carbonara

Nora is staying outside in her driveway playground for a long time this slightly warmer morning. It is a mini condensed version of the open meadow that was her playground before all the snow. The banks created from repeated plowing form a barrier that is so high that even Nora doesn’t breach it to be able to have full run of the meadow, and so, she adapts and finds ways to discharge her considerable energy in simple ways. I watch her literally do laps from one edge to another, full speed, sometimes even running up the side of the bank along the top and back down. But always back into the arena of the driveway playground where tennis balls and empty plastic containers and rubber kongs strewn across the surface become the simple ingredients of her recipe for playing…

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From the warmth inside I watch her through the window while eating the first fresh apple I have eaten it seems since the beginning of this memorable winter, marveling at the cold crispness of the fruit, aware that I am actually wanting to eat something that hasn’t been cooked for hours in order to embody heat my body craves. For weeks now everything consumed has been warm comfort food of the densest magnitude. Like Nora’s condensed playground, my world has contracted to the center of the house around the wood stove, alternatively watching movies and quilting and reading in the silence that comes with so much snow. I even allow my inspiration for cooking food to come from this space. Settling in for the old classic ‘Heartburn’ on Netflix one night (Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson), one of the first scenes was of her preparing a large bowl of pasta carbonara. Ten minutes later, movie paused, I’m in the playground of my kitchen making a kind of carbonara. Three cloves of minced garlic sautéed in some olive oil. Two thick slices of uncured smoked turkey bacon sliced into ribbons added to pan, covered and simmered very slowly with a splash of water while spaghetti (about 1/5 package for one person) is boiling to al dente. Remove spines and chop about a third of a bunch of kale into ribbons and add to boiling pot of pasta five minutes before finish. Whisk one large egg with some cream (2-3 tablespoons) and set aside. Consider grating some parmesan but know the cream will be enough. Add drained pasta and greens to pan with bacon & garlic with a tablespoon butter and stir over medium heat until heat is rising from pan. Add egg mixture and lots of black pepper and toss continuously until contents of pan are fragrant and creamy and hot. Heaven. Return to movie with full bowl…

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Another night it is a variation with frozen organic peas and equally sized pieces of diced smoked wild salmon added to the simmering garlic, butter and cream added to pan and simmered gently while waiting for pasta to cook. All tossed together in the hot pan at the end for another version of completely delicious heart of the winter fare….

And so on.  (of course I remember the first ‘real’ carbonara I had in Italy.  On a hot summer night.  Who could forget such a thing.  Somehow it felt completely natural then too, smile….)

The best part of honoring this call to satisfying rich warm food is knowing body, versus mind, is leading the way.   It is knowing that when the call is day after day after day that I can trust that body will be okay with, might even need, all this dense food. Remembering that I am discharging energy in the frigid cold during the frequent visits to the woodpile at the end of the driveway, filling the wheelbarrow, carrying it all in, several times a day, alternating with shoveling that remains after the plowing. Just being outside in this sub-zero weather makes me hungry…

It’s challenging to trust when body becomes fully satiated in the way it needs, that the flow to something lighter, like an apple, will happen naturally. So the apple feels like a sign, perhaps the first real sign that spring is coming! It is this apple, rather than the pair of pants that felt a little snug this morning, that gives me hope that both mind and body can begin to respond to the lighter days and lighter food that are coming….

phantom

My twenty-one year old son Ben is taking me, his mother, to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ on Broadway.

For the past week, I have been sharing this most wonderful story:

It begins with one of Ben’s teachers letting me know he has been doing really well in his new job working (since Oct.) in the kitchen at his school. Being a real job, he is making real money, and the time had arrived to discuss how that money might be spent. When the question was posed to Ben, he apparently, unsolicited, and without hesitation said, “I want to take my Mom to see Phantom of the Opera!”

Smile. I received an e-mail from his teacher asking if this is possible.

“Yes!” I responded, ” Let me make some arrangements to get us to NYC and I’ll let you know.”

It was easy to make the call to connect with dear friends outside of the city, determine the best date to attend a Saturday matinée show, and e-mail back to Ben’s teacher with enthusiasm. I shared that there is a wide range in seat prices for Ben to consider. I received a response within an hour from his teacher saying that Ben had already bought the tickets, and when presented with the options for seating, he chose the very best seats available for that show, again without hesitation.

I am so excited!  Really. I feel like a little kid getting ready to explore new territory with a trusted beloved presence in my life. I have never seen ‘Phantom’ live on stage either. After all the years of living in NYC (where Ben was born) and all the shows we’ve seen, somehow we have missed seeing this longest running show in the history of shows.

Phantom of the Opera opened in London on September 27, 1986 and opened in NYC at the Majestic Theatre two years later. I think back to when Ben’s obsession with the story and the music began. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but I know somehow my father was involved. The image is of Ben and Dad driving in the car together, Ben wanting to listen to his Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur) music, and my father countering with his Phantom of the Opera CD. I’m pretty sure this is close to the truth. I remember having a random thought of ‘hmmmm, Dad listens to Phantom of the Opera?’, and then a clear memory appearing of when he actually dressed up as and played at being ‘The Phantom’ in a haunted house production when I was in high school. In 1974, there was no romanticized stage show and movie of this story. It was just the legacy of black & white film star Lon Chaney as a scary monster version of The Phantom to draw inspiration from, and Dad did a good job at being scary!

Dad Phantom

For Ben, I think the Phantom has always been a hero. Someone who fights for love. Someone who just wants to be loved for who he is. The music and costumes and drama of this modern adaptation of the 1909 story written by Gaston Leroux has clearly captured his imagination. But not before capturing and transforming my father’s relationship to The Phantom first, to pass on and share with his grandson. His blessed grandfather, whose first words reportedly said when he heard that Ben had Down Syndrome were, “What a gift.”

I am generationally sandwiched between two men I adore.

Which brings me to the heart of this sweet endeavor I am soon to embark on with my son. It feels like a rite of passage. I can feel the man in him reaching beyond his mother toward the man his grandfather is, honoring and cherishing where he feels love and support in his life while beginning the process of giving back at the same time. I can feel the threads of his charm and independence and integrity beginning to weave a clear path for his desire to follow….

I have had moments of worrying that Ben might identify too specifically with the sorrow that the Phantom carries. But in the end I’m convinced he identifies mostly with all the levels of yearning for love in a way that allows him to reach out and connect. Since he has been at school at Berkshire Hills Music Academy, he has found an authentic context for safely exploring where this yearning leads. His lessons in voice and dance have given him opportunities to experience what is feels like to truly embody the passion that lives in him as he performs for his community when on stage and in his life each day in his work.

Here his is, poised to deliver his second year recital.

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With confidence and calm, he introduced and delivered a performance of a program that literally knocked my socks off.


Of course there was a piece from Phantom of the Opera. I’ve wondered about his choice to sing “Think of Me”**, the song that the star Christine sings for her stage debut and capturing the interest of her childhood friend Raoul. It is a sweet song, full of desire for being seen in the wake of something remembered. He didn’t sing it with melancholy however, he sang it with his hand on his heart and a smile on his face. That’s Ben. Reminding us….

 

**Think of Me – Andrew Lloyd Webber

Think of me

Think of me fondly, when

We’ve said goodbye

Remember me

Once in a while, please

Promise me you’ll try

 

When you find,

That once again you long

To take your heart back,

And be free

If you ever find a moment,

Spare a thought for me

 

We never said

Our love was evergreen

Or as unchanging as the sea…

But if you can still remember,

Stop and think of me

 

Think of all the things

We’ve shared and seen,

Don’t think about the things

Which might have been

 

Think of me

Think of me waking, silent

And resigned…

Imagine me, trying too hard to

Put you from my mind…

 

Recall those days,

Look back on all those times,

Think of the things

We’ll never do…

There will never be a day when

I won’t think of you

 

We never said

Our love was evergreen

Or as unchanging as the sea…

But please promise me,

That sometimes

You will think of me

vast

Day after valentine’s day. Temperature has dropped and the sound of the wind is just approaching. There is a kind of peace in the waiting and quiet and not knowing, really, how severe this predicted storm might be. It is wildly beautiful outside right now.

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I just keep looking. Feeling the expanse in my chest that can only be described as vast. So vast it almost hurts. I love this word vast. There is no definition that can truly contain it. I just keep looking. Eyes open and eyes closed. Appreciating all the wild beauty inside too….

It would have been easy to get sucked into a place of feeling ‘alone’ yesterday. I could have forbidden myself to look at Facebook and all the ways couples were expressing their love. But no, I was there with the rest of us, a voyeur to a plethora of photos of roses and chocolates and valentines of all sizes and shapes. And then I saw the post of wise Anya sharing the poem of David Whyte entitled ‘Everything is Waiting for You’**, so beautiful, so capable of sending any distracting wayward emotion into vastness. What a gift to find this post!

It was a gift to feel encounters with beauty and comfort inside throughout the day as a kind of joyful spark, sharing couch space with peaceful Nora,

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eating a slice of my own fresh homemade bread,

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being one with the brilliant heat coming from the wood stove,

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roasting a delicious chicken dinner in my giant cast iron skillet surrounded by the color of potatoes, carrots, green beans and brussels sprouts,

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How wonderful to feel how each of these sparks embodied the potential to start a conversation simply by distinguishing itself from the vast number of possible sparks. How sweet that some of these conversations lasted for just a moment, some for a good part of the day, some throughout the night, and some now into this next day. There are no coincidences. It was a good valentine’s day after all….

 

**Everything is Waiting for You – David Whyte

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

 

making tracks

I am aching to make tracks. It has been two weeks of winter weather settling in and leaving its precious powder. With a total accumulation of snow that now requires at least snowshoes for navigating safely, the time has come for me and Nora to get into the woods and explore.

So what is this, the yearning to make tracks? Is it as simple as just wanting to place my heart and soul in that place out there? Why not just appreciate the beauty of that place from where I am here inside? What is activating this strong desire to become one with that beauty outside?  Memory?  The promise of something altogether new…?

I think it is a physical thing first, the animal urge to move and feel the sensation of cold and warm sun at the same time, experience the silence, and the smell of cold stillness. It is the visceral feeling in my muscles to experience sensation, primal, like food in the mouth and the belly, or the pleasure of sex, or the endorphin high of vigorous exercise. Mentally, I am committed to being here with Nora, knowing just how exhilarating it can be for us to share freedom in this place together. Emotionally, I am completely and irrevocably in love with the element of snow. And last but not least, the ability to leave ego and pride and agenda behind while being so engaged with the simplicity of taking one step after another is as pure a spiritual practice as any other I know…

I am realizing, having just arrived home with a bag of groceries from my local Worthington Corner store, that I am aching to make tracks in my new community as well. This includes frequenting paths to the center of town that hosts the combination post office, store, gas pump and all round gathering place at one building. Making the choice to drive there rather than a half hour to within range of the universal supermarket wasn’t just decided by convenience, but rather by a knowing that everything I really desired would be present in this place. A gorgeous large organic onion, three beautiful fresh green peppers, a pound package of locally grass-fed beef chunks, the last dozen fresh eggs from a local farm, each one marked with a date and name of hen! A loaf of bread from my favorite local bakery made with just four ingredients, white flour, whole wheat flour, water and sea salt. And last but not least, a pound of Cabot extra sharp cheddar cheese, cut off the wheel in the case where it lives, wrapped in paper, pungent as only cheese can be when it is not encased in plastic. Smile.

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The drive home was dominated by visions of stuffed peppers using one of the last of this season’s jars of my father’s canned tomatoes. Mind you, this would also be major track making for me, back into the world of meat eating after twelve years of abstinence. Made possible by being in the right place at the right time and by being ready to embrace the full range of products of my community in the most basic way. I couldn’t wait…

For a quick fix and much needed nourishment for the impending snowshoe adventure, two slices of the fresh bread were slathered with butter and the center filled with thick slices of the cheese, all heated slowly in a cast iron skillet to yield a most spectacular grilled cheese sandwich. There was no resisting the call of the midday sun any longer and soon enough Nora and I were making tracks into the woods.

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Spectacular. Equanimity reigns in this kind of snow covered world. Today, whatever path we choose will be a path without obstacles or pre-determined hazard.  I find myself following Nora’s tracks, and no surprise, it is the very path we typically take to the brook below.

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Coming back up is a challenge however, as many portions of our typical route must negotiate short sections of steep terrain. Somehow Nora knows, and continues to guide me around the edges of the property and away from these places. We look back from where we came, making new tracks AND a new path at the same time….

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Making tracks is not just about forging ahead to new territory however. Making tracks also allows for a way to go back, to re-visit and to honor what has paved the way.

Sharing with my father later that afternoon in a phone call that I was embarking on making the family favorite stuffed peppers was one of those moments of honor where deep tracks have already been made. With enthusiasm, he related that he himself had made stuffed peppers just the night before himself, also with three large green peppers and with a jar of his own tomatoes. He made sure to remind me to finely chop the tops of the green peppers and add them to an equal amount of sautéed onions and then add tomatoes. Using every little bit available. Who would believe that I would be in animated conversation with my father over a pan of stuffed peppers…!

It was a conversation that led me back to ‘Doc Ford’s Family Country Cookbook’, (made twenty-four years ago to honor where such traditions have passed down through the family and full of recipes gathered from all members of the extended family).** I smile at my mother’s words in her Spanish Rice recipe (to be used for stuffing peppers) to use equal amounts of chopped green pepper and onion to sauté.  Laying the tracks for my father all these years later….

It is such a simple recipe and easily adaptable. I cut up the pieces of chuck stew meat into pea size pieces and add it to the vegetables sautéing in olive oil, add salt & pepper and a little ground fennel. When the meat is browned, add the tomatoes and simmer until fragrant. Add another cup or so of water and a bouillon cube for extra seasoning, gauge the amount of total liquid, and then add about half the amount of white rice as liquid (jasmine is my new favorite), cover, and cook until rice is just done, a little firm to bite. Turn off heat, oil the heavy cast iron pot, stuff the peppers to overflowing, add water to bottom of pan (to steam the peppers), cover pot and slow cook in a 325 degree oven until peppers are fork soft and the house is completely infused with the characteristic aroma of savory and delicious.

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Following the tracks leading to this meal does not disappoint. The rice is light and fluffy and full of flavor and the chunks of meat are so tender as to melt in the mouth. It is the result of desire to forge ahead to places unknown while sharing what I already know. It is a taste of a new kind of home…

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**excerpts from Doc Ford’s Country Cookbook, by Kathy Ford, 1991

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treasure

Appearing as gleaming bricks of gold, this morning’s treasure is thick slabs of cornbread lightly toasted with generous smears of butter.

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This isn’t just any ordinary cornbread. No, this bread was made from freshly ground corn, ground in my own kitchen from a mixture of locally grown organic Nothstine Dent and Plymouth Flint corn, fashioned into batter adapted from a gluten free recipe found on page 335 of ‘Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special’, ** and baked in my favorite eight inch round cast iron skillet. The recipe called for finely ground cornmeal, and even though the flour that emerged from my hand cranked grain mill was courser than fine, and even though I didn’t have buttermilk and had to substitute yogurt laced with half and half, the result was the kind of perfection that, like finding a piece of treasure, can catapult you into a flow of wondrous awe…

Many hours recently floating in the beautiful waters of the Caribbean were spent in this flow. Lying on my stomach in the shallow tide at the gentle crust of ocean ground, I would watch tiny rocks and shells as they became magnified through the clear water. A sparkle here, a flash there. I came home with but a handful of what felt like treasures,

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not at all obvious as to what their value might be, but perceived as valuable nonetheless. One day, the heart rocks called out the loudest. Another day it was different lengths of glimmering rods of coral. Another day it was tiny flashes of color, bits of shells with edges worn smooth. But the real prize was the single rock spotted amongst thousands, the flash of two eyes, the face of a bear staring up at me…

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How perfect really. A reminder of what I would be returning home to, the treasure of hibernation inside cold snowy days of deep winter. And yesterday was the day, steady snow all day and the quiet that accompanies life driven inside. Making cornbread and chili became the structure around which I was able to be with the storm from warmth within. Like the cornbread, the chili began with a pot of locally grown organic Jacobs Cattle beans, two cups soaked and cooked the day before. I dug about a third of a pound of ground lamb from the freezer, finely chopped the last medium onion, five cloves of garlic, and two carrots and began sautéing, cooking until meat was browned and onions translucent. Then added some spices, two tablespoons chili powder, one tablespoon cumin, a good dash each of ground fennel, cayenne pepper, and salt. The 28 oz. can of organic plum tomatoes was added with all the juices, each tomato shredded by squeezing through appreciative fingers directly into the pot. Added about 1-3/4 cups water and a seasoned vegetable bouillon cube, brought it all to a boil, added the beans (with about 1/2 cup of their liquid), and simmered gently for about an hour. Then went to find the giant block of pure cacao that Molly brought back from Peru. Another treasure. There is only so much, and then there will be no more. I cut off about two ounces worth

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and added it to the chili with an equal amount of tomato paste. After a little more simmering, the chili was done and ready to rest.

I’ve always found that the quality of hibernation is enhanced when actually being exposed to the elements for a time. With chili complete, I began the process of donning snow gear and strapping on snowshoes. Just walking the meadow with Nora leaping all around me in the swirling snow, taking in the vastness of white,

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and then replenishing the stock of firewood was enough to bring me gratefully back into a cocoon of woodstove warmth, assemble and bake the cornbread, and anticipate the sedative effects of a belly full of treasure. Whether a slab of cornbread or a shimmering jewel, whether felt in the head, heart, or belly, this perception of treasure is inextricably linked to a quality of innocent seeking and wonder. The blending of flavors and heat in the chili, combined with the airy crunch and barely sweet moist crumb of the cornbread become the treasures that mark presence in and occupation of a day.

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And it is the transitory nature of treasure, here one moment, possibly gone the next, that makes it so much fun to search for…

 

**Southern Wheat-free Cornbread (adapted) from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special

2 cups (finely ground) yellow or white cornbread

1/2 cup boiling water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil)

1-1/4 cups buttermilk (I used 1 cup whole milk plain yogurt + 1/4 cup half & half)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Oil a baking pan or skillet (an 8 or 9 inch square pan or round skillet will work best) and set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together 1/2 cup cornmeal and boiling water. The cornmeal will become mushy and then stiff. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together remaining cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Beat the egg into the cornmeal mush and stir in the oil. Whisk in the buttermilk to make a thin batter. Add liquid ingredients to dry and fold with spatula until batter is just smooth, and immediately pour into prepared pan.

Bake until center of cornbread is slightly rounded and firm and golden brown at the edges (about 35 -40 minutes depending on size of the pan….). Cool for at least twenty minutes before serving.