Open to Change: Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes spill over the counter top.

Cherry tomatoes (and one teeny carrot) spill over the counter top into late summer sun.

As a small child, I hated tomatoes in any form. I particularly remember hating spaghetti sauce; it seemed so sour, so acidic, stinging my lips and hurting my stomach. Like many green vegetables at that time, tomatoes also made me gag.

In one of the few food compromises I recall from childhood, my mother made a separate dish for me when spaghetti was served: Buttered Noodles. Soft, squishy, chewy, buttery, salty, peppery, heaping bowls of elbows; it was delightful to surreptitiously poke my tongue into one end of a noodle, split the bent tube and then stick that noodle-covered tongue-tip out at the others around the dinner table.  When finished playing, I could then chew it, and slurp up a few more, since butter didn’t show on my face like splashed tomato sauce might have–all of this presuming no grownups were around.

Comforting and simple, I loved buttered noodles’ starchy blandness–though I didn’t consider them bland;  I considered them delicious beyond words.

**

Then one evening I bravely tested a worm of vermicelli with tomato sauce and my head jerked up, “What?! You’ve been keeping this from me? I LOVE spaghetti with sauce!” My mother, I am sure, rolled her eyes. This particular jarred sauce was savory and didn’t make me feel icky at all. So I left the buttered noodles of childhood behind as my tastes matured.

But I still didn’t like all tomatoes, just spaghetti sauce. No fresh ones, too watery, and my mother agreed–there is no tomato like a New Jersey farm tomato; having none of those available in our Midwestern kitchen, she didn’t press the issue. As a teenager, I tried small quantities of chopped tomatoes on Mexican food, to cut the heat. Then thin slivers of tomato on a burger, or in a salad.  Over time I diversified, and now even love thicker sliced tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Every once in a while I get that childhood gag reflex, but not very often.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots and bacon.

I changed my mind, I grew my tastes. I didn’t have to force liking tomatoes either–my desire for them came on my own terms, without someone else’s requirements.

Along with tomatoes, I now eat all kinds of green vegetables–they are some of my favorite foods! and in another area, I have expanded past my color palette of jewel-like purple and blue to appreciate earth tones, browns and even oranges. (My kitchen is painted a dull historical green and accented with red, of all colors, with mud- and rust-colored rugs.)

Preferences shift, and I want to be open to that–not too rigid, in food and color choices, or relationships, or beliefs about the world. “Curious” is the word they use in Kripalu yoga.

As I increase my practice in preparation for Yoga School, I learn to be curious as I study the edge of my likes and limits. Ready to laugh at myself and my foibles.  Maybe I will grow to love huge dripping slices of tomato raw in my mouth–maybe I will grow to love the burning ache in my hip during Pigeon Pose or every damned time I lose my balance in Tree Pose.  Who knows?

Frozen tomatoes from the garden--part of the clearing out cooking!

Frozen tomatoes from the garden–part of the clearing out cooking!

….So all that serves as an introduction:  I used up some tomatoes the past couple weeks.

I’m pretty exhausted from weight lifting, walking in the snowstorm that arrived yesterday, and Yoga Flow sessions, so I will share the photos and leave references if you Gentle Readers desire the recipes. Every one of them used tomatoes.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the counter.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the butcher block table.

Cabbage and sweet potatoes formed the basis of Cape Verde Vegetable Soup.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

The carrots and peppers filled out vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

My favorite adapted recipe, Green Chili and Corn soup, used tough late summer Community Garden corn softened by the freezing process, and more black beans.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, waaay more green chilies) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, no potatoes, plus black beans and waaay more green chilies than originally called for) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Plenty of tomato based soups and chilies to go around this frozen month of February–though I think I’ll make some buttered noodles, very soon.

I hated tomatoes and then I loved them, but only in some forms. What does that say about changing your mind? Being open? What happens when you don’t force things?

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Choosing Beauty in the Every-day: New Dishes

My first plate, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats.

My first plate purchased in July, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats: spinach fronted by fresh mozzarella, tomato, and garden basil.

Last week I bought the (almost) final dish in my new set of Bennington Pottery.

That’s important because three years ago, I found myself suddenly a one-person living unit, every room of the new apartment stacked with bins and cardboard boxes six feet high. I was Keeper of The Household as I had always been, but now with a much smaller Household to manage.  It was simultaneously frightening, sad, and a relief.

The containers spilled over with stuff saved for other people, for future needs and/or disaster: financial papers, cooking equipment, furniture, clothing, decoration–and dishes. Most of it had been purchased already-used decades ago, found on the street, or gratefully acquired as other people cleared out their basements and storerooms. The items didn’t necessarily match or work optimally, but they functioned, and when you are just barely surviving, that’s what matters.

Happy to have a very different life now,  I’ve been learning to go beyond the idea of just-surviving, especially since–as witnessed by the stockpiles of food I’ve been using up–I am releasing myself from the burden of so many belongings, the weight of saving in order to feel safe.

In addition, in the small amounts I keep, I want not only functionality but also beauty.  When my best friend was making a pittance on the front lines in human services, she would still buy a little piece of handblown glass or earrings, telling me:  Beauty is as important as food. 

Since Bennington Pottery is not only beautiful but relatively expensive, I’ve been acquiring the matte finish Elements design over time, buying most of them as “seconds” from the outlet or Potter’s Yard in Vermont (making me much more comfortable with the idea that I might break a piece here or there).  I certainly don’t need all of the sizes, just the couple that work for me ; I chortle over picking four different colors to mix and match, the option to make my table look different at every meal. The quirks in curvature and mis-splotches of color, part of being a not-quite-perfect dish, endear each salad plate and soup bowl to me.

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

During the factory tour on a slow day, one of the fewer-than-ten potters took visitors behind the scenes to see how they smooth and glaze and fire the clay.  To meet the artist-makers of my belongings moves me, and I often relive those discussions when I encounter the objects in my home.

Behind the futon on which I sometimes sit while eating out of my new palm-sized bowls, hangs a yellow-and-red Amish quilt, signed on the back by a northern Kentucky woman named Ella Bontrager.  As I study its shifting geometry, the rainy April afternoon of its purchase returns: talking in Ella’s little farm-shop, hearing how her husband and daughter work with her, why she used a nontraditional “proud” color in this artwork, what is valuable to her and her community.

A corner of Ella Bontrager's Amish quilt

A corner of Ella Bontrager’s Amish quilt

My gaze moves to the purple and green and brown placemats I splurged on at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo.  The nuance in their colors and patterns frequently draw me to thoughts of architecture, simplicity and beauty–same as the quilt and the plates.

In the window, light glows through two tiny hobnail glass vases.  From over three dozen of varying sizes, I have kept only a few; the rest were donated, moving on to other people’s homes for their flowers and their meditations. The mis-matched plates and bowls from my past left in that give-away box, too.

Every day we eat off dishes and placemats, look at interior walls and surfaces, use the items we share our living space with.  How do we make this inside life beautiful?  What choices do we make, what do we get rid of, to add beauty to our lives?

Moments of startling light.

A moment of warm afternoon light.

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….

First harvest in my community garden plot

As someone who cooks a lot, for myself and others, I use fair trade, seasonal and local, and/or organic ingredients, whenever possible.   Call me crazy but I just believe in these defining attributes strongly, try hard to find them, and encourage others to prefer them over imported, old, pesticide-covered & water-polluting, factory-farm, long-distance food.

Having said all this, I don’t flog myself when I can’t find them. (Striving for perfection, not necessarily reaching it, right?)

As a city dweller without yard access, my fresh veggies with those descriptors come from the farmers’ market, the local grocery, and in the summer, my community garden plot. “Community garden” just means I grew it myself, or a friend did, in a local shared garden; in the Albany & Schenectady area, that would be part of Capital District Community Gardens.

So for me the literal ground-work of April and planting of May have now yielded July’s bounty—

Basil. Many poetic words have been waxed about its delicious properties, its pungent, fruity addition to dishes. But look how gosh darned pretty it is, coming out of the dark earth, growing hard in the night and day! I can taste the sun in it, taste other seashores and countries. As long as I pinch off the tops to keep it from bolting (flowering), it will continue to give me pesto and Thai-spiced vegetables and lime & basil vinaigrettes all summer.

And nothing like the morning light streaming through red chard….Yes, it got a bit old and spotted before I got to it, so I picked leaf after leaf, and tossed it all into green bags in the fridge until it could be washed properly; yes, I used the fancy salad spinner, rinsed it again and again to get the grit off, spin-spin-spin, and then finally cooked it all down. Mild and wonderful to float in soup or drop into stir-fry, it’s one of the “top ten vegetables” for nutrition. Go chard, you subtle thing, you.

Can I tell you what happens when you plant radish seeds in the ground, water them and then leave town without thinning them? You get a lot of radishes. I ended up with piles and piles of mildly spicy roots popping up out of the ground, mostly red but many pink, and a few exciting purple ones. You’ll see the basil here in the sink too, and a little parsley:  clean flavors to go into my salads.

Finally, this is a picture of my bush beans, before they were beans, back when they were just beautiful pinky-purple flowers. I watered, weeded some, went out of town (see above), came back, and almost missed the long stems of bean, hanging hidden behind leaves. They would have been spotty themselves and over-ripe the next time I came to my plot, if another gardener hadn’t pointed them out to me while I was frantically weeding the nasturtiums and watermelons. The former-flowers now-beans have been turned into Five Bean Salad, complete with parsley picked the same day.

Marinated Five Bean Salad Adapted from  Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, Ten Speed Press, 1977:

¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup fair trade olive oil

2 tsp salt and some fresh ground pepper

½ tsp oregano and 1-1 ½ tsp basil

1-2 heaping teaspoons of minced garlic

zest (the yellow part of the peel, taken off with a tool handily called a zester) and juice from half a lemon

1 can each of well-rinsed dark kidneys, black beans, great northern beans, garbanzo beans—or whatever else you’ve got. Mollie recommends freshly cooked beans, but it was just too hot this week!

2 heaping handfuls of fresh community garden bush beans, washed and trimmed

½ bunch of community garden parsley, chopped

1 finely minced red onion; maybe 1 1/2 if you like more onion

Mix all the sauce ingredients together. Cook the green beans in a bit of water (1/2 cup to a cup) until tender (5-10 minutes depending on their age and your definition of “tender”; some people like a crunch to beans; others desire complete abdication).  Mix green beans with canned beans and other ingredients in a big bowl.

This version is much lower fat than the original; I wanted to be able to taste the lemon and the different beans’ nuttiness more than just taste and feel the oil; a cup measures roughly 225 calories. Yummy cold or room temperature.