Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Conscientious Herbalist

   While weeding my ever-stifling home garden today, I had the opportunity to contemplate my position at my current job, as resident chef at Fernbrook Farms. More specifically, I had the time (between mosquito attacks - ran out of bug spray) to - swat! - wonder why, in all -swat! - the jobs I might have landed at as a - swat! - professional cook, a farm was the final destination on this layover-laden trip we call "finding ourselves". A vegetable farm, of all things.
    I had previously been knee-deep in cow sh*t, and rammed by goats, and bitten by parrots even, and was totally at home and OK with it, but veggies? We have a rough history, to say the least. Maybe that's why cooking them is sooo satisfying! See, here's the skinny on my green thumb - there isn't one.
  I am the only, the ONLY, person in the entire world who can't grow zucchini. My bestie from high school, who gets bi-weekly mani-pedis and doesn't have a smedge of dirt on her entire life, SHE grows zucchini (also, she's Italian, and I find that an unfair genetic advantage). My girlfriend on the coast, whom I visited and she was like (in her charming Texas accent), "Oh my GOD! Will you look what grew? I didn't even know they got so big!!" SHE can grow zucchini. My dear mother, who was organic waaay before any Portlandia-hyped twentysometings returned to the land and grew handlebars, she grew them as long as bats and thick as my arm, on purpose (hey, we had a family of seven to feed!); so yes, of course she can grow them too. And I'm sure if I gave my fledgling-farmer-wannabe husband a bag of seeds and a pot of dirt, he, too, would yield great success in this plant, the white t-shirt of the vegetable world, the greet-your-neighbor-with-a-basket-of-them summer staple we all know as...ZUCCHINI.
   But not me.
But...you know what I can grow?? Herbs!! (cue snarky laughter at the 'herb' reference...okay, now grow up).
In 2006, the year after we bought our home, one of the first things I planted was chocolate mint, a cutting from my mom. I knew mint was hardy, prolific, and easy, to say the least, and given that this was truly my first real garden, I wanted something with a low risk of failure - I'm pessimistic enough anyway.
   I planted it in a large patio pot, and off it went! Out of the pot, into a neighboring pot, and soon spiraling wildly into a root bound block of angry mint. It wound around inside the rim like a puma circling its zoo enclosure, ten, twenty times over itself. Feeling guilty (was I a cruel person for letting it get so bound?), I divided the leggy mass into two big clumps - one, back in a fresh pot, and the other, into a weirdly triangular patch of corner yard that literally had nothing but weeds, and a crappy old plastic edging so buried I couldn't extract it.
   So, I covered the edging with small boulders that the previous owner had (in an obvious fit of Pollack-esque gardener's delirium) strewn all over the property. ripped out weeds, and dumped the mint in, along with a couple bags of cheap topsoil.
   It did the trick - although not from my (lack of) effort. Mint is a beast unto itself...one might say, the zucchini of the herb world??? - and without proper restraint and diligent pruning, it will soon take over any inch you give it, and become a yard.
   Which is what happened.
   In my front yard.
The corner grew, and grew, I moved boulders wider, and then it snuck under that old edging, and snaked menacingly into the actual grass. Fortunately, it was about the same time that I was very much into mojitos, so my 'pruning' had an end game and kept the escapees to a minimum. After a couple years, the mint patch became my favorite part of the yard. It was fragrant, even just brushing past; when he mowed the scent wafted in through the side door, perfuming the house with vivacity and York peppermint patties. The mojitos ran deep, cold, and incredibly refreshing for many a summer thereafter.
   During my Chocolate Mint Period, I also dreamt of large, Tuscan-esque pots of fresh herbs growing by my kitchen door, which happened to lead right onto our side patio. I grew sage, from seed, one of my very most successful things ever. It began green and stringy, toppling over with the slightest of a breeze, but soon the trunk thickened, and it grew. And grew, until it became a veritable shrub, right next to my door! In Year One! I dried tons of sage for Thanksgiving, but didn't need to; it stayed green well into December, and was first to come to life with the tickling rays of warm sunlight in late March.

That beautiful bush lived for five strong years, until I made the error of trying to divide and move it into two outdoor, in-ground spaces. Fortunately, I had a backup growing in a tiny pot of soil, and so he took the reins as my chief herb bush. In late fall/early winter, I prune the whole damn thing down to nubbins, and dry the stems. In spring, the stumps spring forth fresh, tender, practically neon new growth, and in short time are over a foot and a half tall. This was my plant in late April - mind you, he's an old man, going on six now! But the sage is as good as ever.
   Last spring, after falling madly in love with the flavors of southeast Asian cuisine, I chose to grow lemongrass. I chose to place it by our pond, where others ornamental grasses grew well...and thanks to early summer monsoon-like weather, they felt right at home and flourished. I truly believe if not for the Polar Vortex, they'd still be with me...but no worries, I have five babies chugging away in my brand-new herb bed.
   I suppose my point is, we all have our strong suits. Mine happens to be, oh, I don't know, just the most important group of edible plants?! I mean, lets' think about it - herbalism, that ancient practice of healing with herbs...without dummies like me who couldn't grow zucchini, but could tame wild and hairy leafy plants, all you squash bearers wouldn't have survived!
   Herbs are proven, time and again, to contain the highest levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals, bitter but potent oils and healing salves. Where would the tomato be, without the basil? The Argentinian steak, without chimichurri? The mojito, without the mint? (A very sad fizzy daiquiri, is all). Thanksgiving, without the sage??!!
   Purslane, that wild herbaceous weed which farmers bane and plow in, is the best (and only, I believe) land-grown plant that contains both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in perfect harmony!
   I believe, my point is proven. Thank you!
   So, for all you summer squash-bearing friends of mine, take heed - if you stop at my door, I will surely be sending you off with an armful of oregano, and a cutting of chocolate mint.
P.S. - it doesn't like to be held captive.
 
 
Yay...A Recipe!
 
Three-Grain Herb Pilaf with Charred Onion, Fennel,
and Summer Squash
 
This recipe was a big hit at our last Fernbrook Family Meal. Use whatever herbs you have on hand, but lovage is a must. If you cannot find it in a neighbor's yard or at the farm, substitute the freshest celery leaves you can find, and double the parsley.

 
Ingredients:
1/2 c. pearled barley
1 tsp. turmeric powder
2 bay leaves
1/2 c. bulghur wheat
1/2 c. quinoa
1 large, or two smaller, white sweet onions, peeled, sliced in half width wise
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced (reserve some fronds for garnish)
1 tsp. sugar
1 medium summer squash, sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/4 c. thinly sliced lovage
1/4 c. chopped chives
1 tbsp. chopped thyme or summer savory
 
Method:
1. Cook the barley: bring barley, 1 c. water, turmeric, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp. salt to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 20 minutes. Allow to cool; fluff with a fork. (Do all the grain cookery at the same time.)
2. Cook the bulghur: Bring 1 c. water to a boil; pour over bulghur with 1 tsp. salt in a heatproof bowl. Allow to sit 30 minutes; fluff with fork and cool.
3. Cook the quinoa: Bring quinoa, 1 bay leaf, and 1 c. water to a boil with 1 tsp. salt; cover and simmer 20 minues. Fluff with a fork, cool.
4. Heat a cast iron skillet on high, and coat with 1 tsp. vegetable oil. Immediately add the onions, cut side down; reduce heat to medium high. Allow to char to almost black before flipping and repeating on other side. Remove to cutting board.
5. Add butter to skillet with fennel, sugar, and a sprinkle of salt; drop the heat to low. Stir and cook until the fennel is caramelized and browning, about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl to cool.
6. Heat a grill pan on high. Toss the squash slices with some vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Grill hard on both sides to get nice grill marks, about 2 minutes a side; remove to cutting board to cool.
7. Make the vinaigrette: In a blender, combine white balsamic, dry mustard, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. With machine running, drizzle in olive oil until a beautiful emulsion forms. Taste for seasoning; reserve.
8. MASS ACCUMULATION! Coarsely chop the onions and squash, and add into a large bowl along with the grains, caramelized fennel, vinaigrette, resreved fennel fronds, and the herbs. Stir well, and taste to adjust seasonings. Serve room temp or cold.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Back... to the Future? Or, As My Brain Turns...

   More often than not, I find myself thinking about food. I know - shocking, right?
It's my livelihood. It's my passion. It's my hobby. It nourishes my mind, my body, and my family, in more than mere nutritional benefit. For as I get older - and yes, I can now admit it - there are certain things that I find are chronically plaguing me as I try to fall asleep at night. Food, and drink too, ruminate in my brain like alfalfa in a cow, causing undue discomfort for a period, but (ultimately I believe), keeping my mind sharp and relevant. A sampling:
  
   Will my daughter remember that I tried to feed her various greens under the guise of spinach, and relish it as an adult, or have I booked her for teen therapy?
    Will America ever get past their corporate food dependence, as I think I see and feel every day?? Can it truly happen? 
   Is this beer/wine/vodka really going to my hips? This never happened in my twenties...
   Was the show "Thirtysomething" as boring as my life can be? I was too young to watch back then. And Netflix doesn't have it on file. So I may only speculate. (Okay, it's not always about food.)

Probiotics for the brain. At least, that's how I need to view this rambling dialogue.
   But mostly, I wonder how, and why, we have become so removed from the sources of our food. I came across an interesting meme on Facebook, that Grand Central of all things net-worthy to share, that featured a pic of carrots, with the words, "Try organic food. Or, as your grandparents called it, food." It tickled my fancy so much, that most of you have probably seen it on one of my FB pages, or on a friend of yours with the same snarky commentary on food culture.
   It makes me think of my great-grandmother, whom I never met simply because of time, but whose 50th anniversary band became my wedding ring, and so inasmuch we are viscerally connected. She was an average height, thick-boned, off-the-boat German lady, who dragged two infants along on the voyage from the Old Country to establish a tiny homestead in Bergen County, NJ (at least, this is how I believe the tale goes). She had chickens who wore spectacles (at least, that's how my father claims it goes), and the finest rhubard in the state. She had my dad and his kid sister hawking veggies at a roadside stand as kids, with a scale that in today's world is a bonafide antique, and proudly hangs in my tiny kitchen.
   Can you imagine - a farm stand in Bergen County, now home to sky-high taxes and condos, parking lots and rowhomes, nary a tree in sight?? But my friends, this is where the Garden State was rooted into the earth, by the toils of centuries of immigrants looking to NOURISH and PROVIDE for their families, in the most natural way - heck, the only way - they knew how. It just was. They didn't take it for granted, they didn't waste a thing, and they sure as hell didn't think twice about putting by for the winter. They found the time, because they had to.

   Was it a simpler existence, as so many strive to "get back to"? As a modern suburban chicken farmer myself, I can't imagine it was. Working for your food is wearying of both mind and body, and seldom generous in its rewards. But the debate then wasn't over whose life was more complicated, or whose time was more precious, or who could afford the 'better food'. I find great irony in the fact that "organic" (i.e., a natural food) is a 'thing' reserved for the wealthy, well-heeled, and elite. Incidentally, those are the people who are most likely to never set foot on a real farm, get their hands dirty, muck a stall.
   Before the second World War, news flash: ALL FOOD WAS ORGANIC! It's a blunt fact of food history that is oft ignored, dismissed, forgotten, even doubted. But for the memory of my great-grandma, and the epic scenes I recreate in my mind, night after sleepless night, about the lushness of her little plot of NJ heaven, her bespectacled chickens and her first generation grandchildren eating raw rhubarb in the midst of tall grasses, I must keep the chatter going.
   And, I will not ever get very much sleep, but I'm kinda okay with that.

Recipes to come next week...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Life is What Happens When You Aren't Paying Attention

   Time has a horrid tendency to slip away from me. As I figured it inevitably would, my "life", or whatever you call it, sent me a postcard from the future, saying, "Hey sucker, thanks for the flesh vehicle transport...oh by the way, it's fall!"
    Yes, blog fans, I've lost my entire summer. In between this catch-up posting and my last (in - shock - May!), I've nearly completed a seasonal cooking position, wrote countess recipes for my adoring friends at Fernbrook Farms CSA, spent a lot of time on my hands and knees weeding veggies and rescuing my own garden from squirrels, collected dozens of our own fresh eggs, and , alas, gotten absolutely NOWHERE on my writing projects. Including this, my neglected, deprived, dust-bunny-collecting little blog site.
  Blog, I sincerely apologize. But, I'm back now!

So much has happened while I was occupied...my little angel, the muse for my cookbook, has started first grade (!) and is losing her first tooth (double !!). Our wee chicks are now nearly full-grown hens, and are reliably laying fine brown eggs, while their brother found a breeding home in upstate NY. The monsoon season of late spring/early summer led to a long, dry spell of late...whod'a thunk it - to the point where I actually HAD to water my plants; although the moist start gave my lemongrass and Thai roselle a jump on life, and they look fabulous! And the vegetables, oh the vegetables...they are fat, delicious and forthcoming, courtesy of our workshare at the farm. More veggies than I know what to do with. My crisper drawer and freezer are vomiting green things.
   Note to self: Invest in chest freezer.
As I look out now, to my surprise, the leaves have already begun to drift earthbound, and I realize that November is a mere few days away...my favorite season, laden with winter squash, apple picking, and warm fires, hot cocoa in hand, chicken stock bubbling merrily away on the stove, intoxicating the whole house with its bone-sticking perfume. These are the days of the year I look most forward to, and spend the rest of the year dreaming about. Fall is a truly dreamy season. The colors spring forth out of paintings. The temperature is perfect for light sweaters and open windows. The sun dapples through amber branches onto still-green lawns, and sets at a reasonable hour in time for after-dinner viewing from the front porch. The earth smells of green hay, smoldering leaves, and apple pie, cold soil and the promise of next year's spring garden. Which I have already begun  - shallots and garlic are in the earth, mulched and prepped for a snowy slumber.
   Yesterday morning, I plucked the last of the year's plum tomatoes from my singularly surviving plant, and what looks to be the last butternut squash from my "surprise" vine that exploded out of a compost pile and grew into the neighbor's yard....seems I grow better things when I don't try so hard! Looking forth to warm, rib-sticking foods and crusty sweet pies, I want to share this recipe with you, so that you might also enjoy the beginning of the season in one sweet, succulent bite (or several, depending on your mood!). Enjoy!



Acorn Squash Crostata (makes 2)

Ingredients:
2 ½ c. white whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur)
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. granulated sugar
2 sticks plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter (18 tbsp.), cut into small cubes and kept very cold
1/3 c. ice water
2 small or 1 large acorn squash, washed
¼ c. heavy cream
½ c. brown sugar
Turbinado sugar, for garnish

Method:
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, allspice, sugar and salt to combine. Add in the cold butter cubes. Pulse for 10 seconds to form a coarse meal. With machine running, drizzle in the ice water until the dough just comes together, about 10 seconds more. Turn out onto the counter and knead in any remaining flour, forming a large ball. Flatten into a wide thick circle, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice the sides of the squash off into large pieces (4 per squash) and remove any clinging membrane and seeds. With a sharp, heavy knife, thinly slice the chunks 1/8 to ¼ inch thick, stacking the slices in order to keep them together. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Divide the chilled dough in half; keep one refrigerated while working with the first. On a floured board, roll the dough into a large circle about ¼ inch thick; transfer onto a baking sheet. Brush the middle of the dough with heavy cream thickly, roughly in the shape and size of the pie you want. Spread with half of the brown sugar. Working in order, use the largest acorn squash slices first and begin to shingle the in a pie shape atop the cream and sugar, from the outside in, overlapping slices to cover all of the bottom. Use a small piece to finish the center. Fold the outer edges of dough in and around the squash to form a crust, pinching together with your fingers (crostata are very rustic pies, so don’t worry about perfection!).

Keep the crostata cold in the fridge while you repeat with the second dough ball.

Before baking, brush the edges with remaining cream, and sprinkle the tops and edges with turbinado sugar. Bake at 400 degrees until the crust is deep golden and crispy, and the squash is tender and browning, about 20-30 minutes.

Allow to cool slightly, and serve warm with ice cream or at room temperature.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ruminating

  


Pokeweed from the Backyard
 The hungry gap of spring, that in-between time when a night frost is still possible, but green things are emerging, really pisses me off.
  Sorry, just being honest. Maybe to a farmer, this is LATE for me to be quibbling, since fresh lettuces and the last of the cabbages are being consumed, but for me and my tiny garden, things are progressing very, very slowly. Like watching the grass grow  (or, in my case, watching the peas grow). I diligently go inspect every morning, replant the infant seedlings the squirrels marauded, and crouch low to the earth, beging them to go faster! Damnit, I'm hungry for veggies!
   Last night, we thought it would be fun to eat chicken nachos for dinner. I used a hothouse tomato and jalapeno from God-knows-where. It was so bland and depressing, I quit eating and took a shower to cleanse my soul. No fun.
   Today, yet again, it's in the low 60's. While there are signs of life...pea shoots, bean tops, and perennial herbs...there was nothing of signifigance to cut and eat. I bristle at the idea of picking my pea shoots before the fruit sets; I'd much rather eat the pea. My asparagus are creeping up...so...slow...I can't in good conscience cut any stems, for fear of killing the entire plant. My first rhubarb stems have been cut and converted to a delightful compote, but I can't eat that as a meal (can I? It's really dessert...) And I let the fiddleheads go, because the ferns needed to be moved to a happier locale and needed leaves to grow and establish.
   It's days like this, waiting out the cool spring mornings and refreshing rainstorms, that I respect the ingenuity of the homesteader/pioneer food consumers. I know that I could eat dandelion, pea shoots, fiddleheads, if I so chose. Instead I complain and eat stuff from the freezer.
   But no, not today.
   Maybe it's because I've been home for over a week, waiting on a new job to get going. In that time, I cleaned the entire yard, and found reasons to be hopeful about food, and decided that today is the day I'm going to eat the opportunities nature has thrown at me.
   I found my first small radish, a French Breakfast, whch survived weeks of rodent assault. I also found juvenile pokeweed, which most Northern gardeners may be familiar with as an invasive, monster weed, but my Southern friends may know as a tasty spring veggie. Make the most of what you've got, right?
   I decided a warm bulgur wheat salad would make a fine lunch..hot food, but not stick-to-the-ribs winter food like I've been eating. Rather, it felt right for the day, for the weather. For my spirit to stretch its arms and embrace that for the first time in years, we're having a true spring here in New Jersey.

   OOOHHH, so that's what spring was! I simply forgot. This is actually, ecologically, meteorologically, correct for early May!
   The pokeweed is going to make a fine addition to buttermilk biscuits, to accompany my experimental manicotti tonight. Can't wait to eat!

Warm Bulghur and Egg Salad with Radish (serves 2)

1/2 c. cracked bulghur wheat
1/2 c. brown chicken, vegetable, or beef stock
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 fresh pastured eggs
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 small to medium French Breakfast radishes, with tops
flaky sea salt, for garnish

In a  small saucepan, bring the stock, coriander, pepper and salt to a simmer. Pour over bulghur, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 30 minutes to absorb. Meanwhile, slice the radishes very thinly using a mandoline or knife. Reserve refrigerated, keeping tops separate.
 Heat a small nonstick saute pan on medium high. Melt 1 tbsp. of butter, and add bulghur to pan, stirring to heat through; transfer to two serving bowls. Wipe out pan, and place back on heat. Melt the remaining tbsp. of butter, and when it bubbles, crack the eggs in whole. Cook for 45 seconds, then gently flip and cook another 45 seconds. Slide one egg on top of each bulghur bowl. Top each with sliced radishes, and drizzle with any butter that remains in the saute pan. Garnish with fresh radish tops, sea salt, and a sprinkle of pepper and ground coriander.

Pokeweed Buttermilk Biscuits with Pepper and Cracked Coriander (makes 10- 2" biscuits)

1 c. loosely packed young pokeweed leaves
3/4 c. cold buttermilk
1 1/2 c. AP flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. garlc powder
1/8 tsp. onion powder
1 stick (8 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut in small cubes and kept frozen
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. cracked whole coriander
1/2 tsp. pretzel or coarse sea salt

 Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil, and add pokeweed, Reduce to a low boil, and blanch 15 minutes. Drain, and repeat twice more for three blanchings. Chop finely, and add to buttermilk. Keep cold.
 In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground coriander, onon and garlic powders. Pulse to combine. Add cubed butter, and pulse for 10 seconds to form coarse crumbs (most butter will remain whole-ish; this is ok). With machine running, slowly add buttermilk/pokeweed mixture until JUST combined - the mix will look very wet.
  Heavily flour the counter, and turn dough out onto flour. Using floured hands, press the dough to about 1/2 inch thickness. Fold in half twice, press again. Repeat this twice more for a total of 6 folds. Do not allow dough to stick to the board - flour as needed. Press dough into a circle about 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2" floured biscuit cutter, press out biscuits and place on ungreased baking sheet.

Press remaining scraps together gently to use all the dough; you should yield 10 biscuits.
Brush the tops with the beaten egg, and sprinkle evenly with the cracked coriander and coarse salt.
Bake for 20 minutes, until tops are golden brown and beautiful.

Serve warm, with a pat of butter, or use as a biscuit vehicle for yummy sandwiches!


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hunger

I am hungry. Sooo very hungry.
   The sunny arcs of springtime air drew me off my couch, where I was happily napping away with the cat, to go outside. Yawning, stretching like a bear coming out of hibernation, I began scouring the yard, for anything growing. I wasn't necessarily looking for something in particular, but the more I walked, the more I stared at my barren, moist garden bed impregnated with seeds that have yet to sprout, the more I tripped over thick hairy clumps of wild garlic sprouting from the lawn...
...the hungrier I got.
I wanted something, something green and fresh, to rip from the soil and shove into my mouth. I can't explain the visceral urge. Maybe I'm not as far removed from Neanderthal humanity as previously thought. Maybe the small pleasure of warming sunlight hitting the back of my head, even as winds still give me a chill for fleece, tick off the timer in my primitive brain centers.
    Tick tock, time for greens, tick tock, time to eat, clean out the body..
 
 I find the first flower of the year, a Siberian iris, peeking above leaf mold and smiling. At me. At spring sun. I smile back, then scowl, thinking that I could certainly not eat this flower, and right now it''s of no use to me. Damn.

 
What I was truly looking for was more like this:
 
Which I did not find. Not yet. On hands and knees, I uncovered the ostrich ferns from their wintry leaf mulch, and counted budding fiddleheads. At least 15. Maybe I could get a small meal next week...(stomach grumbling)
   My eyes pored over the damp green earth. Nothing, nothing at all. Not even a dandelion to rip up. I became depressed, then angry, then just hungrier (aren't these the stages of loss acceptance??) WHY is nothing growing yet?
   Wandered back to the garden, and scratched the earth around my asparagus corms. No, not even those bastions of spring were ready to awaken from winter slumber. Ugh. I gave up.
   My want of fresh green things not satiated, I ate a handful of ham (don't ask) and ripped open a bag of snap peas from the Asian market. At least I could pretend spring had come, right?
   Of course today, as I woke, the rain was pouring down in torrents. Outside my bedroom window, I counted four more irises, and noted that the perennial flowers grew probably another inch overnight. Maybe tomorrow I can have asparagus. And maybe pea tendrils next week. Just maybe.
   For now, I'm going to murder some wild garlic for dinner, and probably that baby dandelion I found growing along the patio too. For good measure.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tasting Spring

I felt it in my bones on Sunday, walking the misty side streets of University City on my way into work.
  It's kind of amazing where memories attack us, when we least expect it. The air was heavy with fog, a thick mist that coated my cheeks as I walked along. In the background, a whooshing noise, probably a generator inside some busy college building. But what I heard, what I felt, was a waterfall.
   I closed my eyes, and for a few short minutes, I was in the Pocono Mountains, atop our campsite, the one we visit every summer. It's early morning; the woodpeckers just stretching their vocals, the fire's embers smouldering gently from the night before, curly wisps of smoke rising from the ashes. I breathe deep. Sean and Colette still asleep in the tent, I pad over mossy earth to the outcropping boulder clinging to the mountaintop. I sit, hug my knees, and stare enchanted at the waterfall below me. The water is deafeningly loud, and yet so silent, a white noise that fills my ears and tosses me into deep mediation. Morning on the mountain, this mountain, our place - it is where I love life the most, where beauty surrounds me, my muscles aching with relaxation.
   This is where I went, for a few short minutes, on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia.   It was my first taste of spring to come, of renewal, of cool misty mornings that drag me into the garden, plunge my hands into cool dark soil, and being the creation of plant life that will sustain us for the season.
   As fortune had it, my boss gave me the next two days off, and as fate would have it, Monday was yet another fine misty mountain morning, fog hanging low over the treetops,earthworms exploring out of the humus. It had to be sixty degrees, at least - in January nonetheless! No mind - I was in March already. I let the dogs out to roam, grabbed my crocus bulbs and spade, and planted. I dug my columbine seed out of the crisper drawer, and planted those as well. With my mug of coffee chilling fast on the patio, I reveled in the deep, cleansing breaths of temperate air, and began to plot the vegetable garden. Even though I knew the coming week would bring a cold snap, I could not help to indulge my senses in this tiny snippet of spring weather. Even the frogs were out in the pond! The garlic chives are beginning to throw wispy growth out of the soil. The hydrangea is beginning to bud out. My Christmas tree is finally at the curb, and well, it's time. I'm ready for spring.
   I wondered what would come up first, my early forced lettuce or the rhubarb. Or maybe the asparagus? Sure, it's early, but never too early to plan for tasty things to come.I thought back to last spring, and a deliciously simple meal I prepared and shared with my dear friend Clara, one crafted from the spring produce in our campus garden. I decided this would be my first meal of the food year, a fitting tribute to all things fresh and new, to misty cool mornings in the yard and impatient earthworms and self-composting leaf piles.
SO ready for spring!

Spring Salad for Two
1/2 pound fresh asparagus
2 c. mixed lettuces
5 French Breakfast radishes (or whichever look delightful)
1 handful flowering chives (stems and flowers)
2 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
2 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
4 pastured chicken eggs
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
shaved Parmigiano cheese

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add asparagus spears, sprinkle with kosher salt, and allowto blister on stems, about three minutes. Toss and continue to cook on medium heat until very crisp-tender, five minutes more. Divide between two plates.
Add lettuces, torn into bite-size pieces, into a bowl. Shave the radishes into the same bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dress with olive oil and vinegar. Toss, and divide between plates atop asparagus.
Bring the pan back up over low heat. Melt the butter, and crack in the eggs whole. Cook gently until whites are set underneath, flip and cook to desired doneness, 1-4 minutes. Place two eggs on each salad. Garnish each plate with chopped and whole chives, sprinkle with cheese, and serve while eggs are still warm.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflections on a Batch of Cookies

 
   Some days in our lives make us not want to wake up and face another round. Some days make us beam with incredible joy and graditude. Some days make us reflect on why we are who we are, and force us to acknowledge our own mortality, while simultaneously acknowledging our incredible good fortune.
   Yesterday was that day, when all three of these scenarios came to light.
I don't need to go into detail; by now we've all become aware of the horrible tragedy of December 14th. But what happened to me yesterday...well, I'm sure many people out there can share my story, today, as we sit back and pray, for loss, for thanks and for hope.
   Ahem. To begin...
Work was shitty. No bones about it, I had a bad day. It plain sucked. From the moment I stepped into the kitchen, my previously buyoant Christmas mood turned tail and headed for the South Pole, and despite my finest efforts (i.e. singing Xmas carols in my head, and making faces behind the backs of my coworkers), there was little to zero chance of recovering it. Yes, folks, my cheer had gone on a winter vacay to somewhere with palm trees and daiquiris, whilst I toiled away in freezing Philadephia for ungrateful customers.
    Now, please don't get me wrong - I do love what I do; making good food is my livelihood, my passion, and my creative outlet. There's just those days, when every mise is in the wrong spot, when your teammate has made double of everything in two different places, when every piece of lettuce is wilted the moment the bag opens. Once a domino falls, no recovery - bottom line.
   So, I plowed through, desperately, on the verge of tears, counting the minutes till I could run screaming out the back door and hurl myself into the nearest pint of beer. It was that day.
   Then, I was jolted home by others' phones buzzing from CNN, and all anyone could talk about was a massacre of children. A monster, let loose upon a school very nearly like the one I grew up in. A kindergarten class, kids the same age as my daughter. I grew morose, cried harder. I wanted to call her, but realized I had left my phone at home. At least my shift was done.
 
~
 

   Boarding the train eastbound, eating my cold noodles that really should have been hot, I stared out the window into a black icy wind beating upon a blighted part of town, and prayed. Hard. I thanked the universe for it not being my child, for it not hitting too close to home. I felt overwhelming guilt and selfishness then, for thinking of myself at such a time, but really, what is one to think? What is right or wrong here? Trying to imagine it being me, being her, was so distant and painful at the same time. I sent up some words for those parents, hoping that if there was a heavenly body, He'd understand I meant no ill will or mean nature; I was simply reacting as a mom.
   Slurped the remaining noodles. Tried to close my eyes, but some horrid woman was blabbing to anyone she could get on the phone about her deadbeat ex-husband who's not 'taking' the kids for Christmas. How now she'd have to change her plans because she 'has' to 'have' them. Thought, wow, that is incredibly more selfish than what I was pondering! Felt like a better parent. Stretched my toes.
 
~
 

   When I got home, dinner was hot, thanks to my other half, and he'd made grand plans to make Christmas cutout cookies with Colette. I however, was in no mood to decorate sugar cookies - didn't he know that something horrible happened??
   Incidentally, he did not. So we turned on the news, and sat in tranced disbelief while Brian Williams narrated. My darling child, too young to know what harm guns really do, brushed it off and demanded to make cookies. Husband obliged. I couldn't believe it - how could he just shut it off like that?? Why aren't we poring over this together, as a family???
   (Voiceover: SANTA in head:) "Because, you see Christine, there is more to do as a family. Like inspire joy, celebrate the life we do have, and move on. We cannot be sad forever. We must mourn, we may hurt for a long time, and feel empathy, but to move forward is to triumph."
   Thank you, Santa. I almost forgot.


   Colette ate a lot of raw dough; she called it "taste testing".

I rolled, and we cut and decorated together at the table. Every reindeer got marshmallow eyes and a Rudolph nose, although Colette claimed they all had different names. She made a 'Christmas ladybug' too, from a small rolled ball of dough that escaped her mouth. It was too cute to eat.

   I may make an ornament of it.

Even though it took only a couple hours' time, that cookie session gave me enough gumption to realize that life was too short to feel sorry for myself. Yes, I had a bad day. But you know, other people had it a hell of a lot worse than me. I may not drive a Benz (yet), or have my name above the front door (yet), or even be able to fly south whenever I need to reboot my spirits. But I do have a roof over my head that a hurricane spared, food in my pantry that I was able to buy with my own money, and a healthy child who will be in my arms before she falls to sleep at night.
  I'm pretty freakin' lucky, huh?
The cookies aren't half bad, either.