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.

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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

Saving Food/Wasting Food

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J's crazy-cats keep me company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

IMG_8866

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