Structure: the Old Year, in Pictures

Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN

Reflections that create balance. (Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN)

Like monthly bills and seasonal equipment, 2012 will soon be put away.

Annually I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s and look back.  Not that I don’t regularly return to carefully saved artifacts and reflect on my journey at other times, but it’s an interesting practice to hold the twelve months in hand all at once.

Because I am still coming to the words–how can you encapsulate a year, a month, a day?and should you?–this week’s blog is almost purely visual: an admittedly incomplete retrospective of what has fed me, gifts given and received over the year.

The theme that emerged in my almost-random selection from the 6,000 digital photos? Structure.  Structure in general, and the structures I am building. Of what underlies my daily life, how to not split time into dreaded work and distracting play, but to find joy in all of it.

Once again, I wish I’d hatched a fully grown, spectacularly stunning concept that would bring surprising insight, followed by deep understanding–and aw heck, while I’m at it, world peace!–but laughing, I repeat the mantra: I accept being in-process in my thoughts and in my life.

Oh, and thank you, Gentle Readers, for joining me (however briefly or steadily) during the past six months.

The whimsical dancing turnip.

The whimsical turnip.

The whimsical turnip: its graceful arms reminded me of Shiva, whose cosmic Dance of Bliss simultaneously brings destruction and creation. How appropriate in studying days gone by, the wave pattern of the past, present, and future.  On the culinary side, it became part of a potato-turnip-leek au gratin dish for Christmas Day.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

That shocking pink, what a surprise! Yes, I was ready to laugh at surprises, and open to new foods and sensations and thoughts and concepts.

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Stillness in the water allows reflections. Same with my life.

Snowy tree early 2012

Snowy tree early 2012

Snow on tree. Just looking outside my window, I found meditation objects, beauty.

Votives, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC

Votives, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

I took them where I found them, those meditation objects and rituals, and adapted them to my own house: candles, incense, writing, yoga, walks, cooking, talking, time with friends and family.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Yeah, just some grasses along the Mohawk River, nothin’ special. But no–eminently special, subtle color and stillness again. Just look, that’s all. So I did.

A study in red, brown, and white

Food is fun! A study in red, brown, and white.

The daily is worth attending to, including the daily food.  Vegetarian chili with Community Garden tomatoes, those familiar basil-garlic cheese curds and black beans, followed by strawberries with chocolate sauce and slivered almonds.  (Yes, technically the tomatoes are more orange than red, but in other light they matched quite closely.)

Ice at Dyken Pond

Ice at Dyken Pond

Like a modern art painting of skyscrapers, just the beginning of the freezing process–I spend a lot of time “at the beginning,” but those moments are striking, too.

Mountain beyond Hildene (Battenkill Valley), Manchester VT

Mountain beyond Robert Todd Lincoln’s home Hildene, in the Battenkill Valley, Manchester VT

A classic wind battered evergreen with snow topped mountain behind. What does it evoke? Back to the idea of stillness. But more: active stillness, strength from within, a yoga thing. Responding to the wind, relaxing into holding the snow, moving with circumstances as they arrive.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

My life is art, my food is art: more meditation objects.

Sunset over the Helderbergs

Sunset over the Helderbergs: note the teeny electric pole on the right,  which helps you realize the distance you are viewing

Beginnings and endings and the in-between.  A huge sky sweeps toward me, over me, I am immense and minuscule all at once. 

Pea sprouting in late spring

Pea sprouting in late spring

Back to the garden.

A pea plant breaks through hard ground, living into its defined structure, but how it grows, the rhythm and size and potential production, are all to come yet. How fragile it looks there, and yet it is so strong.

That’s me, that’s the new year. Delicate, to be nurtured, but hardy and riotously ecstatic and full of surprises. To be attended to every day, carefully but not with anxiety, just responding to changes as they come.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing mark.

Detritus of the old is beautiful, and will feed the new life to come, after the quiet time, the enforced rest, of winter. Welcome, winter; Welcome, new year!

A wonder-ful 2013 to all.

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Winter Solstice At Home, with Rice Noodles

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

I’m having a hard time settling in this week, as winter holidays come and go, approach and recede, as personal and national losses do the same.

So I go to the kitchen.

The hills and bare trees and apartment roofs that stretch to the east bear witness through the windows. I write as I do my little jobs–if I think of them as little, building like snowflakes into larger things, they are easier to begin.  I jot down thoughts, recipe ideas, insights that spring on me like the birds who dive past.  Sunrise glows dimly through the clouds.

Since the rest of the world feels sad and chaotic, I create order in my corner of it: there are the clean dishes dried and warmed by the gas stove pilot lights. Now to stack the mixing bowls by size and slip them into the cabinet, organize the post-Cookie Party baking pans, and ponder which ingredients are to be used up next out of the freezer and fridge. Here’s the softness of a purple dish towel, water splashing everywhere while I clean the last of the teacups, and that final step: wiping down the counters and sink, sweeping the floor. Now to the cooking.

**

Frozen chicken thighs started me off, and some of the Community Garden string beans I had managed to harvest and de-string and freeze before my last visit with J–and a rock-solid jar of cooking juices, added to each time I’d roasted or baked chicken since June. When defrosted, the glass was golden-full of olive oil, salt, floating bits of garlic, Pappadew sweet piquante pepper seasoning, and chicken fat.

The broth blended with milk and sautéed dried onion on the way to my mother’s Curried Chicken sauce. The original recipe appeared decades before curry was a household word in the U.S., in Redbook, or Good Housekeeping, or some other 1960s ladies’ magazine; I’m sure they promised an exotic meal, able to be put together in 30 minutes or less, conveniently utilizing leftover cooked poultry.  Originally the sauce was served over rice (red-boxed “Minute Rice” in Mom’s kitchen) mixed with dried parsley, always with a side of canned pineapple chunks.

But horrors!–the bag of brown basmati rice (standard in my interpretation of the dish) was empty, and so I hurriedly dug through the cabinets to find rice noodles, purchased for another, more modern curry dish–Thai coconut and Kaffir lime.  Since the comfort-food sauce was almost finished, I quickly boiled the noodles like a wheat-based spaghetti, and they turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

After eating, I walked into the rest of the apartment where chores awaited patiently: the end of year budget, memorabilia to be sorted, work research and networking to be initiated.  I brought in the sense of order from my clean kitchen and home-cooked meal, lit a candle, later burned some incense, and calmly did small parts of huge projects.

I drank tea, cried about tragedies, and thought about some joys as well.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoon.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoons.

Later in the week I wanted to use up the rest of the dried noodles, so I hot-soaked them and then stir-fried with a jarred Pad Thai sauce I’d bought for “some day when I wanted Thai but didn’t want to order out or cook from scratch.”  I managed to employ this sauce, the rice noodles, about ten frozen raw shrimp left from Thanksgiving appetizers, some eggs and broccoli and aging celery, even had salted peanuts hiding behind the dried pasta; only had to buy fresh cilantro and bean sprouts.

I trust that if I eat up all the food I have, there will be more.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf. Oh, and broccoli and celery and bean sprouts. And a little egg.

This week, in the spirit of being empty, I even skipped a writing deadline, deliberately watching the clock tick down and observing my reactions. The piece I wanted to submit just wasn’t ready yet, so I didn’t force it.  I trust that it’s stewing inside me, and I’ll know it’s ready, if I keep close watch on the pot.

So instead of indulging the A+ student, I hiked for hours along the Niskayuna Bike Path, on the last sunny afternoon predicted for a while, then hunkered down for the blowzy day on Friday.

I trust there will be other opportunities in my writing life; that missing this one won’t be the end of me.

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

I conversed on the day of solstice with author E.P. Beaumont (http://epbeaumont.com).  E.P. describes late fall as “the end of things, the beginning of things, a gateway time, where the gates to the other world are wide open–and remember the other world includes The Past, as well.”  This is a time for processing, meditating, mulling. It reminds us of other darknesses that will inevitably come, and trains us to hold on to the memory of light and lightness, which will also inevitably return.

Though deeper cold chills the landscape and bits of snow flew outside this morning, winter solstice has come and gone and the days increase, even if imperceptibly for now.  I will continue consuming my culinary caches, making order, making messes, identifying my life’s work through my daily work. Lighting candles and cooking noodles.  Drinking tea. Trusting I carry my peace and emptiness with me, into the darkness, as I seek the growing light.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

Mom’s Curried Chicken Recipe:  Saute 1 1/2 tsp curry powder and 1 TB instant minced onion in 3 TB of margarine. Remove from heat and add 3 TB flour, 3/4 tsp sugar, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ginger. Stir until thickened. Add 1 cup milk and 1 cup chicken broth. Put back on heat and bring to a boil. Simmer one minute, Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup cooked cut up chicken, 3/4 tsp lemon juice. Serve on top of rice mixed with parsley flakes.

I usually double all the ingredients, thoroughly mix in more flour than recommended so the sauce will be thicker, and whisk the roux incrementally with the liquids, before heating, to avoid lumps. This time I also added 32 oz of cooked Community Garden green beans along with the chicken. And more chicken than recommended. Of course.

Shrimp Pad Thai. I used a whole jar of Thai Kitchen Pad Thai sauce, and followed the instructions on the label for stir-frying 2 eggs first, then the shrimp, then the sliced veggies, mixing in bean sprouts at the end, topping with crushed peanuts and cilantro. I followed the directions on the rice noodles for hot soaking, then stir fried them with the sauce, again per the Thai Kitchen label. Nice and easy….

Remembering Commodity Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Today’s Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Once again, Some Day came for a food item in my house–this time in the category Leftover Bits of Cheese Saved in the Freezer, Intended for Macaroni & Cheese Some Day.  The double wrapped packages included slices of dill havarti left from late summer sandwiches, chunks of Colby-Jack, and a half-used bag of shredded cheddar preserved from potential spoiling before a trip out of town.

This assortment made me think about cheeses of the past, specifically, a lack of variety in days gone by…

When my former spouse and I lived in student apartments, we received Commodity Cheese. The distribution of this calcium and protein source, otherwise known as Government Cheese, dated back to World War II when it was fed to soldiers; in the 1980s, we were told it served to purchase excess milk from American farmers (in order to stabilize prices), and also to assist the hungry. Our family income, clearing the high four figures, qualified us as hungry, or potentially so. Other commodity products included powdered milk, greasy pork and canned vegetables. But the most common item, and the rubbery backbone of the program, was the cheese.

It was so ubiquitous that the local grocery store sold keep-fresh containers for the 5-pound blocks of what looked like American or Velveeta, but was actually a variety of cheeses blended together with emulsifiers. A whole set of recipes grew around using this hunk o’ dairy, since each month we received at least one block. Several times we received two huge bars of cheese (ten pounds total), along with ten, count ‘em ten, pounds of butter. What the hell? we laughed. And they can’t figure out why poor people might have weight problems?

Sometimes that wrapped slab was the biggest thing in our fridge. We were lucky–relatives sent us grad-school care packages, and for years we’d been part of natural foods buying co-ops, so we were able to spend our very limited food budget on other, healthier items. In addition, our family received WIC coupons, which enabled me to vary the kids’ meals with cereal, juice, eggs, peanut butter and milk.

We used up our Government allotment in grilled cheese, cheesy rice, cheesy grits (for the southerners), cheesy potatoes, cheesy eggs. My favorite recipe, shared around by the industrious Moms, Dads & Tots Group, was “Pasta Salad.” Not many fancy ingredients—a box of white store-brand elbow noodles; diced Commodity Cheese; a chopped green pepper; if you had it, chopped up Spam; and a dressing made of equal parts mayonnaise and mustard. Sounds a little scary, but it actually tasted pretty good; served cold, it was a nice side dish, and heated, a filling dinner. Of course, we all had our recipes for macaroni and cheese.

I say “we” because it was a community blessing and curse, that cheese. Almost everyone in the cinderblock apartments received it. I don’t know what the international students thought of it, if they ever got used to this strange, squishy, egg yolk-colored American fare. Our other cheap go-to food (at five cents a package), Ramen Noodles, was at least familiar to some of them, albeit originally in a spicier, tastier form.

The parents’ group also hosted International cooking nights. We learned how to make dishes from Burundi and Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Peru. We U.S. natives cooked our regional specialties and holiday recipes.

I don’t remember Commodity Cheese appearing in any of these showcases.

We used it when we had to, but weren’t thrilled with it; we might have been materially poor, but we were proudly not culturally or creatively poor.

Nowadays I don’t yearn for that situation of having fewer ingredient choices, but I do miss the comradeship of the particular community that received and dealt with those yellow bricks.  I am reminded of what can be accomplished when people of different cultures and backgrounds come together in a mutual task–whether that is making food you can stomach out of something odd, or greater goals.

****

My macaroni and cheese in 2012 is made with with more vegetables than carbohydrates, and carefully chosen smoked mozzarella, chèvre, Muenster, and so on–certainly none requiring a special Keep Fresh container. The carrier for these artisanal cheeses is Tinkyada brown rice pasta, or locally made Flour City noodles, accented with fresh garlic and herbs.

This sounds like food snobbery, but isn’t intended to be so; when given the option, of course we crave variety and subtlety in our food, to please our particular palates–and if we don’t have options, we humans make do, often with inventiveness and humor.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Here’s what I made the other day, with those odds and ends. I brought back chopped sweet peppers from the good ol’ “Pasta Salad” days.

  • 8 oz Pizza Pasta from Flour City Pasta
  • 2 oz dill havarti slices, 4 oz Colby Jack slices, and 3 oz shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 diced green pepper and 1/2 diced red pepper
  • basil, Community Gardens dried parsley, garlic salt
  • 1 cup 2% local milk
  • 2 eggs (of course–brown, free range, local, from the farmers’ market!)

Cook the pasta according to directions but deduct a minute or two from the boil time, mix all the ingredients, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes in a toaster convection oven, until the top noodles are getting a little crispy and the cheese is all melty (adjust as necessary for your oven). Serve with big heaps of steamed sliced broccoli.

If you are wondering, it’s four servings @ 475 calories each.

And it's so good heated up the next day, too!

And it’s so good heated up the next day, too!

Saving Food/Wasting Food

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Last week’s blog did not get finished or posted–all because I made an inedible pot of soup.

In a hurry; measurement ignored; ingredients tossed together; forgot to break up the frozen chard so instead of tasty green bits, slimy strings floated; didn’t realize the pinto beans had been freezer burnt by a crack in the container until they were already in the stew; frugally used up an open beef bouillon concentrate, but the whole thing tasted too dark and earthy, not savory.

Finally I admitted to myself that beef base just didn’t work here, and neither did anything else.  Staring at the congealed mess in the stockpot: How did I come to make this lousy food? 

Fear. The word bubbled up, like the greenish-brown liquid in the pot.  It’s fear. 

A discussion before Thanksgiving at a local barbecue restaurant prompted this reaction. One friend had grown up in an Italian family, but not one that stuffed him like a manicotti; plenty to eat, but no forcing, “take however much or little you want.” Therefore, few food issues emerged afterward, and he is able to enjoy a bit of protein, or a bit of sweet, knowing pretty instantly when he might be over-eating. My other friend grew up with nutrition from the pantry at her church, sometimes shamed by charity, and sometimes sending back food that was so unpleasant her family couldn’t accept it, for others more desperate than them. Later food allergies made meal preparation tedious and very limited.

I grew up with meals measured out carefully, only intermittent seconds or extras, and desserts strictly regulated–even though the cupboards and Frigidaires were full, a practice dating from the blizzard-on-the-farm days of my mother’s teenager-hood. We had enough, but the equal-sized and small portions of meat, starch, vegetable, fruit, though nutritionally well balanced, usually tasty, and not bad looking on the plate, combined with later skirting with poverty during grad school days to create an enduring sense of scarcity, and lack of knowing what my body actually needed and craved, aside from “more.”

After sharing our stories, we three studied our plates and take-out containers in shock, individually mulling over alternate universes–What would it be like to live with his relationship to food? With hers? With mine?

Weeks later, this led to my realization and then extended thoughts about fear, as I stood over my unpalatable potage, but a different fear interrupted–about meeting the Friday writing deadline. All this thinking is taking too long!

Then I remembered the book I’ve been slowly reading lately: Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, wherein she says some very cogent things about Running Out of Time and  Attachment to Outcomes.

With a sigh, I went back to page 36. Susanka reminded me to not make the end product the goal, but rather the process; the process of figuring out what I wanted to say, the process of understanding myself–that was the goal.

The A+ Student in me got sent to a time-out, to cool her proverbial heels for a week, and I lived my life and read my book and wrote pages and pages about my childhood and young-married life, and my relationship with food.

J's crazy-cats keep me company.

J’s crazy-cats keep me company while I write and ponder.

Now multiple essays are emerging, all linked by a challenge I’ve set for myself.

Don’t worry–it’s not a challenge that will cause the A+ Student to come roaring from her room with fangs out and lists streaming behind her. It’s just a challenge to gently help me and the A+ Student identify what ideational platforms I’m standing on, where they come from, and ask:  Are they true? Are they helpful?

So…I now take a vow to clear out old food, to undo the feeling of scarcity in my eating life. No more stuffing the freezer and shelves with food because I am worried about not having enough. 

In fact, I am going to “spend down” my supplies. I will buy the fresh things necessary for daily use, or specific ingredients to make something fun or follow a recipe, but no more stockpiling. If a food item is past due, or icky, it’s gone. After cooking, I can put an extra portion away, but will share it or eat it within a short period.

Reminding myself: it’s one person for many meals, little amounts of food, not like when I was cooking for a family of four, which with teenagers makes it more like six, and their friends, plus leftovers for the food needs that will come a few hours or a day later– Whoops, better cook for eight or ten.

Homemade pizza with a big family used to mean two 9 X 12 cookie sheets. Today I eat one piece, with salad and fruit. Lasagna in the past? Twelve pieces for today, twelve pieces for the freezer, regardless of the future texture. Who cared about that? It was speed, availability, and quantity!  Nowadays, lasagna is layered with vegetables, a delicate sauce, fresh cheeses, and no more than two or three servings over several days. Yes, life is different and the action I’m taking will be accompanied by meditating and writing.

A list is posted now in my kitchen, what’s kept cold and what’s kept frozen and what’s kept waiting in the pantry, along with a few lovely potential recipes.  A month of this, and the new year has a chance to begin fresh and open.

How will it feel to have emptier cabinets, an almost empty freezer?

***

Approaching frozen containers was too daunting after the soup fiasco, so I started by opening a can of sweetened condensed milk whose “best by” date I can’t even admit to.  It tastes fine, the texture is merely thicker and the color more caramel than usual, and I am using it instead of the standard turbinado and milk to lace my morning tea. It’s beautiful in J’s cat-covered mug, and stirs up nicely. A good start, I say.

Next week the menu includes Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese, and a side of My Personal History with Commodity (Government) Cheese. Soon to come: Phyllo Chicken Pot Pie accompanied by Women & Preparedness; Losing Books and the Purpose of Stuff; a dessert of Poverty, Pie, and the Possibility of Blizzards.

See? I tell myself. There’s still fullness, and not just of food.

IMG_8866

Creamy and filling, the tea with sweetened condensed milk–whose time had finally come!