Saturday, March 3, 2012

After the Meal

I feel my body waking up with the early spring. As the days become longer, I stretch, as if a bear from slumber. Wanting to move again after the rigid cold of winter, I trundled off to the gym for yoga and a sauna. I have a moderate resistance to yoga culture, or more broadly, to any place ripe for evangelism. For some, yoga is exercise, and for some it is the magical cure all for the entire universe. I look at it as something in between those two poles. The deep breathing, the stretching, paying attention to the edge between comfortable and painful, the attitude of loving kindness towards your body, those are the qualities I enjoy. A good class gives me a feeling of gratitude for the time, awe at the human body and a unique sense of fulfillment that comes from tuning into my breathing.
My first class back after winter, I laughed out loud during Shavasana, the minutes at the end of class where you lay on your back and relax. The teacher said that this is the most important time, it is when your body absorbs the benefits of the practice you have just done. It is not a waste of time, you are not just laying there. You are actively relaxing. Then he asked, "Are you able to relax, or are you too busy to be?" And I totally cracked up. That is how I feel! Too busy to be! Ha! I think this guy might have found a new entertainment niche: The Mindful Comedian.
Maybe because I laughed so hard, in a completely silent room, but that idea has stayed with me. My episodes of busyness and frazzled chaos: chasing Colby while I braid her hair, shoving breakfast in Coral's mouth while she talks and talks and talks; wolfing down my apple, making lists while I drive. Too busy to be. Every time I think it, I laugh and relax.
Once dinner had been consumed, I felt the impulse to jump up and do the dishes and get the kids in the bath, and braid their hair and brush their teeth and pick up the toys and wiggle them into pjs and read the stories and sing the songs and turn off the light and and and......on and on. And I thought, "Shavasana". Sitting at the table, we need a moment to absorb the benefits of the meal. As important as a moment of saying “thank you” at the beginning of the meal is relaxing after a meal.
I sparked up the conversation with Craig, who has never done a yoga class, about the idea of Shavasana and relating that practice to meal time. That Shavasana process is what you experience in long, elegant meals at good restaurants. After a sensuous meal there is encouragement to linger: petit fours, coffee, a digestif, there is time, long, lovely time to absorb the benefits and beauty of what you have just received, what you have given yourself. Permission to relax, surrender to the moment, to be. We talked about giving yourself permission for that moment on an ordinary day at home.
So we sat, just for a ten minutes at the end of the meal, and did not jump up. We did not propel onto the treadmill of routine chores. We relaxed and went from the table with ease rather than rush. It was fun, everything got done, and there was a little more happiness in the "doing" of all the chores that followed.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fish Chowder, Soupe de Poissons

Photo: Fish Chowder with Wakame garnish

Craig is a reader of cookbooks. He studies them, reading and re-reading, imagining, playing with his own versions, and combining ideas. What he also does is visualize. He reads new, ambitious ideas and imagines it. He imagines the textures that would be best, what that means in terms of time cooked. He imagines it through to the extent that it is as if he has already made it many times when he tries a recipe for the first time. He is also experienced enough to know when a recipe seems off, to dig in with further comparative research if it seems like there is an error in the recipe, which, especially in the case of magazines, there frequently are.
This time of year, he studies soups, chowders, stews. Right now, Fish Chowder, Soupe de Poissons. He read through the old, musty French cookbooks where the recipes are written in paragraphs with no quantities or measurements. And he found a new love: Joe Beef. Helpfully, the new Joe Beef cookbook had a chowder recipe (with quantities and measurements!). One especially gray and freezing day Craig went for it.
Craig has made this one twice now and it is unbelievably, earth stopping-ly delicious.
Roll up your sleeves; it is a many stepped labor, and worth every ounce of effort and concentration.

you'll need, among other items:
10 fresh shrimp (with heads if possible)
10 little neck clams
1 small and 1 larger piece of cod. about 1 lb total

I. The Clams
wash the clams and put in a saucepan with 1 cup minerally white wine, a bay leaf, a pinch of sea salt and a peeled garlic clove. cook over high heat until the clams open. remove meat, saving any juices. mince. strain the liquid through a extra fine sieve or cheese cloth. add minced clams to the liquid and reserve.

II. A Stock
to 6 cups of water add…
2 stalks of celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 onions, diced
1 leek, diced
a handful of parsley stems
the shells and heads from the 10 aforementioned shrimp
the smaller piece of cod.
if augmenting the chowder with crab or lobster add those shells as well.
a few black pepper corns and a bay leaf.
cook over medium low heat, never allowing to boil, until the vegetables are soft and the fish falling apart. strain, pushing the solids through a extra fine sieve or cheese cloth to extract the liquid. reserve broth and discard the rest.

III. The Chowder
in a large enameled cast iron pot, over medium-low heat melt anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 cup of unsalted butter.
add: 3 diced onions, 3 sticks of celery also diced, about 1/4 lb of smokey slab bacon (or other porky thing to your liking. alternately you could sub some smokey fish or katsuo in the stock….cold smoke the onions first…you get the idea!)
cook until the onions and celery soften and the bacon is cooked but not crispy.
toss in a handful of flour and stir to absorb the butter and bacon fat.
add 2 large potatoes cut into large diced chunks. and stir.
pour in about 2 cups of the stock, 2 cups of whole milk and about a 1/2 cup of cream. cook over low heat until the potatoes are just about done.
cut the large piece of cod into chunks and put in the pot. when the cod turns opaque add the shrimp and when they blush let the clams (and their juice) join the party.
let the flavors blend for a few minutes then serve. garnish each bowl with chives and slivered celery leaves.
great with freshly made croutons or toast from a spectacular loaf of bread.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Venison Stew, Very Local

Photo: Deer Hunt Field
This is the most local meal we eat. The venison was shot with a bow in the land that extends for a few acres from our house. We witnessed the large animal fall, loaded into our hunter friend's truck, and delivered in cold packages a few days later. Craig took it out of the chest freezer a few months later and set it to thaw in a bowl of water. Unwrapping it, the link to the beautiful deer in the yard was visceral, even Coral was talking about it. We talked together about eating animals. About all the steps and expertise it requires to hunt and process one's meat. About the protein and warmth and energy that is transferred from the animal to us, to our bodies.
I saw Craig take a pause as he approached the muscular, ruby colored, solid shoulder. He stopped, took a big breath in and out, stilling himself to focus and took the first gesture into the shoulder with his long, silver knife.
It has a solemnity to it, facing the fact of the life that has been extinguished in order to be transferred to the omnivore, us. It got me thinking about the faith and magic, the cosmological processes that have been central to hunting, killing, preparing and feasting since the dawn of hunting itself. Some people, and groups of people have an active connection to food and source, but for me, facing this venison was unique and not totally comfortable. I did not want to tune out and avoid the fact of this meal. For all the meat we eat that is raised and sold by people we know, I should be having this solemn moment of acknowledgment and gratitude more often.
It is a serious business, being human: how we exist within our environment, how we sustain ourselves, live, grow.

This Venison Stew is like a real Texas Chile, it is pretty much just meat.

You will need:
about 3 lbs of venison shoulder cut in large cubes
1 carrot peeled and diced
1 onion diced
3 cloves of garlic peeled
a hand full of parsley
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
15 black peppercorns
1 bottle cote du rhone
1/4 lb or so bacon either diced or julienned
1/2 lb mushrooms
12 small boiling onions, peeled
a few dried mushrooms (morels are good!)
olive oil, butter, flour, sugar, port or cognac or scotch

day 1

in a large bowl mix the venison, carrots, onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, a couple springs of parsley. cover and refrigerate overnight.

day 2

cook the bacon in a large dutch oven until crisp. remove from pot, drain and reserve.

remove the venison from the marinade and blot dry. strain liquid and reserve. discard the solids. season the meat generously with salt and pepper. in batches, brown venison (in bacon fat and or duck fat!) on all sides over medium-high heat.
when all the meat is browned, return to the pot and toss in about 2 tbs of flour. stir until the flour browns then pour in the marinade. bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook until venison is tender, roughly 2-3 hours.

while the meat is cooking prep the boiling onions. put the onions and a tsp of sugar in a pot of water. simmer until tender, about 25 minutes. drain and set aside.
if using dried mushrooms, soak in hot water for about 10 minutes. strain the liquid, reserving with the morels. slice and quickly saute the fresh mushrooms in butter.

after the venison has cooked about 2 hours or so add the morels to the pot and continue cooking.

when the meat is done, remove it from the pot. increase heat to med-high and add port (or other alcohol) cook for about 5 minutes. whisk in about 3 tbs of butter. return the venison to the sauce. followed by the onions and mushrooms. mix.

serve hot garnished with chopped parsley and slices of grilled country bread.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Herring on Toast

Along with oil and gold, fish is a natural resource with skyrocketing prices. That is, the fish breeds that are natural resources, caught wild rather than farmed. There was King Salmon at the grocery store recently for $32.- per pound. It was beautiful, glistening, beckoning. I looked through the cases for other wild fish, skimming over the farmed fish, noticing farmed salmon topped at around $7.- per pound. Finally, I found shiny, lovely piles of Herring and Sardines. They were $4.- a pound, affordable for the family of fish lovers. A friend from our neighborhood wine shop Red Feet, who was born and raised in Spain, was buying some Herring. We talked about people's intimidation of these tiny, rich, nutrient packed and as yet not totally over fished little breeds.
They are small, they do have a lot of bones and they are more pungently oily than more popular fish like salmon or cod. But, the bones are easy to clean, and they are delicious fried, really! And that pungent, oily presence is the density of omega's, the great gift from the sea that is so good for our bodies and especially our brains.
The nutritious and affordable Herring is a staple when we can get it. Craig makes variations on this and keeps it sealed tight in the fridge. It is a wonderful way to start the day, or as a pick me up in the afternoon. I had some on toast for breakfast, along with a fried egg and felt like Wonder Woman for all the rich, silky protein.

4 fresh herring filleted

mix together-
3 tbs kosher salt
2 tbs sugar
1 bay leaf crumbled
about 1 tsp crushed sechuan pepper

3 sheets of kombu soaked in cold water to rehydrate. then pat dry.

pat the filets dry and roll in the mix until generously coated.

lay a sheet of kombu on a plate. lay 4 of the fillets, side by side. cover with another sheet of kombu and lay the next 4 herring fillets. cover with the 3rd sheet of kombu. wrap tightly in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours.

after the initial cure, take the herring out of the fridge, rinse and wipe dry. serve sliced thin over pan toasted country bread with sweet fresh butter and thin sliced scallions. also great with creme fraiche!

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Leap

"How did you find the courage?"
I get that question a lot when people find out that my older child is special needs. Fellow parents of all sorts of kids say to me that they never could have had another child if there were issues with their first. Parents of special needs kids tell me they could never have another after all the work and heartbreak of their special needs child.
There are a few of us in this small town alone who had their special kids and then went for it again, another child.
A friend called me for coffee and told me over the phone that she was expecting her second child. I burst into tears of happiness and also felt the deep incisors of worry that I knew were permanently lodged in her heart with her pregnancy. Her first is a special needs child and she and her husband had been trying for another child for a while.
Sitting down together as we only seem to find time for a couple of times a year, our conversation covered housing, mobility, toileting, feeding, medication, allergies, school, and then finally, the baby.
She asked me, "How do you do it? How do you find your way through this gigantic, astonishing, constant fear? I hope, I hope, I just so hope everything is alright with this baby."
As different as my friend and I are, as different a diagnosis as our two special children have, I felt her words to the core of me. I felt like I knew what it was like to be in her skin, in her thoughts, in her urgent prayers on sleepless nights.
And the answer that came out of my mouth at her question was, "Love."
It is love. Love is the only thing big enough, massive enough in your heart and cosmology of how to move through the universe, love is the only way to make it. Love is the only way to silence the deafening and paralyzing fears and doubts about if you made the right decision, what you will do if your second has "issues" as well. Love is the only meditation that feels possible to contain your worry as well as your hope.
The literally endless worry about how you will balance the needs of your children could be an entire identity, could be where you decide to live, the central psychological commitment. And you will never get it right. There is no such thing as a right answer. There will be, no matter what your kids are like, no perfect symmetry of love and attention. If her second child is as healthy and running around as every parent expects their child to be, or if her child is just like her first born, there will be great days and there will be impossibly hard days.
I got my wish, I got the dream of watching a completely healthy child be born and learn and grow. With my second child I got to experience what every parent hopes for and expects. Watching, parenting Coral is the most astonishing, heart lifting miracle I've ever witnessed. And feeling the deep empathy that passes between Colby and I is the most mysterious, profound love and connection I've ever known. There is no point, in fact there is no real ability, to compare these children. It is as if they are distinct and intersecting universes within one house.
That may be how parents feel about their children, special needs or not. I do not know that experience of two (or more) kids, of life parenting without seizures and a dimension of constant, acute medical issues. I only know what I know, and looking at my beautiful, pregnant friend across the table, I knew her heart.
Our conversation ended where it started: You must, you must let yourself love. You must love your children. I hope that she gets to see her second child run across the grass. I hope she gets to hear her child say, "I love you moma." I hope she gets to have a child that she is able to predict and comfort. I hope she gets to feel her heart grow even bigger as she plumbs the depths of love and astonishment at a healthy child, and knows that to love both her kids is not to love one less or more. I hope she finds as I find over and over again, that it is only loving your children that is big enough to guide your heart through the challenges and polarities of a day.
We cannot project onto our children what their experience will be of life in our family. They are brighter, braver, stronger than us. They are innocent and open, brains literally growing before our eyes. Let us help them be brave and bright and strong by showing them that it is possible to live a life directed by love. Let us be the parents whose arms feel big enough to hold all of who our children are. Let us show them that it is not fear that guides our way. Let us show them love.
Isn't that the point of having children anyway? To love them and adore them? When your worries keep you up at night, I told my friend, find instead one moment from the day that you felt happy. Breathe that into your heart and breathe back out. Breathe into the love and beauty and let that be what you feel, what you do with your mind, where you go.
We held hands and cried across the table from each other. Fear, love, hope. We will find our way, we do find our way. Worrying is not going to make anything alright. And you will miss out on all the fun. How do you find the courage? With love.