Tuesday, February 26, 2013

with the sun to my back

We spent the past week ninety miles from Cuba, the farthest we could go from Seattle in the continental United States. It was our first trip to Miami. We went to vacation with my sister, her husband and daughter; they like to go to Fisher Island. I knew next to nothing about Florida before this trip. For the most part, people from the West Coast don’t travel east in search of the sun.  Images from Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Orchid Thief and To Have and To Have Not filled my thoughts and my dreams as we prepared for the trip.

The water was the green of the Caribbean. The rhythm of our days was determined by the heat. The stagnant, sweltering midday temperatures gave rise to the listlessness of summer and confused my sense of seasonality. Humidity permeated everything, making my hair crazily unruly and curling the pages of our books. I took particular pleasure in the sun’s warmth on the soles of my feet when I walked with the sun to my back.

 Until Friday, the eve of the weekend, the island was almost completely empty.

A small percentage of people drive cars on the island, but generally, transportation is by foot and by golf cart. Signage in the marina alerts boaters: “Manatee Zone.”

Sandpipers at the water’s edge scurried away at my approach whenever I walked the beaches. What I think were some sort of heron flew overhead at regular intervals, occasionally in formation, never alone. At home, I’ve only ever seen herons solo, except for the time I saw one attempt to steal a fish from another.

We ate our share of plantains, and fish such as grouper, in tacos and with rice and beans. I ate key lime pie at every opportunity, imagining the limes must be locally grown and therefore something not to miss.

One afternoon in the pool, a baseball game took shape with the boys and my niece, my brother-in-law and Alexi, and a man and his two daughters from Connecticut. They used a beach ball that was constantly blown off-course by the wind, but that didn’t seem to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the game, the negotiations of who would get to pitch next, or the attempts at stealing bases.

One night we arranged for a sitter to stay with the kids, and went in to Miami. We ate at a place called Ola that serves all manner of Latin foods: empanadas filled with lobster and with short ribs, Peruvian style Ceviche, Cuban pork belly. We drank mojitos and caipirinhas. Our server picked up on the fact that my sister and I are sisters. Our husbands talked ceaselessly while we caught up on the past few months of life. We ate and drank and laughed and shared stories until, finally, we ended the night with cappuccinos to give us the energy to take the ferry back to our sleeping children.

Someday I’d like to visit an orange grove. I’d like to see the Everglades and the Florida I’ve read about. For now, I carry with me the memory of the sun on my soles and the languid time with family.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February 13

Last Friday we celebrated the Lunar New Year at school with a dragon parade, as we do every year; as people all over the world do. The kindergartners process with a dragon they’ve built, and the fifth graders make music to accompany them. Incense fills the air as the kids and the dragon move to the music and the chants of “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” The dragon breathes fire, or at least smoke, thanks to strategically placed dry ice in its head. It has never rained the years I’ve attended. We parents pack in tightly together with our cameras, taking pictures and video, murmuring commentary to one another. The students watching think back to the year when they were one of the kindergartners. This year, as a fifth grader, Abbott played the recorder for the parade, and he took it very seriously. He brought his recorder and his music with us to Costa Rica a few weeks ago so he could practice, despite my reassurances that he really, really didn’t need to. One of Cal’s classmates told me he dreams of the day he’ll be a fifth grader and get to make the music. 

I spent a large portion of this warmish gray day traveling about the city, tackling a mountain of errands. In my rush to get out the door this morning, I forgot my phone. I was mildly anxious, all day, that I’d miss an urgent call from the school. I imagined scenarios such as one or the other of the boys hospitalized due to a fall from the monkey bars, and finding out about it at the end of the day, when I returned to school to pick them up. Alternatively, I pictured one of the boys suddenly developing the stomach flu, and Alexi getting paged when I was unreacheable. I imagined him having to leave the hospital, just as he was about to perform a biopsy, to pick up the sick boy. Mostly, though, I missed my phone because I saw one thing after another I wanted to photograph, and I didn’t have a camera with me, either. The glass canisters brimming with conversation hearts and gummy lips at the candy shop. The card that read “I love you more than bacon” at the paper store. The umbrellas, standing out like misplaced punctuation marks; bobbing splotches of color amongst the otherwise monotone cityscape. My steaming bowl of tomato cheddar soup that fortified just by looking at it, before the spoon even reached my lips.

Now I’m catching my breath over a cup of Earl Grey. The boys are at the dining room table surrounded by salt water taffy, stickers with hearts, markers, cards, and envelopes, finishing up the Valentines they’ll pass out at school tomorrow. Their cards read, “My favorite thing about you is…” They’re completing the thought with sentiments along the lines of, “You are kind,” “You also like sports,” “You always say good morning to me.”

The Lunar New Year has come and gone, already it’s Ash Wednesday, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and before we know it Easter will be here.

I don’t have a picture of the soup I had for lunch today to fortify you, but this has been my winter’s day lunch all week at home.

A lunch of roasted broccoli and cheese

1 head broccoli, about 1 pound
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 oz aged cheddar cheese
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F. Wash and trim the broccoli, and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Toss it with the olive oil. Place the broccoli on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, stirring at the halfway point. Grate the cheddar cheese. After the 10 minutes have passed, sprinkle the cheese onto the broccoli, and cook another 8-10 minutes. Season to taste.

Yield: 1-2 servings

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

the sound of it

I awoke to the sound of rain. As my consciousness pushed past dreams to surface, I became aware of the rhythms tapped out on the roof and the soft, asynchronous sound of Alexi’s breathing. In the darkness, I began to form thoughts about the morning. “I’ll text Dana and cancel; I’m sure it’s too cold and wet to run,” my sleep-deprived, warmth-coveting brain reassured itself. Before I realized any time at all had passed, the jazz improvisation on the roof was over, and I was alone in bed. Alexi was up and running. Reluctantly, I dressed in running clothes. There exists a magic window in the mornings here wherein it doesn’t rain, whatever the rest of the day holds. I call it my running window.

After surveying the placemats I’d set with bowls and spoons Abbott asked me, disappointment fighting with his otherwise hopeful expression, “What are we having for breakfast? We aren’t going to have cereal, are we?” I said, “Tomorrow I’ll make something. Today we’re having cereal.” He nodded and accepted his fate. As I packed lunches, I slipped in a slice of coconut pound cake; the last vestiges of something homemade in the house, from the weekend.

Dana and I met at Discovery Park for our run, after taking our children to their respective schools. The rain-scented air felt clean in my lungs. For the first time this year I noticed the tiniest of green-gold buds on the otherwise bare branches along the wooded trails. Our shared stories were absorbed in the broader silence of the forest.

Back at home, I listened to the rain start up again as I ate a slice of the leftover cake, still delicious two days out, for a midmorning snack. My great-aunt Wanda’s recipe. I imagined the boys at school, eating it from their lunchboxes, and then I imagined my younger self eating this same cake at Aunt Wanda and Uncle Tootle's farm, and playing with their cats that only occasionally scratched. Whenever I conjure her in my minds eye, I hear the sound of her laughter.

Wanda’s Coconut Pound Cake

This is a pretty standard pound cake recipe, but with the addition of coconut, which elevates it to something special. You can skip the glaze if you can’t find, or don’t want to wait to order, the coconut flavor/extract, but it really makes the cake. Like most pound cakes, this one bakes at a moderate temperature for close to an hour and a half. The flavor improves after sitting for a day.

For the cake:

2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
6 eggs
2 cups flour, sifted
1 tsp. salt
1 small can Angel Flake coconut (3.5 ounces)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease with butter and then dust with flour a 10” angel food cake pan.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. In a medium bowl, sift the flour and salt together, and then slowly add the flour/salt combination to the butter mixture. Fold in the coconut. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, rotating halfway through, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool while you make the sauce (below). Run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, and then remove from the pan.

Coconut Sauce:

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tsp. coconut flavor or extract

Mix all the ingredients together. Bring to a boil, and boil for 1 minute.

Brush the sauce on the cake with a pastry brush while the cake is still warm.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings