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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Wednesday, March 12, 2014



Conditions are essential in this interstitial place:
a degree or two lower, and the melt becomes slick--
warmer, and the drip is a rushing brook.

We imagine it as linear, but the thaw hovers,
fractals, spirals,
sculpting miniature caves
with stalactites and stalagmites
more surreal than the ones chipped from
our children's imaginations.

I am drawn to the variations in ice, to the delicate crust that
shatters at the slightest pressure,
to the thicker spots where bubbles
have been trapped mid-rise, offering
fantastic patterns and refractions in
translucence and transparency,
to the stained-glass crazes that must be mathematical.

My children test these surfaces with me,
slipping, breaking, cracking, smashing.

Underneath, the constant background sound of flow
is oddly comforting,
a pulse that we can only take
in the waiting rooms of spring.
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