Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

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Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods: Yoga and Intention

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

When I first committed to creating a personal daily yoga practice, I quickly became frustrated.  I want to do the asanas and breathing, but it seems so overwhelming to go into the room and practice for an hour every single day–even though I know it feels good, I am very happy at the end, and I WANT to do it.  

“Life” kept getting in the way. My mind and body fought me.

Luckily a friend who’s been doing yoga many more years than I suggested:
Every day, just stand at the yoga room door and bow. If you are capable of additional effort, go in and do thirty seconds on the mat. Once in the space, if you feel drawn further, then follow that inclination.

It worked. Some days I bowed at the door, physically acknowledging the desire and the simultaneous inability or lack of time to do more than bow. Other days I went in and sat and breathed and moved, not paying attention to the clock, just following my body’s needs and desires. Now once in a while, I take the computer in and stream a class.

I am developing a practice, not a routine.

And I admit–I’ve still had a hard time overcoming that initial inertia; sometimes my disinclination to move wins the argument. Then I remind myself: you don’t need an argument, just set the expectation and do your best to fulfill it. Even if you just bow at the door.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

So–I’ve been sick for several weeks with what is usually called “a nasty cold.” It has been especially disheartening since before I was felled by the virus, I’d just experienced a wonderful streak of physical strength building in anticipation of Yoga School–hikes and walks and weight lifting and yoga classes–which dribbled down to nothing as my sinuses did the opposite.

All the ongoing projects–writing of every kind along with the apartment clearing–lumbered to a stop, and are just now rumbling back to life.

Coughing hard while tucked under covers and unable to do anything physical, I comforted myself with memories of Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

My hiking companion and I have been venturing to remote parts of well-known local nature areas; one week she brought sticky home-made baklava, which we ate in a snowstorm while peering over unguarded ledges of the Helderberg Escarpment. The next week I unpacked Carrot-Nut Bread (my absolute-favorite-quick-bread-on-the-planet) to munch along the sunny aqua-blazed Long Path.

To have such fancy food–What an indulgence! we giggled. We keep turning our human requirement for exercise into photo safari adventures and seasonal meditations, and now even our snacks have become more than just nutrition: they are flavorful, exotic even. And delightful!

Baklava in the snow.

Baklava in the snowy wilderness.

The first day I could stir from my sickbed, I turned on the lights in the apartment, in case I felt like washing the loaf pan from the Carrot-Nut Bread or organizing papers.

Pretty soon I switched the lights off, but did stand at the yoga room door for a moment.

Then I heated some chicken soup and, dizzy, sat on the futon for a while before heading back to bed.

I had to trust that this illness-induced inertia would pass, even if it was difficult to imagine; that there would be experiences again that felt like Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods, Baklava in the Wilderness. That I would eventually speak without hacking uncontrollably, get back to the yoga mat and the kitchen.

All the empty time in bed gave me time to realize: I intend to do these activities, intend to do them thoughtfully and gloriously, and then they will became part of my Life, not just another thing to add, or schedule into a routine.

And so it happened. Vinyasa class and gentle machine workouts in a colleague’s gym became realities. Buttermilk Banana Bread with Currants as well as Home-Fried Hushpuppies ventured to the beaver lodge at Dyken Pond. I did more than just bow at the door, most days.

My yoga practice is blossoming, in spite of everything.

Actually, my practice is blossoming because of the setbacks. And continuing intentions, yes, to bow at the door every day.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot Nut Bread from The Joy of Cooking

This recipe is nice because you don’t need butter; the hardest part is grating the carrots and grinding the nuts. I use a hand nut-chopper to grind the nuts. Produces a crunchy surface and moist interior.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and sift together:

1 1/2 cups flour (half white, half whole wheat). Sometimes I substitute 1/4 cup almond flour or mix in other tasty flours.
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (I often put in a little more).

Add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup canola oil (or other vegetable oil), 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Blend in with a few swift strokes:
1 1/2 cups grated carrots and 1 1/2 cups ground walnuts or pecans.

Bake in a greased 5 X 9 loaf pan about 1 hour. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack for further cooling.

I used mini loaf pans and baked about 30 minutes. Can also be baked as muffins. Exquisite with a little cream cheese spread on top.

Little creatures skip along the bumps on their created path, as we can do also.

Little creatures skip along and over bumps on their created path–as we can, also.

Phyllo, and Preparedness

Lemon that has been cooked in syrup for baklava: honey, water, orange blossom water

Lemon that has been cooked in syrup for baklava: with honey and orange blossom water

Mom, is there any GOOD STUFF in here? 

Sweetie, some guys from the lab want to have a party, just a little one. What do we have for appetizers?

She’s not eating meat anymore–well, maybe sausage, but not pig-sausage.

Ten people from the social justice group will be coming by post-conference for dessert.

Your apple cider cornbread is scrumptious! 

The church needs platters of cut-up vegetables for a funeral reception.

His unemployment check is late this week; do you have a couple slices of  bread for the kids’ sandwiches?

Can we drop by and talk at dinner time? I’ll bring wine…

Yes, a vegan birthday cake–how about that carob one with peanut butter frosting that you made for last year’s party? Oh, and some of the kids can’t have wheat.

Mom, is there any GOOD STUFF in here?

**

I loved meeting people’s food needs. And I still do.

But I had a different life before; my personal food requirements have changed, even though my buying and supplying habits have not–yet.  Hence the recent challenge to make dishes with what I have in the house, and then face the world empty-handed, empty-casseroled.

Don’t get me wrong–vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores still visit; I welcome the gluten-intolerant, yeast-free, soy-sensitive and low-fat, the teenager-like appetites, but also smaller appetites as well.  Tasty comestibles invite people to come and relax, and I want to create a comfortable place for not only myself but others as well.

However, it’s crazy, even as a personal chef, even as someone who likes to cook to special dietary needs, having this much food around.

For example, I discovered that I had all the fixings for a recipe out of an old Country Living Magazine, involving leftover Thanksgiving turkey and half a pound of phyllo dough.  The other half-pound of phyllo went into baklava –for which I also happened to have all the ingredients.

A little ridiculous, but indeed, I am the kind of person who often has phyllo dough (and a thousand other odd ingredients) in the freezer; I respond to any possible incredulity–well, I might have a spanakopita emergency!

When I mentioned this at a writing group recently, thinking I was the only crazy one there, four out of four of us had the makings at home, at that moment, for spanakopita (spinach pie with feta).  Along with ingredients for Indian curries, pesto, and multiple varieties of soup.  So does that just mean we are all foodies? Or that amazing numbers of people are now conversant with multicultural foods? Or do all four of us happen to regularly host huge numbers of last-minute get-togethers?

Some or all of those theories might apply, but it’s bigger than that.

We women are taught to have plenty, to be plenty.

We are called on to make miracles with what we have on hand, so we learn to have a lot on hand: in our pantries, in our emotional capacities, in our organization of tasks large and small, in our intellectual understanding and knowledge of the world.

We utilize our reserves over and over again, often struggle to keep a brave smile, a “full pantry” all the time, without opportunity for rest and rejuvenation.

**

In performing my usual writerly vocabulary-check I asked:  For my title, does “preparedness” differ from “being prepared”? The dictionary answered: Preparedness is the state of being ready, especially for war.  Ah! so this is like war for the keepers of the larder: under attack, scarcity approaching.

Apparently, this incipient battle requires phyllo dough at-the-ready.

And guacamole and salsa and four kinds of crackers for the various demands that might present themselves. Humus, tabbouleh, pita chips. Chicken, hamburger, mozzarella, edamame. And ingredients for phyllo poultry pot pie, and baklava.

Sautéing in my enamel pan, for pot pie

Sautéing pearl onions, carrots, parsley in my enamel pan, for pot pie

As a belt-and-suspenders person the message is:  be ready for emergencies, don’t be caught unaware, unready, especially if you know it is a possibility–and so many bad things are a possibility. 

Lately I am learning instead: Yeah, I’ve had it scarce, but I am learning to trust if the world falls apart, my community and I will work it out.  I’m prepared but don’t need to live in a state of fearful preparedness. I am acceptable with my hands empty; I will not go hungry. 

In addition, I can choose when and where my arms are open and gifts are shared, to choose without incurring exhaustion or potential resentment–claiming my right to decide what I want to offer, and when.

Even though it is tasty and fun–I don’t always have to have phyllo dough in my freezer.

Phyllo chicken pot pie

Phyllo chicken pot pie, with peas in gravy

RECIPES, WITH ANNOTATION

Chicken (originally Turkey) Potpie with Phyllo Crust, adapted from Country Living Magazine, November 2010, page 112.

I cooked in a large skillet over medium heat: splash of olive oil, 10 oz fresh pearl onions (boiled for 2 minutes and plunged into cold water for two minutes so you can cut the ends and squeeze out the center portion without hand-peeling), cooked them until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Added 3 community garden carrots, diced, and garlic from the fridge. I cooked all that about 5 minutes, until the carrots were just tender, and stirred in a handful of community garden parsley. Sprinkled vegetables with 3 tablespoons of flour and cooked a little (the original recipe called for flour to turn golden brown, but it was too easy to burn it).

I added 1 1/2 cups chicken broth–made from chicken pan drippings (including Pappadew seasoning, salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil) AND a cup of 2% milk, a squeeze of spicy brown mustard (the original recipe called for Dijon, didn’t have it, oh well), salt and pepper. Cooked until mixture thickened, about 6 minutes. Stirred in 2 1/2 cups shredded roasted chicken, 1 1/2 cups frozen peas (rinsed since they’d been in the freezer so long), and broken up Community Garden dried sage. I used half a box of phyllo with butter softened by sitting in the hot kitchen.  Don’t have a pastry brush so used fingers to brush butter here and there between the sheets, and on top, baked in regular oven at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, watching the phyllo turn medium brown.

The Baklava recipe came from The Joy of Cooking, and I even had essential oil of Neroli (orange blossom) in my aromatherapy supplies to make the called-for, very dilute orange blossom water. It added a subtle, delicate aroma to the syrup.

I used local honey, a fresh lemon left from Thanksgiving, half the butter the original called for, cinnamon & cloves, sugar, chopped pistachios, walnuts, almonds–and a half-pound of phyllo dough.

Plated baklava, glistening with honey and crystals of sugar

Plated baklava, glistening with nuts in honey-syrup, and sugar crystals on the edge

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!

Popovers, and Peace with Myself

Popovers in all their particularity–and fullness.

I hadn’t ever eaten them, I don’t think, before last year.

I learned to use a borrowed Bennington Potters smooth-glazed stoneware 6-count muffin pan.  (Metal just doesn’t work the same.)

I have discovered much, in my new friendship with popovers.

***

From a friend’s five-ring, first edition (1950) Betty Crocker Cookbook:

Beat together just until smooth: one cup sifted…flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs. Pour into well greased, deep muffin cups, three-quarters full. (Oven-glass cups make highest popovers). Bake at 425 degrees, hot oven, until golden brown, 35-45 minutes. Serve immediately. 

Amount: 5 to 9 popovers, depending on size.  It is not necessary to preheat baking cups.

***

An oven light reveals them becoming the “high hat muffins” Betty describes next to her typical mid-century artificially colored photo of breakfast on a red-checked tablecloth.  The clock’s slow countdown gives me time to watch and muse.

Sometimes the edges pull up in one direction or the other, sometimes they rise evenly–inflating caramel, tan, and white, puffing like out of control teenagers careening around corners, not caring where they spill, yet contained by their individual muffin cup.

A half dozen “high hat muffins”

Bulge, distend, inflate, expand, enlarge, all the synonyms for the process, feel kind of distasteful, instead of the happy idea of claiming volume, having plenty of room. We aren’t supposed to take up too much space, are we? especially women. Popovers stretch out as they heat and settle back in as they cool; it’s not their nature to be tiny, uniform and controllable, and I realize it’s not mine either.

In addition, each one tastes good, regardless of lumpy or cracked shape.

Remember that, I tell myself, when you are poking your belly as you look in the mirror. Remember that we all feel good, warm and toasty, to someone ready for our toasty-ness, our hidden steam–and that first person, who should love us best, is our own self.

The phrase “muffin top” comes to mind:, we don’t like to spill out, be exposed for our size.  Is a muffin top to be ashamed of? When we squeeze ourselves into tight clothes, our softness squished hither and yon, we are measuring against only one standard; I remind myself that muffin cups are there to hold and separate the baked goods, not painfully compress them.

All the different ways the popovers rise up makes each one itself. Not that we want to be overly heavy or fool ourselves if we’re being unhealthy. We just want to appreciate our popover-ness, our crispy freshness, our lovely expansiveness.

***

So after the 35 to 45 minutes, at the height of puffy but not to dark brown yet, it’s time to pull them out.  They deflate and darken a bit with rest, settle into their-selves, creating a little place for the knife to slide in and deposit butter without too much steam burning fingers. The defined crispy edges, crunchy and chewy to the tooth, lead to an airy eggy center, filling but light enough. I usually add a smear of summer blackberry preserves or honey.

Popover releasing steam, ready for butter and jam

After cooking, you have to eat them right away. Even an hour later, they just aren’t as tender, tending to be eggier, heavier instead.

Precisely because of that short peak, popovers are not popular.  I am the first to admit my royal role as Queen of Leftovers, doggy-bagging at restaurants or preparing extra portions so I can have something tasty tomorrow as well as today.  Popovers teach me a lesson in Right Now.

They only require a few things: flour, milk, eggs, salt. The right kind of pan, a hot oven, and enough time.  Blended components change and shift before your eyes, and then you get to savor them in your mouth. On these cold or snowy late fall mornings, you can share the making and tasting with family, a friend, or yourself–good company, all.

We, like popovers, are delicious, delicious beings–if we let ourselves be at the temperature we need, for long enough, in the proper container, no more than a few ingredients, then water and oxygen moving in and out with a sense of plenty–plenty of space, plenty of time to be spent on just this one thing, making and eating popovers, making and being ourselves.

Delightful, savory, just right. Aren’t we all?

A Meditation on Grilled Cheese

Grilled cheese sandwich–oh my.

My fingers are greasy as they strike the keys. I don’t care.

I’m using a separate keyboard, in order to keep the new computer pristine, but am compelled to write as I encounter this sensuous, salty, absolutely satisfying sandwich.

Such a busy morning I didn’t get to eat!  Just drank sweet creamy tea, three sloppy-full tasty mugs of it, to keep me going, as I cleaned the apartment, answered email, and then shopped at the farmers’ market. There amid the musicians, neighbors shouting hello, and underlying mumbles of conversation, fall produce called:  lacinato kale, arugula, carrots and beets, Asian pears, pea shoots, Chinese cabbage, watermelon-striped radishes, kohlrabi, Candy Crisp apples, all spilling sensually out of bins and bags.  I answered the call.

Next to the greens table grinned Marjorie, of Argyle Cheese Farmers.  Five dollar-bills and two quarters later, a tub of basil garlic cheese curds perched on top of the already over-full grocery sacks.

As I stooped to put the package away in the fridge, a quarter-bag of aging rye bread slipped onto the floor. Then a stick of organic butter revealed itself on the top shelf.  Oh my. The makings for an amazing grilled cheese.

Now when I was a kid it was previously-plastic-wrapped American slices on soft wheat lightly swiped with Parkay; obviously, my tastes have changed dramatically since then. But no matter the formula, grilled cheese is a comfort-food for most people. It is warming to the belly, filling, and has that crisp and gooey mouth feel of fat plus starch.

In my childhood, grilled cheese meant mass-production: big pan, two or three grilled-cheeses at once; first, “margarine” the bread (since we didn’t have butter, too expensive), place on the griddle, unwrap the American cheese (usually just one slice per sandwich, two if the family was feeling flush, never three ‘Cuz that’s piggy we were told), place cheese on bread, “margarine” the other piece of bread and top the yet-to-be-flipped sandwich as the first side grills.  Watch so it doesn’t burn, but don’t let hunger press you to flip before it’s at least caramel-colored. Before the turn, squash the whole thing with a spatula, to squeeze it all together and melt the American faster. Flip, grill, and then more ingredients just the same way into the pan, until a stack appears, enough for everyone.

I like food that brings up the past for people, stories they can tell, parts of themselves to reveal.  For example, grilled cheese engenders discussion about “crust or no crust.” Also, how to cut it: two rectangles or four, or two triangles? And what does that present to you, the diner, the devourer; which styling option makes it seem like you have more crust, if that’s what you like? or more squishy middle, if that is your bailiwick?  Do you alternate bites of each?  Whom did you consume grilled cheese with; did you munch it with soup and if so, did you dunk it (not me!) or alternate chewing with slurping?

I think of other grilled cheeses in my past, and the consequences of bad choices. What happens when you don’t let the muenster melt or give the toast time to color? what about when your attention is divided and the cheese spills out and it burns and the bread blackens in the skillet? Or when you over-apply the butter and it’s slippery to the touch? Or let it sit on the plate too long and then steam sogs the center from underneath?

However, there was none of that with today’s grilled cheese sandwich.  It toasted to golden perfection, and was yieldingly soft inside. When I crunched past the edges, the sour rye flour and nuttiness of the caraway seeds and salty butter contrasted with the slightly-tart curds and mouth-watering pungency of the garlic and sweetness of the basil bits–a concoction exquisitely paired with an ice cold glass of Battenkill Valley Creamery chocolate milk, bottled in glass and sold to me as I exited the market hours before.  Thick and creamy-smooth, not quite a shake, I held the milk in my mouth like a fine wine to absorb the aroma through tongue and nose, and alternated sweet chocolate sips with savory bites of sandwich.

Just imagine it. Yum.

So here’s the feeling, when you’ve eaten something so very good–not stuffed yourself, but slowly and wholeheartedly “tucked into it,”–that when you finish, it’s like having run a race, you’re panting with pleasure, amazed that such delight exists in the world and walked into your house and sat down on your plate, begged to be eaten and enjoyed, and you did just that, just now.

Thank heavens for that feeling. Thank heavens for cheese curds and butter and rye bread with caraway seeds.

Thank heavens for grilled cheese.

Just crumbs left, and an empty chocolate milk glass. So tell me about YOUR grilled cheese….