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This Week in Food

It’s been a busy week in the kitchen. I’m grateful I don’t need to hear or speak while I’m cooking. The poor ears are still not back to normal a week after the pistol mishap, but I remain optimistic. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to keep up with the dishes generated by the food frenzy. Last week I baked a Cookies n’ Cream cake for a small birthday dinner, and saved some to finish off at Boyz Lunch.

Before their cake, though the Boyz got a spicy potato and green pea curry over Basmati rice, recipe thanks to Honey Badger. That lasted me days longer in various iterations, including cold with mayo (an impromptu Indo-potato salad), and a couple more meals supplemented with curry-roasted cauliflower.

Another exciting gustatory treat that provided several meals was sheetpan Bibimbap. I’ve never had Bibimbap before but it looked easy and fun–and it was both! The kale came out like chips, the Lions’ Mane mushrooms were succulent and crispy outside, sweet potatoes tender, and red onions perfect. The instructions were very particular (like some people I know) about not mixing things together on the pan or in the bowl: “divide the vegetables evenly… placing them in four neat piles over each portion of rice.” Topped with a fried egg, the whole pile is drizzled with sesame oil and a dollop of gochujang.

Then the directions enthusiastically recommend mixing everything together before diving in!

The last best savory indulgence was “the gnocchi that keeps on giving.” I made a large batch of sweet potato gnocchi weeks ago and froze it in batches. I sautéed sliced Lions’ Manes with Penzey’s chicken and fish seasoning (Lions’ Manes are apparently a good substitute for crab so it seemed like a good match) and set them aside, then threw in more butter and oil along with the slightly thawed gnocchi and some fresh rosemary. After the gnocchi browned and crisped I tossed the mushrooms back in, then served it up for lunch. So simple, so delicious!

I don’t use mixes often, but am trying to master homemade baked doughnuts, and the pan came on sale with three flavors of mixes. It’s taken numerous tries, but I finally succeeded with some high altitude adjustments to the mix, and a special baking spray from King Arthur. This was the first batch of chocolate. They’re getting almost good enough to serve guests!

Perhaps the piéce de resistance from the kitchen this week was focaccia. I learned some things about the sourdough and the resting state with the last batch, and was ready to dress up this one. It definitely wants fed sourdough, not discard, to get the requisite puffy rise; and plastic wrap works better to keep the dough soft overnight. I also refrigerated this batch as directed, since the mudroom is no longer cold enough. All evening and well past bedtime I dreamed about how I would decorate in the morning.

I knew I wanted our mountain silhouette and a rising sun, and used grapefruit zest for the outline and red onion for the sun. I made a big one for the birthday girl next door, and a small one for me–I mean, to practice on. Then I made cattails with perennial onions (already sprouting in the garden) and kalamata olive slices. Rosemary represents the conifers on the ridges and a dusting of flaky sea salt just like the snow up there now, with bonsai sage leaves for the sagebrush on the slopes. Closer in, a broccoli tree with red pepper fruits, Thai basil flowers, parsley and various herbs and spices completed the tableaux.

I delivered the large one along with a cream cheese spread made with leftover bits of herbs, and sat down to enjoy the same for lunch. It tasted even better than it looked! All that, and I still managed to get some work done today, and a couple of things going for the garden. Stay tuned next for “This Week in the Garden.”

Every Living Moment

Such a sight to wake up to…

Let me remember to be grateful every living moment of every day. Once again, we stare into the dark hole of a madman’s mind, shudder at images of unfathomable suffering, face a nuclear threat I thought we left behind for a wiser century. On top of climate catastrophe and ongoing global pandemic we now confront looming world war. Life is fleeting and uncertain. Love your people, your little things, the moments that bring you joy and meaning.

A sure sign of spring, the garden rake standing with the snow shovel.

I did a selfish thing this year. I ordered a birthday puzzle, and I put it together all by myself, and then I framed it and hung it on the wall, without letting anyone else assemble it. I may have breached a Puzzle Rule… but then again, I write the rules and I don’t recall one that says every single puzzle must be available to everyone. Sorry, guys! This one was just for me. One of these days I’m going to paint the green wall blue, and I wanted this on there when that happens. Couldn’t risk a chipped or stained piece–even though Puzzle Rule #1 is No food or drink on the puzzle table, I often catch a little grease spot on a puzzle someone else has done.

Leftovers are great! The Mac n’ Cheese that keeps on giving. After Boyz Lunch last week I got a few more meals from the pasta pan. First I Mexicali’d it up with homemade salsa verde and fermented hot sauce from last summer’s harvest. The next day, I simply topped it with a fried egg and bacon.

Gratuitous egg-yolk picture, because the deep orange yolk of Bad Dog Ranch free-range organic eggs just looks so delicious.

Another leftover treat used up the second half of the sourdough pizza crust which I had frozen, topped with leftover herbed oyster mushroom roast. The recipe calls for a complicated skewer construction to mimic a roasted meat, but I simply topped the red onions and rosemary sprigs with the marinated mushrooms. It smelled amazing as it roasted, and delivered a complex spicy umami flavor and remarkable texture.

Seasonings for the mushroom marinade, including homemade paprika and home-frozen garlic cubes since I was out of fresh.
Tossing mushrooms in the mix after adding soy sauce and olive oil to the seasonings.
Ready for the oven…
…and ready to eat. So simple, so delicious!
Dessert that day was coffee ice cream topped with dark chocolate M&Ms.

I know how fortunate I am. I really am grateful, almost every moment of every day. And when the suffering of others begins to feel remote, and I forget to be grateful for the food, the skills, the luxuries, the beloveds, the beauties of the life I’ve been graced with, all it takes is one phone call to remind me of my blessings.

The proprietor of the neighborhood pub died over the weekend, shocking the community. Another reminder to seize the day. His passing leaves a big hole in the fabric of the valley. I don’t know the details and I didn’t know him well, but I can see him clearly, smiling as he inquired about our entrée, shopping at the local grocery, bringing a special cocktail or dessert to the table…. awarding Deb the prize for best Halloween costume, back when we went to big parties. Another untimely death, she said, though we both know we’ve reached the age when no death of anyone older than us is untimely. Even though it almost always feels too soon.

Focaccia

It was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. I’ve read focaccia horror stories: For a first effort this was a great success! Life’s simple pleasures. The joy that baking has given me over the past couple of years.

Having rested overnight, covered, in the cold mudroom, the dough formed a slight crust. I was worried it was too dry to dimple… but it worked just fine, and baked beautifully. Maybe it could have been a bit airier, but it was delicious warm out of the oven with unsalted butter… and just as good this evening. So simple, so delicious!
And the joy of being able to share the fruits of baking practice, sending chunks home with the Boyz for their families.

The joy of serving Boyz Lunch again, finally, outside on the patio! Scrub jays squawked in now and then to pluck a seed from the spent patio pots, as we sat in warm sun, shedding layers as we ate and talked about consciousness. They are so gratifying to feed! Everything is the best, how will I live up to the high bar I set in the first lunch of the season? It’ll be easy–they are easy to please. Today they enjoyed broccoli-cauliflower soup from the freezer, Judi Wolfe’s mac n cheese with the Secret Ingredient, and makeshift fajitas. I cooked fajita meat from the ranch down the road in an overnight marinade, and laid it in 12″ tomato tortillas, with grated cheese (Blarney Castle!), homemade salsa, and ripe avocados.

For dessert, a tiny pear galette also from the freezer. I’ve got to start eating down the freezer, as we are blessed to be able to say here. The last of last summer’s frozen produce has got to get going, so there will be room enough in a few months to start restocking with this year’s bounty. Neighbor Fred says the apricot tree is loaded with fruit buds this year–if only we don’t lose most of them again to late freezes as we did last year. It was inspiring and hopeful to plant pepper seeds this afternoon, twelve varieties: enough to share seedlings, and enough, I hope, to make plenty of fermented hot sauce to keep some and give some away.

Sourdough

Sourdough. I’ve mentioned it before, but, in that way that we spiral back to the same place, we deepen our understanding with each revolution, I understand sourdough, and dough in general, much better now, having practiced with it; as a potter with clay, to comprehend its texture, properties, behavior. It’s a living thing, which I knew, but now I know better. 

My sourdough starter, which I’ve been using for … how many, Ruthie? at least six years, went… well, sour. I left it for so long in the fridge, slid it to the back in recent months after keeping it thriving for years. When I remembered and pulled it forward, liquid on top was more than usual, grey, and stinky! It smelled awful. I poured it off down the drain, and rinsed a couple of times with fresh, clear water. I left half an inch of fresh cold water on top of the fairly firm sponge, let it sit for a day, rinsed again, and fed it by mixing in equal parts flour and water. For the past week, I’ve been pouring off discard, a new concept to me (the enemy of learning is the presumption of knowledge), and baking with it.

Twice I’ve made sourdough biscuits, with great success. Sourdough pizza crust was a winner, and half of that dough is in the freezer to see if it works as well later.

The recipe suggests ‘pizza dough seasoning,’ but I used Penzey’s Frozen Pizza Seasoning, just a couple teaspoons in the dough.

Tonight is sourdough focaccia.

Bedtime, and the focaccia dough rests covered in the cold mudroom overnight. Can hardly wait til tomorrow to bake it!

Tomorrow is Boyz Lunch, the first of the season. It is finally warm enough to lunch outside, relaxed, without too many layers, sun-warmed flagstone patio, shade cast from the umbrella sufficient only to dim the glare of that low spring sun, not enough to put us in shadow; we will be warm with lunch in our sweatshirts and ballcaps. Spring is on its way, and how we’ll welcome it, a longlost friend, respite, color, joy.

This Monk Wears Heels

Two top passions meet in this discovery, Drag and Dharma. It was inevitable. “Makeup is just color,” says Kodo. (Photo borrowed from Lion’s Roar)

What a wonderful thing it was to wake up alive yesterday, and to spend such a beautiful day as I did. All the love and kindness that flowed my way, the quiet fun of contentment, the luxuries of food, technology, and time to be mindful. A few pleasant surprises came up including this Lion’s Roar podcast in which Buddhist monk Kodo Nishimura discusses gender, authenticity, injustice, dharma, drag, and his new book, This Monk Wears Heels. I was enchanted.

Another pleasant surprise was finding my favorite necklace which disappeared a week ago. I wasn’t worried: I knew it was in the house, and I would find it eventually. I had the faintest recollection of watching it slide off of something and thinking ‘I’ll get it later.’ Over the week I checked behind every table, desk, bookshelf and counter I thought I might have set it on. Only when I started housecleaning yesterday and moved a pile of magazines on the coffee table did I find it. It had only slid off a short thing, a stack of books next to the stack of magazines. I remembered then that when I lay down on the couch for a nap, the chain broke, and I set it on the books and drifted off to sleep.

After a quietly productive day, it was time for Cousins’ Zoom Cooking, a new feature for me and My Favorite Cousin. She had never used puff pastry before. I haven’t done a lot with it, but just enough to know the only hard part is making the dough, so we bought frozen. Deb’s spanakopita the other day had inspired me, so we made an easy appetizer in less than an hour, Spanakopita Bites. The Fruitloop Gourmet Lending Kitchen came through with a mini muffin pan for me.

It was a delightful first run for my birthday apron, all the way from Peru via Dog World in Florida. MFC was wearing her special new apron from Ukraine. How funny that we both had been given handcrafted aprons from across the world, a grateful coincidence.

Spinach-herb-feta-egg filling all tucked into little pastry pockets, brushed with egg, and baked at 400 for 25 minutes. So simple, so delicious! MFC ate one of hers. I ate half of mine.

I was so pleased to wake up alive again today, and grateful for leftover spinach filling cooked with the leftover egg and some spices, rolled with bacon and sour cream into a couple of tortillas. Who says tortillas have to be reserved for Mexican food? They’re a great wrap for any kind of filling. Then, after a little more tidying up, I started one of two new puzzles which also came as a pleasant surprise yesterday, when a dear friend who’s moving soon dropped them off. It was just a regular weekend, but it felt like a festive holiday. I’m grateful for life’s simple pleasures this weekend, and grateful to the many people who made each of them possible.

Zoom Cooking with Amy: Empanadas

It’s been a busy winter. We haven’t zoom-cooked in a long time. She said, “What shall we make?” I said, “Empanadas.” She found recipes and that was that. I’m always grateful for zoom cooking with Amy.
Topaz and I were both grateful to wake up alive this morning, just in the nick of time to start the fullness of another precious day. I used sour milk for the latte. That was disappointing, but I still had time to make a pot of regular coffee before a zoom meeting. I tried to drink it, I really did, and it didn’t taste bad, but I couldn’t get past the curdled foam. Had it been the last cup of coffee in the house, I might have drunk it. I’m grateful I had a choice.
We made the dough in a food processor, which works, but sometimes you have to pour out the damp sand of dough and form it together on the board. These piles became two discs which I chilled while I took Topaz for a walk. We had about an hour before Zoom time.
Caption?
We paused to sit together in the sun west of the house. But it was cold, so we didn’t stay out long.
Back inside, I made the empanada filling. Diced shiitake mushrooms and shallots, sautéed slowly in butter; when that was cooked, some chopped raisins and leftover chicken breast shredded, with a couple splashes of thick balsamic vinegar. Then it was time to send the link, and make a drink.
Amy wanted Palomas for our south of the border dinner, so we each whipped up one of those. She actually put a pepper mix in with the salt on her rim. Two ounces fresh grapefruit juice (thanks, Kathleen!), two oz Tequila, ½ oz lime juice, and a splash of agave syrup, shaken and poured over ice, then topped with a few ounces of sparkling water. It was delicious.
The recipe said to roll and cut the dough, but Amy read we could use tortilla presses, and what a brilliant idea. Perfect thickness, perfect size, and no wasted dough.
In went the filling with grated Swiss…
… pastries folded, sealed, and brushed with egg yolk…
…and baked til golden brown. They were not nearly so hard or complicated as we both thought they’d be. See where expectations get you? This was a great example of misperception, projection, exaggeration. A tiny example, but still, an example. What on earth made us think that making empanadas was going to be hard? They turned out perfectly, tasty and beautiful. And above all they were really fun to make!
She made a fancy salsa with cilantro and chili paste. I didn’t have either, but I did have leftover parsley dip from the other night when I had to use a cup of parsley I’d trimmed off the overgrown indoor plant. That had mayo, sour cream, and garlic in it. To that, I added a generous share of hot sauce and a pinch of paprika, for a perfectly spiced and creamy dipping sauce. We had cookies for dessert. Amy had sent me some chocolate chip cookies she made with walnuts and pecans toasted in butter and salted. She also sprinkled the tops with sugar and a touch of salt. Thanks to the sluggish postal service, my cookies arrived three days late, just in time for zoom cooking with Amy.
Fifty years of friendship as of last September. What a treasure.

Christmas Cheer

I’m grateful for all the cookies, cards, thoughtful gifts, and Christmas cheer that have been floating around the neighborhood this past week or two; that though in solitude, I am among friends. It was lovely to wake this morning and have a little pile of presents under my miniature tree. I carried them into the sunroom to open in the warmth with coffee and a cinnamon bun, and felt a faint vestige of that childhood magic of Christmas morning. Later in the day, I roasted a tiny half leg of lamb with potatoes and carrots, and steam sautéed some green beans. There was a special gratification in gathering garden vegetables from pantry, fridge, and freezer to prepare Christmas dinner, and the lamb came from a local ethicarian ranch to my freezer last year. I hadn’t cooked lamb after learning that Stellar was allergic to it. It was a quiet, peaceful holiday at Mirador.

Oh, and some store-bought peppers… with fresh rosemary from the potted tree in the sunroom.

Cooking for one, again. After writing about it the other day, I feel even more motivated to explore and celebrate the practice. I’ve fallen into a nice rhythm in the kitchen: I’m able to cook three or four times and have all the meals I need for the whole week. So simple, so delicious. Wishing that everyone had good neighbors and friends, and enough to eat, this Christmas and always; knowing it isn’t so, and feeling compassion for those who suffer without.

Cooking for One

Little cat who walks like a dog on a morning perch along the Sunset Loop.

One of the things I miss most about Stellar is Last Bite. Those last tough bites of a burrito that are mostly tortilla? The last few bites of a too-full plate? The gristle and fat off a piece of meat? What do I do with them now? Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I’ve learned the skill and the pleasure of cooking for one.

I used to think (many years ago) that cooking and eating were a waste of time unless it was for a dinner party. Food was simply a necessity, and I’d eat whatever was quick, handy, and sometimes tasty. I survived sophomore year of college on peanut butter and honey sandwiches. I shudder to think how many meals on my travels consisted of Oreos and beer, how many lunches were a bowl of sugary cereal. I’m grateful that my evolution over the years has brought me a healthier diet and more joy in the simple act of preparing healthy food for myself. A silver lining of the pandemic has been time and space to get into better eating habits, finally giving my body the respect it deserves. For lunch today I made the NYT creamy baked macaroni and cheese recipe, adding some extra Penzey’s “Forward!” spice mix, paprika, and a pinch of nutmeg, and topping it with panko breadcrumbs before baking. I’ll get three or four more delicious meals out of that. Tonight I sliced up leftover BBQ tofu that I made the other day, and laid it on top of homemade coleslaw in some romaine leaves. So simple, so delicious!

A Room with a View

As we wend our way toward winter solstice and the end of this daily gratitude blog, I begin to consider the many things I haven’t yet mentioned. So many! I’m grateful for a room with a view. When I wake each morning, grateful to be alive, this is the view that greets me. Today, I’m grateful it contains snow, and sunshine, juniper trees and mountains, distant neighbors and lots of space. I’m grateful for the familiarity and beauty of the view, and for the simplicity and comfort of the home from which I see the view. I’m grateful for the sense of stability and security these things impart to my little life, and for intermittent awareness that these seemingly solid elements are fleeting; in the grand scheme of things, as transient as this body I inhabit. I’m grateful for all the causes and conditions in my own life, and the lives of my ancestors, that led to my waking up day after day in this room, with this view.

Speaking of ancestors, I’m grateful for my dear sweet mother, gone these seventeen years; for how she loved and supported me, and how she remains in my life. Instead of guesstimating to slice the cinnamon rolls tonight, I dug into the desk drawer for a ruler, and pulled out this one, which I’m guessing is roughly eighty years old from her name inscribed on it. I haven’t seen this ruler for years, and its sudden appearance as a baking tool startled me into considering her as a schoolgirl, and then marveling that she kept this simple implement all her life, and that I kept it after she died. I’m grateful for the simple things in life and the grand.

I’m grateful that if I wake up alive again tomorrow, I’ll have fresh perfect cinnamon buns for breakfast.

A Simpler Life

Grateful for butternut squash gnocchi sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, garlic, rosemary, and a splash of sherry.

I had a brief conversation this morning with a friend who said she was glad she didn’t have to worry about me. It reminded me of one of the undersung benefits of mindfulness practice. When we are calm, ok with what happens, unattached to outcome, we become a resource for those we love, an example, an offering of calm no matter what happens. This is the aspiration; not that we accomplish that in the early days. But over time, inhabiting the values of equanimity and compassion, gradually recognizing that (as George Saunders said), “Kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition,” we begin to understand that remaining calm in a shitstorm is a generous gift to others.

The recipe called for frozen squash purée, but naturally, I used leftover garden squash I had roasted last week for soup. So simple, so delicious.

I’m grateful that I didn’t have a dog today, especially a dog on his last legs. Between snow and rain over the past few days, there was a quarter-inch thick ice sheet on my windshield, and the patios weren’t much better. It broke my heart a few times over the past few winters when Stellar or Raven would dash out the door, slip on ice, and slam down on the concrete. They were tough dogs, but it had to hurt, and the last few times Stellar slipped on ice or the smooth wood floor it took him down substantially for awhile. I covered the floors in rugs the best I could, which helped a lot inside, but even if I let him out slow and careful he still slipped on ice a couple of times and went down hard. Poor little old legs.

So I was grateful that I didn’t have to go out much today, and only had to take care of myself out there when I did go. I’m grateful to be slowly unwinding the physical and emotional trauma of the past few months with Stellar, the past two years, really, of his decline. I lost so much that I held dear in that time: Auntie, Diane, Michael, Ojo, Raven, a certain independence, trust, friendships, faith… and most recently, my best and truest companion. It was pretty grueling. I’m grateful for a simpler life right now, for as long as this lasts. Grateful that my body can finally unwind, my mind can let go, my heart slowly open. Life hurts. I’m learning to be okay with that.

And while I can list the losses, the blessings, beauties, and joys of these past two years are incalculable. I might paraphrase Saunders and say, “Gratitude is the only rational response to being alive.” But I won’t, because I know there are many for whom the suffering of the human condition is just too great in any given moment to survive. My heart recognizes and aches for those who live in intolerable conditions; yet, I can only be grateful for all the choices, decisions, encounters, near misses, and lucky chances that led me (through generations) to be right here, right now. I could complain about what’s missing, but choose to focus on the moments of tenuous calm, the fragile peace and uncertain ease of this precious day, one day at a time.

I’m grateful for one meal at a time, one day at a time.