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.

 

Anytime Pasta

When the girls are home from college, all sense of time and reality are suspended. For a few precious weeks, we return to the days when they were babies, sleeping all day and awake most of the night. Winter break mandates that we loosen our grip on structure and routine as we have come to know it.  We submit to a less rigid lifestyle: no schedules, no plans, no predictable outcomes from day to day. It’s at once unsettling and deliriously perfect — and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

In this winter break fantasy land, breakfast never occurs before noon and lunch becomes obsolete. So when the chicks begin chirping in earnest long after the evening news has ended, the dinner question takes on a sense of near urgency. Fortunately the long months of less than satisfying fare on the college meal plan means that the kids will eat just about anything – as long as it has been cooked by me in our kitchen.

Here is my go-to dish when the clan is hankering for a hearty bowl of pasta. We like to scoop up each mouthful on hunks of crumbly fresh baguette. And even though the girls have returned to their respective college campuses and a  disconcerting quiet has settled on the house, I still choose this soul-satisfying meal every once in a while.  It’s quiet at the table, but there’s always spring break to look forward to.

Ah! A messy plate of pasta.

Anytime Pasta

Ingredients:
2 T olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves minced
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes *
2 T. tomato paste
1-1/2 lbs. lean ground beef (ground turkey or chicken are both good substitutes)
1 t. nutmeg
1/4 T. sugar
1/2 T. dried oregano
1/2 T. dried basil
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. pasta **
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

*As an alternative to the crushed tomatoes, you may use canned whole tomatoes and crush them by hand. This creates a chunkier texture to the sauce.
**Our family favorite is good old spaghetti, but any long pasta will do – fettuccine, linguine and the like.

In a dutch oven or large pot, sweat the onions in the olive oil and add garlic until aromatic, but not brown. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, bring to a simmer and cover.  While sauce is simmering, brown meat in a separate saute pan. Drain beef and add to tomato sauce, followed by remaining ingredients, except pasta. Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain, reserving 1/2 c. of pasta water in case it is needed to thin the sauce.

Pour cooked pasta into a large, shallow bowl or platter, and top with meat sauce and grated cheese if desired.

We are All Here

Life is fragile, unpredictable, precious, a gift.  Instinctively we know this, but in our day-to-day existence, we tend to forget. Fortunately, there are reminders: birth, death, illness, celebration, and other life milestones.

A few days ago, for my family, it was a near tragedy that turned the light bulb back on.  A few days ago, my daughter’s dog was hit by a car.  It happened so quickly–a split second decision to take off his leash before he was fully in the house. Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and this rambunctious puppy was out the door and in the street in no time. He survived, albeit bruised and bleeding. This poor creature, abused as a puppy and shuttled from shelter to shelter until, miraculously, the universe saw fit to bring him to us, has once again had to prove his mettle. But he is strong and he is loved–more than he ever could have imagined–and he will survive.

So now we transition to recovery mode.  Our maternal instincts will kick into overdrive and we will nurse this pup back to health until he is good as new. But for my daughter, who has learned a powerful lesson on love and loyalty, and for the rest of us, for whom those few seconds of sickening fear will forever remain frozen in time, life, in all its imperfection, has become dearer.

To celebrate life and to just plain help us all to feel better, here is an updated spin on the ultimate comfort food, courtesy of Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, aka The Fabulous Beekman Boys.  Their book, The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook, is all about embracing cherished moments with family and friends through food.  I have taken some liberties with their “Macaroni and Cheese with Mushrooms and Kale” to suit my family’s personal tastes.  Plain, sophisticated, out of a box (though not my personal preference), it really does not matter — as long as you enjoy with those you love most.

Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook)
This rustic version of the tried-and-true classic includes heart-healthy greens, robust mushrooms, and a hint of earthiness from the thyme and paprika.  I added some smokiness by including about a cup of smoked gouda cheese.

Ingredients:
3/4 lb. kale or other green leafy vegetable
8 oz. elbow macaroni
3 T. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. cremini or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 t. dried thyme
1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. low sodium chicken stock
2 c. milk
1-1/2 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1-1/2 c. sharp cheddar, shredded
1 c. smoked gouda, shredded
2 T. butter
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the kale in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes.  Remove the kale, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.  Drain again, squeeze to remove excess water, roughly chop and set aside.  Meanwhile, add macaroni to same pot of boiling water and cook according to package instructions.  Drain.

In a dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute until aromatic.  Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally for about 2 minutes until the mushrooms wilt and begin to release their juices.  Stir in the flour and cook until well blended with mushroom mixture.  Add about half of the stock (more as needed) and continue cooking for another minute.  Add remaining stock, milk, paprika and salt and cook, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in the cheese until melted.  Add the macaroni and kale and toss to coat.

Transfer mixture to a glass 9 x 13 dish or individual ramekins.

In a small skillet, melt the butter and add panko, stirring until bread crumbs are fully coated.  Sprinkle over top of the mac and cheese and bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown.

Set aside a cheesy elbow or two for your pet!