trying to do just that. my boys have become my paradigm for loving. my living-breathing exercise in empathy. i might try too hard sometimes. but i’d rather err in that direction than in not quite enough. not enough can feel achingly empty.

and so, here at the brink of a newborn year, another chance at trying again, it’s not a bad time to consider the ways we choose to live our days: will we pack it in? lavish a little bit of love? or as much as we can muster? will we put up with the jumble, and the noise, because it means we might squeeze in a few bits of truth, the truth that rises up from the deepest residue of the heart and the soul? will we pay close attention? will we savor our one more chance to live the love we all pray for? to be the love we imagine, we believe in?

my prayer for the new year is ancient and infinite: dear Holy Breath, that i may love as i would be loved. again and again and again. in ways never noticed, and in ways certain and strong. amen.

how will you live your days?

(the sweet boy above had promised he’d send along a photo of the jam-packed cookstove, with all its burblings and gurglings, since i was far too busy stirring to snap one, but as of friday morning press time, said photo hadn’t yet appeared, so we’re running with the one frame i managed to snap, in all its blurry glories. tis the famed mac ‘n’ cheese i’ve been making for 28 years.

p.s. long as i’m here, might as well pass along the mac ‘n’ cheese that has my boys crowding the cookstove….

mama mac ‘n’ cheese

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995, pages 200 -201; the issue that just happened to be lying on my kitchen table the day I sat down to plot the festivities for my firstborn’s second birthday.

Yield: Serves 8 children.

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 ½ Tbsp. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. paprika

3 C. milk

1 tsp. salt 

¾ pound wagon-wheel pasta (rotelle)

10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 ¾ C.)

1 C. coarse fresh bread crumbs

* Preheat oven to 375-degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better).

* In a 6-quart kettle bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta.

* In a heavy saucepan melt butter over moderately low heat and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes and whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

* Stir pasta into kettle of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce and 2 cups Cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick, when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of birthday jollity). 

* In a small bowl, toss remaining ¾ cup Cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture {Note: My boys insist you go heavy on the extra cheese here, it makes it better, and my boys are ones who like their cheese to supersede their bread crumbs}. 

* Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: Dig in.

may all of our 2023s be blessed. . .

sixteen.

sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.

we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes. 

why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.

sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.

in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday. 

i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.

i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)

i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are? 

so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein. 

may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…

i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….) (p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their page here.)

one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundation here.

and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html

here is but one passage i found delectable…

As she passed on in
life, her sensitive nature shrank from
much personal contact with the world,
and more and more turned to her
own large wealth of individual resources
for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
some one said of her, “In the light of
‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the
world, not an invalid until within the past two
years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
cause she was insufficient of any mental work
or social career – her endowments being so ex-
ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as
Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
atmosphere for her worth and work.

and the obit ends thusly:

To
her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
immortality. With no creed, no formulated
faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
she walked this life with the gentleness and
reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a
shell of pearl” than by her own words? –

Morns like these, we parted;

Noons like these, she rose;

Fluttering first, then firmer,

To her fair repose.

*oh, and those carrots drizzled with honey? dorie greenspan’s sweet + smoky roasted carrots you’ll thank my sister-in-law, brooke, who sent them my way…

and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)

so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?

“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY

They were into the lambing, up late.
Talking and smoking around their lantern,
they squatted in the barn door, left open
so the quiet of the winter night
diminished what they said. The chill
had begun to sink into their clothes.
Now and then they raised their hands
to breathe on them. The youngest one
yawned and shivered.

                         “Damn,” he said,
“I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be
curled up in a warm nest like an old
groundhog, and sleep till spring.”

“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t
sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said.
“Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”

And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring
you’d have to have a trust in things
the way animals do. Been a long time,
I reckon, since people felt safe enough
to sleep more than a night. You might
wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”

They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark
brood on what they had said. Behind them
a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed.
It was getting close to midnight.
Later they would move back along the row
of penned ewes, making sure the newborn
lambs were well dried, and had sucked,
and then they would go home cold to bed.
The barn stood between the ridgetop
and the woods along the bluff. Below
was the valley floor and the river
they could not see. They could hear
the wind dragging its underside
through the bare branches of the woods.
And suddenly the wind began to carry
a low singing. They looked across
the lantern at each other’s eyes
and saw they all had heard. They stood,
their huge shadows rising up around them.
The night had changed. They were already
on their way — dry leaves underfoot
and mud under the leaves — to another barn
on down along the woods’ edge,
an old stripping room, where by the light
of the open stove door they saw the man,
and then the woman and the child
lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.

“Well, look a there,” the old man said.
“First time this ever happened here.”

And Billy, looking, and looking away,
said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”

And Raymond said: “There’s a first
time, they say, for everything.”

                                   And that,
he thought, was as reassuring as anything
was likely to be, and as he needed it to be.
They did what they could. Not much.
They brought a piece of rug and some sacks
to ease the hard bed a little, and one
wedged three dollar bills into a crack
in the wall in a noticeable place.
And they stayed on, looking, looking away,
until finally the man said they were well
enough off, and should be left alone.
They went back to their sheep. For a while
longer they squatted by their lantern
and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred
by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not
say so.

          “Don’t make no difference,” he said
“They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man
would have a right to be born in bed, if not
die there, but he don’t.”

                         “But you heard
that singing in the wind,” Billy said.
“What about that?”

                         “Ghosts. They do that way.”

“Not that way.”

                         “Scared him, it did.”
The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold
his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”

“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said.
“You go right on just the same. But you heard.”

“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark.
That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard
something.”

               “You heard a good deal more
than you’ll understand,” Raymond said,
“or him or me either.”

                        They looked at him.
He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable
belief. He could believe in tomorrow
before it became today — a human enough
failing, and they were tolerant.

                                 He said:
“It’s the old ground trying it again.
Solstice, seeding and birth — it never
gets enough. It wants the birth of a man
to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk
of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead
rise out of the ground, but something alive
straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine.
That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind
when it happens, it can come on you strong;
you might hear music passing on the wind,
or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”

“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”

“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take
a long long time to ever know.”

                                 But that night
and other nights afterwards, up late,
there was a feeling in them — familiar
to them, but always startling in its strength —
like the thought, on a winter night,
of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed,
and the thought of the wild creatures warm
asleep in their nests, deep underground.

Wendell Berry

**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…

’tis always the season for futzing . . . (at the cookstove, anyway . . .)

a hundred thousand years ago, at a bend in my life when i was mostly a dreamer, and under a rather dark cloud, i hoped i might grow up to be the sort of someone with friends who come for saturday lunch. i’d also hoped i’d live in a house where the walls were stacked in books, rows upon rows of them. and, for reasons that escape me, i dreamed of a bespectacled mate, one with his nose often in books; something of the professorial sort. check, check, and check, lo and behold.

not a day goes by that i don’t all but bend my creaky knees, and press them against the floorboards, whispering not only thank you’s, but practically screeching, holy mackerel how did my dimly-lit hopes come tumbling true?

but about that saturday lunch: there is something in particular about company lunch on a saturday that seems so, well, civilized. cultured, even. people with big ideas come for lunch. to get a jump on the thinking perhaps. to cogitate and prognosticate by the light of the sun. (people who want to plop on a couch inhaling hotdogs and football, they come for lunch too, but they’re not the ones of my attention today.)

dinner by candlelight is a whole nother thing, a thing that might entail the tucked-away china and silver. lunchtime, though, is cozier, maybe with a soupçon of euro-sophistication (it’s long been a way of life in paris, barcelona, or rome to insert a midday pause in the chaos, and relish a slow, sumptuous feast, unfurled in the afternoon’s heat.) and, besides, anything more haute than PB&J suggests true commitment to kitchen wizardry.

those who come for lunch, maybe can’t wait.

lunchtime company kicks off their shoes. settles in for old-fashioned simple foods. bounties built on the basics: soup, cheese, bread, fruit, unfettered sweets. (i suppose my tastes––even in menus––tend toward the monastic.)

but it’s not something i’ve ever done much of. not the sitting-down sort of a lunch. the lunch that’s not pulled from a grease-splattered paper sack, or laid out on the rickety old door of a table i refuse to retire out on our porch (the protests rise higher and higher, summer after summer, as the rickety door grows more and more rickety, but i like it too much to admit its demise).

at six-point-five decades and counting, i am still very much stumbling along. trying to make good on a few more of my dreams before my time is expired.

so it’s no small deal that company’s coming for lunch on the morrow. this particular company is coming with a wee baby, the most scrumptious sort of company i can imagine (especially since i’m not seeing any babes anywhere on the horizon here at this old house). this company is someone i dearly love though i’ve only just known him for the last several months (it was pretty much love at first zoom). he’s a new papa who is achingly in love with his new baby boy. and because he wrote me a bracingly beautiful, deeply vulnerable, letter the other day, i know this lunch will commence in the deep end, where feelings hew close to the heart, and eloquent words are put to the truths. i imagine there might be a tear or two, adding a droplet of salt to the menu.

in dreaming up the sort of lunch that might set the mood for the day, i settled on high comfort: grilled cheese and tomatoey soup, though i’m taking both up a whole notch.

grilled cheese is truly straightforward: bread + butter + cheese. sizzle low and slow for high-level melt. my aim is to dream up a scheme to make these ahead, and slice them into fingers, thus giving me the chance to stack them into a geometry of puzzling dimension (think: jenga of oozy-cheese strips).

and the soup prompted a deep dive into the cookery books, where i’ve settled on a non-negotiable trinity: san marzano tomatoes (tinned, as the lovely brits would put it), basil in leaves and stems, and rind of parmesan. a dribble of red-pepper flakes, an ooze of olive-y oil, a few cloves of garlic, and an overnight slumber in the fridge should provide a bowlful of summer in the darkening days of early december.

because i’m an inveterate futzer, and usually can’t manage to leave well enough alone, i almost never take one recipe’s word for the matter. i like to peruse and muse, and mix things up, culling my plot till it’s just the right calibration. in my mind, i’m cooking before i ever step near the cookstove, before i’ve laced up my apron strings.

because we’re at the cusp of the darkening season, with a few more weeks till the longest, darkest night of them all, it seems a fine moment to haul out the soup pot, and commence the stirring.

here, should you have reason for a saturday lunch, and find yourself in the mood for a summery bowl, is my game plan for provencal tomato, basil, parmesan soup, brought to you by a cooking collective.

Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup, a collective effort…

call me a futzer, or call me a fiddler (or maybe even a muddler), i cannot keep from plucking a little this, a little that, to reach for the stars. And so it goes at the cookstove, when more often that not i stand with an array of roadmaps and mull over the smart way to go. a parmesan rind from Column A, stems of basil from B. 1 + 1 = 3 in my arithmetic book. 

here’s my final equation, when the assignment was a splendid tomato basil soup with undernote of parmesan for saturday lunch with a friend….

Provençal Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup

By Martha Rose Shulman and Ali Slagle and Babs

Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves four 

Martha learned to make this soup years ago when she lived in France. She tells us that if there are no fresh tomatoes at hand, use canned. And she thickens with rice or tapioca, which we’re forgoing, at least on the first go-round. Ali chimes in: “What if you could have a tomato soup that was as plush as a cream of tomato but tasted like pure tomato? Enter Parmesan. Simmering tomatoes with a Parmesan rind is like seasoning a bowl of soup with a shaving of cheese 100 times over. It gives the soup an undercurrent of savory fat and salt that only bring out tomato’s best sides. Many specialty groceries sell containers of rinds, but if you can’t find any, stir 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan into the final soup (or cut off the rind of a wedge you’re working through). Rinds will keep in the freezer for forever, so start saving.” Babs echoes and amplifies both, having plucked the very best bits from each of the kitchen geniuses.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves (to taste), minced
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
Salt to taste
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juice, or 4 pounds tomatoes, cored and diced
Pinch of sugar (optional)2 large sprigs basil, or about 16 leaves, plus 2 tablespoons slivered basil for garnish
[i’m skipping Ali’s call for 1 quart water (or 1/2 wine, 1/2 water), because i’m doubling up on San Marzano tomatoes]
6 ounces Parmesan rind
 Freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup rice or tapioca (optional; i’m trying without it. if necessary, we’ll float our grilled cheese bits in the tomatoey pond.)

For the Garnishes
Garlic croutons (thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted and rubbed with a cut garlic
Grated or shaved Parmesan 

PREPARATION
—Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about five minutes. Stir in half the garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar (if adding), basil sprigs or leaves and remaining garlic. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, 15 to 20 minutes. 

––Add Parmesan rind and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 30 minutes. (If adding the tapioca or rice, add it at the 15-minute mark, then simmer for the remaining 15 minutes until tapioca is tender and the soup fragrant.) Remove basil sprigs and Parmesan rind. Puree in a blender in small batches, taking care to place a towel over the top of the blender and hold it down tightly. (Martha adds: If you used fresh unpeeled tomatoes and want a silkier soup, put through a strainer, using a spatula or the back of a ladle to push the soup through.) Return to the pot, add pepper to taste and adjust salt. Serve garnished with garlic croutons and/or Parmesan, if desired, and slivered basil leaves. If serving cold, refrigerate until chilled. 

Tip:
 Advance preparation: The soup will keep for two or three days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. 

what wintry recipe will you be bringing to your lunchtime table?

an ode to figs, the “bursten” fruit

in which for no reason other than pure whimsy and succulence itself, we behold the fig—to my taste, the essence of autumn, and the finest fruit borne from the boughs of any earthly tree….


few are the foods for which i churn an honest-to-goodness hankering. foods that might wake me up in the night, and turn my tummy to growling. the fig of october is one such specimen. i am not one to dream of cakes, couldn’t care less for a mousse, and turn up my nose at anything chocolate (yes, yes, i count these among my mis-wirings). and while there are foods aplenty that i eat day after day—broccoli, apples, nonfat greek yogurt, frozen bananas (the banal list of a thoroughly unadventurous eater)—rare is the edible that stirs me from stupor or slumber, yearning to nibble. (midway through wednesday’s yom kippur fast, and deep in my recent string of high-fevered days, i found myself longing for even one succulent fig. and that’s when i knew i needed to compose a commonplace ode to the Ficus carica, a fruit ancient and timeless.)

yes, rare is the fig, which i pile on my plate but for one short season a year. well before we get to its taste, the way it melts across the tongue and glides down the gulch with a honeyed-sweetness all along the way, i find the fig a mouthwateringly beautiful object, a bulbous aubergine orb, streaked with brushstrokes of plum and sienna. and that’s only the outside. 

to split the fig from its umbilical nub into quarters is to expose its sumptuous flesh, densely seeded, nearly R-rated. it’s no wonder renaissance painters often found ways to tuck a fig into the frame (almost a where’s waldo of painterly fruits). inside or out, it’s summa botanica.

it’s a fruit at the root of all the world’s religions. did not adam and eve reach for the leaf of the fig the very instant they realized their nakedness? the original pasties, i suppose. even now, the fig leaf is the very symbol of flimsy modesty, of shabbily covering that which shames or embarrasses but which is more or less in plain sight anyway. hardly shamefully, the fig was the tree that shaded Siddhartha Guatama for the 49 days during which he enlightened his way toward becoming the Buddha. his fig tree was the Bo, or Bodhi—Ficus religiosa, a species known to grow ninety feet tall and live for two thousand years, and whose leaves are shaped like hearts. 

for the more than the nine thousand years the fig has heavied boughs in the global garden, it’s been considered a “keystone species,” one critical to the survival of a disproportionately large chunk of an ecosystem, and without which that ecosystem would be drastically changed. no fewer than twelve hundred different kinds of animals depend on figs, including one-tenth of the world’s birds, and, yes, a certain wasp that takes its name from the fleshy fruit, the diminutive fig wasp.

you might be surprised to know that figs are actually inside-out flowers, hundreds of flowers trapped inside that aubergine casing. and if perhaps, as a young child, you were scared off from figs because someone told you that if you bit into it you’d be biting into a dead wasp wedged inside, here’s the real story:

the female fig wasp, dusted with pollen from her own birth inside yet another fig, wriggles her way into an unripe fig by way of the opening at the round base, called the ostiole, whereby stripping off her wings in the process. (imagine a piling of itty-bitty diaphanous wasp wings there at the base of every wild fig tree.) she is a wee waspy thing—roughly the size of the tip of a pencil or crayon (an aubergine crayon perhaps, from the original 64-color crayolas that stand as pert bright-colored soldiers all in their rows)—and she lives for only two days, during which she is duty- and DNA-bound to safely penetrate the fig and lay her eggs among the tiny flowers, thus pollinating the flowers. she dies shortly after. (fear not, the enzymes of the fruit dissolve what’s left of the wee wasp; and fear even less because nearly all figs you might find in the fruit bin these days have been domestically produced, and are not of the wild waspy variety.) of the juice left behind, post waspiness, pliny the elder termed it “the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.” (case in point: my febrile hankering.)

figs, it’s been said, are “extra, full of drama.” cleopatra, it’s told, ordered that the Egyptian cobra she intended as her suicide weapon, be brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. alexander the great claimed that ten thousand of his soldiers sheltered under a single fig tree. and d.h. lawrence, whom i never knew was something of a raunchy ol’ fellow, compared an overripe “bursten” fig to a prostitute “making a show of her secret.” 

here’s the poem where he plays with that…

the first few lines of his 1924 poem, titled simply, “figs”…(and said to be confirmation of why this man of letters was considered one of the most risqué writers of his time…)

The proper way to eat a fig, in society
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist,
honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put  your mouth to the crack and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.

now i’ve not ever considered the fig in a trollopian way, though i can see how its sweet succulence might push it toward the precipice of such considerations. 

while my one and only way to eat a fig is straight-up; rinsed, quartered to reveal its “bursten”-ness, speared with tine of fork, and inhaled in a single shwoop, you might take your figs more encumbered, or rather baked into something beyond deliciousness. if you’re of the latter class, here’s an almond and fig cake for you….

almond and fig cake
from mrs. larkin’s kitchen on food52
Serves 6

8 – 10 small ripe figs, stems removed, sliced in half vertically
3/4 cups slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top of batter
zest of 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

*Set oven rack to upper third. Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter an 8″ cake pan and line with parchment paper.
*Process almonds, 2 Tablespoons of sugar and orange zest until finely ground.
*Beat butter and remaining sugar together at high speed until pale and fluffy. Add vanilla and combine. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the almonds, flour and salt.
*Spread batter in cake pan. Place fig halves in concentric circles, evenly spaced, over the batter. Press in slightly. Sprinkle some sugar (about 2 tablespoons) over the entire surface. Bake on a sheet pan until cake is firm and nicely golden brown with darker edges, about 25 minutes.
*Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a dish, remove parchment, and re-invert onto a serving plate.

what might be the fruits that lure you to the fridge (or the tree) in the deep of the night, or the heat of the day??? and how do you like them best?

with a little poking around, i found the taste of the fig described thusly, as if a high-end wine assayed by a fine-palated sommelier: NPR describes its “honey-like sweetness with a subtle hint of berry and fresher shades of the flavor you might recognize from a certain cookie.” a restaurateur says figs taste something like a “berry dipped in a honey glaze.” one poet wrote that the taste of a perfect fig “cuts straight through time.” how might you describe it?

p.s. i am, i believe, cured from whatever the heck ailed me for six straight days. whatever it was, it wasn’t covid, and it was nasty. but it’s history now, and the month of october awaits….

sick days

the countryside i’d been hoping to see before a fever felled me this week….(photo by elizabeth marie black)

Wednesday I woke up with a fever. Thursday I woke up with a fever. And now it’s Friday, and I am still lying here with a fever. It’s not covid! But it’s not very friendly. And it’s the second time in two weeks my bones have ached so much I considered trading them in.

Sick days when you’re long past school days aren’t much fun. Excitement comes in the form of planting a thermometer under your tongue, and waiting for the beep. I try to guess if the numbers will be up or down.

I was supposed to be out in the country on Wednesday. But the cows will have to wait. And the waist-high grasses glistening in September’s sun. 

Once upon a time, I never minded a sick day. Once or twice I might have rubbed the thermometer against the threads of my bedsheets, registering a fever that gave me excuse to stay home from church and tucked under the covers reading a book I couldn’t put down. In a family of five getting to ring a little bell, beckoning gingerale or saltine crackers, meant for a little extra notice from the folks running the show. 

But nowadays, I sit by the window watching the sunlight and wish I was playing outside. 

In the meantime, a thousand prayers for everyone in the wake of Ian, the terrible horrible hurricane. The world is fevered, all right. 

what’s your tried and true cure for the days when you’re felled by a bug?

because i hate to leave you short, here’s an autumnal salad from my dear friend emily nunn, who started the “Tables for Two” column at The New Yorker, and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, and is side-splittingly hilarious and whose department of salad: official bulletin is worth every penny of its annual subscription, or free for an abbreviated once-a-week edition. and read even more about her here when dear emily graced the cover of the new york times food section.:

*RECIPE: An Autumnal Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Radicchio, Pecorino and Pepitas
from the inimitable Emily Nunn
Serves 4-6

2 small sweet potatoes, roasted in their skin until fork tender but not mushy, then refrigerated unpeeled; emily does this at 400°F, for about 50 minutes to an hour
1 medium head of radicchio, leaves separated and torn into bite-size pieces (you may also shred the radicchio as if for coleslaw, which is delicious and beautiful, but it won’t stay as crisp, something to consider if you’re interested in resilience here)
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced (emily used her mandoline), tossed with fresh lemon juice (a tablespoon or so)
1 tart fall apple, cored, quartered, thinly sliced crosswise (no need to peel; again, emily used her mandoline), then gently tossed with lemon juice (a tablespoon or so; don’t break your apples when tossing)
1 very small shallot, minced (or 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion)
Pecorino (or Parmesan, if you wish), a 2 to 3 ounce chunk, shaved with a vegetable peeler (emily likes a lot)
1/2 cup or so roasted salted pumpkin seeds (or pepitas)
Chopped chives, a half cup or more
Torn basil leaves, a half cup or more
Prosciutto, one or two slices per person, on the side (optional but recommended)
Flaky sea salt
Molasses Vinaigrette (below)

  1. Peel and slice your refrigerated sweet potatoes into 1/3-inch rounds, then into half-moons or quarter (I used rounds in the photo simply because they were pretty; you’ll get better distribution with halves or quarters).
  2. Line a platter or shallow bowl with the torn or shredded radicchio (you may wish to toss it with a few tablespoons the dressing first).
  3. Decorate the radicchio with the sweet potatoes then strew it all with the fennel, apples, shallot or red onion, and generous pecorino shavings; scatter this with the pumpkin seeds and herbs. Drizzle generously with the Molasses Vinaigrette and bring to the table, accompanied by the extra dressing in a little pitcher, a dish of flakey sea salt, and a small plate of abstractly folded slices of prosciutto, for those who wish to enjoy it alongside their salad.

    NOTE Another way to do this: Gently toss all the ingredients—except for the cheese, pumpkin seeds, and the prosciutto—together with some of the dressing (about half, to start; add more to taste) then top with the cheese and seeds; serve the extra dressing and the prosciutto on the side.

Molasses Vinaigrette
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 small clove garlic, grated on your microplane
2 teaspoons molasses (emily buys the basic grocery store stuff used for baking; she says it’s delicious but powerful)
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ to ¼ teaspoon cayenne (one or two pinches)

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all the ingredients and shake until well emulsified. You may want a touch more cider vinegar or lemon, or more salt; do this now and re-shake.

i’m especially saying prayers this morning for marsha in low country who’s expecting a walloping from ian today, and janet who might be down florida way but might still be safely tucked on the shores of a wisconsin fresh-water lake. and the millions we don’t know in the sweep of ian’s devastation.

when summer starts to run away…

the tangle that is my plot of runaway vines

in which we continue in gazette-ian style, with bitlets and chunks from the week that’s just whirled by…..(as i roll toward end-of-summer editing deadline, the gazette affords the chance to gather up bits in between long hours of proofing pages and rethinking the occasional passage. the other big job of the summer is sending off queries to authors whose works are the high bars i reach for, including unproofed copies of the manuscript, humbly asking if they’d be willing to, ahem, read the whole darn thing and send along a few words, aka “blurb” the book. it’s a task that makes me tremble, but a dear friend reminded me to channel eleanor roosevelt, she who implored that we do something each day that scares us. and so i’ve been eleanoring. results: forthwith. but for now, a few bits from the week…)


trying to be tomatoes

if one’s farmer plot is in any way a mirror of one’s soul, i’m in trouble. my tomatoes are tangled with my cukes, all of which have invaded the raspberries. the thyme has up and died. and the dill is dangling on what’s left of a skeletal spine. you know it’s bad when a friendly neighbor who regularly ambles down the alley inquires if she might apply her know-how to your tangled mess. that’s how it is here in suburbia: even your back plot is subject to scrutiny. you can’t hide your agrarian mishaps under a cloak of anonymity, and you sure can’t pretend the plot is not yours. all of which has prompted me to clean things up out there, save what i can, and assuage my ignominy. i suppose i could chalk it up to occupational hazard, one that comes from stuffing your nose in a book––especially a book of your very own making––rather than digging into nightly rounds with clipper and twine. 

it might just be that we’ve slammed smackdab into the dervish days of summer, when the heat is on high and the humidity’s higher. maybe the thrill of new growth has expired, and i let too much slide. or maybe the vines had a mind of their own, stayed up late in the night scheming how to outrun me. 

the worst problem is that for all their tangled overabundance they’ve overlooked their original job: they’re flunking the fattening drills, wherein those delicious tomatoey energies plump up the wee little orbs that, according to instructions, are supposed to turn from green to amber to red. and plumpen all the while. instead, i have clusters of nouvelle orbs, orbs the size of a miniature overpriced grape, when what’s intended is a candyland red (a proliferous cherry tomato) to pizazz your whole mouth. or a cherokee carbon (an heirloom slicing tomato) a good knife might sink into. 

i suppose the lesson my old plot is teaching this month is one that comes with double dose of humility. daren’t think that any old soul can muscle a trowel into earth, and make fruitful abundance appear. seems i should have gotten to work earlier on, nipping and pruning my runaway vines. perhaps it was a latent stinginess that kept me from cutting; not realizing the ancient truth that less almost always leads to more….

no matter the original sin; looks like i’ll mostly be bulking up on tomatoes the time-tested way: standing in line at the real-farmer’s market. where those who tend this blessed earth know bible and verse how to get vines to behave. 

in the meantime, my scant bits of herbs are being put to work morning, noon, and night in a panoply of summery sides. see below for the latest iteration of cooking with mint. 


when commonplacing is a way of being…

it’s a habit i can’t seem to curtail: an insatiable appetite for spotting and plucking fine little bits––poetries, wisdoms, epiphanies. as if a schoolgirl equipped with bottle of glue––might you remember those glorious clear glass bottles of amber-hued glue, with the pig snout of a pink-rubber slit-top through which the amber glue oozed?––i snip and i paste into my virtual scrap book, endlessly turning and filling the pages.

here are just a few of the snippets i’ve gathered this week: 

from Karen Armstrong’s, The Case for God:
Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (as he explained to the court that condemned him to death) Plato’s Apology (i like knowing that no less than the old philosopher ordered us to pay close attention.)

“Socrates once said that, like his mother, he was a midwife whose task was to help the interlocutor engender a new self.” Plato, Theaetetus

Buddha to curious Brahmin priest (at end of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God): “Remember me as the one who is awake.”
––
Thoreau’s journal, August 6, 1853
“Do not the flowers of August and September generally resemble suns and stars?—sunflowers and asters and the single flowers of the golden­ rod.”


this week’s reading:

finished karen armstrong’s The Case for God; started The History of God, but switched to Joseph Campbell when my brother told me he was reading Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (on order from my friendly librarians). whilst i wait, i’m diving into campbell’s Thou Art That: Transforming the Religious Metaphor. i find it an especially lovely thing to read in tandem with someone you love. and reading alongside my brother david is an act of pure love. he has one of the deepest classical bookshelves i’ve ever known, a harvest from his years working with a rare book collector. a beloved cousin sent a magnificent copy of james farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and it’s about time i commit a few of those lines to memory. recounting the tales of a south side irish punk, it’s a book whose every sentence i can hear oozing through the faint brogue of this beloved and quixotic cousin. and for dessert, i’m indulging in all the john burroughs i can get my hands on; Signs & Seasons, and The Gospel of Nature, is where this latest trail of burroughs begins….


Smoky Eggplant Salad With Yogurt and Mint
By David Tanis, NYT
YIELD 6 to 8 servings

sumptuous is the word that comes to mind for this. i was intrigued by the smokiness, and the joy of spinning an orb of eggplant atop the flame. i made it for Shabbat a few weeks ago, on a night when i was grilling salmon (we have fish for almost every Shabbat, a testament to our Jewish Catholicism, or would it be our Catholic Judaism?) and i swore i almost levitated off my chair. i happened to have a years old bottle of pomegranate molasses in the fridge, and thank heaven the label specifically assured “will keep almost indefinitely in the fridge.” i took my molasses at its word. could not be easier. nor more delicious. 

INGREDIENTS
2 pounds medium-size eggplants
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1⁄2 cup plain yogurt (i used nonfat, cuz that’s how i am and that’s what i had)
1 teaspoon crumbled dried mint (i used fresh)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses, optional
1 tablespoon roughly chopped mint, for garnish
1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley, for garnish
Red pepper flakes, for garnish 

PREPARATION
Step 1
Put the whole eggplants on a barbecue grate over hot coals. Turning frequently, cook until the skin is completely blackened and charred and eggplants begin to soften and collapse, about 10 minutes. Alternatively cook them directly on a stovetop burner or under the broiler. Set aside to cool. 

Step 2
Cut eggplants in quarters top to bottom and carefully separate the flesh from the skin with a spoon or paring knife. Discard the charred skin. Chop flesh roughly with a large knife or in a food processor and put it in a fine-meshed sieve to drain excess liquid. 

Step 3
Transfer eggplants to a mixing bowl. Add salt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, yogurt and dried mint. Mix well, then set aside to rest for a few minutes. Check seasoning and adjust. 

Step 4
Put mixture in a low serving bowl. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses, if using, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with chopped mint and parsley and a pinch of red pepper flakes. 

and that, dear friends, is the jumble of the week. is summer running away from you? how are you trying to catch it??

at our house, summer’s runaway is punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of early-august birthdays all strung in a row: my long-gone dad; my beloved brother; sweet blair; and teddy who turns 21 on monday. how in heaven’s name did that happen, the joy of my heart, the answer to my wildest prayers, for all of these heavenly years??? happy birthday, all you beautiful souls. xoxoxox

all around, a burrowing in…

the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.

it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.

i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.

today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.

my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.

all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.

how do you respond to the shadows of autumn?

carmelized onion and fig confit, upon which i rested a chunk of roast salmon with late-season rosemary sprigs from my garden: dinner for one, a la autumn.

where summer begins

it’s inevitable. ever since we ripped out the rug that wanted to be a putting green, tore down the faux attic, and hauled in the wicker chairs someone abandoned in the alley, the room where summer begins, middles, and ends is here where the concrete floor is cracked, the wicker threatens to unravel, and the old paneled-door-cum-dining-table wobbles. and makes a balancing act of every breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate. 

apparently, i like things off-kilter, a bit rough around the edges. at least when it comes to my definition of summer, where the living is unstructured, unbound, and on its own sweet time. 

we’re back home from faraway land, hipsterville USA where the summer is launched with the naked midnight bike ride, held under the full moon of may — and every month, and every season thereafter. we don’t launch the summer thusly here; far as we get is kicking off our shoes, but it’s official summer nonetheless here in WickerLand, where we don’t wait for the solstice to get things underway. 

we call this “the summer house,” and only because that’s what the long-ago realtor called it, and we’re not ones to shake things up. of late, i’m trying to take to calling it the summer porch, because that’s a wee bit less confusing. but, either way, what it is is a screened room attached to the garage, and surrounded by my storybook garden. it’s storybook because i imagine it to be a whole lot prettier than it really is, but what’s the point of imagination if you can’t put it to good use and your own personal advantage every once in a while. i’ve got vines climbing up both corners and a white pine that’s trying to reach the sky. birdhouses dangle and perch from just about every angle. and a brick path meanders from the back door to here. and meandering is everything, don’t you think? 

it’s more or less an inside-out bird cage, only i’m the one inside the screened-in cage and the birds flit wildly on the outside, not minding me at all. they flit and flirt, squawk and warble and feed each other worms right before my eyes. 

ever since we unfolded ourselves from all the hours on the airplane and in the speeding taxi cab the other evening, i’ve been sinking deep into the velvet folds of summer here in the corner of the world i call home. there’s something about this summer — the ease of it, the at-last of it — that feels hard-won and worthy of the wait. 

it promises to be summer unedited. the college kid has a job hauling sail boats at the beach, which by any measure is quintessential summer. the resident architecture critic is gearing up for his first triathlon, and i am up to my elbows in the verb that for me is synonymous with summer: garden, as in “to garden.” really, that means i am yanking weeds from their misplaced scatterings, but regardless of the specifics, it has me out with spade and rake and once again employing imagination. and occasional consternations: while we were away some furry someone feasted on every luscious leaf of my fledgling black raspberry, but my faith-testing with its fellow blackberry paid off and what for weeks was nothing but a bare-naked stick in the ground is now sprouting its own itty-bitty leaves. 

once again, my farm — aka raised bed of herbs, tomatoes, cukes, and now two berry bushes in waiting — is where the summer gospels are likeliest to be preached. lessons in resilience, in patience. in careful and doting attentions. all enfold all the holy wisdoms i might need to carry me through june, july, and august. 

it promises to be a redolent summer. a summer unlike any we have known in our sweet lifetimes. it’s one for relishing all the simple joys, the ones we refrained from all last year: picnics with friends. shared potato salad even. easy comings and goings. dashing to the store for one more pint of raspberries, and a sack of peaches too. 

summer without a mask (only around the duly vaccinated, that is). summer slow and easy. summer with a pinch of relish.

it all seems sweeter now. sweeter than i ever remember. 

sweet as the slump soon dripping down my chin. 

speaking of slump, here’s the recipe: (with thanks to marsha of low country carolina for reminding me how delicious it is…..) (i think i leave this recipe here every summer; oh, well!)

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….*

*from the pages of good ol’ Slowing Time

where do you begin summer?

and speaking of summer, two very very very beloved friends of the chair are back-to-back birthdaying in the days ahead: sweet amy of illinois (the very description long ago that introduced me to her), who dwells along the banks of the mighty mississippi, and nan of my heart….happy blessed days to the pair of you. xoxox

long time coming: company

except for the plumber and the furnace repair man, not a soul — other than the few of us who sometimes or always sleep here — had breathed inside this house in all these months. certainly, no one besides the usuals had sat down for dinner at the old maple table.

but as the veil lifts on this pandemic siege, as we all now host armies of viral-slashing immunological soldiers coursing through our insides, standing ready to slash and burn any red-ringed invaders (a primitive description that would make my long-ago physiology professors cringe and grimace), we are apt to find ourselves pressed against the kitchen counter, knives raised above the cutting board, elbow engaged in the hammer motion that drives the chopping and mincing often found in the preamble to company.

yes, company. that now cobwebbed notion of people who do not live inside your house being invited and accepting your invitation to sit down in chairs ringed around a table. once there, those people — the so-named “company” — are apt to lift forks and knives, slide morsels into mouths, in between words spoken in conversation. it is an ancient rite, a rite as old as any known to human kind, and for the last 15 months or so, we’ve been stripped of it. had no practice at the art of considering a menu, of gathering stems in a vase, of imagining how the evening might unfold.

but this week i leapt back into gear. i had the best first company a girl might wish for: my beloved brother was driving all across ohio, indiana, and sweet chicago to pull to the curb outside my house, and our beloved mama was safely tucked inside my house, standing at the door in that way she always does when someone she loves is coming. she even hummed the little song she’s always hummed, the coming-home song we all know by heart, because she used to walk us to the corner of the busy street near our house and sing to us while we awaited the arrival of my papa’s car curving round the bend, home — safe and sound — from the 6:35 commuter train that pulled to the station a town away.

all day long on the day of my sweet brother’s arrival, i swirled inside the rites and rituals of the long-shelved joys of backstage dinner-party theater. the trip to the grocery store, plucking favorite this and that off the shelves. the merkt’s cheese my mama loves, the fat bunches of herbs a spring feast demands, the six-pack of beers whose name i know from the expert guzzlers in my life. the composing a litany of all my mama’s favorite foods, the ones she always sneaks in nibbles before they’re even on the table. for she was the guest of honor, after all; my brother’s whole intent in driving here was to be with her, to be her driver for the list of chores and appointments on her to-do list, to be by the side of the mama whose recent dramas have been narrated and reported across long-distance telephone lines. certainly not the proximity of choice when it comes to someone you dearly love.

it was a lovely thing, the whole of it: the vacuuming with purpose, the tucking white tulips in a pitcher on the kitchen table. the fussing for the joy of it. heck, i even cleaned the bathroom.

in all these months, we’ve had no chance to lavish love in that dinner-party way. and i was reminded how very much i love the gathering of deliciousness and the little touches of the beautiful, of grace. i remembered how i love attending to every detail in hope that the whole tableau shouts, “i wanted you to be here. i wanted to indulge in your presence, your conversation, your company.”

it’s the intimacy and the face-to-face conviviality of the dinner conversation that i love the best. i’m not one for crowded rooms, nor for walking into a backyard packed with noise and faces. but give me two or four or six (or one or three or five) infinitely engaging, tale-telling souls, and i will chop and cook for days for the joy and wonder of it all.

bit by little bit we will weave back in those little joys that animate our spirits, that punctuate our lives with the wonder and the magic of close company. we will pull out those tucked-away plates and trays and platters. the cake stand that elevates the store-bought cookies. and, sweeter than ever for its long absence from our lives, we will sit down to a table ringed by faces we have so missed.

welcome in, we’ve missed you more than we ever realized. it feels so glorious to hum and cook and fuss again….

what do you love best about company coming? have you missed it?