Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Legacies, Motherhood, and Pear-Cranberry Crostata

Seven years ago, I started a moms' group.

Though I'd never imagined that I'd be the sort of person to identify first as a mom, it started, as many convictions do, with rejection.  Another mother and I had tried to join a stay-at-home mom's group to make friends for ourselves and our one-year-old children, but there was one catch: we both worked full time.  As you might imagine, that didn't work out so well.

Desperate for connection with other local parents, we'd sometimes even take a vacation day from work, just to attend a playdate.  We hosted get-togethers on the weekends when we could, which no one attended.  We posted to the bulletin board online, trying to befriend the other members.  Our efforts weren't enough; finally, the leaders asked us to leave the group, citing the threat to group safety from people who weren't fully committed, who didn't attend enough meetings.

I don't remember which of us suggested creating our rogue group first; all I remember is that she asked me to be in charge.  Comfortable with overcommitment, I agreed.  No problem.  We decided to host the group on Meetup, and to see what might happen.

At first, we were small.  Five or six mothers who got together on a semi-regular basis with and without our children, none of us likely friends.  I remember watching the friendships form, thinking how funny it was that I'd somehow linked these random strangers, how eventually they found themselves unable to imagine a life without each other.  They were inseparable, in person, but especially--because we were all so busy--online.  They were lifelines for each other in the worst storms.  They watched each others' children, supported each other through separation and loss and divorce.  And though I was never exactly part of the network, I was satisfied with the knowledge that I was the glue that held them together, the connective node.

We grew, and though members came and went, the core remained stable, long after the stay-at-home-mom's group we originally left had dissolved.  Children grew up, more children were born.  Eventually, the members with the oldest children no longer attended playdates; they'd found the people they'd set out to meet, and they no longer needed the group to organize.  They'd send around invitations to each other to get together for drinks, or to birthday parties, or to  meet at the park.  I kept the group running, knowing that newer members still needed it, and watched the others go their separate ways, together, taking my glue with them.

Then, two summers ago, my co-founder, recently separated from her husband, was found dead in a hotel room in Atlantic City, her two children, then 3 and 5, trying to wake her up.  The police, the prosecutor, and so many people I talked with again and again on the phone and over coffee at my dining room table called it an overdose.  Thought we were never able to convince anyone with authority to believe us, those of us who knew her knew that the pieces didn't add up, that what happened was something much more terrible.

On the night before her burial, we gathered on the porch of the funeral parlor, some of us smoking, all of us blaming ourselves for not staying together, wishing she'd called us that night, promising to remember her, promising to see each other more often, talking smack about planting a tree in her honor, like the thin promises in high school year books.  I was angry, wondering whether her death would mean anything, even to these women whose friendship we'd made possible.

Still, I kept the group alive, half-heartedly, feeling like it was important, but not knowing why.  Only one of the members besides me remembered my co-founder, and finally I handed the reins to her late last year, feeling like I no longer had time or motivation to organize events.  Though my daughter is now the age of most of their children, I felt disconnected; acutely aware of the fact the my first child was so much older than theirs in conversations about feeding and bathroom habits, I realized I'm more like an older sibling than a peer.  It was time for me to step aside.

And yet, a few weekends ago, after initially declining the invitation, my daughter and I went to a birthday party for one of the members' children.  I wasn't sure I'd know anyone there, since it had been so long, wasn't even sure I wanted to go, but as the guests started to arrive, it dawned on me: most of them were members of the moms' group, the newest incarnation of the core.  Watching them connect and disconnect, looking after each others' children at the indoor playground, made my heart feel like it would explode.  It didn't matter that I didn't know them all that well.  What mattered was that we had laid a strong enough foundation for a sustainable future.  The glue had stuck after all.  For the first time, I felt at peace walking away.

I don't usually see ghosts, but I've been seeing my co-founder everywhere lately.  Driving a SUV past me as I'm stopped at a light.  Walking down the street, holding her children's hands, sporting her signature sunglasses.  Enjoying a cone at Rita's.  Every logical cell in my body knows that it can't be her, but every time, I do a double-take, and every time, I'm reminded of the ripple effects of my smallest, most inconsequential actions.  This is legacy: the continuity of belief, of ideals, of opportunity.

I know I'm supposed to be craving berries right now, or lemon, or things that remind me of spring.  But something in me still wants motherhood and apple pie.  I saw something like this dessert, which I made about a month ago, in the dining hall the other day, and I cut myself a generous slice, heart somewhere in my throat, grateful for the chance to make a difference, in this, and in so many things in my life.  Here's to you, S., and to the little legacies that matter, to one person, or to thousands.

Pear and Dried Cranberry Crostata

2 1/2 c. flour
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 t. salt
3/4 c. very cold unsalted butter, diced
6 T. ice water

3 lbs. Anjou pears, peeled, cored, 1/4" slices
3/4 c. dried cranberries
3 T. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 t. ground cardamom
1/4 t. ground allspice
3 T. Poire Williams (pear brandy) or other similar liquid

1 egg, beaten
1 t. sugar

For the pastry, combine the flour, sugar, and salt (preferably in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse a few times to combine). Cut the butter into the flour mixture butter is the size of peas. Add the ice water 1 T. at a time and continue to pulse or cut in until combined but stop just before the dough comes together. Gather the dough into a ball; flatten into a disc. Wrap the disc in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Roll the dough into a 14-inch circle on a lightly floured parchment paper. Transfer to a baking sheet.

Combine the flour, sugar, cardamom, and allspice in a large bowl.  Add the pears and cranberries; toss to combine.  Add Poire Williams (or other similar liquid of your choice) and toss again to moisten.  Turn the pear mixture out onto the dough, leaving a 1 1/2" to 2" border.  Gently fold the border of each tart over the pears, pleating it to make a circle.

Beat the egg and brush the edges of the crust with beaten egg.  Sprinkle coated crust with sugar.

Bake the crostata for 1 hour or until the crust is golden. Cover the edges of the crostata with aluminum foil and bake another 15 minutes or so, until bubbly.  Let the tart cool for 5 minutes, then use 2 large spatulas to transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Vocation Vacation, and Paella for the Masses

I looked up from my computer screen to see my boss standing in the doorway of my office, and jumped about three inches.

"Sorry, didn't meant to startle," he apologized.  I waved it off, knowing that I do the same to him, what must seem like twenty times a day.  "Sooo ..." he continued, nonchalantly, "... do you have a favorite food?"

"Umm .." that's random, I thought, wrinkling my brow, wondering why he'd be asking, fleetingly thinking that someone was going to throw me a party for some reason I wasn't privy to, and then wondering if I did actually have a favorite.

Clearly, he wasn't actually waiting for an answer, though.  "Ah! Your blog.  Of course you do.  So you know about these chef's dinners ..."

Well, sort of.  I'd heard something about the college Master being the center of attention at events featuring passion fruit chiffon pie and Spam, menu items of his choosing (he hails from Hawaii).  But what I didn't fully appreciate is that this is a yearly event, at which someone in the college is asked to be a Master Chef for a night, and choose a dish for which they provide a recipe and which they then cook at an assembly station in the dining hall for the entertainment of students, wearing a personalized embroidered Dining Services chef's jacket.  Apparently, everyone in the office had collectively decided, without my knowledge, that I would be the willing victim honoree this year.  My boss explained all of this, a fait accompli.

"You can't really say no," he admitted.  "You're being set up.  But just think about how great this could be for your blog."

Right, I thought.  The blog I hardly maintain any more.  "Well, if I can't refuse ..."

"Good.  It's all settled, then.  It's an honor!" he assured me, retreating to his office before I could protest further.

The truth is, I've always sort of thought it would be fun to be a chef for a day.  Years ago, there was a company called "Vocation Vacations" that would let you (for a fee) play at another career for a few days, shadowing someone who was well-established in their field.  I remember browsing the vacations, imagining myself as an artisan chocolatier, or a sommelier, or a chef.  (Unfortunately, there were no writers to shadow; that work was apparently too solitary and serious to share with a mere "vacationer.")  I've baked for friends on and off over the years, and when I was home with my daughter, I briefly entertained the thought of opening a cafe, but I happen to know some people who work or worked in the restaurant business, so I never took that option seriously.  Besides, I really do love what I do for a living.  But a day to try something else, with no strings attached?

Because I take everything too seriously, I pored over my blog and scanned foodgawker for the next few days, having a semi-existential crisis.  How could any self-respecting foodie blogger (notice, not "food blogger") not have a favorite food?  I needed a main course: what could I propose to make that would feed a dining hall full of several hundred hungry college students?  It had to be scalable, not too time-intensive, reasonably priced.  It couldn't be something they make regularly.  I didn't want pasta.  Finally, I lit upon paella.  Rice was the answer to the problem of scalability. Not exactly my favorite food, even if I did have one, but a childhood throwback.  I built a menu of possibilities around it, and sent an email off to the head chef.

Later in the week, I was invited to an office in the bowels of the dining hall (past the largest tins of tomato sauce I've ever seen) to discuss the menu.  I offered a few ideas, not knowing how much they wanted to undertake (they prepare the vast majority of the meal in the back while the Master Chef cooks it in the front, channeling the magic of Food Network), and they decided to make three dishes, the paella, caldo gallego, and a kale salad with a maple cinnamon dressing.  They sounded excited, and said that I shouldn't worry; they'd make me "look good."  I wouldn't even need to do much cooking, beyond providing them with recipes.  That was worrisome enough: what if they were a flop?  These were professionals.  What would they think?

On the day of my debut, I showed up in the dining hall just before the dinner hour, where I donned my personalized chef jacket and Cordon Bleu hat.  The chefs showed me what they'd prepped, and what I'd need to do to make it look authentic.  I got to taste everything they'd made; it was all perfect.

And so I spent the next hour sauteeing vegetables, adding rice and broth and protein to the pan, and serving up heaping spoons of beautiful yellow paella and soup to the undergraduates, who kept coming back for seconds.  (The sous chef told me, privately, that he thought it might have been the first time a ham hock had entered the building, and that he loved the soup, and the chef confessed that he may have bought $120 worth of saffron for the occasion that he had to keep locked in his desk.)  The university photographer took lots of pictures, which they posted on Facebook.  Friends told me afterwards that I look entirely too comfortable in a chef's jacket.

Would I do it again?


Just don't tell my boss. Yet.

What would your Vocation Vacation be?

Paella Mixta
(It doesn't spend hours in a Valencian oven.  But it works, and apparently, can feed a cast of hundreds.)

1 ½ lbs. chicken, skinned
¾ t. salt, divided
¼ t. fresh ground black pepper
3 t. vegetable oil
1 c. chopped onion
½ c. chopped red bell pepper
1 ½ c. Arborio rice
½ c. diced plum tomato
1 t. pimentón (smoked paprika … sweet paprika also works, but is a little less authentic)
¼ t. saffron, crushed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 ½ c. chicken broth
1 ½ c. clam juice  (I’ve also made it with only chicken broth in a pinch)
¾ lb. large shrimp
1 c. diagonally cut asparagus
½ c. frozen green peas, thawed

Preheat oven to 400.
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper, heat 2 t. oil in a large oven-safe pan and cook 3 minutes each side until lightly browned.  Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.
Add 1 t. oil to the pan, and add onion and pepper; cook until translucent.  Add rice, tomato, paprika, saffron, and garlic, and cook until fragrant (1 minute or so).  Return chicken to the pan and add broth, clam juice, and salt.  Bring to a boil, and cover the page; bake at 400 for about 10 minutes.  Stir in shrimp, asparagus, and peas; cover and bake another 5 minutes, or until shrimp are done.
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Losing, and Beef and Guiness Pie

So that house we were almost done buying?  Poof.

The appraisal came in at $50k less than what we had agreed to pay, and after a lot of gut-wrenching speculation and conversation, we decided to cancel the contract and invite the sellers to renegotiate.

They weren't interested.

I'm a mix of sad and frustrated.  Sad because even if it wasn't the perfect house, it was right in a lot of ways.  There was room for the kids to grow.  It was right in town, walking distance to everything.  There was a park down the street.  Nice neighbors.  Newer, and not requiring a lot of maintenance.  Even the rooms were the right color.

Mad, because I feel like we were hoodwinked.  Even if the appraisal was off, how could it has been off that much?  And if everyone else is going to have the same experience, why would they do this?  How will anyone get a mortgage for more than the house is worth?

The strangest thing is that the experience reminded me, to a lesser degree, of the way I felt after our miscarriages.  You do so much planning.  You throw away the things you no longer need in order to acquire new ones.  You start imagining furniture where you think it belongs.  Perhaps you imagine yourself biking (taking a stroller) through your new neighborhood, talking with your new neighbors.  You think about the way the breeze will feel at night when the windows are open, what the train (baby) will sound like when it rumbles by in the night.  You start packing.  You tell everyone what your new address (due date, etc.) will be, and they all congratulate you.

And then suddenly your changed plans go back to unchanged plans.  You tell yourself that you're not going to tell anyone next time, not until the end is inevitable.  Because it hurts too much to go down that road backwards.

Even the advice and words of comfort sound bizarrely familiar:  Maybe you were lucky; maybe you dodged a bullet.  Not to worry, you'll find another house.  It was Fate.

Of course, losing a house-to-be is not the same as losing a child-to-be. Unlike in pregnancy loss, we had some control over this process, at least until the end, when we were left wondering whether we should have taken the risk we took.  And you can always try to find another house, when you can't always have another child. Even if you do, the child that comes doesn't replace the other(s) that might have been.  The ghost children haunt you sometimes; thankfully, there are no ghost houses.

Still, I haven't gotten much better at losing things over the years.

I've always loved the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, but especially the vilanelle "One Art," which feels appropriate here:
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
If we practice it, write it, perhaps we can gain mastery over losing, no?

If only it were that simple.

We'll figure something out.  Maybe we won't move after all.  But in the meantime, comfort food was designed for times like these.  I made these pies a while back during a blustery weekend in March, when everyone else was pretending to be Irish.  Maybe you'll find them comforting, too.

Guinness Pie

1/3 c. flour
1 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
good sized dash of paprika
1 1/2 lbs. beef for stew, 1" cubed (or seitan)
4 slices of bacon, diced (you can use veggie bacon for flavor, but add extra oil to saute, or just add some smoked paprika to oil before sauteing your protein)
1 bottle of Guinness Extra Stout (or whatever you've got)
2 1/2 c. beef or vegetable stock
4 carrots, cut in 1/2" rounds
1 onion, diced
8 small Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1 bag of frozen peas with pearl onions
Biscuits (yes, I really used the ones in the pop-n-fresh package, but make sure they're not too big or they won't cook correctly)

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together the flour,salt, pepper, and paprika.  Rinse the beef and pat dry with a paper towel, then roll the beef cubes in flour.

In a large dutch oven, cook the bacon until crisp, and set aside to drain, reserving 3 T. bacon fat.  Add the beef (seitan) to the bacon drippings, and brown on all sides.  Return all the beef and bacon to the pot, add the Guinness, scraping up the brown bit, then stock, onion, carrots, and potatoes.

Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes.  Stir in the peas until just heated, divide the stew among eight oven-safe soup crocks or similar dish, and top each with a half of a biscuit. Bake 350 for 20 minutes (or until biscuits are cooked through--or be stubborn and bake your biscuits separately).
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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Accidents Happen, and Ginger Coconut Soup

It's been a stressful few weeks.  Cleaning, de-cluttering, phone calls, paperwork, making (and keeping) everything immaculate, upcoming travel again for S. and visit from the mother-in-law who will be watching the kids in the house during our first week of listing ... and then I had an accident the other day on the way to work.

I remember the split second when I realized what was going to happen; it was like slow motion, watching my car come closer to his bumper, but also like fast forward, because somehow my car was moving much faster than it should have been, given that I'd been at a complete stop.  It was exactly how I imagine a real time warp might be.  I still don't really understand what happened.

The other driver sustained a mild concussion.  My car sustained some serious damage.  I cried hysterically for half an hour, particularly when the ambulance took the other driver away on a stretcher, with his neck in a brace.  My stomach has been in knots; I called that afternoon to see how he was, and the next day to leave more insurance information with his wife, but I haven't called since, because I don't want him to feel like I'm stalking him.

We have pretty good insurance, and I hope that behind the scenes they are working with the other driver to get his bills paid, and make sure that he's OK.  I worry about him.  In the meantime, though, letters from lawyers offering to represent me have starting coming in, and that makes me worry, too.  Doubtless he's getting the same letters from people offering to represent him, and what if he decides it's worth his while to hire one?

Everyone reassures me that accidents happen, that I'm not the only one, that I should forgive myself.  I'm grateful for those kind words.  But trying to do so has made me appreciate just how many social forces work against forgiveness.  There are people out there whose jobs are to prevent us from forgiving each other and ourselves.  You'll pay for this, they say, even if we already have paid.

I'm eating ginger to calm my stomach.  And counteracting that with pints of ice cream and chocolate chip cookies, which I am pretending make me feel better.

What are the things you have a hard time forgiving yourself for?  Has anyone ever forgiven you for something you felt you didn't deserve to be forgiven for?

Ginger Coconut Soup (adapted from 101 cookbooks)

12 oz. wide egg or rice noodles
2 t. coconut oil
3 large minced shallots, minced
a handful or two of mushrooms (preferably cremini, shiitake, or something else flavorful)
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk (1 full and 1 half fat)
1 14 oz. can water
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 1/2 t. salt, or to taste

4 c. seasonal vegetables:
2 zucchini, cut into small cubes
20 broccoli florets
a fistful of asparagus tips
3 scallions, sliced

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt well, and cook the pasta as the package directs. Drain and set aside.

While the noodles are cooking, melt the coconut oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat. Saute the shallots in coconut oil until just beginning to caramelize.  Add the coconut milk, water, ginger, and salt, and bring to a gentle boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for ten minutes.

During the last two or three minutes of cooking, add the vegetables to the simmering coconut broth, and cook until just tender. Arrange a pile of noodles in each bowl, and ladle vegetables and broth over the noodles.  Garnish, if desired, with chopped cilantro.
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Spring Cleaning and Spring Roll Salad

This past Sunday to-do list included:
  • paint living room/bathroom scratches
  • bleach porch mold
  • pack holiday items
  • pick up art for bathroom
  • realtor visit @ 2:30
  • make soup (dinner Tues)
  • make salad (dinner Sun)
  • S. sauce (dinner Mon)
That was in addition to the usual do two loads of laundry, make breakfast and lunch for the kids, don't ignore the kids, check and respond to the deluge of email coming in from spring break returnees and faculty, and our optional-but-semi-dutiful attendance at church.  At several points during the day (one of which was when I discovered the ant egg nest in our rotten porch post), I thought, "what are we doing?  this is madness."

Though we keep the house pretty neat, I've never been overwhelmed by the prospect of spring cleaning before.  Our porch floor has to be painted, the posts replaced, rotten wood removed, I already mentioned that our tub and tile and bathroom window are rotten and need to be replaced, and paint could be applied in lots of places.  I could probably wash the curtains, but I won't, because some of them are "window treatments" and I haven't the foggiest idea where to start with those, and others are so faded that the only possible outcome is not a good scenario.

And there is so much to pack.

On Saturday, our town celebrated the 300th anniversary of our county with a parade and fireworks and birthday cake for 2000 people (donated by our local ShopRite, where it's like "Cheers," and everyone knows my name).  My son rode on the float commemorating the oldest house in town, a museum of which he's the youngest "member" (his own donation).  While eating cake, we met some friends who invited us for an impromptu dinner at one of the local restaurants, which was packed with people waiting for the fireworks to start.  And later, as I watched the peonies and chrysanthemums and willows explode from our bedroom window (because we can see our town fireworks from our house, just as we can walk to the parades downtown), I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret.  I love this community.  It's the first place I've ever felt like I belonged, like I was part of a neighborhood.  I know practically half of the people in town.  Maybe more.  Board of Ed members see me in the store or on the street and tell me they miss me .  People call me and ask me to serve on boards and borough committees.  We may not be in town much on the weekdays, but every other weekend in the summer there's a classic car show, and concerts, and an easy walk to our little library.  This is home.

Though I know that comparatively speaking, we take up more space than most other human beings, I also feel like it would be nice to live in a house that didn't require adults to duck in my son's bedroom.  There are things I will be able to do with my kids now that they'll be a shorter commute away from work.  The new house is beautiful, and everyone tells me (I hope I can believe them) that we shouldn't have a problem selling our current one, given its location and the fact that we've taken good care of it.  Still, uprooting hurts when you've sent your taproot deep.

Maybe that's why I've thrown myself into the preparation for moving with such zeal, to avoid thinking too much about the things we're leaving behind, to ignore that lump in my throat, as we step off again into the unknown.

What do your spring cleaning rituals look like?

Spring Roll Salad

2 t. fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2 T. hoisin sauce
2 T. rice vinegar
1 T. honey
1 t. sesame oil
1 t. fish sauce
20-30 wonton wrappers, cut into triangles or circles

1/2 lb. boneless chicken or shrimp or tofu, cut into bite sized chunks
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. brown sugar
1 t. sesame oil
1 T. fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter 

1 package cooked vermicelli noodles, chopped
1 1/2 large avocados, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 large head butter lettuce, chopped
4 green onions, sliced
1/4 c. each fresh basil, mint and cilantro - roughly chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, thinly sliced
2 T. toasted sesame seeds
1/4 c. roasted cashews 

Preheat the oven to 375, and prepare a baking sheet with parchment.

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil and fish sauce. Place the wontons in a single layer on the baking sheet; brush with dressing, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and bake for 8-10 minutes until crisp and golden. Repeat with another batch if needed.

Whisk the peanut butter into the remaining dressing. Thin to your desired consistency with water 1 T. at a time (but not so thin, because it needs to stick to the noodles). Set aside until ready to serve.

In a medium size bowl whisk together the soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, lime juice, and garlic. Add the chicken/shrimp/tofu, and toss well. Heat a skillet over medium high heat and add the chicken/shrimp/tofu and all the liquids. Brown until cooked through and the sauce has reduced. Remove from the heat allow to cool.

In a large bowl combine the cooked chicken/shrimp/tofu, vermicelli, avocado, carrots, bell peppers, chopped lettuce, green onions, basil, mint and cilantro, lemongrass, sesame seeds and cashews. Lightly toss and add the dressing, toss again, divide the salad among bowls and serve with the chips.  Eat it before the noodles get soggy, and try not to lick the bowl.  Because it's possible to overdo spring cleaning.
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Friday, March 21, 2014

Staging: Pumpkin Ginger Soup with Browned Butter

So we bought a house.

Yes, we already own a house, but this house is 20 minutes closer to work for me, which means that I can do more of the kid pickup and dropoff, and when S. is traveling, I will have 30 minutes more in the office before I start panicking that DYFS will come get my kids before I do.  It's big enough so that my son won't hit his head on the ceiling in the morning when he sits up in bed, and we could potentially have more than five people in our living room for book group.  I can bring kids back to campus for evening programs or dinners.  It's a win-win.

We've been looking passively for a while, and went to visit a house two weeks ago.  If you've ever been house-hunting, you know that it loses its luster pretty quickly, and remembering our experience last time, I said half-jokingly to S. as we were getting the kids back into the car, "ok, let's buy this one."  "OK," he agreed.  And somehow, two weeks later, we're out of attorney review.

Which means, of course, that we are also selling the house we live in now.

Putting aside for the moment all of the complicated things I've been feeling about leaving the place where we've made our home for nine years (because that deserves its own post), I've been thinking a lot about staging, especially as we went back yesterday for the home inspection, and I began to notice the nails on the walls where other things had hung, things that had been replaced by something more perfect, places where other furniture had been before, and had been moved to make space for ... space.  If you've ever bought or sold a house, you probably know something about how things works: staging makes a space feel like anyone could live in it, depersonalizing and getting rid of enough of the clutter and identity that a potential buyer could walk into the space and begin to imagine their things in it.  I wondered, as we walked around that house yesterday, eating the brownies that the owner had made for us, whether I'd been suckered in by the staging, the beautiful Pottery-Barn-like perfection of it all.

We don't have a very cluttered house, but when you live anywhere long enough with small children, you begin to accumulate things, careful as you might be to rid yourself periodically of items you no longer need.  And my seven year old has hoarding tendencies.  So over the past week, I've begun the process of cleaning, Freecycling, throwing away things we no longer need, trying to make our home feel as spacious as it did when we first moved in.  I can already appreciate how hard it's going to be to keep our house completely tidy until we sell it (CSA, if you're reading this: I've been awed the small miracle that you're managed to maintain in your house).

I'm no stranger to the concept of artful arrangement and minimalism.  There's a not-so-small obsessive compulsive part of me that demands feng shui, even in casually tossed together meals.  But as I take pictures from one wall and hang them on another, or hide them in a closet, or stash dishes away, or wonder where I can hide a piece of furniture for a few months, there's a wistfulness in the small loss from home to house.  I start to think about the things I should and shouldn't cook before someone comes to visit, knowing that our house has a way of retaining dinner in the air for a day or so.

We still have to tear apart our bathroom before we put this house on the market (hooray for leaky tile, not), though, and we don't close until July 1, so for the moment, I will continue to fill the air with spice and ginger and garlic and chocolate and maybe even bacon.  And I will try not to nag my children too much about imperfect cleanliness, putting my energies instead into feng shui for dinner.

How much staging would you have to do if you were going to move?  How much can you extract the "you" from your home?  Have you ever staged a house before?

Gingered Pumpkin Soup
Adapted from 101 cookbooks

One of the things I love about Heidi Swanson is her artful, but still casual, arrangement of food.  She tosses things together and makes them appear as if they've been that way always, casual but also beautiful.

2 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
fine grain sea salt
1 1/2 lbs pumpkin puree
2 t. fresh ginger, grated
cooked brown/wild rice, warm

1/4 c. unsalted butter
4-inch sprig of rosemary
zest of one lemon
1 t. grated ginger
pinch of salt

other toppings: plain yogurt, toasted pepitas (we used tamari spiced ones)

In a large soup pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, shallot, ginger, and a couple big pinches of salt. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes, then add the pumpkin and 6 cups of water (or less if you like a thicker soup). Bring just to a simmer until the flavors mingle, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with a hand blender until smooth. If you like an even thinner soup, add more water, then stir in more salt to taste.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, long enough to let the butter start to brown a bit. Remove from heat and immediately stir in rosemary, lemon zest, grated ginger, and salt. Stir well and let sit for 5 minutes or so. Strain the butter, and reserve the pulp to serve separately.

Serve soup with a big scoop of rice and with a spoonful of yogurt, some pepitas, a drizzle of lemon ginger rosemary butter.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Outtakes: Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

I threw my family's dinner away last night.

You think I'm kidding, but dear reader, I dumped the entire pot of pre-consumer Persian Yogurt Soup down the drain, and flipped on the garbage disposal, fully mindful of the starving children in (name your country of choice) and enjoying the satisfying roar as the yogurt and egg and and corn starch and split peas and dill and parsley and green onion and grated shallots and wild rice were churned into oblivion.


My family looked on in semi-shock, and then one of them may have inquired, meekly, "so ... what's for dinner?"

By then, it was 7pm.  I'd been cooking said yogurt soup since 5:15, when I began the delicate heating process.  If you know anything about cooking yogurt, you know that if you heat it too quickly, you're going to end up with a separated mess.  The converse (and heretofore unknown to me) rule, however, is that if you heat it too slowly, the split peas and rice will cook at the speed of glaciation.

The matter was made worse by the fact that I was making said soup despite the fact that S. doesn't much like yogurt (though he is OK with Indian dishes containing it, or tzatziki sauce that is full of salt and garlic).  And my son, seven year old that he is, pronounced it "disgusting" before it ever hit the stove.  Both kids were beginning to melt down, and it was already time for their baths.  Let's just say I didn't feel a lot of overwhelming support for continuing the project.

So I threw the canned chickpeas (originally destined for the soup) onto their plates, and nuked some leftover rice and frozen broccoli, and dared anyone to speak to me as I wiped the drops from the pot and started tomorrow night's dinner.

Let's just say it wasn't my finest hour.

Two weeks ago, I made the soup below, with black "forbidden" rice, which turned the soup purple.  Though it was somewhat unexpected, I thought the effect was pretty fantastic.  I wasn't there when the soup was brought to the table (I was running late from work that night), but I hear there was a minor revolt.  That time, at least the soup was edible and tasted fine; it was only the small matter of color that made it objectionable.

You can't hit a home run every time, I guess.  

The question is: when do you decide to muck around with your soup and try something different, when do you take out the little pieces that don't work, and at what point do you decide you've reached the point of no return, throw out the whole thing, and start over?

Keiko's post on D-Day today got me thinking about blogging.  Not that I haven't been thinking for a while.  But as I commented over there, I’ve been in a similar writing holding pattern since I started work again.  The things I used to write about are the backdrop for what I do now, which is a attempt to balance family with a very time intensive job I love. Sure, I think about other things, but I don't luxuriate in them, and I worry that no one will want to read about mundane life, that it’s not deep enough, that I’ll be writing for nothing, sounding like the bloggers I hate to read, whose blogs are shallow navel-gazing and reviews for fabulous products or Pinterest-like perfection . But maybe I need to rethink that hesitation, and just suck it up and write, without pictures if I need to, without deep things if I need to.  Fooling around the with the soup, rather than throwing it down the garbage disposal.  Because as Mel commented, blogging is about voice.  And we hope that it's the voice you come back to read, regardless of what we write about.

Have you ever thrown dinner (or something else you've worked on even harder) away completely?  What are your "outtakes"?

Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

2 T. butter, divided
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1/2 c. finely chopped carrot
1/2 c. finely chopped celery
4 c. low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 c. wild rice, rinsed and drained
12 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 t. flour
2 c. half and half, light cream, or evaporated milk

Melt 1 T. butter in a large pot over medium heat.  Add onion, carrot, and celery, and saute for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent, and the carrots are tender.

Add the broth and rice, bring to a boil, and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook 30 minutes, uncovered, but watch to make sure that your water doesn't all boil away; if it does, add a bit, 1/2 c. at a time.  Don't forget that you'll also be adding liquid later, so just leave yourself enough to cook the rice.

Add the chicken and simmer uncovered 20-25 minutes more until rice is tender.

Melt the remaining 1 T. butter in a small microwaveable bowl, and add the flour, stirring to make a paste.  Add the paste to the soup and stir, cooking until thick and bubbly, and then for another minute or two more.

Add the half and half.  Cook and stir over medium heat until warm, and season to taste.

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