Strangeways, Here We Come

It has been since July 5th that I have posted anything, so I’m going to go ahead and call this a hiatus.

Regular posts will return September 1st, when the shitstorm of this summer will have hopefully calmed down enough so that my stomach isn’t constantly in knots, my heart isn’t racing, and my inability to focus on something for more than 60 seconds improves, however incrementally.

It’s only life, after all. Nothing serious. And nothing that will mean anything in 100 years anyway. Just the normal marching of time, sped up a little with the return of The Prodigal Daughter and the combination of two households.

Stay tuned; more to come in a couple of weeks.

The Fruit Fly: A Cocktail For Life

Light and refreshing. Becuase you might need a lot of drinks.

I am writing this on July 4th. The house is still quiet because The Child worked late and is still sleeping, plus in the summer-sleepy holiday neighborhood very few people are moving around yet. The heat is sluggish and heavy, even before the sun is fully awake itself.

This is weather for contemplation. I have written recently on my lack of belief system, but sometimes it seems like there is some kind of message that is trying to come through from somewhere/thing/one. These past few weeks have been a series of minor disasters, in my life and in the lives of the people close to me.

And when I say “minor disasters,” I mean a cluster of annoying events that are like pesky fruit flies: hard to swat away, lasting usually for a few days, and coming out of nowhere.

To wit:

  • A stand mixer dropped on my toe, resulting in an epic bruise and a toenail steadily rising up off the nailbed. #Barf
  • A neck injury…from sleeping…that is persisting over several weeks.
  • A cat with a broken wrist, right after the dog with tumor surgery.
  • Another dog with a suspicious bump.
  • My particular friend’s beautiful moss garden vandalized by a person with mental illness, at a time when my particular friend could use some stability.
  • A friend whose job has suddenly turned on her, using her as a scapegoat for something she has no control over.
  • The watermelon I bought yesterday was completely rotten inside this morning. #ThatsAFirst
  • Likewise, a bag of small, sweet, organic peppers I bought were moldy and rotting also.
  • And I nearly killed my family by using an obviously bad batch of pickled green beans in today’s slaw.

Sounds like life, yes? Like the things that just happen? Nothing deadly here, nothing permanent.

But still.

And then the dreams.

  • Dreams of teaching again, three in the past few weeks.
  • Dreams of loss, specifically of my beloved horse, Sadie.
  • Dreams of people I haven’t seen in a long time, crossing through my mind and interacting with people I see every day.

Plus writing work, very little of which has made it onto a page/screen but is floating in my brain.

Crazy-making. Anxiety-producing.

I am trying to pay attention to these things – the accidents and mishaps as well as the thoughts of my unconscious mind. I think this is what creative people in any field are: noticers. People who think about connections and the ways in which the world – all of the world – works.

But I get the sense over the past few weeks that we are not any of us in control of anything. Not even our own selves in a sense; my brain has made it very clear that it will have its way with me while I sleep, producing intense overnight emotions that have set the tone for each day of the past many weeks. It’s deeper than not sleeping; it’s literally like I have been wrestling something overnight, which perhaps explains my neck injury.

In these instances, I get the feeling that really all I can do is hang on. Make lists. Ground myself. Go to water.

I write lists of the things I have to worry about, and then methodically proceed to worry about just the one thing at a time instead of allofthethingsatonce.

I write lists of all of the things I need to do, make categories, and then attempt to do something about them. This includes mostly writing work, either paid or my own, and if you are a regular reader of this blog you will notice that my own writing has not been at the top of the list, which is a shame and probably not helping my overall psyche.

Usually also I do more yoga, but between my neck and my toe the most I have managed in the past three weeks is two Kundalini classes and maybe a bit of stretching here and there.

This is hanging on. This is getting by.

This ain’t living.

It’s a slog. A trial. An awareness that even though I am so much better off than much of the world, hanging on isn’t really “living my best life.” #ThanksOprah

It’s not particularly socially acceptable or fashionable to ask “Why bother?” on a food blog. This may not be the medium.

“Just get to the damn recipe,” you say.

I will. Spoiler alert: It’s a cocktail.

As Janis Joplin would say, it’s all the same fucking day, man.

Is that enough? The same fucking day, every day?

Maybe the pesky fruit flies are designed to wake us up out of our stupor, to remind us to stop living in such a rote fashion, to help us stay awake and aware and in the world, not dazed and living in a creamy-filmed soporific filter of simply putting one foot in front of the other every day without ever really questioning why beyond adding to our 401k and getting the kids the fuck out of the house as not-too-horrible adults.

It’s the 4th of July, and I need a drink. Specifically a drink that allows me to go all day, thinking about the things that matter without getting morose.

My particular friend and I did a lot of research on this drink. It started out as a variation on a Dirty Shirley (without the Sprite) but he didn’t love how sweet it was, and I didn’t love the plain vodka.

So here we are. I made my own fruit-infused vodka, which is really all for the best, but that could take weeks, so if you want it now, skip the flavored vodka.

You can drink this and not get hammered, perfect for a hot, humid day. It also has very little sugar, so should you miss the mark and end up getting hammered, your hangover shouldn’t be too bad. Plus, the seltzer keeps you hydrated.

The Fruit Fly

Ingredients

2 oz. fruit-infused vodka (see Recipe Notes)

2 dashes cherry bitters (or any bitters you like, really)

Lemon seltzer (not sweetened, or use plain seltzer)

Lime/lemon for garnish

Method

Fill a pint glass with ice. Add vodka and cherry bitters. Top with seltzer. Garnish with lime or lemon, as you like, and maybe a few springs of fresh mint.

Recipe Notes

Fruit infused vodka: I packed a pint jar with overripe strawberries and blueberries and covered them with vodka. Steep for at least a week, then strain into another clean jar.

Bitters are, in my mind, largely a matter of preference. Cherry bitters give this drink a sweetness without adding sugar, which keeps it light and not syrupy.

 

 

Love And Anger: Chocolate Cupcakes With Mole Ganache and Cinnamon Buttercream

Moody. Just like you.

Four years and four months after his death in a car accident, I am beginning to only remember the bad things about Dane.

The stages of grief are not stagnant and are generally understood to be fluid and back-and-forth; you don’t reach one stage and then never backslide. I seem to be moving back and forth between anger, depression, and acceptance, settling in mostly to the easiest emotion for me to deal with.

Anger. Which often hides its evil bitch of a twin, depression. So there’s that also.

I think we most of us are very comfortable with anger. Every time I open The Facebook or listen to the news, there’s something else to be angry about. I feel it when I get behind the wheel of my car (this is infrequent lately) and spend most of my time driving talking myself down and taking deep breaths.

The hardest thing these days is moving towards love.

I believe deeply in love and compassion and kindness. This is at war with my general dislike and distrust of strangers, but it dovetails nicely with my deep-seated and long-held belief that love truly is all that matters. Real, deep, abiding love. It’s the one thing that is free and available to anyone. You don’t even have to have a target for that love. Love, in general, can be spread all around, like butter on a hot bagel (and just as delicious).

I think that love is healing and softening and strengthening and is, ultimately, the thing that every single person on this planet actually wants and needs to survive.

But shit, man. Sometimes people are deeply painful and difficult to love. This is our 5th Father’s Day without Dane. Every year Sicily and I mark the day by doing something that Dane might have liked to do, but this year I find myself increasingly angry when I see and hear all these tributes to great dads. I can only see the negatives, chief among them the fact that he did not take care of himself and has left his daughter father-less, for this Father’s Day and an infinite number of other days that will find his child with teary eyes because her father isn’t there.

I did love Dane, deeply. He was funny and clever (see also “Wormaggedon” to describe the surfeit of dead worms in our driveway after a gully-washer). He could fix pretty much anything, and if you wanted to have fun, he was your go-to. He was generous to a fault and took everyone at face value (a trait his daughter has deliberately and conscientiously cultivated in herself). He loved his child, and he loved me – it was obvious in the way he wanted to be with us all the time. No one was happier than he was, puttering around the house and hanging with his girls.

But he sabotaged himself at every turn, his death just another example of that. He was careless with his time and money and he often avoided responsibility, making me the bad cop (but also the person who kept our ship afloat and mopped up his messes). The aftermath of his sudden death is another example of that, and I have been the target of some spectacular grief  outbursts from our child. I have parented very poorly at times these past years (well beyond minor poor parenting. Have you ever told your kid to shut the fuck up? I have. For the record, even though she really, really needed to shut the fuck up, I deeply regret telling her to do so.#ForReal), and I have, at times, found myself thinking about just how long I have to actually keep myself alive, respectably and so that our daughter is stable and set.

These have been rough days of late. No one tells you that grief lasts so long, not the wailing and teeth-gnashing part but the part where you have to figure out actually what the fuck and how to move forward.

Not surprisingly, I am craving comfort food. Chocolate comfort food, specifically. I guess I don’t actually know many people who crave a heaping bowl of kale when they stress eat, but I am also past the days when a simple piece of chocolate will do. If I have my say, my comfort food is cake of some kind, with plenty of frosting.

Just like love, these cupcakes are not just a straightforward chocolate smack in the face. They are complex and have deeply flavored layers of cinnamon and spice. They are warm and comforting  – just like love – and spicy and easy to overdo – just like anger.

Chocolate Cupcakes With Mole Ganache And Cinnamon Buttercream

Ingredients

Chocolate Cupcakes

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar (not packed)

1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (regular AP flour works, too)

3/4 cup cocoa powder, sifted

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoons salt

2 eggs + 2 egg yolks at room temperature

3/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup hot coffee

 Mole Ganache

2 heaping tablespoons (or to taste) prepared mole negro (see Recipe Notes)

1 cup chocolate chips

1/2 cup + 2 teaspoons heavy cream

Cinnamon Buttercream

2 sticks butter, softened

3 – 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted

2 teaspoon cinnamon (sifted with the powdered sugar)

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 (ish) tablespoons heavy cream or whole milk

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place cupcake liners in a muffin tin. Set aside.

For the cupcakes: In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), mix together both sugars, flour, sifted cocoa flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In a medium bowl, combine eggs, sour cream, milk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract and mix well to combine.

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just wet. Add hot coffee and mix until thoroughly combined, about one minute.

Fill cupcake liners 2/3 of the way full and bake for 15 – 17 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely before filling and frosting.

For the ganache: Place mole, chocolate chips, and heavy cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat and stir constantly until chocolate and mole are completely melted and mixture is smooth. Let cool slightly, then place in refrigerator.

For the frosting: Place softened butter in a large bowl and sift in powdered sugar and cinnamon. Add vanilla and one table of heavy cream to start. Use a hand mixer to beat until creamy and smooth and the consistency of frosting. If it is too thick, add more heavy cream; add more powdered sugar if it’s too thin.

Assembly: Use a demitasse spoon or sharp knife to remove a divot of chocolate cupcake (set that aside to freeze and then mix into ice cream). Scoop or pipe chocolate mole ganache into that divot, then pipe frosting in a swirl to cover (you can use a star tip and a pastry bag to make rosettes or a fancy swirl.

Eat a million of these. Recipe makes (annoyingly) 32 cupcakes.

Recipe Notes

I used mole negro from Guelaguetza, a specialty food company in California. Their mole is complex and spicy and earthy and delicious; I found it at the Emporiyum in Baltimore back in April. Previously, my go-to mole was Dona Maria’s, which had the bonus of coming in a lovely juice glass and is easily located in the Hispanic food section of most grocery stores. You can use whichever mole you wish.

 

The Court’s Indulgence: White Bean, Sweet Pepper, And Arugula With Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

Court’s indulgence. This picture is blurry. It was a long day.

It’s not often that things on TV are pretty much exactly the same in real life.

Last week I sat on a jury for a five-day trial. The defendant was accused of 24 counts of crime, including first-degree rape and possessing a weapon when he wasn’t allowed to possess a weapon.

(Fun fact: the defendant’s last crime was prosecuted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 1993. Federal drug charge.)

I have never sat on an actual jury; I have been called for jury duty three times in my life, and mostly it’s just lots of sitting around and watching movies like How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days and Avatar. This time was different, and I was quickly seated as Juror #4 by noon on my first day of reporting, then sent home until Monday when the trial would begin.

Everything about the trial was pretty much what it looks like on TV: the dramatic opening and closing statements, the cross examination, the witnesses getting testy with the defense attorney, and, finally, conflict (and resolution) in the deliberation room.

Time seemed strangely fluid as well; hours would pass in the courtroom in what seemed like minutes, but in the deliberation room, every minute was an agony of waiting. At the end of the day we would emerge from our windowless room, cram ourselves into the elevator, and then emerge at the corner of St. Paul and Lexington, blinking against the too-bright sunshine of the late afternoon, at the height of rush hour to crawl our way home.

Of all the things that stuck in my mind that week, one in particular stands out. Whenever the lawyers had to gather something or find something that meant the action had to pause briefly, they would say, “Court’s indulgence,” and the judge would nod, indicating that she was cool with the wait.

“Court’s indulgence.”

I don’t know why, but I love this saying. It’s a respectful request for permission to pause while you gather your thoughts, something we could all use every now and then.

One day when I came home it was stuck in my head like a mantra, playing over and over as I fed the dogs and made dinner. On that night, it was hot outside and the back door was open, letting in a feeble breeze (and lots of flies, which drives The Black Dog crazy, an admittedly short trip). It had been an especially long day, nine to five listening to a case about rape and gun violations, and I wasn’t particularly interested in making something complicated for dinner or turning on the stove.

Court’s indulgence: I remembered my preserved lemons, which were ready and waiting.

Court’s indulgence: There were some small, sweet yellow, red, and orange peppers in the crisper, along with half a red onion and some arugula that I wouldn’t even need to wash.

Court’s indulgence: A bomb shelter’s worth of canned beans in the coolness of the basement.

Et voila. Dinner, eaten with the court’s indulgence, on the balcony in the back of the house as the evening wore on and the sun sank low.

White Bean, Sweet Pepper, And Arugula Salad With Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

Ingredients

2 tablespoons minced preserved lemon (rinse to remove salt and also strip away the squishy flesh)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup best-quality olive oil (it matters)

1 heaping teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 to 1 teaspoon black pepper (I like a lot of pepper)

1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

One large red pepper, chopped, or five small multi-color pepper, chopped

1/2 large red onion, sliced

Handful of arugula per salad

Method

Make things easy on yourself and mix this all in the same bowl. I used a medium-sized round white Corningware bowl.

Place first five ingredients in bowl and mix together. Add beans, peppers, and onions and stir to combine.

To serve, place a large handful of arugula in a bowl, then top with beans. If you feel the need, you can drizzle with more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, but mix it all around and taste before you do that.

Beans are even better the next day, chilled and then brought to room temp before serving.

 

 

Fail Forward: Pistachio Macarons With Rosewater Filling

These were an abject failure.

I was born to write.

I certainly have the temperament for it – I am an introvert, and I over think everything. At a minimum I think writers need to be comfortable alone, stuck in their head for substantial periods of time.

#Check

But for as long as I can remember I have been jotting words down on scraps of paper and hoarding them. Sometimes these words come together with periods and commas and semicolons (my favorite form of punctuation. #TotalDork), sometimes they are occasionally formed together on the wings of a poem, and sometimes they remain just fluttering scraps of thought that I save, maybe waiting for their chance.

I have always loved journals and pens and the accoutrement of writers, but bar napkins, receipts, and matchbooks (from back when there were such things readily available) are all a part of the flotsam of my writerly (if not always writer’s) life.

I even remember my first typewriter: an IBM Selectric. I didn’t write much on that beige beast except for papers and other undergraduate work, but I lugged it around with me for years before finally donating it to Goodwill where I am sure it languished on a dusty shelf until someone decided to recycle it.

My behaviors are those of a writer – seclusion, procrastination, and moment- and memory-hoarding.

That writing is tragically hard for me is an unfortunate irony of my chosen profession. Writers complaining of the pain of writing is not unusual and indeed seems to be part of the job description. Every word you put on the page is a reflection of yourself shining glaringly back at yourself, like a mirror that doesn’t really allow for whitewashing of flaws or highlighting of assets. Writing is radical honesty, only self-inflicted.

If I am honest with myself, which I always try to be, writing is the most painful and precious and cutting place I have ever visited because, as a writer, even if I don’t write it down it stays humming around in my brain, and even if I do write it down and never read it, I know it’s there. There are blogs from the early days of Dane’s death that I simply cannot read now. They are raw streams of emotion poured on the page, the very essence of grief distilled in  a paragraph or two when keeping it inside was not a viable option.

So there’s that physical pain of writing the truth as I see it.

And then there’s the intellectual pain. Not the mental struggle to choose the right word or really be honest with what I mean to say and not give in to the urge to have some sort of flourish that is not me. Although this can be excruciating, in many cases time, work, and careful attention to words and the craft of assembling them can help with this, as can copious amounts of reading and patience and careful editing.

I am talking about that odious bitch, the Anti-Cheerleader. The constant mental struggle against feelings of inadequacy and doubt.

The clear knowledge that millions of people are writing AT THIS VERY MOMENT, and most of them are doing it better than me. That someone has already said what I am saying, and way better. That somehow, everyone’s thoughts are better than mine, and I am foolish to believe that anyone gives a rat’s ass about what I have to say.

Do you see the trend? The Anti-Cheerleader assures me that I am unworthy, that my work is not worth the price of the ink used to print it out, and that I will never be able to find any value – monetary or otherwise – as a writer. And, finally, that I should not even be calling myself “writer.”

It seems masochistic to willfully  undertake something that continually reminds you how bad you are at that thing. And then to tangle your identity (“I am a writer”) all up in that thing? Well, that is certainly madness.

As it is a well-known fact that many artists are batshit crazy, I suppose a tinge of madness comes with the territory. But still.

Every time I sit down to write or I avoid sitting down to write or I read about someone who has sat down to write I am forced to confront all of these feelings over and over again.

But I was born to write.

I was born to the struggle of shaving words onto the page. I was born to turn the things I experience into sentences that mean something, even if they only ever really mean something to me.

I love words. I love the way they look on the page. I love the way they sound when they are spoken. I love the way they connect to each other and disconnect from each other and connect the people who read them with an invisible thread.

I love trying to figure out which word is exactly the right one, even if the word is simple and small and not flowery and worth 50 cents on the SAT.

Language matters, and it happens to be the currency in which I traffic.

For me, food is like this, too.

Food connects people in ways that even language cannot. I have been fascinated by food since I was young, especially the ways in which it brings people together. Aside from having to eat to sustain life, special moments are marked with food, and that food becomes the shared experience upon which lives are built.

But, as with writing, there are millions of people cooking better than I am. And developing better recipes. And just in general knowing more that I do, latecomer as I am to the whole business of cooking and eating, and with no formal training or work in the back of the house.

Writing + Food = Food Writing, which also = Nearly Paralyzing Feelings Of Inadequacy

And then there is this:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Hell, YEAH, it is.

Because there is ALWAYS someone who is better. Who knows more. Is funnier. Has tighter abs. Better hair. Whatever. Name it. Someone is better.

Which can be, I suppose, a bit of relief. There is no such thing as “the best.” Maybe it might be “the best right at this moment..whoops…not anymore,” or “the best for you with what you had at the time.”

I say this “can be” a bit of relief because most days, if I am being honest (which I always try to be), that doesn’t really help. I still feel like a huckster and a fraud selling skills which, if I actually possess them, are ephemeral and difficult to regulate and duplicate.

Then some days, quite accidentally, there is a shining bit of joy, when the Sunshiney Rays Of Competence dart through the Clouds of Self-Doubt And Despair with a crepuscular golden light.

Today is not that day.

My particular friend Khristian works with a lovely woman, Linar, who you all just WISH would teach your kids someday. Seriously. Her classroom (and her manner with the children and pretty much every person who crosses her path) is so lovely and loving and supportive that every time I see her, even my introverted self leans a little closer. Linar gave Khristian a bottle of rosewater, and he turned it over to me. I promised her a recipe using that, so here it is. Pistachios and rosewater is a classic combination, and macarons have been my archnemesis.

Turns out, they remain my archnemesis.

While the macaron flavor was delicious, they did not rise on glorious feet. The filling tasted like a mouthful of flowers, even though I was very sparing. Some might like it; for me, it was overly perfumed and not pleasant.

This is not the end that I expected to have, but there it is. It is important, I think, to discuss the hard parts, the failure, in cooking. It’s easy enough to make something look delicious; that’s only so much smoke, mirrors, and microwaved tampons.

Failure isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary. If you must fail – and rest assured, you must – fail forward.

For the curious, here’s the recipe. I would advise you make these at your own risk, and if you do, let me know how it goes.

Pistachio Macarons With Rosewater Filling

Ingredients

Macarons

1/2 cup finely ground pistachios

1/2 cup finely ground almond meal

1 cup powdered sugar

3 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

Filling

2 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

5 tablespoons butter, softened

1-2 teaspoons rosewater (less or more, to taste)

Method

Line two baking sheets with silpat mat or parchment paper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift ground pistachios, almond flour, and powdered sugar. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whip attachment, whip egg whites until they begin to gain volume and become bubbly. When this happens, slowly add sugar until fully incorporated and egg whites are thick and holding soft peaks.

Add egg white mixture to nuts mixture and fold in vigorously with a spatula until thoroughly incorporated.

Place macaron batter in a piping bag fitted with a round tip (or use a large freezer bag with the end snipped off) and pipe into circles onto silpat (which may have guides on them already). Bang cookie sheet on the counter to settle the batter (just a couple good whacks) then let macarons sit for 30 minutes to an hour. The macarons need to dry and form a skin, of sorts, in order to get a good lift while baking and have visible “feet” (the frilly part on the bottom of the cookie).

When the top of the macarons are dry to the touch, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake for nine to 12 minutes or until they are crisp outside. Cool completely before removing from silpat and filling.

To make the filling, combine egg whites and sugar in a metal bowl and set over a pan of simmering water, beating with a hand mixer until it thickens and is hot to the touch. Remove bowl from water and, still mixing, add butter one tablespoon at a time, mixing until incorporated.

Continue to beat this mixture until it thickens and has the texture of light frosting. Add rosewater to taste and stir to combine.

Pipe a circle of frosting on the flat part of one macaron, and top with another.

Recipe Notes

I do not use food coloring, but if you do, the macarons can be colored with two drops of green, and the filling can be colored with one or two drops of red.

Macarons should be stored at room temperature and eaten within a day or two. They also freeze well.