Tag Archives: balance

Love me, love my unpainted walls

     The southeast corner of our bedroom had to be repaired two years ago. The drywall corners hadn’t been sealed by tape and mud, so over time the corners pulled away from each other. We had a contractor repair the problem, and said that I’d paint.
     It’s still unpainted.
     The hallway upstairs needs to be painted; the closed doors in my office need to be painted; the drywall in the living room needs to be painted.
     I get tired of painting. So I live with the consequences of not doing it. Consequences that, in the scheme of things, are not so bad. I’m a little embarrassed when I give a tour of the house to someone visiting for the first time, but I just brightly say, “We still have some work to do!” Eventually, I’ll get all of that painting done. Love me, love my unpainted walls…or something like that.
     One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I can live with a certain amount of dirt and mess (as long as no one is coming over) if there are other things I’d rather be focusing on (and there usually are). The dog hair tumbleweeds into corners, the piles of cookbooks and recipes and life’s paper trail multiply, a jacket lives on a chair-back for a week. But I might be absorbed in a good book, or cooking a bunch of new recipes, or planting seeds, and that thing is more important than the other stuff (as long as no one is coming over). I tell myself that we’re building up our resistance to germs. (My mother is probably banging her forehead on her computer desk right now. I know, Mom, you taught me better. Love you!) The exception is my cooking area, which I keep cluttered-but-clean. Because otherwise, gross.
     I know this isn’t particularly socially acceptable—we’re all supposed to have sterile-looking Pottery Barn houses—but I don’t particularly care, usually. There are, of course, those days when I look around and say, “Holy cow, this place is a pigsty!” and I get busy with the vacuum and dust rag. Or there are days, like today, when I have to clean up after our latest construction project. (Today’s is red brick dust from our chimney repair. Worth it, but ugh, that stuff is EVERYWHERE.) But I’d rather read, or write, or try out new recipes, or…you get the picture.
     I’m learning to stop beating myself up about these things, because as that meme/poem/thingy that goes around the internet every so often says, dust if you must, but there’s more to living than a clean house. As long as no one is coming over.

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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.

One of those people…

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True Confession: I’m one of those people who get really excited about holidays and birthdays. I know every day is beautiful blah, blah, blah…but holidays and birthdays are legit reasons to celebrate and be excessive and not have people look at you funny. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who get so excited about holidays and birthdays that I have a movie in my head for how I want them to go, and I work really hard to make sure that the decorations and food and…well, everything in my control…are wonderful.
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Only…I never share that movie in my head. Because really, who needs to ‘fess up to that kind of crazy, right? But what it means is that I put all this pressure on myself, and then the day inevitably winds up not matching my movie. And then I’m sad and irritated that it didn’t.

How many of you are collecting sympathy donations for my husband right now? Don’t feel too badly for him…he eats well. And I’m never annoyed at HIM (well, about that stuff, anyway) but I imagine that my end-of-the-day blues are not easy to ignore.

It happened again for Valentine’s Day. The morning started off well, with cards and silly gifts and breakfast, and then we walked the dogs and had lunch (I couldn’t help the cute–the beet soup and sandwich were our lunch). After lunch, we were invited to a 50th birthday celebration for a lovely woman we’ve met since moving to the North Country, and then we got home and snacked on melty brie with cranberry chutney…and here’s where my movie went awry.

I had planned a delicious, simple dinner (An awesome chicken ragu with bacon from The Kitchn, a salad, and a DIVINE Salted Caramel Creme Brulee from Fine Cooking. I’d even made the ragu and the custard in advance, so we could enjoy dinner without any pressure.
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But we weren’t hungry. Because we ate so much cheese.

And I was sad and annoyed. And then I was annoyed that I was sad and annoyed. So I decided enough, already. When I woke up on Sunday, I mentally hit the reset button and we went and had a Valentine’s Day Redux. We had a leisurely morning with breakfast and while Larry did a quick snow-plow of the drifting snow from the driveway, I packed us a light lunch to bring over to Vermont. We went to the Shelburne Museum to see the Kodachrome and jewelry exhibits, ran some quick errands, stopped into a bar for a beer and a snack, and headed home to finally have that dinner. Which was lovely.
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The moral of the story: I’m going to work on the whole birthday/holiday-movie-in-my-head thing. And I’ll be making that creme brulee a lot. I mean, A LOT, a lot. You should, too.
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The Roller Coaster is Making Me Tired

The past five days have been a serious lesson in regaining balance. On Thursday, I didn’t like myself very much after a comment I made to a student. It had been a long day, and this student just so happened to ask one of my least favorite questions. It wasn’t his fault that he was Asker #85. It’s a normal question for an eighth grader. But I snarked in response, and felt like an ass. “No, We’re Not Watching a Movie” was my response, and I’ve read it to my classes by way of apology, so hopefully things are mended.

Friday, I got the bittersweet, but mostly sweet, news that one of my closest friends will be taking the English position I’m vacating. This is brilliant news; she will be amazing, and the room will continue to be filled with books, which makes me irrationally happy. But, whew, I’m really leaving, aren’t I? (Mrs. P, I could not be happier that you’re taking over!)

On Saturday, we discovered a fair amount of damage done to our fagarden (I know, it sounds like a swear word in Italian…which might be why it has so grown on me) by the two-legged variety of animal. It took about three or so hours to put back what had been torn asunder, and I lost about a fourth of the plants I had already put in. We kept hoping that we’d find out the damage had been accidentally caused, but some hopes are simply that, so it looks like it was just vandalism.

Then we went out and bought a new tractor. This is really good news. Though it is surprising that it’s good news, because if you had asked me about tractors five years ago, I would have given you a blank stare. The younger, less cool me didn’t know how awesome tractors are. Let’s forgive her.

On Sunday, two of our neighbors who had heard about the garden came by with a “We’re so sorry!” gift of a dozen eggs, asparagus, and a roasting chicken from the Essex Farm. Faith in humanity: restored. Melissa and Rebecca, you are wonderful human beings. I’m so glad we’re getting to know you. You add to the reasons we can’t wait to move.

On Monday, I worked so hard in the fagarden, it hurt to drive the car the four hours back to Massachusetts.

And now we’re up to today. I love my students. I’m really tired. I made an amazing dinner (if I may be permitted to say so) and I’m downloading a Journey’s Greatest Hits c.d. Steadily getting back on track.

So, dinner. We bought a lamb from a Vermont meat company that we first came in contact with at Boston’s SoWa Market, Westminster Meats. We love them–Desna is awesome to work with, and their product is delicious. You probably already knew this, but add it to the list of things I’ve never thought about: when you buy a whole lamb, it comes with lamb ribs. I’ve never seen such things, let alone cooked and eaten them. I did some web-searching, and found a super-simple recipe over at Serious Eats. If you’d like to try the original, head here.

After reading the comments, I decided to cut back on the water. I used a cup and a half, which, when combined with the amount of dried fruit, gave me a just-right amount of sauce. I adore sauce, though, since I like to pour it over rice or potatoes, swipe it up with bread, and just plain marry it with carbs/starches. If you don’t have these propensities, you might just need a cup of water. I added a small, peeled, smashed garlic clove to the onions as I softened them, and I used a mix of apricots, dates, and figs, because I didn’t have enough of one to make the called for two cups.

Instead of making the recommended rub, I used a Ras el-Hanout spice blend that I had made for another recipe. I used about a teaspoon on each rack of ribs; we had two, for a total of about 4 pounds.

Which brings me to the thing that might make people balk at lamb ribs. They are quite possibly the fattiest things I’ve ever seen in my life. And I know a lot of people will shudder, but I cut most of the fat cap off of the meaty side of the ribs. I left a very, very thin layer. Because while I know fat is flavor, there is nothing appealing (to me) about a dish swimming in cups and cups of rendered fat. (Well, okay. Duck confit. But that’s different. No, really. It is.) As it was, there was still a hefty amount of fat in the finished dish, which I’m solidifying so that I can peel it off. I’m going to use the remaining fruit and sauce to jazz up rice one night.

And the lamb and the fruit and the onions? Glory be, they were tender and melting and luscious, and the house smelled like a spice bazaar. If you like lamb shanks, you’ll like lamb ribs. Head over to Serious Eats and give this one a try! (You can also see a picture there, since I forgot to take one.)

Here’s to lamb ribs, restored faith, and the return of balance. Please.