paying attention

I’m not a fan of frozen meals.  However, there is one in particular I do keep as a stock item in my freezer.  It is…

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This is my go to when I am watching my dairy and gluten intake.  The listed ingredients are organic and the sauce is really tasty.  But I’ve gotten into the habit of using the microwave to heat this meal up, even though I typically avoid microwaving except for occasional use, and especially items with instructions to microwave with the plastic cover on (such as these enchiladas)!  I have read many of the articles and engage in the lengthy debate about cooking food with the microwave.  And while my own cooking practices easily support maintaining a kitchen sans microwave, I still haven’t thrown mine out.   The most recent article I’ve read http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/05/18/microwave-hazards.aspx offers all the reigning arguments for why microwaving is NOT good for your food and possibly not good for your health either, and also offers clear advice for how to break free from microwaving.  I am paying attention.

Of course, I could choose the other option in the instructions to heat in a conventional oven.  But I never do….realizing that the impulse to have this meal asap is more prevalent than my concern about microwaving.  I recently stocked up again on these enchiladas, and now, after many months of abstinence (my passive solution to not dealing with the fundamental desire to throw the microwave out), pull a package out of the freezer with hopes of making a quick lunch.

I use the microwave to defrost in the cardboard dish the enchiladas are frozen to, but only after pulling the plastic wrapping off completely first.  I use the four minutes to quick saute some fresh greens in a saucepan on the stove and throw in the 1/4 cup or so of leftover brown rice.  The enchiladas are not quite warm, but enough to scoop out of the container into the pan on top of the greens.  I add just a tad of water, swirl the spoon around the contents of the pan once, cover, and simmer on low for a few minutes.  What a pleasant surprise to find this gorgeous looking pan of food when I pull off the lid…

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And it really does taste as good as it looks!  Pleased with the solution to just minimally use the microwave,  to adorn the meal with freshly added greens, and to still have hot lunch in less than 10 minutes, I consider how easy it would be to make this exact same meal without the microwave.  It would just take a little more time.  And then require me to think ahead, or wait, in order to have a similar result.  Why would I do this?  What exactly am I paying attention to?  What is it that is at the root of this desire to be done with the microwave and why am I resisting it?

It’s as my anthropologist daughter likes to remind me:  How can we really know what we are ‘told’ is the truth when we each have a particular cultural filter through which we allow information to be experienced?  I’ve grown up with the cultural filter that innovations such as the microwave are good because they save time, and therefore money.  To turn my back on this feels like I am denying something essential about my culture.  By contrast, my own internal filter allows me to see and feel where integrity of food, and the context within which it is prepared, matters.  Even if it takes more time. In this debate I realize that I conveniently forget that I don’t like the taste of coffee re-heated in the microwave, or the unnatural texture of too many foods cooked there.  I forget that I cringe when it is on, and instinctively move away from it.  And so, today is the day I truly pay attention and say goodbye to the microwave…and hello to the newly cleared space in front of me….

full of promise

The sun has been out for two days now and the overgrown grass is finally dry enough to cut.  I anticipate the kiss of the warm sun on bare arms and legs, and the joy moving around in the bright afternoon while working outdoors in the yard.  I feel the weight of so much expectation in the activity of pulling the lawn mower out of the garage, adding some gas, priming the engine, and then pulling the cord to fire it up.  It starts, but something is wrong.  The engine is turning over too gently, and after just a minute, dies out completely.  Pull to start again.  Nothing.  I am shocked at the reaction I have to this uncooperative machine.  I feel tears rising in me, and the flood of emotion that signals, “I don’t have time for this!”  I go straight to the little prison cell of “I have to take care of this all by myself” without any hesitation.  This cell is heavily decorated with “I’m so busy with work and deadlines right now, how can I possibly make time for getting the mower fixed, and by the time I do, the grass will be so high and take an impossibly long time to cut, so maybe it is time to sell the house after all, because I surely can’t keep up all this maintenance by myself”… and so on.  It’s a humbling and embarrassing ride I take to this place as I watch Molly approach to inquire what is wrong.  I try to sound normal, philosophical even in my explanation of what the situation is, but all that comes out is the angst and disappointment I am feeling.  I know I have to go inside, literally, and wait this out now.  After a while I do remember that this lawn mower has been unpredictable in the past, and in fact will eventually honor its duty and work.  It’s as if it has a personality, one that is determined to keep teaching me the value of acceptance and discovery of the silver lining in the moment in front of me.  So I come back outside.   And promptly notice that my own time out hasn’t stopped Ben from finishing his work on the woodpile….!

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Inspired, I resolve to pull weeds from the garden and begin clearing debris from the back yard.  But first I go over to pull the start cord on the mower one more time.  Smile.  Yup.  The engine roars into full gear and continues to roll over and hum vigorously.

So, off we go together.  I now take my time enjoying every turn around the yard, around the edges of the rapidly growing gardens, through the field like growth in the back that hasn’t seen the mower yet this year.  And then it’s done.  The lush green carpet of the grass accentuates the spontaneously formed edges of this year’s spring garden.

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Lupine and iris are coming up in clumps in entirely surprising places and I have simply mowed around them.  The result is a garden that is as completely new this year as it was last.  Engagingly so.   I notice all the lone blossoms of blue flag iris hidden amongst the bee balm and purple-leafed loosestrife,

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I take the time to walk around and revel in the abundance of growth that is so much more than years past; of peony buds ready to burst, of new clumps of blue flag everywhere so elegant and seductively hidden that I almost can’t see them, and then the profusion of apples forming on the tree that lost every single blossom in last year’s spring storm and didn’t offer one single apple in the fall….

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Every place I look is full of promise.  I suppose the message is that even these exquisite findings in the garden are simply expectations of something to come, that even the anticipated blossoms and fruit could be gone in an instant too.  And like the mower that gives me pause, I can still trust that what will come to nourish body & soul will still come…

romanian gold

Molly’s been coughing a lot since she came home, from what seems to be a perfect storm of allergies, post graduation body release, and the damp chill from this rash of really cold wet rainy days.  It becomes clear that something medicinal is needed today and I come home from the market with all the makings of ‘Romanian Gold’ to address this. I don’t know where my mother found this recipe, but it’s been passed around for years now and has the makings of a family legend at this point.

It’s really just a simple chicken broth.  Chicken broth made a particular way to yield a healing broth that is rich and deeply satisfying.  I have had the butcher at the market cut the selected whole chicken (grain fed, hormone free) into four pieces, keeping all the bone in.  I’ve actually selected a 4 lb chicken, a little larger than what is called for in the recipe of (.2-1/2  -3 lb. chicken, cut into pieces, 1 large onion cut up,1-1/2 quart water (or enough to just cover the pieces in the pot) 3 stalks celery, 3 medium carrots, 4 sprigs parsley, 1-2 tsp. salt).  So I will need to adapt a bit.  And as much as I routinely do this, adapt and substitute and experiment, this is one recipe that I typically follow with great reverence, because I know there is a reason it is made the way it is.  So adapting in this case is to just increase the proportions of other ingredients to match the larger chicken size.

The chicken is put in a large soup pot with 2 medium/large onions cut into quarters and water added to just cover.  Bring to a boil, cover, and cook on medium low heat for an hour.  Then add 4 large peeled carrots, 4 large stalks celery, 6 full sprigs of fresh parsley, and 2 teaspoons sea salt.  Bring to a boil again, cover and simmer on low heat for another two hours (the meat should be falling off the bones at this point). Strain broth into another pan (makes about 5-6 cups). Cool, skim off fat.  Serve with crackers, rice, or simple egg noodles.

I’ve always suspected it is the process of making this soup that is key, and that there is significance in only the onions and the chicken sharing the pot In the first hour of cooking.  I consult Google and find a great blog article http://eastwesthealing.com/why-is-chicken-broth-andor-bone-broth-so-good-for-you/.  It offers the nutritional facts for most of the ingredients of this romanian gold version.  Significantly, the chicken contains the “amino acid called cysteine, a substance released when you make the soup. This amino acid is similar to the drug acetylcysteine, which is prescribed by doctors to patients with bronchitis due to its ability to breakdown proteins found in mucous that settles in the lungs.”  The onions contain quercetin, another very powerful anti-oxidant which has been ascribed anti-inflammatory and decongestant properties, acting as a natural anti-histamine in many bronchial related conditions,such as allergies and asthma!

I’m also remembering another article recently found about how a peeled onion with the ends cut off, placed in a glass jar next to the bed of a person sick with the flu before going to bed, will be black the next morning.  What happens is that the onion draws and absorbs the toxins and germs infecting the sick person.  And I flash back to the onion and salt poultices my Albanian grandmother would offer for any scape, cut, or gash.  Seemed weirdly old school as a child at the time, but now I am appreciating the age-old wisdom that would aid the body in such a natural way.

So what I think is that the onions in this first step, in addition to being a key medicinal ingredient on its own,  actually intensifies the drawing out of the potent cysteine in the chicken bones.  The color of the resulting broth depends on the quality and quantity of carrots and parsley used, but the consistency is always the same, a broth that is so filled with the medicine of the chicken that it becomes gelatinous when chilled.

Molly wants noodles, so I prepare a separate pan of wide Italian egg pappardelle and fill each bowl about 1/2 full of the cooked noodles.  The steaming broth is ladled in on top.

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Just broth and noodles.  That’s all. It is deceptively simple, even though it took most of the day to make.  And I realize I have had to resist the urge to add more things, like big chunks of the moist chicken saved in another container, or any of the many fresh vegetables in the bin.  No, less is definitely more right now…

We sit and slowly enjoy our much anticipated bowl of soup, and simply feel better.

morning table

A quiet cold Saturday morning  and I don’t wait too long to make a hot cup of coffee.  It’s always the same.  The fresh dark beans (organic fair trade, french roast, panjaro, or the five country expresso blend I can get at Trader Joe’s) are ground very fine in my countertop coffee grinder .  The expresso pot is loaded and set on the stove at the same time as a small pot of water to boil.  I stand to wait for it; that tell-tale sound of coffee being pressed up from the force of the boiling water through the small aperture in the filter that is filled with the coffee.  The trick is to turn off the fire underneath as soon as this process starts to insure the coffee doesn’t actually boil.  When done just so, the yield is a cup of coffee so smooth that cream is never necessary.  I pour the steaming liquid into a mug to about a third full, then add boiling water to the top.  Perfect.

My ritual at this point usually entails sitting on the couch and following whatever creative urge is ‘there’.  Some mornings it might be doing some stitching, working on my writing, or reading something inspirational.  Sometimes my computer calls to look something up and follow a specific train of thought with the help of Google.  Sometimes I just sit and quietly sip my coffee and let my mind still.

This morning I set down my cup of coffee in anticipation.  And look at the morning table that offers this morning’s possibilities to engage with.  A book on yoga mudras, the pages of the chapter I am currently editing,  my computer that is open to some design work…

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Nothing is calling and I can’t decide.  So I take my coffee out to the kitchen table to sit and simply watch the falling rain through the large window.  What I see is a rabbit who has clearly found her morning table in the rich green grass that is full of edible opportunity.  She eats and rests.  Eats and rests.  Eats and rests.

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I get the message.  I need to go back to my morning table and ‘eat’ a little.  Then take a break.  Maybe ‘eat’ a little something else.  Take another break.  This is what I usually do and for some reason this rhythm has eluded me this morning.  I remember that whatever I ‘do’ doesn’t have to be a big accomplishment really. It doesn’t have to be an accomplishment at all…

creamsicle smoothie

Ben is home this week before returning to his school Monday for an intense summer session.  It seemed the best time for him to have his wisdom teeth removed, and so he has been dining on smoothies and his beloved white rice and yogurt for the days following.  It’s been creamsicle smoothies the past two mornings for breakfast.  A cup of frozen organic mango chunks, a banana, equal parts of orange juice, coconut milk, and plain yogurt, and a splash of maple syrup, all whipped in the blender to make a creamy orange delight that serves both of us.   Not sure why this tastes exactly like a creamsicle, but it does!  I’m remembering this particular confection of my youth.  The bright orange popsicle exterior which yields to a creamy white vanilla ice cream inside.  How the flavors mingle in the mouth to make creamsicle: two seemingly disparate tastes kept separate and yet the taste is always just ‘creamsicle’…

We’ve all been noticing how much Ben as matured in the past six months since beginning school at Berkshire Hills Music Academy.  It is particularly evident in the confident smiles he offers at every chance.  There is an even greater presence to him it seems, as if the natural intelligence that we’ve all known to be residing inside his exuberant personality, has come forth to claim the space around him too.  This week is offering me a true glimpse of the young adult he is becoming, and of the leader in the man that he is.  He just came down for his smoothie, freshly showered and shaved and dressed in clean clothes, sporting a bright orange t-shirt (honestly, I can’t make this stuff up)!  It is also only 8:00 in the morning and this is a revelation too, to see him up on his own, and taking charge of the day in such a proactive way.

I hand him his smoothie, and am rewarded with a winning smile that so clearly expresses the mingling of his bright orange exuberance with his inner smooth charm in this moment….

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savory sweet days

It’s Molly’s graduation weekend and even with all the excitement of upcoming events, I am of course thinking about food.  There is a reception planned at her house after the final ceremony and families will all be bringing things to eat and drink and share.  Molly’s ‘papa’ (my father) will be making his spinach and cheese pata, always a favorite. However, I have had no clear direction of what to bring, and after days of pondering all the possibilities, finally wake this morning with ‘cheesy cornbread’ and ‘vegetables’ clearly calling to me from my free flow of dreamy morning thoughts.  Not sure where to go with this, I peruse my mother’s collection of cookbooks and immediately zero in on “The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest” by Mollie Katzen (of the Moosewood cookbook series fame…).  It’s a gorgeous book.  Flipping through with anticipation, the book falls opens to a photo of ‘Vegetable Upside-Down Cake”.  Smile.  I go to the recipe; and it’s all there, sautéed veggies, cheddar cheese, and a savory cake which I without hesitation substitute with a cornbread batter recipe found on another page. It will be a process putting this all together and finding time to bake in the midst of all the activities…

It’s already Friday now, and the first of the receptions and gatherings on campus are drawing us all to celebrate.  Such savory sweet days!  As an alumna of this venerable college of William Smith, equal partner and collaborator with the men’s college of Hobart located in Geneva NY, I am reveling in the feeling of being part of the triple legacy our family brings to this institution.  I remember sitting with my father (Bob Ford, Hobart class of ’54) in Williams Hall five years ago as Molly, just admitted to William Smith but still ‘deciding’, was auditioning for an arts scholarship. Williams Hall in my father’s day was the gymnasium.  In my day it was the post office, and now it is the Music department where Molly might be spending much of her time as a student should she so choose.  Standing at the window looking out to a timeless view of the quad, I felt the wave of certainty that the legacy would pass through to Molly for sure, and that she too would someday feel this certainty.  It takes four years and a passionate immersion into her chosen course of study for her to finally confide that indeed, these colleges have been the place for her!  But I digress….

For the upside-down cake, I double the recipe, calculate some substitutions, and end up with 2 cups chopped onion, 4 cups of small broccoli florets, 6 small carrots cut into discs, 4 cups of small cauliflower florets, a large minced red pepper, 10 minced cloves of garlic, and 10 minced scallions.   The broccoli, cauliflower & carrots are blanched for just about a minute in boiling water, drained and plunged into a large bowl of ice water, drained again, and then wrapped in a clean cloth towel to dry.  The rest of the ingredients are put in a covered dish and everything goes in the fridge until it is time to assemble and bake the cake.  Now the early morning of the next day and just hours away from the graduation ceremony, the oven is preheated to 350 degrees, a large baking pan (for holding equivalent contents of (2) 8″ x 8″ baking pans) is greased with about 4 tablespoons butter, and the onion, pepper, scallions and garlic is sautéed slowly in 3 tablespoons butter.   The sautéed veggies are cooked about 8-10 minutes, seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne, basil and thyme, added to and mixed with the bowl of blanched vegetables, spread in the bottom of the pan, and sprinkled with 3 cups grated cheddar cheese.  Then make the cornbread batter:  2 cups unbleached white flour sifted with 4 teaspoons baking powder, 2 teaspoons baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt, all mixed with 2 cups course yellow cornmeal.  Separately, 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk and 1 cup of plain yogurt is whisked with 2 beaten eggs and 4 tablespoons olive oil.  The wet ingredients are poured into a well made in the dry ingredients and stirred until just blended, then spooned on top of the cheese layer and spread evenly with a rubber spatula to the edges of the pan.  Bake for 35 – 40 minutes or until cornbread is done. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes.

I realize now I have been not only been seduced by the photo in the cookbook, but by the making of something savory for this celebration.  Making something salty and spicy rather than ‘sweet’.  It is a nagging feeling with no clear reason why, tugging at me still as I consider leaving the baked cornbread on top in the pan as is and just serving it this way, this plain and uninspiring top layer offering no glimpse whatsoever to the richness of flavor and color below.  I am worried that it will all fall apart when I flip it upside down.  Besides, I look around and can’t find a tray to turn it out onto anyway.  I think, it will be easier to transport, easier to serve, easier maybe even to eat this way.   I am then reminded of the roller coaster of Molly’s college days behind her now, the sweet victories and the salty tear-stained disappointments competing for attention. Which one will be ‘seen’ on any given day?  So many days of feeling upside down and out of sorts….

And then the complacency of this train of thought blows through and I want to ‘see’ this upside-down cake in all its glory.  Only then do I ‘find’ the pan that will hold it perfectly, position it over the top of the baking dish and invert.  And….WOW.  there it is.

P1110070I feel sweetness in the delight of something perfectly formed and fragrant.  This ‘cake’ is deliciously colorful and ordered and so together after all!  It is a delight, despite the doubts and the worry.  And I think, the potential for delight is always there isn’t it?  And then one last inspiring shot of the beautifully enchanted broccoli presence here before covering it all for the ride to campus and the main graduation event…

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It is a beautiful ceremony, filled with so much inspiration, and so many savory sweet moments.  From the grandeur of the bagpipes and drums leading the graduation procession into the quad that oozes generations of hope playing in uncertain community….

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to the radiant moment of NOW, here I am, ready to go forth….

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to a final exuberant collective expression of joy…

graduation

The upside-down cake is delicious, all the textures and tastes perfectly blended and just enough cayenne added to give it a subtle but clear zing.  I eat it accompanied by homemade chocolate caramels dusted with sea salt…more savory sweet!  And feel how poignant and significant it is to experience the contrast, how it actually accentuates the taste.  Then Molly and I take one final walk to the quad.  The campus is now silent and empty but for the resonance of the day and all it contains.  The quad is once again so open, so green, with clear evidence of being so lovingly cared for.  It has reverted back to an uncertain yet timeless ground, ready to offer surprises and inspiration to the next wave of students….

red oatmeal

The mornings are still chilly and I’m still wanting something warm to eat for breakfast.  But I’m also feeling the need to lighten up as the days lengthen, and feel myself moving towards eating more fruit rather than the full bowl of warm grains I favor during the winter.  A perfect morning for some warm spiced apples!  Apples sliced in the pan with just a little water and maple syrup, then a dash of cinnamon, and just as it all starts bubbling I think of the bag of organic strawberries in the freezer. These are typically additions to my smoothies, but without hesitation, I add a few to the simmering apple mixture, turn heat to low, and cover.  But I still want some grain.  So instead of making a separate pan of oatmeal, I throw about a quarter cup of hearty organic old-fashioned oats (not steel cut) into the liquidy stewing fruit, add a tad more water, and stand there watching the contents of the pan turn red….

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When the red oatmeal is done, the contents of the pan is transferred to a perfect bowl and sprinkled with chia seeds…

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YUM.  A perfect combination of warm and sweet and sour and red and protein.  I am aware that I need just this little bit of oatmeal grain, no more.  What I seem to need more of is the red, the luscious tang and zing of the red.  Sitting next to me is my new birthday book (from friends Julie and Mary), “Wicca in the Kitchen” by Scott Cunningham.  It is a fun book that offers the ritual qualities inherent in certain foods and the power of making food magic.  So what food magic have I created this morning?  I look up strawberry and am told that ‘this delicious fruit is useful in love diets’.  It carries the energy of the planet Venus, the element of water and love.  I am told that oats also carries the energy of Venus, the element earth, and money.  Hmmmm.  So, sitting here eating my magic potion and feeling the love, I am also aware of the very real and lingering need for the prosperity that is symbolized by money as well, reflecting on how poignantly these two energies, of love and money, do not collide consistently…

And then Ben calls.  He tells me he will be singing the song ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ in his variety hour at school on Friday!  I can’t wait to hear him sing this song, and I can’t stop humming the melody now.  I also keep getting stuck on the second line of ‘it’s the only thing that’s there just too little of….” and look up the lyrics…

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

Lord, we don’t need another mountain,
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross,
Enough to last till the end of time.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No, not just for some but for everyone.

Lord, we don’t need another meadow
There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow
There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine
Oh listen, lord, if you want to know.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No, not just for some but for everyone.

No, not just for some, oh, but just for everyone.

And there it is.  The message of the morning has come full circle and is clear and present and heartfelt…of finding love and finding balance …and think, what the world needs now is red oatmeal…smile smile…