Friday, August 7, 2020

Athena's Breastplate, and Cauliflower and Potato Masala

My daughter has already started making her Halloween costume.

I'm actually pretty happy about this, on the one hand, because she's been bored out of her little skull these past few weeks, quarantining at home all summer with little to no regular contact with other humans her size (besides a week here and there of half-day-masked-and-socially-distanced-dance-camp with two other girls in attendance). And there's a pumpkin growing in our garden, so it seems weirdly apropos. Maybe we'll carve it up and celebrate early.

Because on the other hand, who even knows if there will be Halloween this year? Things are changing at the speed of light, and schools that were opening are now not opening, and wandering around a crowded street during a pandemic taking candy from neighbors and SO MUCH TOUCHING of things other people have touched ... well, that seems ... unwise.

I hate to disappoint my daughter by telling her this. She's had so much disappointment these past few months, which she has handled mostly with grace, but also by sheltering in a little closer, by asking me to lie there next to her in bed while she goes to sleep, by patting me gently on the arm as she walks by, knowing that I'm stressed, too, asking me when it will all be over.

And there's something about this particular choice of costume that I don't want to discourage. My daughter has been deep into Greek mythology this summer, and has learned more about it than I ever knew, for sure. She loves the whole pantheon, is enthralled by the stories (which she can retell in exquisite detail), and has chosen Athena as her alter ego: the goddess of war, strategy, wisdom, crafting. It's not a bad choice for someone who is as active and creative and stubborn and determined as she is.

She's going to need a breastplate and sword for the fall.

And so might we all, right? I've been drinking Emergen-C and turmeric tea with ginger and taking Vitamin D like my life depends on it, because I worry that it very well might (anyone else in the room start experiencing all coughs and aches with a sense of panic? Yeah, me, too). I am deeply anxious about our kids going back to school, even though I know that they really want to be there and that our district has such carefully crafted plans to avoid and contain an outbreak. I worry about what will happen to families that can't afford to juggle the hybrid model or be remote when the time inevitably comes to do that, if their school district isn't already doing it in September. I worry about the families who are enduring ongoing trauma as a result of this situation. And in my darkest hours, I worry about the very real possibility of loss, which is always there, haunting you, which never really goes away after you've lost a child, no matter what they say about kids not getting as sick as adults do.

I am so very blessed to have the breastplates that I do have: a house, a job that will continue to pay and allow me to work remotely, caring colleagues who are friends, friends who are not colleagues. But we are not, like the Greek gods, immortal.

What are your breastplates? How are you taking care of yourself?

Cauliflower and Potato Masala
because we might as well eat turmeric and ginger, just in case.

1 c. potato, peeled and cubed
1 c. cauliflower, blanched
1 T. oil
1/2 t. mustard seeds
1/2 t. cumin seeds
1 t. chana dal
1 t. urad dal
1 pinch asafoetida (optional)
1 t. ginger (grated or paste)
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
1 sprig curry leaves
2 green chilies, chopped or sliced
1/4 t. turmeric
1/2 to 3/4 t. salt (adjust to taste)
2 T. cilantro, finely chopped

Steam cauliflower and potatoes until not quite cooked. Heat oil in a pan and add the mustard seed, cumin seed, and dals. When the dal turns golden, add asafeotida. 

Add the grated ginger and saute until fragrant. Add onions, chiles, and curry leaves, and saute until the onions are slightly golden.

Add the potatoes and cauliflower along with the turmeric and salt. Add 2 T. water, and saute well for about 2 minutes. Add cilantro and serve, in a dosa, with naan, with dal, with rice, or just as a side!

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Vacation All I Ever Wanted: Cannellini Bean Salad

Ages ago, before children, S. and I biked the P'tit Train du Nord, a rail trail in the Laurentians in Quebec. I can't remember how we happened across the trail any more -- it was probably something S. found -- but it was a unique experience, and one of two times I've ever done a multi-day bike trip. When we did it, you could make arrangements with bed and breakfasts along the way, and a company would transport your luggage for you, so all you really had to do was keep pumping (it was entirely up hill) and enjoy the scenery.

It was along that trail that I ate one of the more memorable meals of my life, in a little bed and breakfast (I think this was it) in the village of Nomininigue. The meal wasn't elaborate -- in fact, the beauty of it was its simplicity. There was celeriac soup, and vegetables fresh from the garden, and a bean salad -- chickpeas, if memory serves -- that made me wonder if I'd ever really eaten chick peas before. I remember the air being crisp and clear, with perhaps a hint of sharp wood smoke and pine. I marveled at how the bounty on my plate could all come from the garden out back, how our host (Guillaume) managed to turn next to nothing into a feast.

Our vacation plans have been thwarted multiple times over this year. First we canceled our trip abroad back in April, seeing the inevitable beginning to unfold. Then we canceled all of the kids' camps, with the exception of a two week part day dance camp for N, which kept her from climbing the walls, at least briefly. All the while we've both been working. And finally, when I thought I would catch a break next week and be able to take a long weekend away from my computer, my boss scheduled two important meetings for the days I'd just asked to take off. To say that I was upset about losing my most recent attempt at some mental health time would be an understatement.

But this weekend we somehow managed to slow down, just for a little while, and it reminded me of the magical night in Nomininigue, the way we stopped to watch the blue sky and the clouds, the things we marveled at growing in our own garden (including a full fledged pumpkin), a half an hour of wading in a creek when we'd been looking for a way to cool off for weeks. And at the end of the day on Saturday, there were heirloom tomatoes still warm from the garden, and home grown cucumbers, and a simply herby bean salad. And just like that, a weekend felt just a little bit like a vacation.

Here's wishing you some small peace in your little corner of a quarantined world.

Cannellini Bean Salad
h/t to Yotam Ottolenghi, whose recipe in Plenty More was the inspiration for this salad. He uses quinoa, which S. is allergic to (and he couldn't find any in the store), but double the beans worked out just fine.

2/3 c. flat leaf parsley leaves, finely shredded
2/3 c. mint leaves, finely shredded
3 to 5 green onions, green and white parts only, thinly sliced
2 cans cannellini beans, drained
1 large lemon, skin and seeds removed, flesh finely chopped
1/2 t. allspice
1/4 c. olive oil
salt and pepper

Add the parsley, mint, onion, beans, lemon, allspice olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt and some black pepper to a bowl. Stir together and serve. 

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Pools, Being Neighborly, and Tres Leches Cake

I am six, maybe seven years old. I'm wearing a purple bathing suit and a fuzzy white beach cover up. My legs are hot and sweaty, sticking to the vinyl in my father's tank-like Mercedez Benz, the only car he would buy until late in his life, even if he did have to save up for years to get them third hand. My head aches. It's Sunday, a languid New Jersey summer day, the sun blinding me as it darts in and out of the trees. I'm imagining how good the cool water will feel.

We never belonged to a pool when I was growing up. I was never sure why, because I felt like everyone else in town did, and it wasn't like my parents were working during the summer and couldn't take us, since they were both teachers. Maybe it was too expensive. I longed for access to the local pool, though, for late evenings with the ice cream truck and sparklers and the company of kids my age, who all seemed to disappear there during the day. Luckily, occasionally the weekends were punctuated by a trip to my parents' friends' house in Montvale, where we would go swimming.

I could never tell whether we'd invited ourselves over or not, because I always felt welcome there. It didn't matter whether they had other people over. We'd arrive, there would be hugs and handshakes, and Leo (that was my father's friend's name) would look me up and down, squint, and tell me how much I'd grown since last time. He would know; at six feet, his ample hairy chest and stomach spilled over his red swimming trunks. He was a large man, in every sense of the word.

For me, summer will always be associated with the crystalline waters of Leo and Mimi's pool. I wasn't a good swimmer, but I would bob up and down, play with their pool toys, and then, lips blue, I'd finally climb out to dry off, and, while my parents looked on disapprovingly, they'd encourage me ("honey," they'd say) to go to the poolhouse refrigerator where there was always cherry soda and leftover vanilla cake covered in whipped cream frosting, likely left over from one of their famous parties, to which hundreds of people would be invited, covering every inch of their ample lawn.

I think about Leo's pool a lot these days, in this long dry pandemic summer. Usually my kids go to day camp where there is some kind of pool access, and in years past we've had some friends who owned a pool and would invite us over on the weekends sometimes, like Leo did, and we'd go bearing chips and sangria and cake, grateful both for good company and a chance to cool off. But this summer, there's none of that. Just endless days of stepping outside into a sauna or being stuck inside while I'm working long days. I know they--and I--should be grateful for our air conditioning.

Our neighbors down the street have a pool that my son and I can see when we go walking at night, and I will confess that I've become a little obsessed. Sometimes they're using it, but often they're not. This baffles me. I fantasize about sneaking in through the back gate that opens onto our street and leaving twenty bucks on the umbrella table for an hour of submerging myself in the clear blue water. Sometimes I wonder if I've said something to make them hate me so much that I'd never be invited there anyway. Sometimes they're there with other neighbors with whom we're friendly, not socially distancing, and they all wave to us, almost like we're waving to each other from different planets. I find myself--unreasonably--hating them for this. I think to myself that if had a pool, I'd make sure the neighbors felt welcome there, whether I was using it or not, even--especially--in the middle of a pandemic.

S. had heard enough of my complaining about our lack of pool the other day, and found, which is essentially, it seems, like Air B&B for pools. People can put their pool up for use by other people when they're not using it, and make a few bucks. We haven't tried it yet, though this seems pretty brilliant, even if it's a little weird to be swimming in water where people you don't know were just swimming hours ago. I mean, the chlorine kills anything anyway, right? Right?

Still, it's not the same as the magical pool of my childhood summers, the open welcome to share the water with friends, the refrigerator perpetually full of soda and cake.

Do you have a pool? Do you have a friend with a pool? Would you lend yours to a stranger for an hour, for a price?


Tres Leches Cake

With gratitude to Brown Eyed Baker for the original. While this isn't exactly what they had in the poolside refrigerator in those lovely days of shared poolside snacks, it's about as close as I'd come.

For the Cake
1½ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
For the Three-Milk Glaze
12 ounce can evaporated milk
14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half
For the Whipped Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan; set aside.

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

Beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread into an even layer. (This will appear to be a very small amount of batter.)

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F. Remove the cake to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

In a 4-cup measuring cup, whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half. Once combined, slowly pour the glaze evenly over the cake. Refrigerate the cake for at least four hours, or overnight.

Using an electric mixer, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla on low speed until stiff peaks form.

Increase to medium speed and whip until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Leftover cake should be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day.
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