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!

The Past, Preserved

The container that got me to thinking.

The container that got me to thinkin’.

In my continuing quest to clean out kitchen drawers and cabinets, today I came across a glass jar. When I lifted its clear pear shape to the light, sediment clumped on the bottom and its once luminously deep red contents read cloudy and brown. The faded Sharpie writing on the lid, in my hand: Sour Cherry Syrup 8-17-03.

That’s 2003, ten years ago this week.

It’s the very last jar, of the very last jars, of my Michigan and Illinois canning years.

I learned to make preserves in 1989, when I lived in mid-Michigan with one small child and another on the way, and a spouse in graduate school (soon to be in medical school). The trees in South Haven and along Lake Michigan were studded with peaches, sour cherries and other stone fruit; I’d drive east as each came into season, or search out flats of fruit in the local market.

Peaches were the first item I mastered how to slice, cook, pack into sterilized jars, and boil in a water bath: peach halves in sugar water, peach jam, peach-apple chutney. Next, I expanded my “putting up” to blueberry and strawberry preserves, then hot sauce, and bread & butter pickles.

But sour cherries were my favorite juicy treat.

After we moved to Chicago, I could still get cherries, thank heavens. Some farmers would bring their wares up to the north side where we lived and from one farmer in particular I would order a 40 pound box of pitted and frozen cherries, available for pickup in mid-August.

Defrosted cherries would bubble along with the pectin thickener and cup after cup of sugar in a huge cooking pot as the canning day progressed. Mason and Ball and “Atlas StrongShoulder” jars were filled with the concoction, screw-tops carefully put on and the jars lowered into the water bath. By early evening, rows of glistening glass had been pulled out and placed on a wooden rack, out of any drafts in the steamy kitchen that could crack a jar that cooled too quickly.

Within an hour, always to my great relief, lids began to thwip down in a vacuum seal; knowing at least a few had been made safe for long-term storage, I’d shower and go to bed as the thwips continued into the night. Next morning the lids were wiped off and, one by one, labeled with that ultra-thin black marker, then placed for storage in cardboard boxes.

In addition to dozens of finished sour cherry preserves, some jars would hold only syrup, scraped from the bottom of my white enamel saucepan, when the solids were gone but there was still thickening ruby-red syrup I couldn’t bear to waste.

This jar was just such a jar.

The week it was sealed was a usual week, back in 2003. My calendar tells me I’d weeded the hostas and wildflowers in the front garden and the kids’ long anticipated beach day was cancelled due to rain. I’d bought the pectin and sugar on Saturday, and picked up the cherries at the Skokie Farmers Market on Sunday after church. A third year medical resident by now, my spouse had been on 24-hour overnight call in the hospital Tuesday and then that Sunday.

Wild geranium from the garden.

Wild geranium (also known as Cranesbill) from my Illinois garden.

The following week 15 clients showed up to my massage practice, martial arts classes and a Renaissance Faire filled the kids’ days, and the spouse was gone for two more overnight calls. All that activity was, I am sure, flavored with the typical couple of jars that–darn! we’d joke–didn’t quite seal and–double darn!–had to be used up right away. We grinned over buttered toast topped with cherry preserves and later each day cherry syrup in seltzer or cola or on ice cream.

I put up preserves and syrup summer after summer until 2009, when I moved our family household to New York, and then the spouse left, to do permanent overnight call, with another woman.

My first response, finding that lonely jar this August? Oh no! This will be the end of it! No more, those golden summers, that delightful food, all gone, along with the family life before empty-nesting, before a new state, before divorce.

In fact, this last jar is probably useless, not safe to eat. I’ll open and sniff it, then pour it down the drain.

But my second response? I’ll dump and wash that jar and store it with the others up in my closet, boxes and boxes of clean empty jars waiting for fruits to ripen.

Perhaps something novel should be put up in those Masons and Balls and Atlas StrongShoulders: plums? pear butter? cinnamon applesauce?

Or maybe I’ll call that farmer who delivered in Skokie, and ask if he ships to New York.

This season's blueberries, floating on top of home-made blackberry preserves blended into Greek yogurt.

This season’s blueberries, floating on top of Greek yogurt blended with some home-made blackberry preserves.

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/  .

Sighing into spring, and school

Golden now, not grainy-gray, the quality and angle of morning light has definitely shifted in the kitchen. Come 5:30 a.m., I hear returning songbirds chipping and chirping outside my urban bedroom. It is spring again–and still–despite the almost-blinding gusts of snow that assaulted my windshield after dark the other night.

Winter sunrise over the hill

Winter sunrise over the hill

I think about going back to school and sigh, just a little. This will be a challenge. Normally spring is the time students think about freedom! if not the short burst of spring break, then the long open opportunities of summer. Instead, I am picking up books, “screwing on my thinking cap,” as some obnoxious teacher once pantomimed. Ouch.

I am also intrigued, excited, curious. It’s like sleep-away camp–not that I ever attended, just read descriptions in books and heard about it from friends. Supposed to be new kids to meet, a whole lake to swim in, lanyards to twist and knit. In my case, other interesting grownups, a lake to walk around (still too cold for swimming), forest paths and a labyrinth too and a healthy cafeteria: physical and mental growth to be had everywhere.

My problem is that very persistent A+ student who hangs on the edge of my mind, like a bully taunting from the field beyond the playground, Yeah, just try stepping over here. You’ll see what happens! Loser!

She/he interjects comments as I read my Kripalu Yoga textbook. Sometimes I am pulled in by the resonating philosophy, so I forget that voice; sometimes I sigh yet again, frustrated by my more recent midlife difficulties with memorization. Perhaps because I am creating new neural pathways along with the information, undoing old patterns of self-deprecating reaction, my mind has rebelled: This is too hard! I’m not cooperating!

I go into the yoga room and look at the book, the diagrams. Deep breath. I speak the pose names as I stretch out and position myself–

–on the belly, pelvis firmly anchored into the earth, arms and legs lifting up and behind me: I whisper “Nav-asana,” and think Naval, like a boat on the water, floating with waves of breath….

Kneeling, then flowing back over knees-wide-apart, arms reaching forward on the floor, Garbh-asana, Child’s Pose–I am garbed in the freedom and openness of the child-mind and child-body, I take what rest I need, when I need it.

Bala-kik-asana, Crane: a one-legged pose of balance, arms hovering, the staccato Ks remind me of the stick-legs of a bird in water.

Like a boat--or a dock--water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Like a boat, or a dock:  water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Ah, there, that’s a reason you do yoga. Space for creativity, not pushing and grunting along, not cramming yourself into a place that doesn’t fit. By its very definition, yoga is about expansiveness, room for yourself, who you are, at that moment.

Unwinding my body in Spinal Twist (Matsyendr-asanahow to remember THAT one?) I exhale and think: Snow flies yet spring comes. I can’t remember things, I can remember things.  Just because I suffered last time I learned, doesn’t mean I have to again. In fact, the intention is to do it differently now.

Welcoming carving on the Emma Willard School  "Alumnae Chapel"

Welcoming carved face on the Emma Willard School “Alumnae Chapel”

I enjoyed a marvelous Easter/post-Spring Equinox holiday with a colleague of mine. We tromped through cemeteries overlooking the Poestenkill and around the Emma Willard School campus, deserted on a Sunday; snacked on huge pink slices of watermelon radish with cups of hot tea and maple sugar; worked on individual writing projects while the local whole chicken stuffed with crumbled sausage, butternut squash and kale baked in her oven.

We took a first-course interlude of salad: more radish, avocado, walnut, mesclun and vinaigrette.

Spring salad to tease the appetite

Spring salad to tease the appetite

I sliced sweet potatoes into fries. Her least favorite chore for the day, the knife-work was a job that didn’t feel like drudgery to me at all; I hummed as I chopped along.  That’s something I am watching for in my future earning-a-living, ways of spending my hours that I so enjoy they don’t feel like “work.”

My companion rubbed coconut oil, cinnamon and a little rosemary on the wedges before oven-roasting them. As we tapped our keyboards in the living room, the smells of dinner intermittently tickled our noses and then slammed us lusciously when we re-entered the kitchen in search of more tea.

When all was ready, we ate until satisfied and no more, heaving happy groans nonetheless, and deliberately leaving some food on the plate to wrap up for later.  Sips of tart cherry juice with seltzer served as dessert, accompanied by more writing time.

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Ahhh, we sighed, a holiday that wasn’t (as is typical) about overstuffing our stomachs or our schedule. As the day meandered, so did we; we took seriously our choices but made them only as we went along–Want to walk more? Turn this way or that? Whoops, the chicken isn’t done; oh, I see why it needs more time, ok, we’ll write for twenty more minutes.

She’s a future yoga teacher too, and we’re both applying the lessons on the mat to daily life: sometimes grappling, sometimes serene, knowing serene-plus-grappling is actually desirable.

Yes, I told her, I joke a lot about breaking into a sweat learning to love my life.

But ease is what I aspire to:  ease within challenges, like strength and lightness in a yoga pose, grounded in the earth and yet buoyant, willing to move and respond to the wind, and not let go of connection to who I am in my core.

False starts, shifts in weather, don’t indicate that spring won’t come. How days-off were acknowledged in the past doesn’t define how I celebrate them now.   I will allow myself to be not-so-good in school and not worry.

All of it will be delicious.  Especially the more I stand in each moment, Right Now, swaying and trembling perhaps, but over and over returning to curiosity, determination tempered with compassion, and gentleness toward myself.

Warm spring sunrise

Warm spring sunrise behind budding tree

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!

Carrots and Arugula and Soups, Oh My! Final Harvest in My Community Garden Plot

Late season carrots in all their glory

Eons ago, in May, I planted the garden. June, July and August I took pictures of sunny chard and glorious basil, radishes plumping and spiders scurrying. Early last week I tugged water- and wind-proof pants over my leggings and layered fleece under a nylon jacket, in order to brave 35 degree November weather.  The newly arrived cold had trapped me for several days shivering in my apartment and in my mind: Go to the garden? Are you nuts?

But that morning I warmed myself with yoga, breathed through anxiety about lists of other things to do, and gathered my tools, determined to salvage all the veggies before the hard freeze predicted to come after nightfall. Perhaps the produce could have survived outdoors for a week or two more, but I felt ready to put the garden to bed, which starts with the final harvest.

CARROTS GALORE.

My garden-mate and I had planted a second round of carrots in September and when I got to the garden, it was obvious where the plants had been thinned since then, and where they hadn’t been. One carrot in its heft resembled a “regular” vegetable from the grocery store and even required a spade–albeit a small one–to dig it out.

The rest were a little stunted, plump tops peeking out, but not going much further than a few inches into the ground, often radish-round in shape. Over and over again, in un-thinned bunches, teeny, dollhouse versions of carrots emerged with a yank. They were pulled and bagged and hauled back to the apartment; later soaked in the sink, rinsed, soaked again with a little soap, then scrubbed individually until the dirt was non-existent, and rinsed once again. My reasoning for saving even the smallest ones: the cute lil’ nubbins would be sweet, even the tiny bit that only front teeth would be able to nibble.

The minuscule seeds and the dirt and the rain and sun made these bright orangey treats and who was I to judge what was a big enough carrot to eat?

Carrots crowd the countertop

ARUGULA.

All summer my garden-mate kept trying to get rid of my arugula.  I wasn’t very good at keeping it trimmed, and he, not a big salad eater, kept snorting: What is this oversized dandelion? then, as it took over more garden space, Isn’t it time to pull this big ol’ weed? and Hmm, awfully bushy isn’t it?

Watch it, buddy! I’d retort. This is an heirloom variety of arugula! and I can harvest more later; finally, Listen, they will re-seed for next year if I leave them. 

On harvest morning I tasted small new leaves hidden near the ground and pulled big rambles of vines. Yes, Garden-Mate, they were ugly and unwieldy, half-dry and tumbleweed-like, but still…they had grown new baby greens!

I stuffed them in a huge sack and after the carrots were cleaned and drying on the countertop, I plunked down on my kitchen floor listening to the radio and pulled off these little slips, wafer-thin bits of spicy green, washed them and washed them and later mixed them with pea-shoots from the farmers’ market.

I finally did what I said I’d do–use some of that late-season arugula–and that felt good. Next year I will tend them better.

CONTINUING STORY OF THE WHITE CLOUD CAULIFLOWER.

Cauliflower Curry

Way back when I harvested the sole surviving cauliflower, I debated what to do with it. It sat in a bag on the bottom shelf of the fridge for a long time.

I first learned to enjoy cauliflower in yellow curries and so after about a month, I adapted a curried cauliflower recipe (thank you Moosewood once again!), using whole cumin and coriander seeds.

I only had red onions in the house–this is called making-do–and so pinky purple accented the greener than usual cauliflower. A quick raita (yogurt dip with cucumber bits) accompanied the dish, along with a selection of raisins, unsalted cashews, salted peanuts, and coconut shreds.

Eating the concoction, I remembered: Whole is a different experience from powdered spice. Crunching the ribbed and rounded seeds in your mouth, the semi-bitter, aromatic flavor bursts out as they are ground at the moment instead of beforehand. A friend commented that I exuded cumin for a day or two. Perhaps too liberal a hand with those yummy little seeds? I couldn’t help myself–it had been too long since I’d played with whole spices.The cauliflower came to an excellent end.

GARDEN CLEAN-UP SOUP.

Chard and corn swim with white beans in Garden Clean-up Soup

Every time a piece of meat with bone is roasted or baked in my house, I make my own stock; just cook the carcass in fresh water, put in all the scrapin’s of marinating-oil and spices and pan juices, simmer with salt, fresh ground pepper, chopped onion and bits of other veggies lying about, and then strain.  Here I used just such a chicken broth, garden corn and the red chard, along with canned white beans.

At the same time I made the garden veggie soup, I made vichyssoise; its more pedestrian name: leek and potato soup. More making-do: the glass milk jar was almost empty, so I added the last of my half-and-half for tea, to the potatoes and butter and leeks chopped up and sautéed with regular onion, then blenderized to pale yellow smoothness.

In the spirit of play, I created a third soup by mixing the two–some veggie bean soup into vichyssoise, and voila! a creamy textured soup, ingredients suspended in a completely different way from clear broth.

The fridge and freezer were filled, dirty stockpots and cutting boards stacked up for cleaning.

Vichyssoise plus Garden Clean-Up Soup

Tomorrow I go back to the garden to truly put it to bed: clear out dead plants, mulch the soil, and take down the protective fencing. As the snow and wind blow, the woodchucks will dream their sweet overwintering dreams about spring–as will I.

But when I dig through the freezer during December and January, soups from the summer harvest will turn up; in February and March, behind chocolates hidden for self-protection, frozen beans and chard will materialize.  My own dried parsley and dill have taken their places in the cupboard next to cinnamon and nutmeg from far away lands.

Is there deep inner meaning here? Revelation?

Maybe just satisfaction, living in the work of the day.

Orange and red nasturtiums bloomed summer into fall.

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….