Monday, November 26, 2012

out on a limb

For the first time in a week, I’m alone, and I’m settling into it like an old sweatshirt. It’s a wonderfully clear, sparkling day; one in a string of several. I can see the majestic outline of Mt. Rainier through the now-bare maple trees from one corner of the house. The rooftops across the street still retain a bit of frost, even as it approaches noon.

Alexi’s father is back in Nova Scotia. His mother is spending the day with a classmate from her elementary school days in Woodstock, Vermont; she’s flying home tomorrow. The boys are at school, bellies and hearts full from the past week. Alexi is back at work. We’ve texted each other several times this morning, not yet used to the separation after spending the week of Thanksgiving together.

Now, I’m re-stocking the house, regrouping, moving forward. I’ve got a pot of beans soaking. A couple of weeks ago I bought Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's beautiful new book, Jerusalem, full of more things I’m eager to make than any other cookbook I own. I made a stew from the book when Alexi’s father was in town, and I plan to make it again tomorrow. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it is perhaps the most delicious one-pot meal I’ve ever had.

Cannellini Bean & Lamb Stew
slightly adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 small onion (5 oz/150 g), finely chopped
½ small celery root (6 oz/170g in total), peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
20 large cloves garlic, peeled but whole
1 tsp ground cumin
1 lb/500 g lamb stew meat (can use beef if you prefer), cut into ¾ inch (2 cm) cubes
7 cups (1.75 liters) water
½ cup (100g) dried cannellini or pinto beans, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water, then drained
7 cardamon pods, lightly crushed
½ tsp ground turmeric
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp superfine sugar
9 oz (250 g) Yukon Gold or other yellow-fleshed potato, peeled and cut into ¾ inch (2cm) cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
freshly squeezed lemon juice, to serve
chopped cilantro, to serve
bread, to serve

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion and celery root, and cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the onion starts to brown. Add the garlic cloves and cumin and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Place the meat and water in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming the surface frequently until the broth is clear. Add the onion and celery root mixture, the drained beans, cardamon, turmeric, tomato paste, and sugar. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat to a barely perceptible simmer for at least 1 hour, until the meat is tender. I usually end up simmering the meat for closer to an hour and a half.

Add the potatoes to the soup, and season with 1teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Bring back to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 more minutes, or until the potatoes and beans are tender. Your goal is a thick soup. Let it bubble away to reduce the volume of liquid, if need be, or add water if there isn’t enough. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish each bowl with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice and chopped cilantro. Serve with bread.

Yield: 4 servings

Friday, November 23, 2012

November 23

I’ve smelled like butter the past couple of days. I first had the somewhat pleasing realization on Wednesday, as I drove to buy the last of the ingredients for our holiday meal; my hands were on the steering wheel, within proximity of my nose. That night, I noticed the scent on my hands, again, as Alexi and I shared a plate of spicy Doritos.  He described the hockey practice he'd coached earlier that evening while I baked; I dramatically reenacted how I'd managed to pack an incredible five pounds of apples into a pie.

Most of the years since Alexi and I have been parents, we've hosted Thanksgiving; various family members have flown out to join us. It seems easier than traveling, or at least it did when the boys were younger. I feel like I've finally gotten it down – what needs to be done in advance, how to ask for help, how to have fun in the midst of so much to do. That said, I’m not opposed to eating tacos in a warm location some future Thanksgiving.

This morning, we had slices of leftover pie for breakfast. We’ll have ice cream cake tonight. We're celebrating Alexi’s birthday, and he loves ice cream cake above all other desserts. As we ate lunch today, his mother, who's in town for the holiday, told us about his birth. Alexi was born on a Monday, and they went home from the hospital two days later, just in time for Thanksgiving. A happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2012

just like that

“The best thing that can happen to you is that your hypothesis is wrong.” Heard at a talk I attended yesterday.

Just like that, November won me over. When I was a kid in North Pole, Alaska I’d see the sun, enormous, looking like the yolk of a fried egg slip above the horizon at some point in my school morning. By the time school was out, it had disappeared. I used to look out the window as I was reading Beowulf or learning about improper fractions, see that sun, and feel quietly glad to be alive in that winter moment. Yesterday the slant at which the sun traversed the sky carried the same still beauty, and I finally felt ready for the rest of this month, this year. 

I don’t know yet what I’ll make next week for Thanksgiving. We'll have a few of the usuals: turkey, cranberry chutney and sweet potato biscuits. I’m pretty sure I’ll also make roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs, and maybe a pecan pie. One thing I do know for certain is that over the weekend, I’ll be making salted brown butter rice crispy treats – a double batch – as it’s our turn to bring a snack for Cal’s hockey team. I want to share the recipe with you, because I think you ought to make them, too.  

Early last Sunday morning, I sat in my car and read a new cookbook as I waited for Abbott’s hockey game to start. The building that houses the rink he played at used to, literally, be a meat locker. It's the coldest building I've ever been inside; I didn’t go in until I absolutely had to. As I browsed the book I found a recipe for salted brown butter rice crispy treats. What a combination! I made a pan of them earlier this week, and they were gone almost immediately. The toasted butter and the salt change everything; the two, together, elevate rice crispy treats from good to daydream-worthy.

Have fun.

Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats
slightly adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

I substituted puffed brown rice for regular puffed rice, as I always do when I make rice crispy treats.

115 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter
heaping ¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt
One 10-ounce (285 gram) bag large or miniature marshmallows
6 cups (170 grams) puffed brown rice cereal – I love Erewhon. Can also use regular rice crispies/puffed rice cereal.

Measure out all your ingredients before you get started, as you'll need to move quickly once you've heated the butter.

Line an 11 x 17 inch rimmed baking sheet with wax paper, or butter it well.
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden, and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently and don’t take your eyes off the pot.

As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off, sprinkle the salt over the butter, and then stir in the marshmallows. The heat from the butter should melt them, but if it doesn’t, place the pot over low heat, stirring constantly, until the marshmallows are smooth. 

Remove the pot from the stove and stir in the cereal with a silicone spoon or a spatula, until the cereal is evenly coated with the marshmallows. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan. Using a piece of waxed paper, or buttered fingers, press it firmly and evenly into the edges and corners of the pan, and smooth the top.

Let cool, then cut into squares.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

as if my life depended on it

Abbott’s smell has changed; I noticed it for the first time last week. Not in an off-putting or adolescent way, but his skin no longer conjures baby soap. When I press my face to the top of his head it isn’t quite familiar; like right after moving into a new house, you’re happy to be there, and it’s full of familiar objects, but it doesn’t quite feel like home, yet. I linger in the moments of physical connection, trying to memorize him as he is now, imprint without clinging.

When I was a kid, I read voraciously, and incorporated many words into my vocabulary before I had the benefit of hearing them aloud. Abbott does the same thing – he’ll start telling me about “an-ti-ques," for example – and I recognize myself.

November is always my personal marathon. The light seems non-existent, and with it goes my energy and my mood. I make myself exercise, though I never want to in these dark months; yesterday, on the treadmill in our garage, while the boys played street hockey. I see it in them, too – the power of physical play and sports to energize, to blow off steam, to develop character.

I had one good November. In 1999, Alexi and I ran the Seattle Marathon. I completed chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer at the beginning of that year; I took on the fitness goal as an effort to start to feel like myself again, and shake the fear I had developed of my own skin. I was obsessed with every random leg, back, and stomach ache I experienced (leg/back/stomach cancer!). If I coughed, I knew it had spread to my lungs. I was sure I felt heart palpitations; a risk associated with one of the chemotherapy drugs I had was heart damage. Training for the race distracted me, and helped reset my thinking. 

The end-of-November day of the marathon, the sun shone. The city came out to cheer, to spectate; each neighborhood was brimming with hand-lettered signs of encouragement, cheering voices, boom boxes playing whatever its owner deemed energizing. The more miles we ran, the more affected I became by these shows of support. To this day, I can’t watch a race without being overcome by emotion. That experience of making it 26.2 miles to the finish line went a long way toward helping me perceive myself as strong and healthy once again.

The next year, Alexi and I ran another marathon, simply for the revitalizing value of the challenge. Before the race, he spent six weeks in Washington, DC, and I spent a week with him there. We did some of our longest training runs along the Potomac.

Now, I feel like I’ve had enough in the way of major physical challenges. I’ve given birth twice, and I had a second cancer in 2005, and a series of preventive surgeries after learning I have a BRCA1 gene mutation. And I have different priorities now. But I will forever be glad that I experienced the rollicking joy that came with the fulfillment of those goals.

These November days, I light candles earlier and earlier, I force myself to exercise, and I cook as if my life depended on it. Regardless of my lists of things to do, I bake and I braise, and remain steady from performing deliberate, creative, nurturing acts in the kitchen. Yesterday I made a Ragu Bolognese – a favorite around here – that simmered all afternoon as we hibernated.

Ragu Bolognese

This tastes even better the day after it is made. 

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup onion, finely chopped
2/3 cup celery, diced
2/3 cup carrot, diced
¼ cup bacon, chopped
¾ pound lean ground beef
¾ pound lean ground pork
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper
¾ cup dry white wine
1 cup whole milk
one 28-ounce can crushed plum tomatoes
1 cup chicken or beef stock

Put the butter and oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and bacon, and cook for several more minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the ground beef and ground pork, and season with the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper. Break up the meat with a fork and stir well, cooking until the meat has lost its raw color, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, raise the heat a bit, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add the milk, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and stock to the meat and stir well. When the contents of the pot begin to bubble, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, at least 3 hours. If it begins to dry out, add ½ cup of water as needed to keep it loose and saucy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: about 6 cups

Toss with cooked drained pasta, and serve with freshly grated parmesan.

The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for three days, and in the freezer for three months.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

the seventh time

(top image treats from Scratch Baking Co; lower image my friend Jess' table)

I slept soundly last night. When the sun rose, I discovered the blanket of gray covering the sky had been replaced by white pillowy clouds against an optic blue background. The sun shone with surprising warmth for this point in November, sparkling on every surface it lit upon. Our cats had a day of luxury, parking themselves, stretched out, on the sun-warmed rugs and furniture, basking in the beams. Out the window, Elliott Bay glittered.

We discussed the election on the drive to school; the national and local results, the percentages, the implications. Cal asked the question of the week, “What is the electoral college?” Abbott articulately explained it at length. Cal shrugged and said, “I don’t get it,” and began reading his new Lego club magazine.

I voted in my first presidential election twenty four years ago, as a freshman in college. I still remember that gray November day and the sense of purpose I felt. Yesterday was the seventh time I’ve cast a vote for a presidential candidate.

Yesterday morning, I helped out at school with the Second Grade Market. Every year the second graders host a market for their parents and fellow students, consisting of produce (donated by Full Circle Farm) and crafts (made by the second graders), modeled after the Pike Place Market. They learn many things in the process. This morning I told Alexi how impressed I was at seeing the full-grown fennel, parsnips and celeriac for sale; when we visited the farm last month they were the size of my thumb. I love these reminders that there is still mystery in the world: a vegetable produced from a seed; the way children grow; the democratic process. There is the science and the predictions and then there is the end result, which nobody can entirely foresee.

I believe, as Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, that “wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work – that goes on, it adds up. It goes into the ground, into crops, into children's bellies and their bright eyes. Good things don't get lost.” As we adjust to the change in the light and prepare to enter the days of holiday and ritual, we will all continue to do our best in big and small ways. Just as today, Alexi coached; I planned a menu for a meal I’m going to make tomorrow for a teacher with a newborn baby; Abbott helped me load the car without being asked; Cal worked at being part of a team at hockey practice. We do the best we can.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

watched stars fall

We’ve been helping Abbott gather information for a multi-media autiobiography project for school; finding photos and video clips and memorable dates and events. One section of the project is about the baby years - first words, first steps, that sort of thing. This morning I pulled dusty stacks of containers down from a high shelf in Abbott's closet, in search of a wall calendar I used to record happenings in his first year of life. In my search, I came across his baby book and briefly flipped through it, my index finger tracing his tiny inked footprints and the ultrasound photo I’d taped inside. I found a section of emails I’d printed out and inserted; responses to our announcement of pregnancy. I felt a wave of longing for our relationships with those friends, family members and colleagues who sent the messages as they were then; different now, necessarily, due to time and change in our – and their – circumstances. I found the calendar and gave it to Abbott. He was mesmerized as he read through the entries about his baby self: “first signs of laughter,” “first sweet potatoes – you LOVED them – cried for more between bites,” “went to Muir woods,” “using long strings of syllables – ‘ba’ & ‘ga’ sounds,” “Giants game - rained out,” “Said ‘bus.’ Also can say ‘bye,’ ‘all done,’ ‘cat,’ ‘mama,’ ‘dada.’” The rhythm and content of our days.

A little square in which to record something about the day was satisfying. Today, Abbott smiled, he grew. We ate peaches – he, for the first time. Today was more than the Sisyphean tasks of laundry and dishes.

My maternal great-grandmother, Leta Milam Kenney, kept detailed financial records and maintained monthly calendars from the 1920s until the day of her death in 1951. She penciled in notes about the weather, the cost of things she bought, and other day-to-day happenings. I have copies of some, but not all of them, and I have some of the originals. A few excerpts:

1922: March 12 – Othor (her oldest child) bought a radio from Sears-Roebuck with headphones and a horn speaker for $75. Anyone who ordered a pound of ‘Hello, World’ coffee had their names announced on the radio, so he ordered a pound.

1929: October 28 – Jim (her husband; my great-grandfather) bought a cream separator. December 5 – sold some turkeys. December 12 – Jim was on the jury, a murder trial.

1934: February 1 – Jim killed hogs. February 6 – renewed Bowie Co. News. March 5 - killed hogs again. April 15 – renewed Dallas News. August 17 - a mule died.

1937: August 10 – Had cantaloupes & watermelons from the garden.

1938: March 4 – Tree planting day to help stop wind erosion on the farms; a government program. (Leta’s) glasses cost $27.50.

1942: January 21 – 3rd bad sand storm.

1944: January 7 - the worst blizzard in 52 years. Jim sold 9 cows for $340.

1946: September 11 – ducks went south. October 9 – watched stars fall, 9pm.

That what happened today mattered, however mundane, is one of life’s main hungers.