Alexa, Are you Listening?

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Since leaving full-time employment a year ago, my daily routine — or lack thereof — has shifted radically. There are days, many of them in fact, when my calendar is nothing more than a cavernous grid of emptiness (Helloooo out there…can anyone hear me?). Of course I spend many hours waist-deep in introspection. Lots and lots of introspection. My pre-frontal cortex is getting quite the workout — even as my conversational skills may be waning.

But let’s be clear: I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m learning that spending long stretches of time alone is not that bad. Sure, there are days when it seems the only person I speak to is “Alexa.” And yes, lots of time with just me — the woman who has been known to overthink everything from which route to take when walking the dogs to what to eat for dinner — can lead to…well frankly, headaches. You know how sometimes you get that random song stuck in your head? Some 1980s new wave number that you hated even when it was trending on the radio? Well, ample alone time can make it hard to pull the plug on that seemingly never ending loop too.

But, living large chunks of my days in the company of just me has its perks. For one thing, I’ve pretty much mastered the art of folding fitted sheets by myself (Martha would be proud). Then of course, there are my dogs, the true beneficiaries of this new normal. I may not be talking to humans for large measures of time, but my dogs? Yeah, just ask them.

Seriously, though, here’s what I am learning on my solo journey. While too many hours spent up in our heads can lead to “paralysis by analysis,” it can also awaken our creative side. I don’t know if anyone is reading this blog, but I’m happy to be getting back to writing. And of course there’s the cooking — the idea of making something new; the colors, textures, smells and sizzles; but mostly, the sharing, feeding and nourishing in ways literal and figurative. Molly Wizenberg, one of my favorite food writers, sums it up much more eloquently than I:

“Like most people who love to cook, I like the tangible things. I like the way the knife claps when it meets the cutting board. I like the haze of sweet air that hovers over a hot cake as it sits, cooling, on the counter. I like the way a strip of orange peel looks on an empty plate. But what I like even more are the intangible things: the familiar voices that fall out of the folds of an old cookbook, or the scenes that replay like a film reel across my kitchen wall. When we fall in love with a certain dish, I think that’s what we’re often responding to: that something else behind the fork or the spoon, the familiar story that food tells.”

I guess it’s the “familiar story that food tells” that inspires me to cook and to feed — and also to write this blog. New York Times travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom has written a book extolling the virtues of traveling solo. A review of the book explains it thus:

“Loneliness always feels bad, but solitude often feels good, and if there is a little of one in the other, the balance can be its own source of sustenance.”

Time Magazine

Solitude for me feels good, albeit a little lonely. But I know that on those days when the quiet is just a bit too loud, there’s always my laptop, my kitchen, and of course, Alexa.

Lentil, Arugula and Cherry Tomato Salad

Here’s a recipe for a light but flavorful and fiber-full salad that is perfect for these hot summer months.

Ingredients
Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon shallot (diced)
1 tablespoon vinegar 
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper to taste 

Salad 
1 package Melissa’s Steamed Lentils (9oz pkg.)
1/2 cup fresh arugula 
3oz. cherry tomatoes (halved)

Directions
In a bowl, whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients and set aside. In another bowl, toss together the rest of the ingredients and gently mix in the vinaigrette. 

Life and What Comes After

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I attended the funeral of a high school friend yesterday. He died too young of course. The funeral home was SRO — always a sign that the departed was loved dearly and by many. And he was.

Funerals are sad of course, but for me they are also illuminating. We listen to loved ones share what in any other circumstances might be considered too intimate details — of secrets, fears, regrets, death bed promises. It’s a little uncomfortable, like peeking through a peep hole at details we are not meant to know.

But really we are, because, as in the case of my friend, his was a life well lived and well loved. He was a husband, a father, a friend, and in our community, somewhat of a local celebrity. His smile was constant, his temperament calming, his intentions pure. He enjoyed a decades long partnership with his wife and soul mate for life, and he was the epicenter of many enviable friendships that withstood the test of time and distance.

And therein lie the lessons we are meant to learn. Though his physical body has left this world, I have no doubt that his spirit will continue to shine down and around the people he loved and who loved him. And we are reminded that although a lifetime with those we cherish is never enough, the minutes and moments that make up that all too brief dance are what matter most.

Salmon and Melting Cherry Tomatoes
Family dinner every night, I learned yesterday, was a sacrosanct tradition at my friend’s home. Apparently, the times when the family broke with this ritual were few and far between. I suspect this will continue, even without him at the table. [Recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof].

Ingredients
3 T. olive oil
1 c. chopped onion
2 t. minced garlic
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, rinsed and stems removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 T. balsamic vinegar
1 (2-pound) salmon fillet, cut crosswise into 4 pieces

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan. Add the onion and saute over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring gently. Add the garlic and saute for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes, salt and pepper.

Cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is mostly evaporated and slightly thickened. Turn the heat off, and stir in the balsamic vinegar.

Heat a large cast-iron pan over high heat. Brush the salmon all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, lay the fish skin side up and then cook the fish for 3 to 4 minutes without moving, until browned. Flip the salmon to skin side down and move the pan to the oven for 8 minutes. (The salmon will not be cooked all the way through.) Remove to a serving platter, cover with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Gently reheat the tomatoes if desired, season to taste, and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature along with the salmon.

Idling in the Middle

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Making decisions, especially the big life ones, has always been hard for me. This does not make me unique, I know, for I can imagine that decision-making – whether regarding a relationship, a job, a move – is universally intimidating. My difficult decision du jour concerns the next phase of my professional life and what that might look like.

It’s complicated because I am smack dab in the middle of middle life; that is, if you subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

The central period of a person’s life, between around 45 and 60 years old.

Yeah, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Dictionary.com holds no punches, however, in laying out the experiences one might “enjoy” during a mid-life crisis.

…a period of psychological stress occurring in middle age, thought to be triggered by a physical, occupational, or domestic event, as menopause, diminution of physical prowess, job loss, or departure of children from the home.

Let’s be honest. If you’re going to attach “crisis” to a period in one’s life, odds are things are going to look bleak. Reading this definition reminds me of those television commercials about new medications on the market, you know the ones with the scary disclaimer at the end that names all of “potential side effects.”

But they don’t have to. Look bleak, that is. As I muddle through this time of self-reflection and analysis, I remind myself I always have a lifeline: free will. These are my decisions, after all. I have freedom of choice and more important, freedom to change my mind. If I decide to do over my do-over, who am I hurting?

The details of the next chapter are unclear. It’s both exciting and unnerving, but I’m pushing forward, staying open-minded and seeking good counsel from others. In the meantime, I’m learning some things about myself, while honing my skills in acceptance, patience, trust and faith. And who can argue with that?

Snow Day Cookies
In this part of the country, we’ve been experiencing some “testy” winter weather. Snow and ice…and more snow and ice. Which means more time indoors for navel-gazing and contemplating my future. These Snow Day Cookies provide the perfect distraction — sweet, gooey, and downright humbling in their magic.

Ingredients:
2-1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 c. softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 12 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c. chopped black walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, salt and baking soda in a bowl and set aside. Combine sugars, softened butter and vanilla extract in a second bowl and beat with a hand mixer until creamy. Add eggs and beat until combined. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts if using. Drop mixture by rounded teaspoonfuls onto non-greased cookie sheets. Bake 10 minutes. Yields 2+ dozen.

New Year’s Resolution: Wash My Feet

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Tomorrow is my birthday, and it is also the second-to-last day of the year 2018, so I’ve been mulling over resolutions. I know what you’re thinking. Resolutions, though touted by psychologists as a useful strategy for goal-setting and prioritizing in the coming year, are nothing more than a set-up, a non-refundable ticket to the kingdom of disappointment. It’s easy to question the value of organizing our lives around intentions that we often fail to keep. For years I’ve fallen prey to these illusory promises and the inevitable failures they reap. But hey, it’s a new year; let us withhold judgement, shall we?

A couple of years ago, when I was dealing with a particularly stressful time in my life, I started a ritual of paying special attention to washing my feet each day in the shower. Point of fact: I am a fastidious person with excellent hygiene, and I shower every day (sometimes twice). The foot-washing was more than a path to cleanliness; it became a symbolic practice of washing away the day’s stressors, negative vibes, bad juju, whatever you want to call it.

From a religious perspective, foot-washing is the ultimate act of humility and respect. The spiritual meaning of washing is purification – cleaning the mind spiritually much as water cleans the body naturally…the day-to-day outward thoughts and actions that absorb so much of our time…” (New Christian Bible Study). Years ago, my friend Janice told me that she removes the clothes she wore to work as soon as she gets home every day and changes into something different. For her, the ritual provides a way to literally shed the demands and burdens of work and the energy attached to them. I see my foot-washing much the same way.

So for 2019, I resolve to continue this practice in earnest and to consider the greater gift it provides me – a way to end each day without regrets, to wake each morning and embrace its promise. The year ahead lies in wait. Wash your feet and make the best of it.

This recipe for Easy and Delicious Chicken Salad is borrowed from the lovable chefs behind How to Feed a Loon. I didn’t have sliced almonds so I just finely chopped some whole almonds. Still delicious! I think a generous dollop of this fresh, crunchy, delectable chicken salad on a croissant or soft roll would make a nice addition to any New Year’s day brunch.

Ingredients
Meat from 1 rotisserie chicken, shredded (skin and bones removed)
1 cup seedless grapes, halved (red and green varieties are great)
1 cup almonds, thinly sliced
2 celery ribs, chopped
3 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp Kosher salt (start with 1/2 teaspoon, then add more, to taste)
Freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, mix together the chicken, grapes, almonds, celery, scallions, dill, & parsley.

In a small-medium bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, lemon, mustard, salt and pepper.

Add the mayo/mustard mixture to the chicken mixture and gently stir until well mixed.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.


That Kind of Friend

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When my younger daughter was in elementary school, she made a friend named Catherine. Often she came home with stories of her new gal pal and their budding friendship. I was delighted, of course, and, as was typical of my over-eager, best-intentioned, young mother self, I encouraged my daughter to invite her friend to our house. But despite my best efforts to encourage what I believed to be the next obvious step, my daughter was having none of it.

“She’s not that kind of friend,” explained my little sage (always wise beyond her years). Addressing what must have been a perplexed expression on my face, she further added: “There are all kinds of friends. School friends and home friends are not always the same. Catherine is a school friend.” Ultimately, I gave up on my pursuit.

Now, almost 19 years later, I think the light bulb may have finally fired. As I reflect on the friendships I have been blessed to have, I realize how right my daughter was. Not all my friends serve the same purpose in my life, though I love each of them with equal abandon. I have my go-to girls when I need a good laugh or cry; the steady Eddies (or Edwinas) who ground me when I’m off the rails; the girls who just wanna have fun (and are really good at it); the commiserators who assure me I’m not alone; and the dreamers who make it okay to think big.

They are my wonder women. My heroines. My saviors. My friends. Perhaps, as our little girl selves, some of us may have shared secrets under the sleeping bag fort at home, while others would have been eager to pass notes at lunch. Today of course, those lines are blurred into non-existence. I know only that I am grateful for each and every one of them, mostly because they are not going anywhere. We are in it for the long haul. They are just that kind of friend.

Banana Walnut Bread
(recipe courtesy of Cooking Light)
Let’s just say my daughter did in fact invite her friend home one afternoon. This might have been precisely the after-school snack to provide. Although this particular loaf is made healthier due to the use of rolled oats and whole wheat flour, it is no less sweetly satisfying.

Ingredients
3/4 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. plus 3 tbsp. quick oats, divided
6 oz. plus 1 tbsp. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
5/8 tsp. kosher salt, divided
3/4 c. plus 3 tbsp. packed light brown sugar, divided
6 tbsp. roasted walnut oil, divided
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1-1/3 c. mashed very ripe bananas (about 3)
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir buttermilk into 1/2 cup oats in a bowl; let stand 10 minutes.

Place 1-1/2 cups flour in a bowl. Stir in baking powder, baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Combine 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons oil, nuts, cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and remaining oats and flour in a small bowl.

Add bananas, vanilla, eggs, and remaining brown sugar and oil to buttermilk mixture; fold in flour mixture. Spoon batter into a 9- x 5-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle walnut streusel over top. Bake at 350°F until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 55 minutes to 1 hour. Cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes.

Remove bread from pan; serve warm, or cool completely.

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!