Tuesday, February 26, 2013

You Are Here

My first journal -- a bright red cloth-covered hardbound affair bespeckled with small white forget-me-nots -- was given to me for my ninth birthday.  I don't remember who gave it to me; it must have been my parents, unlikely as that seems, given what my father thought about the pasttimes of reading and writing.  I remember feeling excited but also a little overwhelmed by all of the blank pages, wondering how I would fill it, whether I should document my days, record the facts, or tell my deepest secrets.  I also remember feeling vaguely disappointed that it didn't come with a lock and key, like the pink and purple ones I'd seen in shrink wrap at B.Dalton.

At first, diligent student that I was, I wrote every day as if it were another homework assignment, mostly about minutiae that seems laughable now: how my piano lesson went, what boys I liked, what I ate for dinner (hm, maybe I'm still writing about the minutiae).  Sometimes I would draw in it.  Gradually, I became less faithful.  There were too many other things to do, or maybe I just didn't feel moved to write.

And yet, I continued to journal sporadically over the years, collecting a few books, and a few volumes of poetry, most of the latter the angsty adolescent sort of work that makes real poets cringe.  Those books have moved with me clear across the continent and back, never exactly displayed in a place of prominence, but never exactly hidden away, either.

Until the other day.  When I was trying to remember something about my childhood, and wished that I had the same ability to do research on myself as I could on any other subject.  And then realized that I had my past -- in snippets, anyway, from the perspective of an unreliable narrator -- at my fingertips.  I took a deep breath, and prepared myself to go back in time.

They were all there, on the shelf where I'd placed them, not even terribly dusty.  I took them to the living room and sat down on the couch, stacking them next to me, wondering what I'd find.  As I opened the first book, revealing a clumsy, loopy handwriting I hardly recognized as my own, a scrap of paper fell from the inside front coverWritten in a more mature hand, it read:
" 'I keep going on with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too ... By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story, I will your existence. I tell therefore you are.' -Margaret Atwood, _The Handmaid's Tale"
I stopped breathing for a minute, imagining that.  The past-me, unknowingly believing the future-me into beingAn adolescent me, imagining a future reader of the child-me diary.  Not validating her own existence in the telling, but mine.  I tell, therefore you are.

photo courtesy of flickr user St_A_Sh,
via Creative Commons license
And of course, I thought of you.

I am a blogger.  One of hundreds of thousands of bloggers, telling our stories, whatever form they take, willing our readers into existence.  Conjuring communities of witness.  Choosing to write here, in this now, believing you into being.  You, J.  And you, A.  And you, R.  And L.  And C.  And M.  You know who you are.  Not just the ones who comment, but also the ones who read in silence.  Without all of you, the spoken and unspoken witnesses, the words are just electrons.  You are the ones who make the words live, and they, in turn, create you, too.  You exist in remarkable symbiosis.


I understand the work of willing, the power of naming. We speak the names of our dead children, and they live on, loved by a community: Molly. Micah. Thomas. Lillian. Blobby. (and so many others).  We speak the name of our cancers, so the enemy we fight has a shape and a face, and we raise our armies of support, the loved ones who rally around us as we stand at the front lines.  We even set virtual tables, willing our guests to break real bread, thousands of miles, and possibly many years, away.

Maybe the stories are not always beautiful.  Maybe sometimes they are difficult to hear.  Maybe sometimes we can speak only in half-truths.  But the telling is a powerful thing.  Because it means that you, yes you, are here.  You are witness.  And for that, we are grateful.

Have you ever kept a journal?  When was the last time you went back to read it, and what did you discover?
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Homework: Kitchen Sink Cookies

I've been good.  Really, really good.  No cookies, no cake, a spoon or two of ice cream.  Minimal processed sugars and dairy.  Low carb, and no refined carbs.  So when my son started his read-aloud homework last night, my reaction was understandable.

"The Cookie Quest?  Sounds like the story of my life," I said drily.  I listened with half an ear as he read, stopping him to ask about words he misread as other words, trying to entertain my daughter, who was making tea in the cupboard, uninterested in her brother's assignment.  At some point, the reading stopped.  I'd lost track of the details, but I had a vague sense of the plot: something about a mother creating a contest-winning cookie recipe, and her son's friend trying to find it out before it was published.  Not exactly a quest, in my book.  I reached for the pen to sign the sheet saying he'd done the reading.

"All done," he said.  "Oh, wait ..." He turned the page.  "Hey LOOK, Ma!  There's a recipe!  We can MAKE these cookies!"  He was practically shouting now.  "Kitchen Sink Cookies," he read, pointing.

"You mean I can make these cookies," I corrected him, knowing full well who was going to end up manning the mixer and dropping little balls of dough onto cookie sheets for two hours.  "Since when did your homework become my homework?"  I scanned the recipe quickly and turned back to N., who was now dismantling the cupboard.

Ignoring me, he continued, "SO?  Do we have all of the ingredients?"

I shook my head.  Negative, dude.  No chocolate in the house.  I can't be trusted.  Actually, I probably could be trusted now.  But I am not about to start taking chances just yet.

"Well, you can go shopping tonight and get the chocolate chips," he assured me.  "I'll copy the recipe for you."  And he climbed up onto the stool to reach a recipe card, beginning the painstaking process--for a first-grader, at least--of transcribing the recipe by hand, in pencil.  "I'm going to use abbreviations.  Do you know what 'tea' and 'tab' will stand for?"

I was beaten.  And really, what kind of a parent would I be if I didn't bake him cookies from his read-aloud homework book?

I didn't go shopping last night.  But guilt-ridden, I went to the store today.

I took a few liberties to make them a little healthier, but really, they're still cookies. I guess I'll have to send them to his teacher.  I hope I get an A.

Have you ever found a recipe in an unexpected place?

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coconutties
The "real" kitchen sink cookies, in my book, are made with more stuff.  Like raisins.  Or butterscotch chips.  Or cranberries.  And maybe potato chips and pretzels.  Random bits of things in your cupboard.  You can do that and tell me how they turn out.  In the meantime, I think my name for them is better.

1/2 c. shortening (use Earth Balance)
1 c. coconut palm sugar (or use 1/2 c. brown and 1/2 c. white)
1 egg
1 T. vanilla
3/4 c. flour (whole wheat pastry will work OK)
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. oats
1/2 c. chocolate chips
1/2 c. unsweetened coconut
1/2 c. chopped walnuts (or other nut of your choice, or raisins if you have nut allergies)

Preheat oven to 350.

Using an electric mixer, beat shortening and sugar until well combined.  Add egg and mix well.  Mix in the vanilla.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add to the shortening mixture and beat to combine.

Add in the rest of your mix-ins, and combine well, using your hands if necessary to incorporate all of the bits.  The dough may be a little crumbly in appearance; don't worry about that.

Mold the dough into 2 t. size balls (you can squish it in your hands to make the balls solid), and bake on baking sheets covered with a sheet of parchment for 10-12 minutes, or until browned.  Cool cookies for a minute or two on the baking sheet, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  Store tightly covered for up to 1 week.
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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Remembrance: Slow Cooker Pork and White Bean Stew with Apples and Cranberries

It's the part of February that I hate: the intermediate space between the holidays (even if we're counting the Hallmark holiday of Valentine's Day) and spring, when the days stretch out mostly grey and interminable.  It's a space of the year which is full of remembrances of loss for me.  And it's often full of random winter storms these days, which bring wintry weather, but not enough to go sledding; just enough to make driving hazardous.  My son and I have been reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I've been admiring the pioneering spirit that got the Ingalls family through those interminably dark days.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of my father's death.  It's sort of an odd coincidence that he lost his battle with cancer in February; after all, he loved Valentine's Day (which, for him, was an excuse to buy chocolate ... the romance of Hallmark was lost on him), and blustery Sunday afternoons sleeping or watching Spanish TV in in his well-worn leather recliner.  I've never visited his grave; grieving is different for everyone, and for me, the kitchen is a more useful place to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones lost than the cemetery.

My father was an eater of winter foods.  Roasts, hearty stews, potatoes.  And great quantities of bread.  I'm not sure if it had to do with the region of Spain where he was born (despite the fact that he spent such a significant part of his life in the warmer climate of Florida and the Carribbean), or if it was just his preference for hearty fare, but we knew better than to feed him a meal that would make him demand, "where's the meat?"

I've been following a nearly vegan diet lately.  Not because I want to be vegan, necessarily, but because I want to make more mindful choices about my food, and a vegan diet makes me more mindful.  I've removed almost all of the dairy (very little cheese, no yogurt), cut way back on refined sugars (almost no baked goods or chocolate), minimized carbohydrates (almost no bread or rice or pasta), and consumed only marginal amounts of meat.  I've been eating more vegetables, and hummus, and nuts, and legumes.  I can almost imagine what my father would say about this.  Something, no doubt, along the lines of what he told me when I informed him--old world Catholic that he was--that I was going to be married by a Unitarian minister; food was, after all, a little religious for him, despite his insistence that we "eat to live, not live to eat."

But my husband and my son are decidedly not vegan, and I still have to cook for them, too.  And when I'm cooking hearty winter stews in the kitchen, I'm remembering my father.  Who would nod with sage approval, watching me throw something like this together, even though he wouldn't agree about the beans.

Slow Cooker Pork and White Bean Stew with Apples and Cranberries

2 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
2 pork tenderloins, 1 lb. each, cut into 1" cubes
2 15 oz. cans cannellini beans
4 apples, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 - 3 c.broth (your choice)
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1/2 c. dried cranberries (no sugar)
2 t. dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Add everything to your slow cooker; make sure that the pork is just covered by the broth.  Cook on low for 7 hours.  Remove cover and boil on high for 15-20 minutes or until the stew is a bit thickened.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

More Greens, Served Cold: Envy, Energy, and Arugula and Pear Salad with Maple Dressing

So I've been thinking some more about--and working on quieting--the green-eyed monster since my post the other day about experiencing envy at the Y.

One of my instructors tore her meniscus recently.  It's clearly a very painful injury, and there's nothing you can to do fix it except rest it; you can't cast it, or medicate it.  In some cases it can require surgery, but from what I've read, that's a less desirable solution.  For a person whose entire livelihood depends on being able to teach fitness classes, and that career depends on being fit in the first place, a torn meniscus is really, really bad news.  Healing takes time.

Our instructor has continued to come and teach classes, demonstrating the exercises when she can, sometimes on one leg, pushing herself and us as hard as she can, stepping back when she has to, and often--I can tell by her contorted facial expressions--working through the pain.

(This in itself has given me pause.  When we injure ourselves, do we push through the pain?  Or do we stop and rest?  What does taking care of ourselves mean to us?  Is it different psychologically than physically?  I know that I've run or exercised despite injuries more times than I can count, altering my gait, gritting my teeth and telling myself that if I just work through it, I'll be fine.  Sometimes I am, and sometimes I'm not.  Is this a cultural thing?  I have worried for my instructor, but on the other hand, everyone else in the class seems to accept her presence, despite her injury, as a matter of course.)

The class I go to on Tuesdays is Tabata, which is essentially a high-intensity interval training class, with new exercises every week, which each person does as hard and as fast as she can, until we feel that our hearts will just about burst through our chests, and we suck in our air in great gasping gulps.  The great thing about Tabata is that it's an intense workout that is completely scalable to your ability and fitness level, and that you are called to do your personal best in a fitness class where no one passes judgement on what that personal best might be.  Though the Y is really supposed to be about community anyway, in some ways, Tabata unintentionally promotes mudita -- that empathetic joy I was talking about -- even more so in group fitness.  And just being together in that class encourages everyone to challenge themselves as they need to be challenged: so we are quite literally part of the larger energy that makes the work possible.

About halfway through Tuesday's class, my instructor, who had been nursing her knee for half an hour, finally sat on the floor, bent over her leg in obvious agony.  It was the worst it has been so far since her injury.  I watched her, and I wanted desperately for her to stop moving, to ice her knee, to sit there and call 9-1-1.  But she got up and finished the class on one leg, cheering us on.  She must have hated us then, in some way, being able to move and run and jump, but instead, she hollered and urged us to go faster-higher-harder, taking out her camera to film us, capturing the class energy in her pocket for posterity.

I thought about how incredibly generous that was ...what a gift it was to be there for us when she could not do the same for herself.  (I also wondered if it might be slightly insane, given that just being there and trying to teach might have jeopardized her healing process.)

Have you ever cheered someone on when you've wanted what they had, even though you couldn't attain it yourself?  Are you the kind of person who pushes on, despite an injury or illness?  What are the limits you draw on working through the pain?

Arugula and Pear Salad with Maple Dressing
adapted from Cooking Close to Home: A Year of Seasonal Recipes
When I make an arugula and pear salad, I tend to throw in the same things all the time: goat cheese and cranberries.  This isn't incredibly original, either, but I enjoyed the more earthy sweetness of the maple syrup paired with the pecans and pairs.  The original suggests adding shaved cheddar, but I'm trying to eat more vegan, so I opted not to include it.  You should feel free to add it back in if you like.

1/2 t. garlic, minced
2 T. olive oil
2 T. balsalmic vinegar
1 T. maple syrup

4 c. arugula, stems removed
1 pear, sliced 1/4" thick
4 thin slices red onion
1/4 c. pecan halves

Toast the pecan halves on a baking sheet or rimmed piece of foil in a toaster oven for a few minutes, or until fragrant. Set aside.

Blend the dressing ingredients together using an immersion blender (great for emulsifying) or whisk.  Set aside.

Place all of the salad items in a large bowl, add the dressing, and toss to coat.  Or have your two year old divide the ingredients between the serving dishes and see what happens, then pour dressing over each plate.
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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Green: Toasted Kale and Coconut with Farro

I am, and always have been, the sort of person who does best in the gym through peer pressure.  It's not that I don't want to go, but more that I just don't enjoy running on the treadmill or using machines; I can't bring myself to watch TV and live in my head for that long while I'm doing reps.  I like the social aspect of group exercise classes; I like the friendly joking, the camaraderie and encouragement of fellow class members, even the collecting grunting and groaning during a particularly challenging class.  Like comments in blogging, it makes me feel a little less alone.  In fact, this is so important to me that it determines where I go to the gym; I go to our local YMCA because I love the mix of people there, I love the fact that I don't feel like I have to walk shamefully through rows of perfect bodies and people primping, I love the fact that people come as they are, in all shapes and sizes, and the goal is not perfection but wellness.

So I was sort of surprised when I realized that I'd been attacked by the green eyed monster at the Y today.

My group exercise classes are mostly "regulars" -- people who show up for the same classes every week.  Some of us show up for class at the same time every day.  Monday is Kick.  Tuesday is Tabata.  Wednesday is Step.  Thursday is Groove.

Usually the instructors are encouraging of everyone, regardless of ability.  But I know that they're also always on the lookout for potential teachers.  And in the class I love most last week, the instructor asked after "friend x," mentioning that she wanted to get her into an upcoming training.

I like "friend x" a lot.  I think she's good at the class.  She is skinny and athletic.  She remembers all of the steps in a routine.  I've known that this instructor was trying to tap her for some time.  And it's not as if the instructor doesn't encourage me, too; she's mentioned that I would be a good fit for teaching a different class (which, in my opinion, is full of people who do it even better than I do).  But still I found myself thinking, "why aren't I good enough to get trained to teach this class?  Why won't she pick me?"

I spent the rest of the class feeling shamefully inadequate.  And envious of my friend.

Yoga teaches us that behind every block, every painful feeling, every surge of resentment, is life force waiting to be freed.  When we get stuck in asana, we breathe, and the breath re-creates the flow of prana, often allowing us to move more deeply into the pose.  Instead of worrying about what we don't have, or where we fall short, we focus on freeing that energy, on allowing it -- as it wants to do naturally anyway -- to shift and move, to become something else, to become more creative.

And then we're called to practice mudita,or empathetic joy.  The more we cling to our selves, the more we get stuck in "I"-ness, in our achievements, the more we are limited.  The reality is, we don't have to be good at everything.  That's not what it's about.  It's about practicing to the best of our ability, and resting in the joy of others as they do the same.

And when I think about it, that's at the heart of the Y, anyway, at the heart of the success of our group fitness classes.  Not to be caught up in what we do best alone, but what we do best together, experiencing joy when others can reach their fullest potential.  The spirit of non-competitiveness.  I can do this when people experience joy in things that I don't want; now it's up to me to practice joy even when the achievement is something I would have wanted, too.  Because the fact that someone is attaining joy near me makes me part of that joy, too ... makes me an integral component of it.  I am part of the energy the makes that joy possible.

So that's what I'll be working on this week.  Looking my teacher and my friend in the eye, cheering her on, and making sure that my green says where it belongs, in my salad bowl.

Toasted Kale with Coconut and Farro

This recipe comes directly from Heidi Swanson's cookbook, Super Natural Everyday, which I bought myself with a gift card as a treat during the holidaysI haven't bought a cookbook in years, and it was absolutely worth it; I haven't been disappointed in a recipe yet.

Respecting the intellectual property of other bloggers means not reprinting recipes as they are written without permission from the author.  And I didn't alter this one very much, as I usually do.  So instead today I'm posting a list of the ingredients, and a link to Serious Eats, which did get permission from Heidi to reprint her recipe.   I used a bit more kale than she did, which I've reflected below.

Suffice to say that this was the most amazing kale dish I think I've ever eaten.  I literally could not stop devouring it.  If you liked the kale chip phenomenon, this dish will rock your world.  And start to finish it took me about 20 minutes, with minimal effort.  If only working on my other greens was this easy.

1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil  
1 t. sesame oil 
2 T. shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce 
4 lightly packed c. chopped kale, stems trimmed, large ribs removed 
1 1/2 c. unsweetened large-flake coconut 
2 c. cooked farro or other whole grain (optional)
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Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Birthday: Strawberry Cake

So we didn't celebrate the Superbowl.  We don't have a TV, anyway, I don't care about the commercials, and I wasn't really interested in Beyonce shaking her booty at me.

Instead, we celebrated my daughter's second birthday.

It's hard to believe it's been two years since that bright clear morning when I went for a walk, only to turn around and deliver a baby just three hours later.  We got out N's first year baby book and as she gawked at the pictures, I marveled at the fact that the tiny blob-like creature that I held in the hospital, convinced that she could not possibly be mine to keep, has become this spunky, opinionated, spirited, happy toddler, who selected the pinkest, poofiest skirt in the overpriced children's store (for which we had a very old gift card) to wear for her birthday. 

N. informed me, weeks ago, that we were going to have strawberry cake for her birthday.  I wasn't even sure if she liked cake.  But being the mostly responsive parent I am, I went scouring the internet for recipes.

Of course, after she had greedily licked the beaters while making the cake, and after we'd baked it and frosted it into a three-tiered celebration of the color pink, she didn't want any.  Wouldn't touch it.  Wouldn't even TRY it.  Wanted nothing but plain strawberries and a bowl of vanilla ice cream for her birthday dessert.

And of course, there were only four others there to eat this behemoth.  My mother, who has just recently rejoined Weight Watchers and agreed to the tininest of shavings; my husband, who doesn't really like strawberries in cake form; my son, who basically eats the frosting off of things; and me, still upset about the fifteen additional pounds I seem to have hung on my frame in the past year and pledging to follow a  mostly-vegan minimal-processed-sugar (I'm not entirely unreasonable) diet.

I cut two slices for the neighbors, sent some home with my mother for directions on freezing it for my brother (who had a Superbowl party to attend, and was doing due diligence on a platter of wings, no doubt), and there was still a half a cake left.

I spent the week eating it.  And finally, on the last day, my daughter took a bite of cake from the quarter slice left on my plate.  And demanded more.

Which pretty much just about describes her to a T.

The Brown Betty Bakery's Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Buttercream Frosting
(Adapted from The Brown Betty Cookbook, and from the beautiful baking blog Hummingbird High)

For the Strawberry Puree
32 oz frozen strawberries, thawed
1 T. lemon juice

For the Cake:
(makes a three 8-inch cakes)
4 c. cake flour
1 3/4 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
2 c. (1 lb.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 c. sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
a few drops red food coloring (optional)
1/4 c. milk, at room temperature

For the Strawberry Buttercream Frosting:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 t. vanilla
2 cups (1 lb.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 cups confectioner's sugar
For the Strawberry Puree

Mash thawed frozen strawberries through a strainer until you get about 2 cups of juice. Set aside the mashed strawberries. Add the juice to a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced to 1/2 cup.

Using a food processor or blender, finely chop the reserved mashed strawberries.  Add the cooked strawberry juice and lemon juice to the chopped strawberries and blend thoroughly. Set aside (you can even do this in advance and refrigerate it)

For the Strawberry Cake:

Preheat the oven to 350. Coat three 8-inch round cake pans with a nonstick cooking spray.  Cut rounds of parchment to fit into the bottom of each pan; lay the parchment on top of the cooking spray and coat the pans again, so that the parchment is now covered in cooking spray.  This will help with easy release of the cake.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter until light and fluffy, then reduce the speed and cream the sugar and butter together.  Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating until blended. Add 3/4 cup of the strawberry puree and 1/4 teaspoon red food coloring (if desired for a more pink color) and beat until just blended.

Alternately add the flour mixture and milk in four additions, beating on low after each addition, and scraping the bowl as you go.

Divide the batter equally among the prepared pans and bake until a wooden pick inserted into the middle comes out clean, around 35 to 40 minutes.  Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

For the Strawberry Frosting:
Is your butter room temperature?  Make sure it is.  Same goes for the cream cheese. 

Once you're absolutely sure that this is the case, place the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl.  Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer on medium speed until soft. Add unsalted butter (cut into 1" chunks) and salt and beat until light and fluffy, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl as necessary, about 3 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add 1/4 cup of the strawberry puree, and beat until just blended.
Gradually beat in the confectioner's sugar, scraping the bowl occasionally, until well blended. You may want to try adding less sugar to start (about 3 c.) and increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the frosting is fluffy, about 1 minute. If you want you frosting to be a bit stiffer (I did), continue to add sugar.

Level the first layer of cake if it's extremely domed, using a serrated knife to cut off the dome.  Place this first layer bottom-side up on your serving plate. Use an offset spatula (I own a plastic one of these now and it was worth every penny of the $2.50 I spent for it) to spread 1 cup of frosting on the top of the cake.  Spread just a bit of the extra strawberry puree on top of the frosting, to about 1" from the edge of the cake.

Repeat this process with the second layer: level if necessary, place the cake bottom-side down on top of the first, and spread 1 cup of frosting on top.  Spread a bit more of the strawberry puree on top of the frosting.

Top with the third cake layer, top side (domed side, most likely) up. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.
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