Friday, May 21, 2010

Hard Times and Peach Preserves

May 8

Life lately has been such a duality of gorgeous moments and then episodes of intense grief, loss and stress. Some of the things that have gone on: deaths of significant figures in our lives, a roofing job gone wrong, both cars in the shop, a job loss, and seizures. At some point in the string of events, Craig and I started talking about karma.

At first we talked along the vein of, "What must I have done in another life?" Which feels like such a tidy, simple way to try and make sense of what my friend so aptly called "a real shit storm." Our conversation ended with meditating again on this idea: karma is not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens. What happens is just a moment, how you respond, that is your life.

It is a significant balm in a time of sadness or even real depression to consider that while the events of life may be beyond our control, we have such a deep and wide choice about how to relate to those events. To feel our tiny fulcrums of freedom while enveloped in stress can shift our heart to a calm, soft and resilient place. Nothing is more impossible than feeling truly, absolutely stuck and victim to events.

Craig and I have been giving each other a wide berth through this last spate of events. Being supportive and gentle, or at least not overly reactive. When I get remote in my anxiety, Craig gives me space and put lots of honey in my tea, as if to sweeten me from the inside out. And when he got angry and reactive, he went out to mow on the tractor and go at the invasive Buckthorn with the weed whacker. Eventually, we found our equilibrium again, and set out to work and deal with things one step at at time.

With each other, Craig and I are finding our way through joy and adversity. We help each other get the time we need to be creative, to mope, to be alone, to be together. Colby's seizures have taught us to cull the moments of joy to a depth that is new for us both. The mental habits of staying open even when things are really hard has proved powerful and helpful.

A few days later, the roof job was back on track, the funerals were set, one of the cars was back from the mechanic, and I was going through the fruit Flannery and I had canned last spring and summer. I found a last jar of peach and basil preserve, a recipe from Honey From A Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades and Apulia, by Patience Gray. I thought again about habits and happiness. Good habits are habits that work for you, for your health, for your financial reality, for your deep sense of happiness and resilience.

Setting the last jar of peach and basil preserve on the kitchen table, the deep golden orange of sugar and sunny fruit, a strand of basil curled at the bottom of the jar, I felt a moment of love for this habit too, this long tradition of canning. A tradition to preserve harvest and survive the winter, it brings beauty and sweetness to the stark reality of a barren, winter landscape. Surviving hard times through preserving beauty.

Marmellata Di Pesche - Preserve of Ripe Peaches
from: Honey From A Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades and Apulia, by Patience Gray
(This recipe is best in June or July, depending on your climate)
Pour boiling water over large, ripe, blushing peaches. This makes them easy to peel. Cut in large chunks. Use 1 1/2 lb sugar per 2 1/2 lb peaches. Squeeze 2 or 3 lemons over the sugar and peach slices in a pan and cook on low heat while stirring. The sugar quickly melts and raising the heat you go on stirring, marvelling at the changing colour of the fruit reminding one of Modigliani's paintings. In 10 minutes or so, the jam is an intense gold, the fruit transparent. Put two sprigs of basil. Make sure that the syrup really is at setting point or the marmellata will not keep.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Steak with Ramp Pesto

May 1

Our family eats well and we are mindful about what exactly we are buying. We eat modest amounts and we waste nothing. Meat protein is an occasional, deeply enjoyed treat. Onion husks, parsley stems and chicken carcasses are saved for broths. Leftover scraps of pork fat are folded into quesadillas to get a little more calorie into Colby. Stale baguette ends become bread crumbs. What cannot be used or reused as food is composted.

As we enter the bountiful glory days of spring and summer, the range of ingredients and creativity for use and reuse expands. Ramps are the first wild crop of spring to arrive at the market. Having lived on cabbage, carrots and potatoes for so many months of winter, the ramps' tender white bulbs and soft green leaves feel so precious. In order to use the entire plant, bulbs and leaves, Craig made a pesto. Such verdant smells! Such a deep green! He spread the pesto, gleaming like tiny emeralds, over a quickly seared piece of hanger steak.

The hanger, most tender when cooked rare, is a lean muscle. The inner core of the meat is a deep red, the moisture is sealed with a quick sear. I had a hard time at first with the level of rare that hanger is at its best. Then I cooked one to medium and it was so tough that it was difficult to eat. So, I gave the rare another try. The difficult thing about rare meat is that it is very apparent you are eating an animal, a creature. The texture, the obviousness of blood and life, is something to accept.

In the local market for food we know the people who raise the animals we eat. When we get a hanger steak from Sabol at the farmers market, we know the land the animal grazed, the husband and wife team who nurtured and cared for the calf, we know they decided when to "lay the animal down" not based on a market schedule, but an optimal life cycle for the animal and the ecosystem of their "moreganic" farm. When we eat their meat, we acknowledge the animal's life, and we also acknowledge the labor and intelligence of Richard and Sue Sabol. McDonald Farm also has strong, vibrantly healthy meat and the much coveted hanger. We have these farmers to thank for meat that is raised with love and dignity, and respect for the environment.

Wasting nothing does not just mean not throwing things away. Wasting nothing, or wasting little, means eating what your body actually needs, not too much or too little. Everyone knows by now that eating a lot of meat is not a very sustainable way to go. Eating more than you need in order not to throw something away is still waste. Depth of knowledge about a food system helps in thinking about waste.

In lean times it is simple to figure out how little you need to live. In bountiful times it is a privileged meditation to sort out needs and wants and limit waste. It feels like how it is in a relationship: in easy times you can coast, smile and enjoy each other; in hard times you get to know who you really are, what your bottom line is, what you require, what is essential to survive so that when a happy, easy time, like spring, arrives again, you may thrive.

Steak with Ramp Pesto
Clean two bunches of ramps. Thinly slice the white parts. Cut the green parts into thin strips and then finely chop. Add finely chopped parsley to taste. I like slightly more ramps than parsley. Add sea salt and black pepper to taste and a tiny bit of preserved lemon (Canal House recipe) if you like. Chop lemon and blend together in a bowl and add a generous splash of olive oil. Let rest for at least half-hour. Bathe your favorite steak in it! Great with (rare, of course) hanger steak.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Unconditional Love

April 23

The idea of unconditional love has always felt like an ideal not matched by reality. The love from my parents, for example, seemed conditional: if I behaved well I got more love, and if I was troublesome I got less love and more distance. I held out hope that there was some perfect balance between who I was and what they expected which would yield the ultimate prize: unconditional love. To be loved totally, and to know my heart was always safe.

This morning, Craig brought me my tea. A sliver of sun sneaking through the drapes illuminated the milky, pearly surface. I smiled before a single thought of the day arrived, before the list making started, before the girls started grabbing at me. I smiled about the tea, but what was touching me heart and making me smile was the gesture behind the tea.

Craig and I fight and argue and sometimes we do not communicate. We both have whole teams of emotional masons who build stone walls in an instant. The saying about not going to bed mad would never work with us. Our anger is not huge, it does not take up all the room in the house, but it is slow. Sometimes it takes us days or weeks to really move through something difficult together. Especially if it involves one of us acknowledging we are wrong about something. Then it can really take ages. We have found ways of living while in the midst of a hard moment. We still hug and kiss goodbye, we still say "I love you," we still have wonderful suppers together, we still treat each other with kindness.

And that is the tea: kindness. Craig's cup of tea in the morning, and he doesn't even drink tea, is our version of not going to bed mad. We make some small promise to each other over this first exchange of the morning. A promise of civility not born of repressed feelings but born of remembering our love first. And maybe that is unconditional love: in difficult conditions, I still love you.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Admirable Cabbage, as Salad

April 12

Spring is here and soon we will not be eating so many cabbage salads. From November to April we eat cabbage salad almost every day. In the long Northeastern winter, the local vegetable selection winnows to cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions. There is no drudgery to the frequency of our cabbage salads, carrot salads, braised carrots or various potato dishes. Their tastes and textures make sense in the cold. At every meal, I admire the cabbage.

Cabbage is such a sturdy, reliable plant, so competent, such a survivor. All qualities that are good to be reminded of when winter feels interminable. Cabbages and carrots (all winter crops, I think) create sugars to prevent them from freezing; getting sweeter helps them survive the cold. I sure don't do that. When I start to feel cold, I get crabby and complain, a lot. But each night when I eat my cabbage and carrots, I think of their survival in this climate and they inspire me.

Now, the growing season is fast arriving. The spring season this year is warm and rainy. With the days warmer, everyone is more relaxed and everything feels easier. No blizzards obscuring the road. No snow to shovel off the drive. No boots to heave, no black ice.

Soon there will be sun gold tomatoes, radicchio, snap peas, strawberries, blueberries, black raspberries, melons, squash blossoms, fresh rabbit and chickens. Soon the sturdy stance of the cabbage will give way to the fleeting, capricious black raspberry. Sweetness will be easy to come by.

When winter comes again, I know I have the lovely, trusty cabbage to look forward to. I will be nourished by her and perhaps too I may become a little sturdier, a little sweeter in the deep, long winter of our home climate.

Cabbage Salad
One cabbage halved, cored and shredded. A handful of parsley roughly chopped, a few stalks and leaves from the heart of a bunch of celery finely diced. Add a diced a shallot. Mix in a bowl. Shower with sea salt. Sansho and/or black pepper to taste. Dress with a squeeze of lemon juice, some chardonnay vinegar and olive oil. Toss and let sit before serving.
Also try: Add grated ginger and nori strips, a wonderful version if you are having rice and fish. Also, sliced scallions instead of shallots for variation.
If your cabbage is a little tough, chewy or pungent, try salting the cabbage heavily after it is shredded. Mix the salt into the cabbage and let sit in a colander for a half hour. Soak in cold water, rinse thoroughly and dry in a clean kitchen towel. Then make salad as above. The texture will be more fresh and crisp with a slightly milder taste.