Tuesday, April 14, 2015

it would take a while

images from the Grand Canyon; Scottsdale and environs; Taliesin

We got home from the Southwest this past Sunday afternoon. My sister and I and our families, and sometimes my brother and his family, converge from opposite coasts to spend our kids’ spring breaks together, and we’ve gotten good at it. We always manage to strike a balance between exploring the area we’ve traveled to and having stretches of time with nothing to do but read; this trip, as we sat in the shade of the bougainvillea and late into the night accompanied by the haunting notes of the mourning dove. I could go anywhere with this group, and hope I see a lot more of the world with them.

Although eventually I expect I’d start to feel like Phil Connors in his endless repetition of a snowstorm if I lived in a place where the sun always shines, it would take a while. Probably a long while. I love the desert.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 4

One afternoon last week, I spent over three hours trying to drive four miles to pick up Cal from an after-school activity. It was the worst traffic I’d ever been in or even heard of in all my forty-something years. I’ll probably tell my grandchildren about it someday. I sat for something like an hour and a half without moving an inch; the situation became like a surly block party at which someone forgot to bring the beer. The sun shone. People chatted leaning out car windows. A bus driver walked around giving updates as he heard from his dispatch office. I was listening to a terrific audio book; I had snacks with me; miraculously, I didn’t need to use the restroom (probably because of the salt in the snacks). And I knew Cal was OK – he called me from the cell phone of a teacher, who had to stay waaaaay past when the school was closed – so I didn’t panic. (I will be forever indebted to you, Rachel.) After an hour, I called Alexi and asked him try another route to get to Cal. Abbott was with him, doing homework and eating pretzels instead of dinner. Ultimately, they got close enough such that it was clear they would get to the school first. I turned around.

Earlier that day, I made my first-ever batch of ricotta with a recipe from my friend Molly’s book, Delancey, because I forgot to buy some that morning when I was at the grocery store. I was planning to toss it with pasta and asparagus for our dinner. The ricotta ingredients – whole milk, buttermilk and cream – cooked while I unloaded the dishwasher, pausing occasionally to stir, and then I let the whey drain out of the curds while I walked Nelly. I still can’t believe I’d never made it before; I don’t understand how, but it was so much more than the sum of its parts. So much more. And it could not have been easier. I put water on to boil as soon as I walked through the door after that epic commute, and by the time Alexi and the boys made it back I had almost finished making dinner. As one of the authors of the recipe put it, “The result is a beautiful milky pasta sauce that’s velvety and luscious and sets off the grassy sweet flavor of the asparagus.” We feasted as we told our stories from when the afternoon unfolded into evening.

Pasta with Asparagus and Ricotta
Adapted from Franny’s: Simple Seasonal Italian
By Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens and Melissa Clark

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound short, tube-shaped pasta
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
½ pound fresh ricotta

Slice the asparagus lengthwise in half, and then cut the sliced stems crosswise into 1 ½ inch pieces.

In a very large skillet or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and salt and cook until the asparagus begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Continue cooking until the asparagus is golden all over, about 2 minutes more. Add 2 tablespoons water to the pan. Remove from the heat.

In a large pot of well-salted boiling water, cook the pasta until 2 minutes shy of al dente. Drain.
Toss the pasta into the skillet with the asparagus, the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons butter, and the pepper. Cook over medium heat until the pasta is al dente, 1 to 2 minutes. Season to taste. Add the ricotta to the skillet, stirring it into the pasta and asparagus mixture. Divide between four plates, and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26

When I was twenty-eight I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive type of breast cancer. After my surgeon explained my options to me, I asked, “What would you do?” She was silent for a moment, and then she replied, “I don’t know. I can tell you what I think I would do, but I can’t possibly predict what I’d do if I were truly in that moment.” I remembered her words when I learned, at the time of my second cancer diagnosis seven years later, that I carry a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. I had to decide how I would manage the danger inherent in my DNA.

Experts don’t agree on the exact lifetime risk of breast cancer for women with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, but estimates have ranged from 55-89%, with the most recent research suggesting about a 65% lifetime risk, compared to a 12% lifetime risk for the average woman in the United States. Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have a lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer estimated at 15-40%, while women without a BRCA mutation have about a 1.8% lifetime risk.

I chose to have risk-minimizing surgeries. I had bilateral mastectomies and reconstruction after I completed chemotherapy for my second breast cancer. A year after that, when I was thirty-seven, I had my ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus removed. My body and psyche underwent changes as a result of these surgeries, but I can now say I feel comfortable in my body. I don’t regret anything. My boys won’t have to say, “My mom died of breast cancer,” or, “My mom died of ovarian cancer.”

A few months ago, Dr. Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who discovered BRCA1, published a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocating for population-based screening for the BRCA genes – in other words, every woman should be offered testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 at about age 30 as part of routine medical care. To identify a woman as a carrier after she develops cancer is a failure of cancer prevention. About half of women who inherit mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer and have no idea they are carrying cancer-causing mutations. A recent survey revealed that only 19% of US primary care physicians accurately assessed family history indicating a need for testing. Whether or not Dr. King’s wish comes true, genetic screening will continue to become more common, and as a result many more women will be faced with making difficult decisions.

A couple of days ago Angelina Jolie Pitt wrote a New York Times op-ed on having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed because she, like me, carries a mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Two years ago, she famously shared her account of undergoing a preventive double mastectomy. She lost her mother, grandmother, and aunt to cancer. In Tuesday's op-ed, Jolie described the procedure she had last week and explained that it put her body in an immediate menopause (something that happens to every woman whose ovaries are removed). “I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life,” she wrote. Because of her celebrity status, what she has shared is like a public service announcement that will empower many frightened women to take steps to save their lives.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

March 21

Cal has been studying Buddhism as a part of his fourth grade’s unit on world religions; the pictures are from a field trip to a Buddhist monastery earlier this week.

The other day, as I was putting together a batch of oatmeal cookies, Abbott asked to interview me for his humanities class. He wanted to know about how my life, now, is the same as, and different than, it was before he was born. I said, “For the record, a good day in my book has always involved baking.” We laughed.

I was a graduate student when I was pregnant with him; I finished my thesis weeks before his birth. Just like I do now, I went to bed early and woke up at an hour that never quite felt late enough to qualify as morning, trying to stay warm while I read and typed. The evenings grew longer as my belly distended. Daffodils opened. We slept with the windows open, and the air coming in had a sweetness to it. Day after day, the sky was blue. The sidewalks were baked warm by the sun. Every bird in flight seemed to promise something.

I told Abbott that, in addition to him and his brother, I now know all sorts of people I didn’t before I was a parent. I’m more compassionate than I used to be.

I relax more and I’m also busier; usually, now, I feel as though there is always some leak in the house that needs fixing.

In the years since I became a mother I have learned that how you spend your days is how you spend your life.

(Also: Being 12. (via Jenny))

Salted Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from The Washington Post June 13, 2007

I’ve probably made a dozen versions of oatmeal cookies; this one is our favorite because it really brings out the earthy flavor of oats.

The dough will keep, refrigerated, for several days. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups flour
2 cups rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
coarse sea salt, for sprinkling (like Maldon)

In the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter for a few minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the sugars, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon, beating until the mixture is well blended. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs and vanilla extract, mixing until well incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour and then the oats, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary and mixing just until they are incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough for at least an hour before baking.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Form the dough into golf ball sized balls and place about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Sprinkle sea salt generously on top of each ball of dough. Place the cookies in the center racks of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and beginning to turn golden. Switch the sheets halfway through, moving the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Transfer the cookies, still on the parchment paper, to a wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: about 18 cookies