Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To See If I Could, and a Brazilian Fish Stew

Have you ever done something just to see if you could?


I don't remember how it started.  A joke, maybe, about my commute?  Thoughts of more leisurely mornings for the summer?

Whatever it was, it wasn't serious.  I do bike, and biking to work doesn't sound like a big deal, but if your commute is 25 miles long and includes some significant hills, and the last time you did 25 miles of hills was in Umbria, in a different decade of your life, it becomes a slightly bigger deal.

I'd mentioned the idea to my boss, who is a biker--meaning he thinks nothing of riding 50 or 60 miles at a time; he was amused, and said something along the lines of "well, yeah, if you really want to save the world, that's probably going to make a difference."  (Just to clarify here: this has nothing to do with impressing my boss.  I'm too old for that.)  Somehow, though, the more I thought about it, the more I needed to know: could I do it?  What would it be like?  I shopped the idea to my kids.  My son, the more rational of the two, pointed out that if I got there, I'd have to get home.

"True," I admitted.

"We could come pick you up," he offered, generously.  "But you'd have to call Daddy.  You should probably call Daddy," he added, frowning, now semi-concerned for my welfare.


Just this week, I no longer have to drop off my son in the mornings, now that he goes to camp just down the street from where my daughter is in school, so I have a lot more time to myself before I have to be in the office.  I spent the weekend waffling, asking myself (and my husband, and my kids) if I might be crazy, checking the forecast, and finally decided to give it a shot.

On Sunday night, I slept fitfully, trying to come up with a route that would be less busy and less steep.  In the morning, exhausted, I almost bagged it.  But after a quick shower, I checked my tires, packed a change of clothes and some soap for washing up in the bathroom at work, kissed the kids goodbye, strapped my pack on my bike rack, and started my morning commute by coasting down my street.

It couldn't have been a more perfect morning.  The air was cool and slightly damp, and it was almost as if someone had Photoshopped the world through the "vibrant" filter: layers of color--deep blue, and then pale yellow in a field, tall green grass along the edge, punctuated by deep purple thistles the size of my fist, and brown soil, and the black macadam.  For the first few miles, I rode in silence.

One thing I realized pretty quickly is that I rarely turn off all of my devices for two hours straight, at least when I'm alone.  It was refreshing to be listening to and looking at nothing except what was in front of me, to have a long stretch of time to get where I needed to go, and to know that if anything happened, there were about a dozen people I could call.  My mind wandered.  Has someone made an iPhone mount for bicycles?  That could be useful if you were riding around Italy, for example, with only a paper map to tell you where to go to find your hotel for the night.

The miles fell behind me.  Somewhere in the Sourland mountains, I started to wonder if I'd made a mistake.  I pedaled as far as I could up the steepest hill, and then hopped off the bike to walk, imagining what people would think of me, hoping no one I knew was passing me by, and then deciding I didn't care.  I'd given myself two and a half hours to get to work, and if I had to walk, I'd get there.  And if I could just get up the mountain, then I could fly down it.

Which I did.  At thirty miles an hour.  In case you've never done it: it's a huge adrenaline rush.   Suddenly it was like I was back in Bevagna, spiraling down the mountain along the medieval streets, feet off the pedals, jubilant.

The road rose and fell several more times before I finally coasted into town, and up to the door of my building, where I let out a whoop of triumph.  I let myself in, washed up, changed, and returned to my office, feeling like a superhero.  Sure, I still had to get home.  But not for another seven hours.

At four, I changed back into my mostly-dry clothes, slipped my helmet on, and began the ride home.  It was warmer, but still pleasant, and now I knew what to expect, where I'd have to work and where I could let gravity pull me along.  I could always call home, and ask them to pick me up, which would be a little less awkward than asking for a ride to work.

As I pedaled along, it occurred to me that I'm a lot better at writing when I shake up my routine, or even when I'm somehow more mindful in the middle of the routine.  My husband jokes that my writing suffers when I don't go to yoga.  It makes sense: you can either live life, or let it live you.  Writing, like yoga, or like deciding to do something just to see what you're capable of, is a reflective practice.  Life doesn't live writers; writers chew life up and spit it out on paper, or in electrons.

Which doesn't mean I'm going to bike to work more often.  I just like knowing that I can.

Brazilian Fish Soup
based on the recipe at The Wanderlust Kitchen

One of the reasons I spend so much time sifting through recipes and figuring out what to do with my CSA share is that doing so makes me look at things differently.  Traveling--especially traveling off the beaten path--does the same thing. 

And yep, that's separating coconut milk.  Use the full fat kind and it might not be quite so pronounced.

1 onion, chopped, divided
1 green onion (white and green parts), chopped, divided
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced, divided
4 cloves garlic, minced, divided
6 T. olive oil, divided
4 T. chopped cilantro, divided
1 1/4 lb. tilapia or other white fish, cut into bite sized pieces
1 1/2 c. chopped bell pepper (a mix of red, yellow, and orange)
2 c. low-sodium broth (chicken or another light stock work best)
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
2 T. tomato paste
1 T. lemon juice
1/3 c. hearts of palm, drained and sliced
2 small tomatoes, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 T. fish sauce

Combine half of the green onion, half of the yellow onion, half of the ginger, half the cilantro, half of the garlic, and 4 T. of oil in a shallow bowl. Add the chunks of fish and toss to coat. Cover well and refrigerate for three hours (or, if you're like me and you're in a hurry, toss the fish together with the onion/ginger/garlic mixture directly in your baking pan, and let it marinate for just a little while while you're prepping your broth).

If you were patient enough to let your fish marinate, let it come to room temperature just before you begin cooking.  Preheat your oven to 350F, and place the fish in a shallow baking pan.  You won't need to oil it, because of the marinade.  Pour the lemon juice evenly over the fish, season with salt and pepper. Bake 8-12 minutes, depending on how thick your fish is.

Heat the remaining 2 T. of oil in a large Dutch oven.  Saute the remaining green and yellow onions in the pan along with the bell peppers, stirring occasionally, for about three minutes, or until they begin to soften.

Add the remaining garlic and ginger to the pan and saute for about thirty seconds, until just fragrant. Add the broth and heat to boiling, then add the coconut milk and tomato paste.  When it begins to boil, immediately lower the heat to and gently simmer.

Add the almost-cooked fish and cooking juices to the broth, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the fish is soft and tender, 5 to 7 minutes.  Add the hearts of palm and tomatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.

Stir in the fish sauce and black pepper, then serve topped with the remaining fresh cilantro.
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  1. Love this.

    Congrats on the journey!

  2. That is awesome! I love that you did that. So very cool. I used to be a big bike rider. I went on 25-75 miles rides all the time. I rode a few centuries with my parents and even did a 180 miles over two day ride (with a crazy camping experience in between). I miss riding my bike. It used to be a huge part of who I am and now I never do it anymore. Maybe some day I'll ride again. ;)

  3. You are amazing. I can't help but think that if we knew each other in real life, we'd be great friends.

  4. The question is, how do you feel today?

    I'm very impressed that your rode all the way to work, and back.

  5. What an achievement! And I'm glad to hear you made it home again.

  6. I am so delighted to see stories of you finding some time to fit in a bike ride and a bit of yoga (even if the class had issues). That makes me happy for you.

  7. I can't decide which I love more: that you tried it, that stunning paragraph about the perfect morning, or your last two paragraphs (before the recipe).

    Awesome post. Inspiring, even.


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