Making Dinner: Enchilada Version

The beautiful, beautiful groundwork.

I teach my first yin yoga class at Yoga Tree in Hampden tonight (at 8:15; come join me), and tonight the theme is time. In her book To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf writes the following:

“Let the wind blow. Let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing room and the thistle thrust aside the tiles and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the armchairs. Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.”

No matter where we come from, what race we are, how much money we have, or what our political beliefs are, there is a singular universal truth that unites us: time passes.

As The Child nears the end of her high school experience, I am realizing more the precious and fleeting nature of time. It is hard to move through the world without letting things pass you by; we are so busy assigning stories to what happens to us and thinking about what happened before and what might happen next that we forget the thing that is happening now. Now. Now. Now.

Each second as it passes is gone forever, a kind of tick of history, tangled over with grass and wild berries.

The chance of us missing everything, good and bad, rises exponentially in proportion to our inability to quiet the mind, slow down, and just be where we are when we are there.

Spoiler alert: You are here, so you might as well be present.

The practice of existing in the moment that is happening occurs most often for me on the yoga mat, but it also happens out in nature and in my kitchen. In the kitchen, the difference between Missing It and Being There is most pronounced in the distinction between two seemingly similar concepts: I love to cook, but I hate making dinner.

There is a HUGE difference; making dinner is about getting something done to move quickly onto the next. Cooking, for me, is about creating and exploring and experiencing and being exactly where I am in each moment.

When I make enchiladas for dinner, I open up a can of refried beans, open up a can of artificially red enchilada sauce, open up a bag of pre-shredded cheese, and open up a bag of dry tortillas. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes, from opening cans to sitting down to eat, and it costs less than five bucks to feed four people. They taste good, they are fast, and they get the job done, efficiently and cheaply.

But I finally got sick of doing it that way. Even though I know I can always come back to this when my family is flapping their gaping maws at me, clamoring for dinner and starting to root through the cabinets for the chips and cookies that will fill them up and ultimately leave them “not hungry” when food hits the table, I wanted to see what I could do when I felt like cooking.

This is what I can do, and the difference is astonishing. Homemade beans, homemade enchilada sauce, and homemade corn tortillas. I stopped short of homemade cheese, although I have done that and don’t doubt that would be a delicious (and fairly easy addition). It’s hard to know which part about this I like more; I don’t love beans (and they are no fan of me), but I didn’t have the usual…reaction to this dish. And the enchilada sauce is complex and subtle and comes at you with layers of flavor and just a little tiny bit of spice.

There is something about making this simple, humble dish that takes literally most of the day to prepare that forces you to slow down. Even the flavors reveal themselves slowly, unfurling over the tongue like a flag.

When you feel like cooking, skip the cans and make these. The recipe makes enough sauce and beans for two 8″ x 8″ baking dishes, so make one and eat it, and make one and freeze it. I made homemade tortillas, too, but the recipe I used is proprietary to the person I got it from and I am not at liberty to share it in public. It’s hard to go wrong with a Rick Bayless corn tortilla recipe, but you can also just buy some if you like. You don’t need a tortilla, press, though, and there is definitely something meditative about making tortillas. Why not give it a try?

Bean and Cheese Enchiladas

Start with the beans. They take four hours to cook, so you have plenty of time to make the sauce while they are becoming their beany delicious selves. Better yet, make sauce and beans one day, let them rest, then cook the tortillas and assemble on the day you want to eat.

Ingredients

Refried beans

2 cups pinto beans

Olive oil (for frying, about two tablespoons)

One large onion, large diced

5 – 10 cloves of garlic (I used on the 10-clove side of things)

1 teaspoon onion powder

Salt to taste

Enchilada sauce

4 dried ancho chilis

4 dried guajillo chilis

4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

10 cherry tomatoes, or two medium-sized plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

One medium onion, roughly chopped

1-2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, warmed

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon marjoram

Olive oil

1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey or agave)

Method

Make the beans: Rinse and pick through the pinto beans, discarding rocks or discolored beans. Cover with water in a large pot and bring to a hard boil. Boil for 20 minutes, then drain, add more water, bring to a boil, and boil for another 20 minutes (this helps reduce the chances of gastrointestinal issues, IYKWIM). Reduce the heat and cover. Cook beans for four hours.

As you near the end of the bean cooking time, heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to caramelize (about 15 minutes). Add whole garlic cloves and continue to cook, stirring, until onions are deeply brown, very soft, and garlic is also soft.

Drain beans (reserve a cup of bean liquid) and add to onions and garlic. Sprinkle beans with onion powder and salt and cook, stirring, for about 15 minutes. Use a potatoes masher to mash the beans, onion, and garlic into a texture you like. If the beans seem dry, add bean liquid and continue to cook. Taste, season with salt as necessary, then set aside. These can be refrigerated overnight or frozen for later use.

Make the enchilada sauce:  Toast the dried chilies and garlic in a dry cast iron pan or on a flattop grill. You are looking for them to soften, puff up, and begin to char (not too much or your sauce will be bitter; see Recipe Notes).

Place toasted ancho and guajillo peppers in a bowl and cover with hot water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for at least an hour (or two or three).

Once your garlic skin begins to char and soften, peel the skin and let garlic cool.

Place garlic, tomatoes, and chopped onion in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cover with stock and bring to a boil. Cook at low heat until tomatoes, onions, and garlic soften.

Retrieve your chilis from their now-dark soaking chili water and remove the stems. Place chilis in a blender and use a slotted spoon to add the garlic/tomato/onion from the stock. Add cumin and marjoram. Allow these to rest and cool briefly while you reduce the stock with the chili soaking water.

Add chili water to the stock in the saucepan and heat. Bring to a rolling boil and reduce heat. Cook at a low boil until the sauce is slightly reduced. This step is not necessary but will concentrate the flavors even more.

Add some of this reduction to the vegetables in the blender and blend. Continue to blend and add chili water until you get the consistency you would like, and then blend until smooth. You may not use all of the chili water/stock.

Final, and most important step: Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan, and carefully pour the blended enchilada sauce into the pan. This will splatter, so have a splatter guard (or some aloe) ready. Cook the sauce at a pretty good boil for about five minutes. You can add chili water/stock as needed to maintain the consistency you like. Remove from heat and stir in maple syrup.

Let come to room temperature before using. I like to cool it overnight to allow the flavors to really come together.

Assembly: Place a solid heaping tablespoon of refried beans onto a tortilla, then roll and place in a greased 8″x8″ glass baking dish (or a rectangular one if you like). Really wedge those babies in, and continue until you have used all your tortillas or are satisfied that you have enough to feed your people. Pour about a cup and a half of enchilada sauce (or more if you like them juicy – I do) evenly over the tortillas, and top with shredded cheese of your choice (totally inauthentic, but I am a Colby-jack fan. Sue me. It’s delicious.).

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake until cheese is brown and bubbly. Serve with sour cream and extra hot sauce if you like.

Recipe Notes

  • Enchilada sauce can turn out bitter for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is over-toasting the chilis. If this happens to you, you can remedy it by adding a bit more sweetener or even adding 1 teaspoon of baking soda. I recommend adding sweetness, not baking soda.
  • To freeze a pan of enchiladas, assemble all the way up to baking, then wrap tightly. When you are ready to cook them, defrost and then cook as usual.

The Year Of Why The Hell Not: Fresh Paneer

The Chinese zodiac calendar says that, in addition to being the fifth anniversary of the death of my first husband, February 16, 2018 marks the beginning of the Year of the Dog.

I believe the Chinese, as they have been doing this for a long time, but for me, I say January 1, 2018 marks the first day of the Year Of Why The Hell Not?.

Apparently, this is what’s happening, almost without any effort.

Next week I am going back to (yoga) school with a yin yoga training immersion, and eight weeks after that my particular friend and I are going to Amsterdam for a week.

Because why the hell not?

I used to institute “yes” days for my kid when she was little; these were days when I would say yes to everything she asked, no matter what. I never told her what I was doing, but those days were some of the most relaxed I have ever experienced as a parent. It’s nice to not be the Bad Cop, the Responsible One, the Sayer of Nos.

In the past couple days, I have felt a similar impulse rising, only this time it is pointed directly at me.

I am terrible at saying “yes” to things for myself. It feels selfish, and I can’t enjoy whatever it is, even if it’s as small as buying coffee out. Part of it is my pathological inability to spend money in a manner I deem “frivolous.” Part of it is believing that I am somehow not worth spending the time, money, and effort on. Part of it is just that stupid habit of saying no to myself.

This year is going to be different.

On January 1st I started tossing around the idea of a trip to Hawaii with Cousin Jennifer in Washington State. She was planning on going by herself, but when she mentioned her trip on The Facebook, I thought to myself, “Why the hell not?”

And a couple of days later when the deadline for an immersive yin yoga teacher training popped up RIGHT DOWN THE STREET FROM MY HOUSE, I could not think of one compelling reason to say no. So I signed up.

And this morning, because I saved a couple hundred bucks on each plane ticket, and tickets were available the week of my birthday, and my particular friend’s spring break also falls on that week, I snatched up two tickets to Amsterdam.

Because WHY THE HELL NOT?

I am 46. I will be 47 on March 14th (also known as the Best Day Of The Year). I don’t give a rat’s ass about getting older, but the clock is ticking for me as it is for us all. Although I have been on a fair amount of road trips, visiting nearly all of the lower 48, plus Alaska, my overseas travel consists of one disastrous trip to Paris with my mother. I lived in Seattle for five years and never even went to Canada (and this was before passports were required), and although I have always wanted to see more of the world, I have always had (made?) a reason (an excuse?) to stay home.

It’s time to go.

My job is portable, my kid is old enough to watch herself and is craving some independence, and I am solvent enough to make some budget travel happen.

I don’t think we should save for our entire lives to go on one dream vacation (although I am starting to put money away for Fiji in 2021, the year my kid turns 21 and I turn 50. Get ready for extra gratuitous shots of our over-the-water bungalow). What happens if, like Dane five years ago, I find myself unceremoniously meeting a tree on a dark night? Or finding a lump? Or at the wrong end of a blocked artery…nuclear warhead…etc?

I think I have been waiting for something to shift so that I could magically do the things I want to do, or to spontaneously become some different person for whom these things come easily.

But guess what? That’s total bullshit.

It’s really time to stop thinking about the person I want to be and just be that person.

Like, way overdue.

It’s always a process and a work in progress and a painful realization that some of the shit I have talked for years actually needs to be finally backed up. I can write about it all I want.

Not good enough.

So yin yoga immersion, Amsterdam, and Hawaii, here I come. Plus a possible road trip with one of my best friends in all of the world to Arthur Bryant’s in Missouri, just to have some barbeque. We’ll meet in Wheeling, West Virginia and make our way to Missourah.

Because, and say it with me, WHY THE HELL NOT?

If I am faced with the choice to do something that interests me, and I can’t think of a compelling reason not to, I am going to do it.

While The Year Of Why The Hell Not? was prompted by personal growth and travel, I think this also applies to relationships. My particular friend and I have been together for two+ years now, and we have been sharing the same house for three+ months.

This has not been easy.

This has been crazy-making, what with the kid combining and the routine combining and the deeper getting to know each other in, let’s face it, boring and annoying ways.

He said it’s like starting in the middle of a relationship, entering into something serious like this in our decrepitude (my word). In our previous relationships, it was like a slow coming together, but in this one we have plopped down smack in the domestic wasteland, mid-stride, where everyone is tired by nine, and it’s easier to just fall asleep in front of a movie than to engage or unravel things that have gotten tied up in knots of miscommunication and hurt feelings.

Seems like a good a time as any to re-engage. To make an effort. To try something new.

Because more than Why The Hell Not?, this is the person I have chosen. Not because I am so lonely I can’t take it or because I need a man to provide stability or I need a little lovin’. Pretty much all of those can be ameliorated by friends or Tinder.

Khristian is kind, funny, smart, and intelligent. He is an artist. He is a devoted father. He thinks I am swell, which is saying something because I know for a fact that is not always the case.

Doubleplus bonus: he smells really good to me, which may be TMI for a food blog, but hey. That’s how these things work. #YouLoveWhoYouLove #PheremonesAreAThing

In the accidental spirit of The Year Of Why The Hell not?, we have decided to cook our way through Madhur Jaffrey’s book Vegetarian India.

pg. 112. Spinach.

We don’t generally cook together – one of us cooks while the other one sits on the orange metal stool in the kitchen and provides moral support. I have a hard time talking to someone while I cook, so that’s no fun, and I have a hard time not bossing him when he cooks, so that’s not fun either. Getting Jaffrey’s cookbook is the equivalent of hiring a tutor to tell your kid what to do. This way, we just follow the directions and no one is in charge. We can relax and explore and learn things together.

I think relationships aren’t meant to be easy, both those we have with ourselves and those we have with others. As an unrecalcitrant introvert, they are especially hard for me at times. I continuously have to balance my desire for deep connection and my built-in instinct for solitude.

Cooking seems as good a guide as any to navigate this path, especially if my particular friend is walking with me.

We started cooking with three recipes: Stir-Fried Spinach, Andhara-Style; Spicy Paneer Slices; and Fresh Cilantro and Yogurt Chutney (plus jasmine rice).

We bought everything we needed at H-Mart on a brutally cold day, then stopped off to get frozen yogurt afterwards (as one does). While making our list of supplies, we decided to make our own cheese.

Paneer is very similar to fresh ricotta or queso fresco; it is simple with a mild, creamy taste that goes well with strong flavors. We initially planned to make saag paneer but had to table that when we could not find fenugreek leaves and decided to press it into squares and fry it in spices (well, Madhur Jaffrey told us to). From start to finish we had slices to fry in 30 minutes.

Fresh Paneer

Ingredients

8 cups whole milk (not UHT or skim milk)

1/4 cup lemon juice or apple cider vinegar

salt to taste

Special tools: cheesecloth or clean cotton towel, fine mesh strainer

Method of Production

Warm milk to just under 200 degrees in a large pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally. If you don’t happen to have a thermometer, look for milk that looks frothy but not boiling.

Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Cover and let sit for at least ten minutes. The milk will separate into curds (the cheese part) and whey (the yellow-ish leftover liquid).

Place cheesecloth or cotton towel over the strainer and scoop or pour curds into the cheesecloth.  Working carefully (the mixture is still hot), wring out most but not all of the whey (or else you will get dusty crumbles). Open the cheesecloth and sprinkle cheese with salt to taste, stirring all the way through.

If, like us, you want to spice both sides of your paneer and fry it, rewrap the paneer in the cheesecloth and shape into a rectangle (or a circle, or any shape, really). You are aiming for a thickness of about 1/2″. Place paneer on a plate and put some weight on top (another plate on top with a book on it works well, but get creative with what you have). Press the cheese for up to an hour, then cut into slices and coat both sides with the spice of your choice before lightly coating with flour of your choice and frying in 1/4″ of hot oil for one minute on each side (or until lovely and golden).

Recipe Notes

  • We used a combination of chili, turmeric, and salt, but the options are unlimited.
  • Instead of frying, slather fresh paneer on toast and top with roasted kumquats like I did (note: there is a slightly more complicated ricotta recipe in this link. Choose your own adventure.).
  • If curds do not form, it’s an excellent chance that you have either used UHT pasteurized milk, or you have ignored my admonitions and attempted this with skim milk. Just say no.
  • Don’t throw out that whey. Give it to your chickens, make rice with it, use it to make bread (instead of using water), or put it in your smoothie. If you don’t want to do any of those things right now, freeze it for later.

On this day last year: Five Food Trends To Watch (spoiler alert: I was right!)

 

 

 

 

 

Slow Down. Open Up. Wait.

From Storm King. The first of probably many different photos I will sneak into these blogs. Just a heads-up.

It’s the first few cold days here in Baltimore, so cue the inevitable references to the busy time of the holidays.

It’s less than a month until Thanksgiving, which means it’s less than two months until Christmas, which means it’s about to get primal in the Target over the last (fill in the blank) holiday toy.

I’m not buying it. Literally.

I am done with buying dumb shit for people who don’t need it. I have no interest in scurrying around to fulfill our country’s image of what the holidays are supposed to be.

But more importantly, I am not buying the conceit that the holidays are filled with merciless and driving good cheer, buoyed by copious amount of holiday punch and $5 trinkets from the White Elephant gift exchange.

Truthfully, I dropped the pretense of the picture-perfect holiday years ago, maybe around the time when I was younger and my brother and I told each other what the other was getting for Hanukkah and then it sucked a little, opening our presents, because we both already knew.

It may have taken me a little while to really exorcise the holiday demon because Dane was a huge fan of holidays and had an image in his head about what they should be, complete with overspending and overcommitting to holiday celebrations.

But this is not about that.

As the light fades from the sky and the darkness and cold return, I am starting to pay attention more.

Turn in.

Slow down.

How often do we grant ourselves permission to be deliberate? How often do we actually choose to consider what we are doing instead of simply walking through one big, long, knee-jerk reaction of a life?

What a gift it would be if we really paid attention to the people in our lives – close up and far away.

What if we slowed down enough to hear their hearts beat? To listen to them with both ears and our own open hearts?

I am not talking about sacrificing yourself on the altar of But They’re Your Family or Deep Down, They Really Love You.

I am talking about being deliberate and intentional with your chosen family – blood or otherwise – as a meditation, of sorts.

I am not here to give you suggestions about how to do this with your family.

Today, I am not even here to give you a recipe (although here is a really fucking delicious drink, plus some meditations from Wendell Berry, and here is some delicious food. That shit is so seasonal).

Today’s message is simply this: Slow down. Open up. Wait.

Let me know how it goes.

VisionQuest: Pumpkin Risotto With Chipotles In Adobo

Looks can be deceiving.

For my entire life, I have been nearly blind.

Since second grade my eyesight has been rapidly deteriorating, due in part, I believe, to a lonely childhood spent reading in near darkness and moving cars for hours on end.

My dad used to pick me up from school early (once a week? Once a month?) to go to an eye doctor who would give me eye exercises that I wouldn’t do. For me, this time with my dad was a good excuse for both of us to get forbidden mint chocolate chip ice cream from the High’s store in Meyersville and spend a little time together. The eye doctor really did seem like the perfect ruse to get more ice cream, especially since the only result was ever-thickening eyeglasses and an eventual prescription for contact lenses that I frequently lost, way before disposables and much to the chagrin of my parents.

As I have gotten older, my eyesight has changed so that now I can not only not see things that are far away, but I also can’t see things close up.

To wit:

my·o·pi·a
(mīˈōpēə)
noun
nearsightedness; also lack of imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight

and also:

hy·per·o·pi·a
hīpəˈrōpēə
noun
farsightedness

It’s a metaphor, y’all.

Not only have I spent my lifetime being blindsided by things that I never saw coming, but now I can’t even see what’s right in front of me.

It doesn’t even matter if a tree falls in the forest. I can’t see the forest OR the motherfucking tree.

It’s hard to reframe this stunning lack of clarity. I could break the words down to their parts: hyper = “beyond,” but myope means “shut”, so that ruins that attempt at positivity (off topic, a word I loathe and which I am not 100% convinced is actually a word).

I could envision myself walking through a softened landscape, all pleasant and blurry, like a vaseline-smeared Summer’s Eve commercial.

Mostly, though, I just feel dumb and perpetually set on my ass by things that happen, both large and small.

Thoughtfully, my inner voice confirms on a regular basis that I am, in fact, a total fucking moron. After all, “lack of imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight” is a feature of myopia. So there’s that.

But still.

We all of us walk around thinking how what we see is a confirmation of what we know. We rely on sight, that dumbest of all of the senses, to provide the most vital of information. But our vision is constantly changing, and it’s a known fact that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable – the weak instrument of their eyes processing what is seen through the filter of their feeling and experience so that what they saw isn’t often what actually happened.

There is this thing in psychology whereby people recount their traumatic experience to help others heal, referred to as “bearing witness.” In this process, we share what we feel, not what we see, in order to lighten our load and to help others work through their own traumatic events. Psychologists believe that this practice not only helps patients heal from horrific experiences but also helps a community offer empathy and support.

When someone gets up on the witness stand, they talk about what they (think they) saw.

When someone bears witness, they recount their feelings and experiences.

In the first case, it’s nearly impossible to get right.

In the second, no vision – myopic or otherwise – is necessary.

Art is like this also, even the visual kind. Yes, it’s a medium seen with the eyeballs, but painting can provoke wildly differing reactions, like triggers. Same with literature, music, etc. It’s the feeling part of the experience, the experience of the viewing and everything that the viewer brings to that experience, not the projected upside down mirror image that the brain processes that is the thing.

When I am asked if I would rather be deaf or blind, I pick deaf 100% of the time because OH MY GOD MOUTH NOISES, but in thinking about sight these days and what it means to really not see something coming, I don’t know if it matters one way or the other. If I get surprised constantly anyway, perhaps it’s time to stop looking for things and just get on with the business of feeling them.

Experiencing them.

In the same way that what we see is often not what we get, risotto doesn’t look like much. My Particular Friend commented once about how it always looks so unassuming, this plate full of rice, until you fork some up and experience it firsthand.

This risotto is definitely like that.

First of all, it is the most basic of fall flavors – pumpkin – but if you find that objectionable you’ll have to build a bridge and get over it (see Recipe Notes). Then a little warming spice and some salty cheese. This isn’t just the plate of rice that you see at the top of this post. You will just have to experience it for yourself.

Pumpkin Risotto With Chilis In Adobo

Ingredients

6-8 cups vegetable stock

Splash of olive oil

1 medium onion, diced small

Splash cooking sherry or white wine (1/4 cup? ish?)

2 cups arborio rice

1/2 cup pumpkin purée (see Recipe Notes)

1-  2 T puréed  chipotle in adobo (see Recipe Notes)

Optional: 2 tablespoons butter

Cotija cheese (for serving; see Recipe Notes)

Method

Place stock in a pot and warm to near boiling.

Heat olive oil in a pan and add diced onion; season with salt and pepper. Sauté until nearly translucent, and then add arborio rice and toast, stirring constantly. Toast until rice is light brown and begins to release a nutty fragrance.

Add a splash of sherry or white wine and stir until the wine is nearly gone.

Add heated stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly. Don’t cheat, and don’t listen to that “no-stir” risotto bullshit. It’s bullshit. Stir your rice.

Keep adding stock and stirring until just before rice reaches al dente. You can test this by tasting, but another way is to take one grain of rice and smear it on a cutting board. The rice should smear away except for one little white speck in the middle. That’s al dente. Stop just before that.

Add pumpkin purée and adobo purée and stir until fully combined. Continue adding stock until rice is al dente, and then remove from heat and stir in your (optional) two tablespoons of butter (leave it out and this dish is vegan, without the cheese). Season with black pepper and a little salt.

Crumble cotija and serve. Also optional to add a little fresh cilantro.

Recipe Notes

  • I use vegetable stock because I am cooking for a vegetarian, but chicken stock works fine.
  • A word on pumpkin puree: I used this because I had leftover from a batch of ice cream, but you could make your own butternut squash purée or even use tiny diced cubes of sugar pumpkins or butternut squash. This is largely a matter of preference and time.
  • No one knows what to do with a huge can of chipotle peppers in adobo, so here’s a pro-tip. Open the can when you get it, dump the entire thing in a blender/food processor, and purée . Freeze in ice cube trays and use in soups, sauces, etc.
  • I didn’t have cotija, so I used crumbled feta from Prima Foods: hands down the single best feta I have ever had. You can use whatever you like, but don’t skip the cheese (unless you’re making this vegan). Tames the heat and adds some salt.

 

 

 

 

Just FYI, The Road Is Lined With Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble

I have made Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble this morning for breakfast and am now listening to the rain and waiting for it to cool. It is the kind of rain that is the harbinger of a change in the weather, and I am ready for fall.

August always seems to be this way: a headlong rush and flurry of busy-ness that only begins to calm down as the mercury drops and the sun dips below the horizon a few minutes earlier every night. I don’t subscribe to the status-seeking cult of busy-ness (also known as the “busy trap”) that surrounds people in the U.S., and yet I have a distinctly difficult time actually relaxing. It is hard for me to sit and just be.

Even as I put a period at the end of that last sentence I was rising to get a slice of still-warm cake because I just couldn’t wait anymore.

I have also, in the time that it has taken to write this little bit, texted with a friend and checked my calendar to see if there is anything pressing this week.

What happened to me?

Growing up, bored and lonely on the side of a mountain in western Maryland, I used to while the days away reading, making art, walking in the woods, and writing. My brother and I were not especially close, and when we were it was often because I was receiving a punch for some unknown transgression (or perhaps because he was, himself, bored and lonely and without any particular outlet, and I happened to be handy). I learned early not to approach him unless I was so bored that it was worth the gamble of a blow or a game.

We didn’t have a TV until I was older, and even then it was a black-and-white set with rabbit ears wrapped in tinfoil perched on top, so reception (and even just plain old power) was sketchy at best. We had animals and chores and two parents who worked, so I was left to my own devices more often than not. There was nothing much to do and an endless amount of time to get it done.

After many years of busy doing, I find myself now in a position where I can take my time to do what it is that I am doing. I have mercenary writing that people pay me to do, and then I have my own (which pays nothing but is one of those things like breathing that is necessary and reflexive and vital, even when words don’t make it onto the page. But I digress.). I have yoga teaching and a new job as the assistant manager at my lovely studio, both of which do not take much time either.

So I find myself at loose ends, again, as the calendar and the weather indicate that it is, indeed, decorative gourd season, motherfuckers.

What to do? How to fill the days?

Technically, I have completed all of the duties of a productive member of society: I have (nearly) raised a child to adulthood (a good one, I think); I have started a school and taught over a thousand children; I have been married to a man I loved and lost; I have been lucky enough to love another man in a way that is breath-taking to me – we are building a life together that I could not imagine in the years following the death of my husband.

I have volunteered my time, donated my money, rescued animals, helped others. I have paid taxes.

But what is it about my need to feel like I am doing something? Who cares what I am doing? Who cares how fast it gets done?

Lots of folks, turns out. I have been the recipient of some judgy looks and comments, for sure, about my lack of “busy” on a daily basis. On many days my presence is not required anywhere. I can sit with two dogs at my feet and a cat lazily twining in and around my ankles until I am damn good and ready to do whatever it is that I feel like doing (or whatever it is I have put on my calendar; I am an inveterate procrastinator, but I have not missed a single deadline, and my written calendar is the reason why). This seems to be offensive to some. If I am not worn out by work I don’t enjoy and shopping with the madding crowd every Saturday morning, my life is something of a millennial’s, and perhaps I should grow up.

We are conditioned from birth to do, go, and be. We are to be productive members of society. We are to graduate from schooling (and childhood) and earn money to buy All Of The Things, and we are to have a career or something that we do for 40 hours a week. We are selfish if we choose to art or write or travel or bake or otherwise defy the American Dream (which has itself become a nightmare).

In my graduating class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, there were two philosophy majors who matriculated with the whole class of several thousand. I still remember wondering what, exactly, that degree would translate into as far as employment goes. Even when I got my English degree, the first question was always if I was planning on teaching. What would I DO with my degree?

Side note before I continue my white-privileged exploration: I am well aware that the color of my skin has allowed me to even think about not doing, going, and being. It is a source of much trouble in my mind and in my writing that I get to write from a place that many people (women) of color will not be able to experience. It is also true that I am exploring ways to support people of color in my work and in theirs. 

Side note, part two: I would not be able to indulge in this type of under-employment were it not for a few life-changing events, specifically the death of my husband in 2013, which put the process of living into perspective, and the closure of my school, HoneyFern, shortly thereafter. 

But here I am now, scoffing at my own self a bit, just as if I was one of the philosophy majors who has no real prospects for gainful employment.

I am trying to make peace with the fact that I there is no earthly requirement (or heavenly one for that matter) that I be constantly and consistently on a path of someone else’s design.

Trouble is getting myself to relax into a path of my own design. Or to even find a path. Or know how to start thinking about design.

We are most of us morons when it comes to listening to our own selves and shutting out all of the noise. It is challenging to find out if what we are doing is actually something we want to be doing or if we have been so corrupted by the influence of the world around us that we are just utterly convinced it was our own idea in the first place.

I am trying to shut up and listen to that little voice, not the Anti-Cheerleader, that raging bitch who insists I am unworthy and ask how dare I, but the voice that is still capable of awe and pure joy. The one that is unconnected to anything but itself. When I can shut up everything – The Facebook, Instagram, the people who would still treat me as if I were a child, the expectations of the world, my own doubt and anxiety and worry – I find moments and glimpses of the road ahead of me. And it’s a peaceful, gravel-lined walk that is meandering and has lots of benches with cushions lining it (I like a soft place to land).

For now, though, seems like I am still in the place of learning to unclench. The anxiety and worry that has gripped me this summer still squeezes me like a fist. It’s rainy days, with peach cake, that maybe help that ease up just a bit.

Peach Cake With Pecan Crumble

This is a breakfast cake, like coffee cake, only with fresh fruit, so technically a serving of fruit. 

Ingredients

Dry:

2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar

1/4 cup almond meal

Wet:

2 large eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups fresh peach, peeled, pitted, and chopped small

Crumb topping:

1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons melted butter

Optional: 1/2 cup pecans (or type of nuts like almonds or macadamia), chopped small

Method

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a square glass baking dish (butter, oil, or cooking spray). You can also use mini bundt pans (see Recipe Notes).

In a large-ish bowl whisk together dry ingredients.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together wet ingredients (I used a 2-cup measuring cup, adding the eggs last and beating them in).

In an even smaller bowl, whisk together crumb topping ingredients while you melt the butter.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add peaches and stir to combine.

Pour into glass baking dish.

Use a fork to add crumble ingredients to melted butter and mix to combine. It should be somewhat clumpy, which is what you want. Add pecans, if using. Spoon/pour/use your hands to distribute crumble on top of your cake.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out fairly clean or with maybe a crumb or two clinging to it.

Best cooled completely and then maybe warmed slightly. If using gluten-free flour especially, cool completely for the best texture.

Recipe Notes

If using mini bundt pans, press crumb topping gently into the top of the batter and reduce baking time to 20-25 minutes. This can also be baked in a large bundt pan, with the same guidelines and a longer baking time (watch carefully). Cool for ten minutes in bundt pan, and then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.