We’re Listening

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At the end of a week when we buried a U.S. President with all the ceremony befitting a man of honor, I have been thinking about respect and what we do with our lives to make them matter.  Certainly, President George H.W. Bush, a medaled Naval officer and American statesman who devoted his life and career to the service of others, is but a shining example of one to hold in high regard.  The late President lived a life that – regardless of politics – merited our esteem, reverence and admiration.  Flawed in his humanity (as we all are), he no doubt earned our respect – throughout his life and now in his death.

My late father was a congenial man.  He was funny, laid back, patient, compassionate and kind.  But there were two things he would not abide: disrespecting my mother and speaking ill of others.  This made an impression on me.  He was, after all, my hero.  

Author and activist Bryant H. McGill says:  “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”  It costs us nothing to lean in a little closer — to listen and to be heard.  I believe it was Albert Einstein who once said he speaks to everyone — from the garbage man to the university president — in the same way.

And though most of us cannot claim to be superheroes or statesmen, Nobel Prize winners, or even geniuses, we all have something to contribute.  And others are listening, for we are in this together.

This recipe for Everything Biscuits is another gem from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories.  I love this book, as is evident by my frequent references to it.  It is one of my favorites, not only because of the recipes, which are delicious and surprisingly fool-proof (bonus!), but because of the title and running theme: small victories.  Tomorrow, take some time to listen to someone; perhaps he/she needs to be heard.  A small victory indeed.

Ingredients
2 tsp. poppy seeds
2 tsp. sesame seeds
2 tsp. onion flakes
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. kosher salt
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-in. cubes and chilled
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, plus more for brushing

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In a small bowl, stir together the poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and onion flakes. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using your hands, work the butter into the flour mixture, rubbing it between your fingers until the mixture turns into coarse crumbs. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the buttermilk until the mixture becomes a shaggy dough. Stir in half of the seed mixture.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat it out so that it’s about 1 in. thick. Using a 20-in. round cutter, stamp out biscuits as close together as possible. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them evenly. Pat the dough scraps together (do not overwork the dough), re-roll, and cut out more biscuits. You should end up with a dozen biscuits, although I was actually able to squeeze 17 out of this recipe!

Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator and chill the biscuits for about 1 hour. Baking them from cold will yield flakier biscuits.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450°F.

Right before baking, brush each biscuit lightly with buttermilk and then sprinkle evenly with the remaining seed mixture.  Bake the biscuits until they’re risen and golden, 15 to 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet halfway through baking. Serve warm and enjoy!

The Story Goes

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I love a good story.  A bedtime story, a love story, a “you’ll never believe this” story.  A good story teaches, enlightens, entertains, and suspends all time and place — drawing you in so that only the story matters.

A few weeks ago, I attended the wedding of a childhood friend’s daughter.  The bride and groom, the stars at the center of a classic “boy meets girl” love story, were radiant, their joy contagious. Their story is just unfolding, the binding of that book barely cracked.

Two elderly gentlemen who live in my neighborhood walk together every day.  In even the most inhospitable weather, they travel a familiar route, leaning in to one another.  They share unhurried conversation, a relaxed exchange of stories, the details of which only they know.  I observe from a distance and wonder what the story of their friendship is.

One of the reasons I love writing this blog is it gives me a chance to share stories and sometimes, if I’m lucky, to be gifted with a story in return. There is meaning in all our stories, new chapters to write every day. Our stories make us real, and as the Skin Horse so wisely says in The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” 

I hope that this holiday season provides opportunities to share old stories and create new ones — stories that will last for always.

Here is a recipe for Winter Cabbage and Farro Soup that feels like an old familiar story.  It is earthy, warm and oh so comforting.  Thanks to Josh McFadden, author Six Seasons for providing the foundation and inspiration.

Ingredients
1 lb. cabbage (I used savoy but any kind will do.)
Olive oil
1 med. onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 sprig rosemary or thyme
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2/3 c. farro
4 c. vegetable or chicken broth (store-bought or homemade)
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Cut out cabbage core and roughly chop it.  Cut the leaves into fine shreds by slicing through the chunk of cabbage.

Heat 1/4 c. olive oil into a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion and cabbage core, pinch of salt and some pepper.  Cook, stirring frequently until the onion starts to brown and become fragrant, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another 5 until the garlic is also soft.

Add the shredded cabbage leaves and rosemary or thyme.  Cover the pot and allow the steam to soften the leaves, tossing occasionally.  Cook, covered, until the cabbage is very tender and sweet, 20-30 minutes.  When the cabbage is ready, stir in the vinegar and adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper, if necessary.

Meanwhile, heat approximately 2-3 tbsp. olive oil in another large pot, add the farro and cook, stirring constantly until the farro is lightly toasted and fragrant, approximately 5-6 minutes.  Scrape the toasted farro into the cabbage pot and add the broth.  Adjust the heat to a slow simmer and leave alone for approximately 25 minutes – until the farro is tender.

Stir in the lemon juice and ladle the soup into bowls.  Shower each bowl with grated Parmigiano cheese and enjoy!

A Cornucopia Indeed

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It’s Thanksgiving.  Thus we begin the long journey into the season of complicated emotions, otherwise known as “the holidays.”  If I were to use a Thanksgiving metaphor, I’d say we find ourselves facing a cornucopia of feelings — the joy of reunion; the ache of missing; the familiarity of old insecurities; the fatigue of caring; and of course, the gratitude for what we’ve been given.

And I am immensely grateful.  For in this abundance, I know that I am one of the lucky ones.  I am healthy.  I am loved.  That’s about all I require; the rest is just gravy (yes, a holiday pun).

In the days and weeks ahead, there will be abundance — of gatherings, of feelings, of responsibilities.  But there will not be an abundance of time.   Time, in it scarcity, always lets us down.  So live in this day, in this crazy, hectic, over-stimulated, at times disappointing and frustrating collection of moments.  For that’s all we really have.

Spiritual writer Mark Nepo, in his poem Accepting This, says the following:

There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
Accepting this,
we can do everything
and go anywhere.

I hope that wherever you find yourselves this holiday you feel abundantly loved and satisfied.

Thanksgiving Corn Muffins

These muffins are adapted from a recipe by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame.  She calls them “Perfect Corn Muffins” but I am choosing to ease the pressure just a bit.  Perfection is a slippery aim.  I do think you will enjoy them — Thanksgiving or any time.

Ingredients

2 c. yellow cornmeal, divided
1 c. all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1-1/4 tsp. fine sea salt or table salt
1-1/4 c. whole milk
1 c. full-fat sour cream
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
5 tbsp. sugar
2 lg. eggs

Heat oven to 425°F (220°C). Either grease or line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with disposable liners.

Whisk 1 1/2 cups cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl.  In a medium saucepan combine milk and remaining 1/2 cup cornmeal.  Cook cornmeal mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens to a batter-like consistency (i.e., the whisk will leave a clear line across the bottom of the pot that slowly fills in).  Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl.

Whisk butter, then sugar, then sour cream into cooked cornmeal until combined.  At this point, the wet mixture should be cool enough that adding the eggs will not scramble them, but if it still seems too hot, let it cool for 5 minutes longer.  Whisk in eggs until combined.  Fold in flour mixture until thoroughly combined and the batter is very thick.

Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups; it will mound slightly above the rim.  Bake until tops are golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, approximately 17 minutes.  Let muffins cool in muffin tin on wire rack for 5 minutes,  then remove muffins from tin and let cool 5 minutes longer.  Serve warm.

 

Martha and the Spoon

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My grandmother, the late, great Martha (“Martha Darling” as she was lovingly referred to by my sisters and I) came to me in a dream last night.  I wasn’t surprised by her visit.  Having recently retired from my job of 13 years, I find myself — again — in a time of transition. (See this blog’s very first post, circa 2011, and you’ll understand why I say “again.”).  Transitions are stressful.  There’s all that un-knowing to contend with.  And, as one who has spent the better part of the last three decades with some of degree of certainty as to what Monday through Friday looks like — well, let’s just say, this is unchartered territory.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, author Alice Robb asserts, not surprisingly, that our dreams are windows into our conscious selves and that there is real value in trying to interpret them.  In her research, Robb spoke with psychologists who claim that in dreams “our brains are reminding us of a time when we prevailed over something we had feared, boosting our confidence.”

In my dream, Martha joined me in a happy place — on a beautiful lake, the water moving endlessly and without worry while dappled sunlight sparkled on its surface.  Martha leaned in and whispered, “You’re a good girl, Leslie.”  Then she handed me a wooden mixing spoon, worn by years of use in what I can only imagine would have been any number of delicious dishes she created.  And then she was gone.

Here’s how I am choosing to interpret this lovely reunion with my sweet, funny, one-of-a-kind grandmother who was – in case it hasn’t already been made clear – an absolute boss in the kitchen (and I mean that in the best possible way).  Concerning my future, I don’t have any more answers today than I did before the dream, but I think Martha was simply trying to say: “It’s okay.  You will figure this out.  You’re a good girl.”

As for the spoon, well that was meant to be my dream-induced confidence booster, a not-so-subtle hint to get back into the kitchen and to writing this blog (which has been on a multiple year hiatus).  Goodness — and hopefully deliciousness — will prevail.  Enjoy!

Regan’s Butternut Squash Ravioli A lot has happened since I first started writing this blog in 2011, and I hope you will return again and again to find out more.  In the meantime, what follows is a recipe for homemade butternut squash ravioli that is pretty much perfect for the season.  I am especially proud to share this one since it comes from my daughter Regan’s ever growing arsenal of deliciousness.  This recipe is for the filling; the homemade pasta recipe was adapted straight from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook.

Ingredients

  1.  1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into medium cubes
  2.  2 garlic cloves, whole with skins on
  3.  2 tbs. olive oil
  4.  salt and pepper to taste
  5. a few sprigs of thyme
  6. 1/2 to 1-1/2 c. ricotta cheese
  7.  1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425.  Place cubed squash and whole garlic cloves (skins on) in a bowl, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Transfer to a greased or parchment lined sheet tray and add sprigs of thyme.  Roast until soft fragrant, and just beginning to brown around the edges (approximately 15-20 minutes).  Remove squash and garlic from the oven, remove skins from garlic and allow mixture to cool.  Discard the thyme.

Once cooled, transfer squash and garlic to a food processor, along with ricotta cheese and lemon juice.  *Add ricotta a half-cup at a time until you achieve desired consistency.  You are looking for a smooth puree that is NOT too liquid-y.

For instructions on filling the ravioli, follow these fool-proof, easy-to-follow steps, courtesy of Epicurious.

To cook ravioli, cook in a medium saucepan of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes, just until the center is hot and the pasta is al dente.  Remember that this is fresh pasta, which cooks much faster than the dried variety.  Toss with your favorite sauce, or perhaps just a shimmer of olive oil, salt and pepper, and enjoy!

Regan’s Butternut Squash Ravioli

Ice-Cube Zen

I hate being late. I’m pretty sure this dates back to a childhood obsession with “people pleasing” that has carried over into my adult world. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s nice to show up on time — professionally speaking, this is a bonus, and I think when you’re a dinner guest or meeting a friend, promptness is a courtesy we all can appreciate.

The thing is, I’m realizing that my race to get out the door is inhibiting my ability to live in the present. This is a goal of mine, now that I am in a transitional life phase (that sounds ominous; it shouldn’t).  With all of my children no longer children and living primarily on their own, I find that the mental energy I expend during most days centers around work and…work. Again, this is good — from a professional standpoint, I’m being productive and I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something (again, the people pleasing rears its sometimes ugly head). But the days are whizzing by, and I’m realizing that there is a real peace and satisfaction in sometimes doing and thinking nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing of consequence.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical suggestions for how we become more mindful. One of my favorites:

“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

It’s been more than a decade since I first picked up the Zen master’s seminal work, but for some reason, this passage has stayed with me. And I was reminded of it today as I was filling the ice-cube trays.

In our house, this is a job usually reserved for my husband. I can’t give a good reason as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, well, he just has more patience than I. There are 6 trays in our freezer, and emptying and refilling them all at once takes — oh, I don’t know — maybe 3-4 minutes. In my world, that’s 4 minutes I could otherwise be accomplishing something. But today, armed with a renewed commitment to living presently in the moment, I filled the trays. And while I was filling the trays, I thought of nothing else but filling those trays. Watching the small cavities gradually transform from empty to full was gratifying — A little nugget of momentary peace.  I’ll take it.

Baked Rice Pudding
This dish, in addition to filling your belly with warm, sweet satisfaction, offers good practice in mindfulness and patience, as it requires some babysitting, a little extra TLC, if you will. But oh, it’s worth it.

Ingredients:
4 c. Whole milk (more as needed)
⅓ c. Arborio rice
⅓ c. Sugar
1 T Unsalted butter
½ Cinnamon stick
1 t. Vanilla extract
Zest from one orange
Fine sea salt
Optional: ½ c. dried fruits such as raisins, currants, cherries, etc.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, rice, sugar, butter and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour into the baking dish and distribute evenly. Bake, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15-20 minutes — this is where the patience part comes in — until the rice is very tender and has absorbed most of the milk, about 1.5 hours.

Remove from the oven and stir in vanilla, orange zest and a pinch of salt (*if you’re adding dried fruit, this is when you’ll want to do that). If the pudding seems too thick, stir in additional milk until you have achieved desired consistency. Spoon into bowls, and enjoy! (makes 4-6 servings)

–Adapted from Comfort Food for Williams-Sonoma (Oxmoor House, 2009).

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Mid-Life Lessons from my Children

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“Let that be a lesson to you.” How often have we parents said this to our children? In those “teachable moments,” it’s the phrase we use to drive the point home. As the parent of young adults, however, I realize now that I am the student. Their wisdom comes from an honest world view that is opening my eyes to important life lessons I wish I had known a long time ago.

In the Sanskrit English Dictionary of Monier-Williams, the word “sage” is described as a derivative of the Sanskrit root rsh, meaning “to go, to move.” Tārānātha identifies this as “one who reaches beyond this mundane world by means of spiritual knowledge.” So, yes, I’d go so far as to claim my children as having the qualities of the great sages.

Let’s just say I believe my kids are far more evolved than I, but I am the happy beneficiary of their unabashedly pure — and “real” — outlook on life.  For instance, I am learning from them that who we are really isn’t at all about what we look like or what we do. Rather, we are becoming every day, a process that has nothing to do with the above and everything to do with: being vulnerable; having heart; having courage; dreaming big; loving even bigger; and being okay with everything just as it is.

It’s a tall order. Lucky for me that I am a willing student with (hopefully) a lot of life left in which to learn. Of course, we never really know, so for today I’ll just be sure to pay close attention.

Homecomings…and Goings

IMG_0818My oldest child returned home from a two-month job out west last week. Her stay here will be temporary, as she is preparing for a new adventure in yet another part of the country and will be leaving again in just a few short days. It’s hard saying hello again, knowing that more goodbyes are imminent. These grainy sands of time just keep slipping through my fingers.

There is still one child home, and he turns 18 this week — the age at which one is considered a legal adult in the U.S. Old enough to legally work, participate in contracts, vote, marry, give sexual consent, and join the military.So in truth, he is an adult; there are no more children at home.

We have a tradition in our family that when one celebrates a birthday, he/she is treated to breakfast in bed. In a happy surprise, the almost-adult told me he wanted to stick with tradition and be feted in bed with a big old breakfast! I’m figuring this might be my last opportunity, so I plan to make it memorable.

Of course, for me they’re all memorable. Burned in my memory in fact. Every breakfast in bed; every birthday party; every celebration that ever was. Hopefully, the “kids” share those memories. Maybe they will think of them (and me), even as time between homecomings becomes longer.

photo (21)Lemon Blueberry Muffins
I love these muffins for their sunny, lemony taste and for their incredible fluffiness — made possible by the addition of a few special ingredients. These will certainly be on the menu for Spencer’s breakfast in bed.

Ingredients:
3 c. flour, plus 1 T. for dredging the berries
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. lemon zest
1/2 c. butter, melted
1-1/2 c. sour cream*
1 c. blueberries

*(Sometimes I like to mix 1 c. of sour cream with 1/2 c. of crème frâiche.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease or line a 12-well muffin tin with paper liners.

In a mixing bowl, combine 3 cups flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Create a well in the bottom of the bowl for adding the wet ingredients.

In another large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and melted butter.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients; mix until combined and then add the sour cream. Lightly mix again but do not over mix. Toss the blueberries with 1 tablespoon flour and fold into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly into each cup in the prepared muffin tin.

Bake for approximately 22 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
(recipe adapted from Kelsey Nixon, Kelsey’s Essentials.)