Monthly Archives: March 2015

Pockets of home

I’m re-reading Georgia Heard’s book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way, to try and jump-start my writing each morning. Her first chapter is about querencia, which is the Spanish idea of “a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.” It took some thought to land where I did, drifting first over the places where I’ve lived with my parents and other family, through bookstores, and around the house in New York, but none of them felt quite right.

I realized that’s because I feel most at home in the kitchen and the garden and the classroom. I am in control—though I know that to some extent, that control is an illusion—in those spaces. A cutting board of ingredients, a tangle of weeds , a group of young faces—I know what to do with all of these. I relish the challenge and the familiarity they simultaneously provide. My sense of querencia is directly affected by how capable I feel in these spaces. Any kitchen, any garden, any classroom can make me feel like I am in my safe space.

While I love trying new recipes, and my wall of cookbooks can attest to that, my favorite cooking is intuitive. What do I have in the refrigerator? A small cabbage, parmesan cheese, some corn, a pound of ground beef? In the pantry I have canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and elbow pasta. I pile them all on the counter in front of me and begin the chopping: halve the cabbage through its core, insert the knife point into the top of the cabbage’s core and cut down to the base, enjoying the cool slice-and-crunch sound it makes. Repeat on the other side of the core, and then repeat with the other half of the cabbage. Pop out the core and begin the rhythmic slicing into thin ribbons, the clack of the knife on the cutting board making a soothing pattern of sound.

By the time I have made the ingredients their appropriate sizes, I know I’m going to make a soup. There’s no broth, but that doesn’t matter. Water will pull the flavor it needs from the vegetables, and dried herbs– bay, thyme, peppercorns—will help tie things together.

In the garden, the smell of the soil under my hands is a subtle scent on a dry day and more pungent after a rain. I set out with a list of chores, but once I run my hands over the sage and dust my shirt with yellow pollen as I walk through the tomatoes that list becomes a vague sense of, “I should…”. The smells of the garden addle my brain. I stop where I am and attend to what needs doing right there and then. This tomato needs tying up, that section needs weeding, those beans need picking. Hours later, I mentally surface and find that I’ve completed most of the things I planned to do and have forgotten some. I have also forgotten to stop for lunch. I achieve total focus—in a strangely unfocused way–in a garden in a way I seem unable to find in other places.

The classroom is a different kind of home, though there is some overlap. I always had a list of things to do, but when dealing with adolescent humans that list could be side-tracked easily. Sometimes, we had to deal with misconceptions that arose, and other times, we had to follow where a student’s connecting idea led. Sometimes, we stuck to the list. Regardless of what happened, the interplay of words and laughter and furrowed brows as we all puzzled through and thought about new things gave me a sense of contentment. Watching the unfolding of learning on student faces—it could show up in a face that went suddenly, completely still with wonder; in the quirk of an eyebrow; in an actual shout of, “Oh my god, I get it!”—was the reason I knew no other job on the planet could be as important.

Leaving that last home has been hard, and perhaps its absence is why there have been many days since last June that I felt adrift. There have been many spaces in my new life where I haven’t felt skilled, and at 43, feeling unskilled leaves me less comfortable than it did at 23 or 33. It has been more challenging since winter began, which means the garden ended. To an extent, we carry home within us, but when we are disconnected from the actual place of home, calling it up inside of us is sometimes a poor substitute. I am learning that I have to make new pockets of home, teach myself new capabilities, so that on the unsettled days I can reach a hand into a pocket and wrap my fingers around its comforts, like a smooth, rounded stone that fits just so in the palm.

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Events conspiring

One of the (very few) downsides to my current living arrangement is that I miss my husband. He’s four and a half hours and three states away, which means that visits can sometimes be widely spaced. We had a great run between Christmas and the last week of February, with events conspiring so that we had no more than five days passing between times together. That’s at an end now, and it will have been a week and a half since I’ve seen him when he arrives for the weekend. It will be another week and a half before I see him after that. (But then we’re going to London(!) together for ten days, which seems to make the time seem more bearable.) I have a deep respect for couples that do this separation thing for much longer than we do; it’s not easy.

There is, however, an upside to our separation. I can sum it up in one word.

Cilantro.

My husband is one of those people who absolutely loathe the stuff. If it’s hidden by garlic and hot peppers and salt in a guacamole or salsa, he can handle it, but otherwise he scrapes it off whatever he’s eating and puts it on my plate. If it’s a garnish, that is–he just won’t eat anything, other than the aforementioned Mexican dishes, if it has cilantro within the recipe. (He does the same with mass-produced pickles, though we’ve found a few recipes that I make that he likes.)

I, of course, love the stuff.

But marriage is often about compromise, right? So I don’t use cilantro in many recipes, substituting mint and/or parsley and/or basil, depending on what I’m making. And it turns out that I miss it (kind of like my husband, funnily enough). It adds a brightness (Larry would say “soapiness”) to dishes that no other herb can truly approximate. I’ve watched bunch after bunch turn to green slime in the refrigerator when I’ve bought it thinking, “Well, I’ll just use it on a lot of what I eat, and leave it out of his portion,” but wind up just not being able to use it fast enough.

That is all at an end right now! I can add it to whatever I want, because I’m only cooking for myself these days. This week, it will be showing up a lot.

I was not…shall we say…especially healthy this winter. It has been so cold for so long, and the snow so oddly heaped and mounded and wind-blown, that being outside walking has been downright unpleasant. Instead, I’ve been inside pretending that cheese is a balanced diet. The end result: it’s a good thing I own a lot of sweatpants. I need to get back on track, and at the same time, I’m using this opportunity to test recipes for the personal chef business I’m working on setting up. More about that later, hopefully. This week, I’m testing vegetarian menus, and most of what I’ve chosen comes from Ottolenghi’s book Plenty.

I think I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the man is a genius.

His ingredient lists are often long, but they’re usually made up of dried spices that simply need to be measured out. The Spicy Moroccan Carrot Salad and the Freekeh Pilaf that I had tonight only took about 45 minutes, because some of the chopping was duplicated in both recipes, and while things were working on the stove, I could be moving ahead elsewhere. Read through the recipes before you make them, so you can figure out whether or not you need to have all of your slicing and dicing done in advance, or if there’s “down-time” in the recipe when you can be working on that while the stove or oven does its thing.

Here’s what is so brilliant about both of these recipes: there’s no meat at all, but these two dishes are so deeply savory that it didn’t matter. The grains in the pilaf are chewy, so you have to work your jaw like you would with meat, and the allspice and cinnamon are nothing like pumpkin pie spice. The jalapeno-heat from the carrot salad blended beautifully with the garlicky yogurt topping on the pilaf, and every bite of each just kind of jumped (flavor-wise–no moving parts in the recipes!) in my mouth. The leftovers are for lunch tomorrow, and I’m very much looking forward to them!
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Freekeh Pilaf
from Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty (with a few slight variations)
serves 2-4 (I halved the recipe, and it made what I think are two healthy portions, but what you see here makes the full amount)

2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil, plus more to finish
1 cup freekeh (or bulgur wheat–reduce cooking time to 10 minutes)–here’s where I varied, and used a Freekeh blend that has Freekeh, emmer, basmati rice, and rye from our local mill, Champlain Valley Milling
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 1/4 c good-quality reduced vegetable stock (He suggests starting with 2 1/2 cups and reducing–make sure you love the stock, because it will be intensified.)
salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 c Greek yogurt
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 garlic clove, crushed (I minced mine)
1/8 c finely chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
1/8 c finely chopped mint
2/3 c finely chopped cilantro
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Place onions, butter, and olive oil in a large heavy pot and saute on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, or until the onion is soft and brown.

Meanwhile, soak the freekeh in cold water for 5 minutes. Drain in a sieve, rinse well under cold water, and rain well.

Add the freekeh and spices to the onions, followed by the stock and some salt and pepper. Stir well. Bring to the boil, then cover, reduce the heat to a bare minimum, and leave to simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it covered for five minutes. Finally, remove the lid and leave the pilaf to cool down a little, another five minutes.

While you wait, mix the yogurt with the lemon juice, garlic, and some salt. (This is also where I did my chopping of the herbs.)

Stir the herbs into the warm pilaf. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon onto serving dishes and top each portion with a generous dollop of the yogurt mixture. Sprinkle with the pine nuts (I jumped the gun and mixed them into the pilaf–no damage done.) and parsley and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.