Monday, January 26, 2009

Friendship, Perfected

“As both a seeker and a writer, I find it helpful to hang on to the beads as much as possible, the better to keep my attention focused on what it is I’m trying to accomplish.” Elizabeth Gilbert, on the usefulness of prayer beads, Eat, Pray, Love

It is Sunday morning, and my sink is still filled with dirty dishes from last night’s dinner party. I am ignoring the dishes right now—although I’m sure I’ll wash them before lunch—and pausing my reading of the new book that my friend Elizabeth gave me so that I may indulge in the pleasure of writing. I’m hoping to figure out exactly what my beads are.

Last night was two months to the day from my 27th birthday. I did something I haven’t done since I was nine: I threw myself a birthday party. And it was wonderful. I do believe it was one of the happiest nights of my life, and I say that knowing full well I still have more dishes to wash! It was a pretty simple affair: five friends, me, and a spread of magnificently homey food. I invited people whose company I adore and whose friendships inspire me to be the best person I can be. I was especially excited to gather them all in one room since there were introductions to be made, and there’s nothing more wonderful than letting your friends meet each other. I’m always very confident that my friends will like each other. They tend to have a certain honest straightforwardness that makes them quite endearing. They are funny and genuine, skeptical and caring, and above all, whip-smart and not afraid of heavy conversations. They are deeply empathetic and with that deep empathy, they dole out the best advice I’ve heard yet. Their advice might be the best birthday gift I received.

Every single one of them, in their own unique ways, contributed to the dinner itself. Ammie, who is slow and steady and whose company is as refreshing as a whispering forest stream, came over early to help prepare dinner with me before the others arrived. Together, we made a giant batch of roasted potatoes in a tahini-parmesan-lemon-garlic sauce—a riff on this recipe—and she worked some sort of onion-garlic magic on the big pot of beans that was simmering on the stove. Ammie is fast becoming one of my favorite people, and I can only thank my lucky stars that she’s willing to put up with me. Cooking with Ammie is really lovely. We’re both incredibly enthusisatic about cooking, but we’re also amateurs, so we have no illusions about our skills. Ammie is a thoughtful and talented cook. We’re a good team in the kitchen; both of us are able to give and follow directions, so it makes the cooking very relaxing and enjoyable.

After Ammie arrived, Elizabeth and her husband Michael were next. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth. She just blows me away with her intellect, curiosity, wry sense of humor, and deep compassion. Elizabeth and I met long ago, right when we started grad school together in the same neuroscience program. She impressed me back then, and she continues to inspire me. Elizabeth and Michael brought a roasted red pepper hummus, little pita breads, and this intoxicatingly fragrant spice mixture that Michael made himself—his own personal za'atar blend. There was just enough olive oil left for him to dab pita wedges with the oil before sprinkling on the spices and throwing them in the oven. By this time, Daphna and Ian had arrived, and as the pitas were toasting, Ian exclaimed, “It smells like Dave’s in here!” Which is about the highest compliment Ian can give because we all love Dave’s Italian Kitchen, one of the best restaurants in Evanston.

As soon as Ian arrived, he parked himself in front of the sink and lathered up a sponge. Ian’s not much of a cook, but he sure knows how to make himself useful in the kitchen. Daphna, in true Daphna fashion, became my kitchen consult and dessert guru for the night. She offered her opinion on the roastiness of the potatoes and gently pointed out that I wasn’t really following instructions if the recipe said 450 degrees F and my oven was set to 400 degrees F. Um, yes, I suppose technically that’s true. But what I really needed her advice for was the dessert. This whole party may have been secretly inspired by a recipe for Orange Pudding Cake published in the December 2008 issue of Gourmet. I spotted the recipe while standing in line at the grocery store, and I was immediately entranced by the idea. A pudding cake? How strange and exotic and totally delicious-sounding! I just needed an excuse to make it, and what better reason to cook than for people you love?

In the days leading up to my party, I studied up on the details for this cake. I read a section in The Cornbread Gospels on Beating Egg Whites, and I asked Daphna if she might let me borrow a big metal bowl, since plastic bowls are not ideal for beating egg whites. I figured out that my glass 8x8 pan was the perfect volume for baking the cake, and it fit snugly in my 9x13 pan, which would be used as a hot water bath during baking. That night, surrounded by friends in the kitchen, I knocked on wood before I started separating eggs, secretly thrilled by the physical challenge. I measured and mixed. I sniffed. The batter was thin and fragrant with fresh orange, more like a smoothie than cake. And when it came time to beat the egg whites, I asked D for her expert opinion, and she coached me happily. When the egg whites were thick and white and still a tiny bit floppy, I folded them into the orange smoothie batter and poured the whole thing into the waiting 8x8 pan. The 9x13 pan was transformed into a hot water bath with the boiling contents of the tea kettle, and the whole thing was tucked into the oven just in time for us to eat dinner.

As should happen during every meal, I totally forgot about dessert while I tucked into the crispy-creamy roasted potatoes and beans that were worthy of second helpings. I served the potatoes on a bed of fresh spinach (a little salad makes every meal better), and we ate the beans out of deep bowls. I had intended to serve everything on one plate, but the beans were soupier than I imagined—all the better to eat with spoons and handfuls of grated cheddar melted into them. There were tortilla chips to eat with salsa and/or beans—no party of mine is complete without tortilla chips. There was wine to drink, and I was glad Matt wasn’t there to watch me make a fool of myself. “What kind of wine is this?” I asked. “Should I put it in the fridge?” (Um, no, it’s a red wine.) Then I massacred the cork with my wine opener (one of those corkscrew thingamabobs) and handed it over to Michael so he could open the wine. It was embarrassing. Ian announced we should make an emergency phone call to Matt, STAT!, for our wine needs. It wouldn’t have been the first time I called him with a wine question, but between the six of us, one would hope that SOMEone could figure out how to serve a bottle of wine. Yeesh. Apparently that someone is not me.

But that’s the beauty of having friends: one doesn’t need to figure everything out on her own. I’m happy to let others show me the way. I let them call the shots because really, who wants to be in charge all the time, even at her own party? After dinner was eaten, Daphna asked innocently about the Orange Pudding Cake, so I fished a serving spoon out of the cupboard and let her be the first to dig into it. As she sunk a spoon into the cake, she exclaimed, “It worked! It really worked!” Indeed, there were actual layers: a creamy pudding on the bottom, a slightly firmer soufflé-like layer in the middle, and a thin cakey-crepey layer on top. We scooped our pudding cake into bowls and retreated to the living room, which was marvelously free of dirty dishes. The cake was ethereally delicious: infused throughout with orange and lemon, it was still warm from the oven, creamy and light and rich all at the same time. Had I not been so full from dinner, I would have gone back for a second scoop, but I was totally and completely satisfied—one more bite would have pushed me into a food coma.

The whole evening was perfect. It was just what I needed, including the serious conversation that emerged as we were winding down. I am, in a word, distressed. My happiness at work has taken a precipitous drop in recent months, and I’ve been blaming myself for it: maybe I’m just lazy or dumb, or I don’t care any more, or it’s so boring that my eyeballs are going to fall out one of these days while I’m staring down a microscope. All of those things may be true, but what I haven’t been owning up to is that I have outgrown my advisor’s management style and it’s seriously impeding my ability to thrive as a scientist. I am not engaged in the work because he is doing too much of the intellectual work for me. This is a delicate situation: how does one tell her advisor, who holds her future in the palm of his hand, that his way of doing things is not working? In order to soar, I must be able to spread my wings, which means I need more space. It means I have to stop responding to his e-mails with panicked, eager-to-please responses. I have to honor my own list of priorities, or else nothing will get done. It isn’t that I don’t want his input or his opinions—I just want to have a chance to work through things on my own. I need time to dig around in the data, get messy with the experiments, imagine alternative outcomes. I need time to think. Most of all, I need the courage to have this conversation with my advisor, and I need the faith that things will be better as a result.

So we talked about my distress. It was a sober and unfestive topic, but I needed it. Elizabeth made a pretty convincing argument that I am not as powerless as I feel. She’s right, of course, in that practical Elizabeth way of hers. It’s hard to imagine a more unbalanced power relationship than that between science professors and their graduate students. There are no rules about expectations—no contracts, no protection against abuse of power. Grad students work for five, six, seven years, all that time hoping to leave with three little letters after their name, a powerful symbol that tells the world, Hey, I SURVIVED graduate school. I’m no different—I want my letters! And I’m terribly afraid that even at this late stage in the game, with multiple papers and a grant behind me, that my advisor will deny me the one thing I have left to complete. The fear is paralyzing; I feel tears springing to my eyes now just thinking about how afraid I am. I don’t necessarily need a PhD to do what I want to do (teach science, in case you are wondering), but I want to reach the finish line of this race. I feel like I’m barely limping along right now. I want to believe there’s a better way to do this. I’m just not sure my advisor will be willing to give up some of his control so that I may learn and grow and finally spread my wings and leave the nest.

Elizabeth’s pep talk and Michael’s words of wisdom have convinced a tiny part of me that it’s time to face this problem with some maturity. I am mentally rehearsing what I will say, and I’m clutching my beads in between my fingers so that I might find some comfort in this difficult situation. My beads are honesty and truth, goodwill and compassion, knowledge and wisdom. The beads, although metaphorical in nature, will keep me focused on the task at hand, which is perhaps all I really want in any given moment.

But before I go, I have one last thing to share with you: the recipe for Orange Pudding Cake! I do believe it’s the first cake I’ve ever shared on this site, but I know I’ll be filing it away for safe keeping. It is such a cool recipe—fun to make and eat. It might become my signature January Dinner Party cake; I’m thinking I should do this belated birthday celebration every January. That way, I always have something nice to anticipate in the depths of winter.

Orange Pudding Cake
From Gourmet (December 2008), with additional notes from me
Makes one 8x8 pan of cake—six very greedy servings or up to twelve dainty servings

This cake requires a small leap of faith. As I said above, the batter will seem more like an orange smoothie than cake batter, and it won’t seem like enough for six party guests. But it will bake into something magical, and it’s rich enough that you should have no problem feeding your small crowd. I did, however, serve these Apricot Butter Cookies alongside*, mostly for the sake of having something sweet to munch on. I’d say it was one of my most successful dessert courses.

Nonstick cooking spray
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Rounded 1/4 tsp. salt
Juice and zest from 1 large navel orange, or 3/4 cup fresh orange juice and ~2 heaping tsp. orange zest
3 large eggs, warmed to room temperature and separated (place the egg whites in a large metal mixing bowl)
1 cup whole milk
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the middle. Spray a glass 8x8 pan with cooking spray and set it inside a 9x13 pan. Fill a tea kettle with water and set it on high heat in order to bring the water to a boil while you prep the cake batter.
2) Whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
3) Whisk together the orange juice, orange zest, egg yolks, milk, butter, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Whisk the flour mixture into this wet mixture, mixing just until blended.
4) Now it’s time for the fun part: beating the egg whites. In a large metal mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. This will take a while. First the egg whites will become foamy and then they will turn white and start holding a shape. I stopped beating them when they were soft and a little floppy but able to hold a peak when I lifted the beaters out of the egg whites.
5) Gently stir about one-fourth of the egg whites into the batter, then fold the rest into the batter thoroughly such that there are no big pockets of egg white.
6) Pour the batter into the baking dish. Pour the now-boiling water into the 9x13 pan to create a water bath. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until puffed and golden brown on top. Remove the 8x8 pan to a cooling rack to let the cake cool for a bit. I thought this cake was delicious served warm.

*Special thanks to ttfn (Shannon) and her blog Tri to Cook. She inspired Ammie and me to make these cookies with their improbable sounding combination of apricots, fresh thyme, and pine nuts. They are quite unusual and quite delicious. Foodies are nothing if not ravenous in their search for new and interesting flavors. Thank you, ttfn! We definitely got a kick out of those cookies.

**Another thank you, this time to Matt, who wrote me an e-mail last fall entitled, “Fall, perfected.” He’s such a poet. He’s my muse. I just steal all of his good stuff and repackage it, hence the title of this post.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Polar Bear's Survival Kit

Polar bears don’t like to be kept inside when it’s cold and snowy outside.

I must be a polar bear. It’s the only way to explain why, on a night when the ambient temperature was in the negative digits, and the wind chill ten or twenty degrees below that, I just had to walk home from work. There are only so many days a girl can skip her daily walk, and I think by “so many,” I mean one. After a long week at work and frustration on both ends between my advisor and me, my soul was feeling rumpled and deflated, like it hadn’t been stretched and aired properly. The only real answer to this predicament is to walk and breathe. Outside.

So I put on my polar bear suit and went outside for a romp. It was certainly cold—that wasn’t a surprise—but the wind was silent and the air felt crisp and clean, like it was just waiting for me to inhale it in big, happy gulps. The stars glittered and winked in a dreamy velvet sky, and as I made my way home, one booted step after another, I began to feel like myself again. I felt better.

The daily walk is perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of exercise. My parents are daily walkers, although my mom is a little skittish of the snow and the ice since she feels like a bad fall is imminent in those conditions. On Christmas Eve, my dad and I tackled the heavily snowed-over sidewalks to take our daily walk together, a treat if there ever was one considering I see my dad about once a year. The daily walk is a multipurpose event. I love it fiercely. It is great exercise for your body, certainly, and I’m convinced it is the reason my weight is so stable. But beyond calories and muscles, the daily walk is great exercise for your soul. Walking outside, underneath that big starry sky, I feel the same way that I imagine others feel when they pray. I feel small and secure, like I am just one tiny part of a whole too large to comprehend. Walking lets me do the thing I love most without guilt: it lets me daydream, forgetting about the crush of responsibilities. Best of all, it lets me plan what I’m going to eat for dinner.

It turns out that I’m not exactly built like a polar bear. I’m rather short and compact, a lot of muscle packed onto a small frame. I weigh more than people think, although to be honest, I can’t even tell you what I weigh now because I don’t know. Without polar bear-like body fat, not to mention that thick white fur coat, my metabolism needs a little something extra to keep up with all this running around in the cold. I think a polar bear’s best bet is to maintain, at all times, a well-stocked pantry of food. A lovingly filled fridge is particularly nice, as one can prepare vats of homemade soup and then tuck them away for practically instant lunches and dinners that will warm you right up. Soup may be my top pick for essential winter pantry foods, but there are lots of nibbles that you really ought to consider for your polar bear’s survivial kit.

* Let us begin at the end: dessert! Even polar bears have a sweet tooth, or at least this one does. I love simple desserts like brownies and cookies. These Excellent Brownies freeze really well. In the winter, my favorite way to eat them is to pop them, still frozen, in the oven in a ramekin for a few minutes until they get all warm and gooey. Eat straightaway. If you stock your freezer with a couple of brownies, you’ll never be without a weeknight dessert.

* Another dessert item that comes in handy in the winter is frozen cookie dough. I find that most raw cookie doughs freeze nicely. When I’m really craving fresh, homemade cookies, I fish the dough out of the freezer, let it thaw on the counter for a while, and once it has thawed enough to shape it into balls, I prep my cookie sheet and go. I’ve had good results with frozen cookie dough for Toasty Oatmeal Cookies and Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies.

* I am convinced that eggs are the perfect food. They are compact, nutritious, perform amazing tricks in baking, and can be served in a thousand-and-one different ways. My newest favorite egg trick is baking them, shell-less but otherwise whole, in a ramekin that’s been lightly greased. Mollie Katzen gives thorough egg-baking instructions in her treat-of-a-cookbook, Sunlight Café. I just make a baked egg for one and I’m all set.

* A pantry without homemade granola is a sad place indeed. For me, the question is never, “Should I bake granola?” but rather, “Which granola should I bake?” I have a feeling that the granola gallery on this site (see the right-hand side bar) is just going to keep getting longer…

* Real polar bears don’t eat citrus fruits, but for us fake polar bears, there is no better time to eat citrus than right now, in the depths of winter. I think I’m behind on my orange-eating quota, but I’m hoping to catch up ASAP. I will confess that my dessert collection is lacking in lemon-based recipes, but give me a lemon and I’ll make you a pot of Greek Avgolemono Soup. After dinner, we can cheat on dessert and pop some frozen brownies in the oven.

* At no other time of year do I crave tomato soup ALL THE TIME. It’s a little ironic since tomatoes are a summer crop, but is there anything more heartwarming than a bowl of tomato soup? I feel better just thinking about it. I’ve been on the hunt for another tomato soup recipe to add to my collection for years, and until just recently, my search had come up empty. I wanted a soup that was unequivocally a tomato soup, but I didn’t want it to taste like I just dumped some canned tomatoes in a pan and heated them up. A while back, I tried a Rachael Ray recipe that called for adding fresh basil pesto to a soup made with crushed tomatoes. The soup seemed so promising, rich with summery tomato and basil flavors, but the whole thing fell flat on its face. The tomatoes were just too much, and the basil was impossible to taste. The whole thing was a sort of muddy reddish brown, so it looked as good as it tasted. No, thank you. I won’t be having seconds of that soup.

But Leanne Ely, my Saving Dinner heroine, came to the rescue. I’ve written about Ms. Ely once before, and I always intended to come back to her because I do love flipping through her book Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way, an impromptu gift from my sister-in-law, Amanda. Right this moment, my copy of the book has four post-it notes, one of which marks the recipe for Chunky Tomato Soup. I have never made the soup as written; instead, I used it as a template to make another run at a tomato soup worthy of eating again and again. I’m happy to report that I’ll be adding this soup to my polar bear’s survival kit. It’s good enough to make me wish winter was a little longer…on second thought, maybe I’ll just keep making this soup while I welcome spring with open arms.

Tomato Vegetable Soup with White Beans
Adapted from Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way by Leanne Ely
Serves 4-6

This flavorful soup is a hearty tomato number, jazzed up with some chopped vegetables, a bit of dried basil, and a BOATLOAD of garlic. I was very grateful to have a garlic press when I first made this soup (thank you, Matt!). The white beans provide some chew, as well as protein and fiber.

It is the ultimate challenge to make a tomato soup that is deliciously, decidedly tomato without being too acidic or one-dimensional. This soup solves that problem by using a flavorful vegetable broth in addition to some potent herbs and spices. My homemade vegetable broths tend to be sweet from lots of carrot scraps, so they add a vegetal sweetness to this soup. If you find your soup to be too acidic, you can add a teaspoon or two of sugar and then taste again. Repeat as needed.

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
6 cloves of garlic, pressed
1 1/4 tsp. dried basil
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
4 cups tasty vegetable broth, preferably homemade
1-2 tsp. sugar or to taste, optional (see headnote above)
1 16-oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste

1) In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrots. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and basil and saute for another minute until everything is fragrant.
2) Add the crushed tomatoes and vegetable broth. Bring everything to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the sweetness as needed with sugar. Add the white beans and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot in deep bowls, preferably with good bread and cheese.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Year I Wrote

2008 was an incredible year for me.

It was, as the old saying goes, the best of times and the worst of times. It is not a year I would wish to repeat, but my oh my, it was incredible.

It was one of the darkest years of my life. The manuscript on which I am the first author spent a long time in what I now call “Paper Purgatory,” a place where science papers go when journal editors can’t decide if they should accept them. I myself fell into despair. I was in agony over the direction of my career and the aimless feeling that told me I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I deeply resented myself for choosing to pursue a PhD. I hated science and wanted to drop out so I could pursue a writing career. The only thing I liked about my job during those dark months was my paycheck, which was blissfully reliable and paid for my humble but comfortable lifestyle.

And then, like the first rays of sunshine at dawn, my paper made it past experimental revisions and on to textual revisions only. That’s when I knew it would be accepted, even though it would still be several more weeks before the paper was officially accepted. That’s when I could breathe again, and I knew that I would finish my PhD. I hope 2009 will be the year that I do finish my degree.

2008 was the first year that I finally felt at ease in a romantic relationship. 2007 was all wild flirting, disbelief, saying no and saying yes, then saying yes again. 2008 was calmer, and I have to admit, it was nice. It was a year of two canceled visits that tested our resolve. In July, with Matt, I finally met mountains. We got along splendidly. I also met the Sonora Desert, many cacti, horny toads and tarantulas, and too many lizards to count. That trip to Arizona was the single most breathtaking travel excursion I have yet experienced, but I hear the California coast is also quite lovely, and that’s where we’ve set our sights for 2009. I’m saving my pennies now to pay for a plane ticket.

2008 was the year that Daphna and I became close friends. Ours is not an unusual friendship except for our obsessive passion for food and all things food-related. With no one else do I compare such detailed notes about recipes and techniques, products and ingredients. This year I learned that D’s favorite course is dessert, yet she’s fickle about sugar and almost invariably decreases the amount of sugar except when Ian and I talk her out of it. She loves making beautiful cakes and pies. She’s tempted to make everything that appears on Smitten Kitchen. D and I couldn’t be more opposite in cooking style: I like to cook slowly and thoughtfully, stopping to sniff everything and savor the experience. D is a speed demon, whipping through her recipes in a whoosh of activity, practically counting the minutes until dessert is ready. Her speediness will serve her well when she’s got a gaggle of hungry kids to feed; for now, it’s just a race to the cookies. She’s shocked (and perhaps a little appalled) by my turtle-like pace, but I’m perfectly content to drink my tea and chat a while before nibbling on a cookie, fresh from the oven. I fear I lack her passion for dessert, though heaven knows I’ve got a long sweet tooth!

And oh, the food! 2008 was a very good year in the kitchen. It was The Year of the Onion. I fell in love with food all over again this year, and when I cooked with Matt, I fell a little more in love with him too. The stars were aligned just right when they brought us together in a warm kitchen because it’s one of our favorite places to be—together. It is an underrated blessing to find a cooking companion with whom you are highly compatible. I have lots of friends who like to cook, and I like to eat their food, but we don’t always cook well together. Some of them have cooked professionally; my slow and amateur ways make them roll their eyes in annoyance. Other friends are always cooking for big crowds and don’t understand that since I’m usually cooking for one, one doesn’t need to chop with lightning-speed efficiency. In fact, when you cook for one, some things, like a few leaves of kale, don’t even need to be chopped. You can just tear the tender outer leaves away from the tough spines with your hands. For me, cooking for myself is as much about preparing a meal as it is taking some time to putter in the kitchen. Not everybody understands that last part, either. D tells me the difference between us is that she cooks because she likes to eat, while I cook because I like to cook. I think she’s right.

Matt and I seem to get along just right when we cook together. I love that he’s as passionate about the process of cooking as he is about eating. He’s also passionate about high-quality cooking equipment, and now, I have seen the light. The light has lit up the truth: good knives, pots, and pans make cooking seductively pleasurable. One can get by with mediocre equipment, as I did for years, but the good stuff is worth every penny if you can afford it. A year ago, I was spoiled by Matt when he bought me (or should I say my kitchen?) a well-chosen set of new supplies, including awesome knives, a roasting pan I use all the time, and a pretty little garlic press. Now I wonder if that gift was an investment in our cooking happiness: he saw that I had crappy equipment, thought I’d be happier with some new things, and knew that he would be happier to cook with me if I had better knives. Matt, when he isn’t being hopelessly romantic, can be very practical. I appreciate his foresight about our cooking future.

Did I mention he bought me a tea kettle? Yes! The man bought me a kettle. That’s another thing we really like about each other: we love tea. I cannot count the hours we have passed drinking tea and catching up on our lives. This tea-drinking ritual is so lovely and so warm that it reminds me, every time, that our relationship really is that of an incredible friendship, glowing with the magic of romance. I like the hugs and the kisses and all of that, but sitting across from him while we drink tea, I could spend the rest of my life loving him.

Matt has been kind enough to let me write about him here. You’ll notice, dear reader, that he is still very much anonymous to you, and that’s the way he likes it. But everything I have shared about him and about us is the truth as I see it. It is a joy to write about Matt because it makes my feelings even more vivid, poignant, and heartbreaking. It is a way of feeling his presence even though we spend most of our time apart in very far-away places.

2008 was the year I wrote: a full year of writing at least once a week for this space. This commitment to writing has changed my life—there is no going back. I sometimes feel like writing has peeled away all my layers of self-deception and self-protection, and I am left with nothing but the bareness of honesty and truth. Writing has opened my eyes even wider to the beauty of everyday life, the small details that I would otherwise overlook. One of my favorite fantasies is to think about what I’m going to write next. I have no road map, no logical progression of thought from week to week: I just throw all my ideas together like clothes in a dryer and let them whirl around. I rather like the randomness of this type of writing: it’s more fun for me because even I don’t know what next week’s post will bring. I have an idea that I’ll be sharing with you my new favorite granola recipe, and I’ll be shooing you into the kitchen with my wooden spoon, but I’ve also got a new soup recipe up my sleeve, and oh, I made blueberry-banana muffins on Saturday and they were delicious! So you can see that there’s no shortage of new recipes tumbling around in my thoughts. I think 2009 will be a magnificent year for both of us. Thank you for spending a little time with me each week. I hope our conversations here leave you feeling refreshed, inspired, and perhaps a little hungry. I’m looking forward to another year of cooking, eating, writing, and loving every minute of this life. I hope you are too.

Monday, January 5, 2009

On Family, Food, and Freedom

I am very blessed. That thought crosses my mind frequently. It’s a good way to describe how fortunate and content I am, despite the storms of anxiety. All the big things are in place for me: excellent health, loving family, wonderful friends, insatiable curiosity, a well-stocked public library. Everything else is just nitty-gritty detail.

Life gets easier as I become more mellow. “Mellow” is, perhaps, not a word that applies very strongly to me, but the distinction here is that I’m becoming more mellow. I may always be a bit more high-strung than is useful or healthy, but I’m trying to make life easier for myself by prioritizing the important things and taking deep breaths. I find this perspective is especially useful during the times when I am taken out of my comfort zone, such as out-of-town visits with family. It’s easy to be mature and responsible, cool and collected, when you are feeling safe and happy in your own home. It’s another thing altogether to maintain your status of Mature, Responsible Adult when you spend time with people who have known you since you were in diapers. I consider every family visit a success if no one throws a tantrum or storms out of the house in frustration.

I readily empathize with anyone who gets stressed out when either a) visiting her out-of-town family or b) entertaining her out-of-town family in her own home. Any type of visiting is bound to disrupt the natural rhythms of the house: we stay up too late, we smell bad because someone else is in the shower, we sigh at the amount of stuff cluttering the house. It’s chaotic! Add into the mix an energetic two-year-old and you have a recipe for temper tantrums.

But when the ethos of the house is happiness and mellow contentedness, the temper tantrums just never happen. For me, this is the joy of staying with my niece and her parents. The house radiates peace and joy, despite the trail of toys that leads to the two-year-old. The kitchen is alive with cooking and food projects, visitors pop in to say hello, the washing machine hums with a load of diapers whirling around inside. It’s a happy chaos, a level of activity that tells you the people inside are busy living their lives, clutter and dirty dishes be damned. Lydia, the two-year-old, plants herself in the middle of the action, and her presence makes life infinitely sweeter.

I’m a little stunned by how kind and helpful Lydia is. Yes, she’s two, so when I say that she’s helpful, I don’t mean that her help gets things done faster. Rather, it’s the idea that we can do grown-up things, like cooking, and we can include Lydia in the process. Of course a two-year-old is going to slow things down, but with a little love and patience from the grown-ups, tasks get completed, Lydia learns a little bit more, and everyone feels a glowing sense of accomplishment. It’s a winning situation all around.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that because of food sensitivities, the best meals for Lydia’s household are free of gluten, dairy, and corn. Soy is also suspect. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of foods that are off-limits. Cooking a decent meal becomes a daunting task. Seven years of vegetarianism have instilled in me a sense of sympathy for anyone who must avoid certain foods. I don’t have to avoid any foods because I don’t have any food allergies, but I choose vegetarianism, so I know what it’s like trying to eat your way around an entire category of food. It’s hard! But Lydia and her mother, Amanda, have it much harder than I do because the foods they are trying to avoid are building-block foods, the foods of which so many of our meals are made. By comparison, not eating meat is a breeze. (I hope you appreciate my effort not to say “not eating meat is a piece of cake.” Har har!)

Here’s the secret that I’ll confess if you lean in close: I kinda like a cooking challenge. It gives me something to chew on, cookwise. By convergence of time and place, another cooking challenge emerged a few months before my Michigan trip, and the list of off-limit foods is very similar to Amanda’s list. My friend Ammie took up the challenge with gusto! Since October, each month she has organized a group cooking event for what we call a “Candida dinner.” Our friend Nicholas is following a diet that restricts or bans gluten, cow dairy, corn, soy, fruit, and most sugary foods. The reason? To clear up an internal overgrowth of a yeast, Candida albicans. I think all of us were hesitant about how good the food would be if we followed the rules for Nicholas’s diet, but my goodness, we’ve been shocked and elated by our success! Almost everything we have eaten at the Candida dinners has been delicious. Nicholas and his girlfriend, Anna, even came up with a brownie recipe that Ammie dubbed “Miracle Brownies!” The brownies, which are made with yummy ingredients like almond butter, carob, and coconut oil, are amazing: luscious, rich, sweet, hauntingly good. They are a miracle indeed. We all love them.

The Candida dinners introduced me to my favorite new cracker, those made by Mary’s Gone Crackers. These crispy little rounds are free of all offending ingredients, and they taste a bit like potato chips to me. Perhaps I’m biased here, but don’t most of us expect gluten-free baked goods to taste like cardboard? As I’ve said before, tasting is believing. These crackers are so good that I’ll eat them even when I’m by myself and I could, if I wanted, eat all the gluten I want. I like their crispiness, their toasty-nutty flavor. Most of all, I like how they complement my Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip, which might be my new favorite appetizer. This vibrantly green spread, a riff on Nigella Lawson’s Pea and Garlic Crostini, is a lovely party offering. It’s rather sweet in a vegetal way, with the subtle flavors of mint and roasted garlic playing on your tongue. It goes superbly well with the onion-flavored crackers from Mary’s Gone Crackers; the cracker provides a strong savory backdrop for the sweetness of peas.

But the sweetest thing about Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip, when accompanied by the right crackers, is that Nicholas, Amanda, and Lydia can eat it without a wink of worry—a sweet victory indeed. It’s enough to make me think that in the kitchen, anything is possible.

Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip
Adapted from “Pea and Garlic Crostini” in How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

What a recipe! This dip is my appetizer offering to those who must eat food that is free of most common allergens: gluten, corn, soy, dairy, and nuts. It would be right at home as part of a platter of crudités and crackers. So far, my favorite crackers to serve with this dip are the onion-flavored ones from Mary’s Gone Crackers.

Got any other recommendations for gluten-, corn-, and dairy-free crackers or snacks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

1 beautiful head of garlic
1 tsp. plus 2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
About 2 cups frozen peas
1/4 tsp. dried sage
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of fresh mint leaves
1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Slice the top of the head of garlic such that each clove is exposed in the cross-section. Place the garlic, cut side up, on a small rectangle of foil. Drizzle 1 tsp. of olive oil over the exposed cloves. Wrap the foil around the garlic to make a little parcel. Place the parcel on a cookie sheet and roast for 40-60 minutes. When the garlic is done roasting, remove it from the oven and let it cool for 5-10 minutes, long enough so that it’s cool enough to handle.
2) Cook the frozen peas according to package directions until tender.
3) Place the cooked peas in a food processor. Unwrap the garlic from its foil pouch. Squeeze the cloves of roasted garlic out of their peels and add to the peas. Add 2 tbsp. olive oil, the dried herbs, and a bit of salt and pepper. Buzz in the food processor, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Taste the mixture and add more seasonings if needed, especially salt. Buzz until smooth and creamy.
4) Spoon the pea mixture into a nice serving bowl. Rinse and dry the mint leaves and then chop them finely. Sprinkle them over the peas to make a nice tasty garnish. If you like, dribble some fresh lemon juice over the leaves. I like the flavor that lemon juice adds to this dip, but strictly speaking, it’s not essential.