The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

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!

Right Relationship with Food–Lessons from Kripalu

Sweet potato and hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Glazed sweet potato with hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Two problems:  we were on a schedule (breakfast at 8, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 6:15). And it was a buffet.

Granted, a buffet heavy on vegetables: kale and pepitas–kale and other steamed vegetables at every meal actually!–, saag (spiced spinach), curried cabbage, whipped squash, salsa and guacamole, and so on. Heavy on fresh fruit, too. Some meat if you wanted. Tofu baked and seasoned with sesame seeds, soft chunks in curry, cutlets, diced. Salads and soups at every meal.

Also more carbs than available in my kitchen: banana bread and pappardelle and rice, quinoa and egg rolls and kamut and millet and loaves and loaves of bread. Not to mention my favorite, the maple-nut scones. And the ginger ones. And those scones with the currants. Oh my.

Spanakopita, beans and greens.

At lunch, phyllo covered spanakopita, along with squash, saag, beans and greens.

–All food I didn’t have to research recipes for, shop for, haul up three flights of stairs, chop/slice/dice, sauté/steam/boil, measure then serve. No dishes to wash. No dealing with leftovers.

This was problem number one.

The second one? At home, the meal “schedule” is: wake with the sun, drink water and tea until fruit calls, usually around 10 a.m. Slowly prepare scrumptious dishes on the cooking days, nibble and nosh on them for lunch and dinner, attending closely to hunger and fullness.

At Kripalu we were up way before the sun, on the yoga mat at 6:30 for an hour and a half, followed by the first meal, morning session, lunch then afternoon session followed by afternoon yoga, dinner, then evening session, shower-bedtime-boom.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad with red onion, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

With these unfamiliar food and time boundaries, desperation set in:

What if I get hungry? 

I am working very hard, after all, pushing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually!  Eating keeps me awake and alert.

I have paid for all these meals. 

Such nifty recipes deserve a taste; then if they’re good I can try them on my own.

What if I don’t like what’s served tomorrow? 

The cafeteria line closes at 7:30, then there are just things to drink. What if I get hungry before bed? In the middle of the night? Before morning yoga?

(Whining) Because I AM pushing myself physically, mentally and spiritually, I want to have fun food!

So I started having three full meals–breakfast just a little vanilla soy yogurt–and some granola and soaked prunes, that’s good for me. Of course the daily egg dish was comforting and warm. Ohhh, better try the scrambled tofu, it looks good. Don’t I need vegetables too?

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes.

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes for breakfast–and then some.

Even though it was Silent Breakfast, I found myself shoveling in big mouthfuls, swallowing before really chewing thoroughly.  We only have an hour before class and I have to do my writing! 

During other meals, I laughed and ate, chatted with one person and ate, got serious with someone else–and ate; at the end, surprised, each time my plate was scraped clean. Already? Is that all?

Comfort food after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce.

Comfort food  I gobbled down after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce. Yes, I felt comforted. Very.

Feeling bloated the umpteenth day in a row (for some reason, I wonder why?) one breakfast I decided to take a small bite of yogurt-and-seeds, deliberately put the bowl back on the tray, pick up my keyboard and write a while while chewing; then lean over and pick up another spoonful, and so on.

With this slowed-down approach, I could feel tender resistance from the sunflower seeds between my front teeth, spreading sweetness from the soft prune, savory egg on my tongue. Ahh, this is better! Not just flavor but sensation, and a sense of fullness earlier than anticipated. Choosing to leave some on the plate, in the bowl, especially if it didn’t appeal.

Take some, just a little, a few.

Take just a little, some, a few. Space on the plate is OK.

Then to myself–Remember your old habits? YOU put your fork down between bites. YOU pay attention to the texture and flavor. YOU ask: am I full now? am I putting this in my mouth merely because it is on my plate?

Smaller portions each day, I took bowls instead of plates, so the meal wouldn’t look so overwhelmed by empty space around it.  The daily menu board helped: is the  emphasis today on lunch or dinner? Do I want the Thai lunch–or the Mexican dinner instead? 

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Tofu with kale and pea pods here...

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Sesame tofu perfectly crisped with kale and pea pods here…

Indian curry cauliflower and peas, here,

Indian curry cauliflower and peas with chutney here (note the kale)….

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper.

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper (kale was in the other bowl).

I stopped eating the salads. Usually when dining out, I choose something I wouldn’t or don’t make at home–sudden lightbulb! I make leafy green combinations at home, easily.  So I took the things I don’t do as much on my own: julienned beets. Fresh peas. Risotto. Home-made naan (just one). Chilled cucumber soup.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad with raisins and walnuts.

I skipped lunch and took a stroll one day, after “hoarding” a scone from breakfast in case I got hungry. And a banana. Then I didn’t even want them, not until long after the hike, during the mid-afternoon break.

Next longer walks to the pond or around the lake settled my stomach, as I decreased the load of comestibles, helping my sleep as well as digestion. I began to feel more myself.

Then I realized I love interacting with people but actually need quiet and writing and aloneness to feel safe and sane.  Now at some mealtimes I chose a blanket on the grass, a nap in my room. Even photography on my own.

Heavy June rains on peonies outside Swami Kripalu's meditation garden.

Heavy June rain on peonies outside Swami Kripalu’s meditation garden.

Reflections at Monk's Pond

Variations of green at Monk’s Pond

More than half the days gone, to figure out the food piece, and then the personal space piece–I’ve had these revelations before.

But I hadn’t run into these particular challenges before–not for this long, not under these circumstances–with the skills I’d been developing for years.

At a certain point, I paid attention, saw the need for change, and acted on it. I celebrate finally seeing what I was doing, regardless of how long it took me. My knowledge is now reinforced.

But wait, there's more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables....

But wait, there’s more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables and parmesan….

The colors were spectacular!

And a plate of pretty colors! I don’t have to eat them all–but I’m gonna be more aware of color and texture again, when I cook for myself.

School over, I am coming back to a home routine:  doing my own shopping, steaming my garden kale (yes, I still love kale!) and yellow beans, fiddling with local cheese and watermelon and new recipes. Being aware. Thinking about my choices, then making and enjoying them.

Maybe I’ll stop eating after 7:30 pm like at yoga school. Maybe I’ll soak prunes for my mid-morning yogurt.  Maybe–no, for sure–I’ll remember that “problems” are actually wonderfully sacred learning moments.

Clouds over the Mohawk River.

Summer abundance of plants and clouds at the Mohawk River.

**Recipes for many of the dishes here can be found in the series of Kripalu seasonal cookbooks or at http://kripalu.org/article/270/  .

To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013

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?

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

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