Monday, November 29, 2010

Gnocchi Courage

As I watched Craig making gnocchi for the first time, I thought about how the kitchen is a good place to face your fears. Identifying your fears and finding a path through them is an important skill and cooking can be a forgiving and rewarding place to practice.
Craig starts with reading. He reads cookbooks for fun, for inspiration and for knowledge. The new Canal House had a recipe for gnocchi and several ways to serve it. And his long love, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook has an extensive recipe for gnocchi. After pouring over these two sources for a few weeks, he was ready.
For me, gnocchi is something to order at a restaurant. Like many things in the dough family, I am too intimidated to explore making it myself. So, I was thrilled that Craig wanted to make at home what I have placed firmly in the “food to have at restaurants” category. And because of my own dough intimidation, I watched Craig especially closely as he took this project on.
There is a stillness to Craig in the kitchen when he is trying something new and particularly ambitious. It is the rare time he is not playing music while he preps and cooks. He organizes his ingredients and finds all the tools. Then, and this is the most interesting part to me, he stands back, in the middle of the kitchen, body facing his work area, and thinks through the whole process. Actually it is much more than thinking it through, he is visualizing it, eyes opening and closing, moving his body, he looks like a conductor going over music in his head.
He has this moment of visualization almost every time he starts to cook. It is the main tool that allows him to overcome the space constraints of our house, and was essential in the tiny kitchen in NYC. However, visualization serves not just a useful but a profound purpose as well, it actually sets the outcome in motion. His ability to visualize the process is probably the reason he has so few real failures in the kitchen.
The gnocchi was delicious. And he learned as he went. Watching the dough come together was magic, and the moment that the gnocchi shapes hit the gently boiling water, and did not fall apart, was triumphant.
As the dark nights of winter envelop us, and the cold pressing in on the windows has us consider our physical fragility, we turn to the kitchen to explore our fears and warm our souls. Find your courage in a gnocchi experiment and ease the grip of the winter cold with a steaming plateful, served with brown butter and sage.
This is a classic recipe that changes little, find one in your favorite source.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Time for CeCe Dove's Cranberries in Zinfandel

The day before Thanksgiving, Colby had a seizure while running down the asphalt driveway and landed with all her weight on her face. She scraped along the gravel as she fell. A huge cut and her eyed swelled shut almost instantly. The seizures continued, and so did the falls, until finally, it was time for bed. In the quiet of the night, Craig and I cleaned the house and organized and reorganized all the groceries. We were expecting thirteen people for Thanksgiving dinner. We were more than a little nervous about how to get everything done with Colby seizing and in so much pain from the cuts and swelling.

By the morning, she needed Diastat and Craig and I went into our well oiled triage mindset. We simplified the menu and our vision for how clean and decorated the house would be. Helping the girls find a sense of comfort and peace in the day would be my job, while Craig would orchestrate the feast.

As we negotiated the morning I noticed how grounded in fact we remained, neither of us got emotional, or frustrated about a situation that needed accepting. I thought how this moment, the high expectations of a holiday meal, a house to be filled with thirteen family and friends in a matter of hours, is one where I could easily see a huge fight erupting in the stress. But we did not do that, we stayed on the same team, neither making an enemy of the other.

Coral went to Grandma’s where her endlessly fascinating cousins and uncle were staying, along with her cousin's tiny dog, Cheese. She loves everything about her cousin Cassandra, her long sparkly nails, her Hello Kitty accessories, her voice and vocabulary, but most of all, Coral shines in the attention of this special adult in her life.

Now, for Colby, Diastat, seizures, an injury, only one thing was going to help her find her calm, help her get some distance from the need to cry, and that was a nice long drive. I headed out towards Trumansburg and then Interlaken, taking the high road North. I would drive in one direction until I felt her energy shift, and only then turn around a find a circuitous path home. It took forty five minutes to feel the calm come over her, her body visibly more relaxed, her face, still cut and swollen, but gaining in serenity.

By the time we got home, Colby was fully transitioned to a more peaceful state. She moved from the car, to her stroller where she sat while Craig cooked, enveloped in the smells of butter and sage and Turkey.

I put on the stove my solitary culinary contribution to the meal, CeCe’s Cranberry Sauce. Wine, sugar, cinnamon stick and fresh cranberries. Boiling the sugar and wine down to a syrup I thought about time. Success is often found in giving the time you need to the simplest, most critical ingredients. Today would have been a nightmare without giving Colby the time in a soothing car ride. Without time, this cranberry sauce would be a strange soup. With the time she needed, Colby was able to participate with calm, love and joy in a very fun, and tasty, Thanksgiving feast. With time, this cranberry sauce became a sweet and tart, candied, gleaming red elixir.

CeCe Dove's Cranberries in Zinfandel

1 1/2 c zinfandel wine, any type.
2 c light brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 c cranberries washed

Combine wine, sugar and cinnamon and bring to simmer.
Add cranberries, 1 cup at a time until they pop but are still whole. This does not take very long, just a minute or so, depending on if they are cold or room temp.
remove cranberries with slotted spoon to bowl.
When all are cooked, remove cinnamon stick and boil syrup until it is very thick. Then add syrup to bowl of cranberries and serve. Good warm, cool or cold. Awesome leftover condiment!

Three times this amount is one bottle of wine's worth.

CeCe Dove was one of the first cheese-type stores in the Oakland area and she had a column in the local paper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Glad To Be Tomato Sauce

Sometimes I get dark. The words, concepts and feelings that circle through my mind are incredibly negative, overly worrisome. My day dreaming is more like a nightmare. I feel incompetent and unable. I feel like I have no energy. I feel angry about everything, no buoyancy or humor to be found in my thoughts and feelings. I feel like drinking wine, eating chips and watching t.v. And if I do any of those things, then, handily, I feel bad for wasting my time with escapism.

The anger that crops up as a part of this cycle feels like it is there as something to do, something to feel during the day. Something with some adrenaline and drama. Something that is also numbing in its way. The numbing of drama and anger is that it also takes you away from your feelings, like any other compulsive behavior. I do not want to face first thing in the morning that I feel tired, lonely, overwhelmed, scared, concerned for the future or our family and out of touch with my creativity. I’d rather just go hard on myself, tell myself I am a loser, get short and irritated with the constant demands of the kids, get short and irritated with Craig’s clothes piled on the chair or his music playing loudly.

That is endlessly fascinating to me, this trust of anger and of feeling badly. Why this long cycling away from good habits that feel emotionally and spiritually uplifting, and down into long, dark corridors of self loathing and emotional disconnectedness? So here I am, writing in the morning. The house is sort of clean. There are no pressing errands. I think, in part, what brings me back to finding myself and my well feelings again is embarrassment. I feel too embarrassed to keep doing self destructive stuff. I feel some pull again and again to do what is right for myself. I like to think that the cycles get shorter, but I am not sure. I might dwell in these zones of misery for longer than I realize.

What pulls me back upwards again is a desire for the real feeling of happiness, namely creative satisfaction. To feel that an essay really says something, that is much, much more satisfying than numbing myself and dwelling in anger. It is a subtle negotiation, the conversation with oneself. In the last couple of weeks I first noticed the slow return of anxiety, coming over my thoughts and feelings like nightfall. But a nightfall with no stars or moon, no light at all. After the anxiety, anger edged in. I noticed Coral mimicking me saying, “God, stop it!” in a clenched, breathy tone. If she has heard it enough to repeat it exactly like me, and in context, then I was saying, and feeling, that too often. Then I start to feel angry towards Craig. About two weeks of noticing these things, I finally take the time for a walk in the morning. Then, time to write the next day. Slowly I grope my way through the dark place, this cold cistern, and find my way again. Find my breath. Find my ability to put myself first in constructive moments.

Last night Craig asked what I wanted for dinner. On a good day this leads to a fun conversation, a back and forth on what needs to be eaten, what we had the day before, how the girls have been eating and what they might like to have. On a less good day, like recently, it leads to me feeling put on the spot, left to decide for the family, alone. “Pasta,” Craig said.
“Sure, but not too rich, no Carbonara.”
“I could do rice?”
“The girls might like that, but is there time? Pasta is faster.” It was getting dark and Colby already looked tired.
“I could do the shortcut version, since you don’t want pasta.”
Blood starts to boil. “I did not say that, I said pasta is fine, but I do not want anything totally rich.”
“Garlic and anchovy?”
“Yes, that sounds good.”
A few minutes later, “Tomato?”
My body perks up, no analytic moment, “Yes!” That really does sound great.
“That’s the reaction I needed, thank you.”

That long, annoying moment mirrors the way negotiating with self can go too. I bicker back and forth over something important, like taking time to write, there is a not so constructive back and forth. Then suddenly there is an answer. Just in the act of keeping a conversation going, not shutting down, despite boiling blood and deep annoyance, with self as with partner, just keep talking, keep paying attention. And the answer comes. You will find the dinner idea. You will find the creative moment that makes your heart feel once again buoyant and glad. Glad to be.

Crowd Pleasing, Glad To Be Tomato Sauce

1 28 oz can of San Marzano (or other plum) tomatoes
3 cloves garlic finely minced
1 onion finely diced
sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 salted anchovy rinsed and filleted (oil packed work but salt packed have cleaner taste)
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

In a large stainless steel skillet, sweat the garlic and onions in a glug of olive oil over low heat until soft. Toss in the black pepper, bay leaf, thyme and anchovy. Turn up heat and mash the anchovy with a wooden spoon until it dissolves. Empty the can of tomatoes into the skillet smash each tomato with a fork. turn heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened to a paste-like consistency. Remove from heat and add a splash of olive oil. Serve with you favorite pasta. NOTE: do not use too much sauce, lightly coat the pasta, then put a small amount on top.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Have you ever seen a fallen maple leaf scurry across the road on its curled tips, like a tarantula? Did you know that the peppery smell of freshly mulching, fallen leaves is exactly the smell the stem of a fresh cut tea rose leaves on your fingertips?
I have never been happier than this fall, outside of a classroom, outside of a cubicle, outside of the city, watching the leaves actually fall. The graduated change of the color as the nights grow colder and colder. Their individual and collective descent, by type of tree and exposure to wind. Actually seeing the moment the wind storm takes the last of red maple leaves from their dangling perch and sets them aflight. And then the next day, all the broad, golden hickory leaves are a carpet, a crunchy pool of sunlight, on the amber grass.