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!)

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Making Dinner Work: Harissa Spiced Pork Shoulder

Get up. Pee. Brush teeth. Drink water, take supplements.

Go downstairs. Start coffee. Let dogs out. Let cat in. Sip coffee. Let dogs in. Feed dogs. Sit down to the computer.

Sip coffee. Check email. Sip coffee. Check work email. Sip coffee. Visit The Facebook. Make more coffee. Get down to writing/recipe research/yoga class design/etc.

It takes a lot to get us out of our routines. From dogs to children to adults, we are all of us creatures of habit. When I was a horse owner, even the horses knew what to do and when; it got so that I didn’t have to put halters on to move them from pasture to pasture, and they stood in the same spot every day for dinner.

The dog knows when it is 5 p.m. just as if he had a watch strapped to his wrist. And could tell time. And had any understanding of the concept of “time.”

But I digress.

Routines provide a sense of structure that can be comforting and predictable. “Predictable” is often used as an epithet, but predictability is what our lives are based on. This keeps the trains running and makes sure that the grocery store has enough toilet paper on any given day (or your own personal bathroom at home, which is why most people in the U.S. go shopping every week).

Sometimes, though, routines call to be busted up. Routine-busting can be because you are compelled to do something differently because whatever is going on forces you to make a change.

And you know it’s bad if an introvert comes off the couch. #HearMeRoar

If something is gone awry, it might be because whatever routine we have fallen into no longer works, or our routine is suddenly disrupted. We might call it something else, but it’s that transition period between the old and the new – not the the old or the new itself – that causes us such turmoil. Once that period of transition is over, we fall into a new routine until the next thing happens.

This transition is both full of promise and scary as hell, simultaneously. Parents know that the first night with a new baby is joyful and nerve-wracking. Travelers know that coming into a new country for the first time is anxiety-producing and thrilling, often in equal measure.

On a daily, more microcosmic level, this idea of routine versus no routine (or a shook-up routine) is the difference between cooking and making dinner.

Making dinner is that thing that happens between 5 and 7 p.m. every night where you have the gaping maws of your family staring at you, opening and closing like baby birds who have forgotten that they possess opposable thumbs and can get their own damn snack before dinner.

Making dinner is why there is food in boxes that you add milk and butter to in order to get something resembling macaroni and cheese. It’s why there are rotisserie chicken soldiers, hot and ready, when you walk into the store at 5 pm, desperate because it’s Monday and you know everybody at home is hangry and you just need to shove something in their face so there is no arguing.

Cooking is something altogether different.

Cooking is wandering through the farmer’s market and seeing what looks good.

Cooking shops for each meal separately, not all at once, once a week.

Cooking has a sip of wine and is often alone with music playing and maybe a snoring dog (because it’s not necessarily 5 pm yet so the dog isn’t drooling and staring at you).

This recipe is in between making dinner and cooking. There is some leisure to it, but it doesn’t actually require much hands-on attention. There is only one ingredient in this that might require a leisurely trip to a store, but everything else can be thrown into the cart with all of the other groceries.

Leftovers are just as good as the day before and so make excellent brown-bag lunches that will make all of your co-workers drool. I imagine you could also make a ridiculous sandwich with this on some crusty bread with arugula.

Harissa And Orange Spiced Pork Shoulder

Just the delicious beginning.

Full disclosure: as much as I would like to say it’s mine, this idea is taken from another recipe and adapted with amounts added. The other recipe is a video and doesn’t really specify anything but cooking times, so I made some adjustments to that and also the ingredients based on what was available.

Ingredients

4-5 pounds pork shoulder

1/2 cup Mina harissa sauce (or 2 tablespoons harissa paste)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon agave, maple syrup, or honey

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 cups orange juice

6-8 sprigs fresh thyme

1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Optional: lime wedges and fresh flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped

Method

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine harissa, tomato paste, vinegar, agave, and garlic in a small bowl. Season pork shoulder with salt and pepper, then rub the harissa mixture all over the pork shoulder (hands work best here). At this point, you could let the pork shoulder sit for a few hours (or overnight), or you can proceed.

Place pork shoulder fat-side-up in a Dutch oven or similar oven-safe, heavy cooking pan with a lid. Pour orange juice around the pork shoulder and throw in the thyme.

Cover pork shoulder and let it roast, covered, for 2 1/2 hours (or so).

Increase heat to 400 degrees and add cannellini beans to the pot. Cover and return to the oven for another 45 minutes to an hour.

When ready to serve, remove pork shoulder and slice. Return pork shoulder to the pot, or arrange on a platter and serve with sauce poured over.

If desired, squeeze fresh lime over the pork shoulder and garnish with fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley.

 

Connection Of The Day: Fried Macaroni And Cheese. And Crows.

Balls.

This past holiday was a strange one, on many different levels.

As noted in previous posts, I continue to see people struggling with mixed emotions and difficult feelings this year. I spent the holiday away from my child, which was the first time ever and proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be.

Fortunately, there was Khristian and his family.

I have hesitated, cursor blinking, at the period of that last sentence for ten minutes, unsure how to write the next one.

Khristian and I have some very eerie connections that have unfolded over this past year, but this holiday brought one that was deeper than others.

We have each lived in the same place, although at different times.

We both have moms with male nicknames – Khristian’s mom is Hank, and my mom is Mike (only my dad and my parents’ close friend Ben called her that).

But perhaps the strangest connection of all is between our fathers, both deceased, and both of cancer.

When I was little, my dad was minorly obsessed with crows. I remember very clearly chirping black crow babies in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, rescued by my dad (and I think nursed back to health, but this could just be the blurring of childhood memories).

One of my fondest memories from childhood involved my dad and a moonlit field full of crows. It’s a very long story, but suffice it to say that he and I walked home from a basketball game on a winter night when I was in sixth grade, five or so miles; the end of our journey took us across a harvested field of corn, severed stalks frozen and brittle beneath our feet. The sky was clear and cold and the moon was high, almost like daylight, and as we walked a murder of crows took flight, just a small one, strays, really, their voices echoing across the utterly silent field.

Magic.

Thirty years later, I walked into Khristian’s mom’s house over Christmas and ran smack into a painting of crows that I had seen first in 2012 at my friend Mandy’s house in Marietta, Georgia.

Mandy’s painting struck me from the moment I saw it, so much so that I took a picture of the crow, thinking I would get a tattoo.

Irony in acrylic.

Turns out, Khristian’s dad painted that painting and all of the ones that I saw this past Christmas (under the name “Abigail Christmas,” of all things).

With his left hand (as a right-handed person).

And was utterly obsessed by crows.

I believe Khristian’s dad and I would have gotten along swimmingly, and I am sorry that I didn’t get to meet him before he died (well before me, but still).

But the connection is undeniable and surreal (the word of the year, also on many different levels); in many ways, and tragically in the end, it seems as if Khristian and I have travelled across our own frozen, moonlit fields towards each other.

Although our connection seems to have been written before we met, the same cannot necessarily be said of our respective children. It’s difficult to be a step-parent (of a type) when you never thought you’d be one.

Nevermind that our kids are both great and have (for the most part) been very welcoming and warm. They never expected to be step-children either, and Khristian and I are both very aware (overly aware?) of the impact on them.

As my child is overseas, way very so far away, I spent 20 hours of my holiday driving to and from Georgia with Khristian and his child, D. Roadtrips are a true litmus test of any relationship, and this holds for those new relationships forged with children, too.

Sparing you the details, I will say it was largely successful with the exception of one shitty nap where someone (me) woke up grumpy, and a dearth of true roadtrip snacks. As this was Khristian’s family and thus his roadtrip, I left the organizing to him. This means that our roadtrip snacks consisted of a couple bananas, an apple, and a snack bag of leftover macaroni and cheese. This last was problematic because utensils were not to be found in the rental car; out of desperation, boredom, and hunger, D ended up squeezing the mac and cheese out of a tiny hole in the plastic bag.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have mac and cheese on the road?

Fried Macaroni And Cheese

Note: The velvety base of this macaroni and cheese is one of the French mother sauces: béchamel. Béchamel is a mild white sauce often used as a base for other flavors; here I have added cheese, making a rich, creamy, and deliciously, deeply flavored sauce. Pop in your macaroni, and you are done!

These are portable as hell and totally awful for you. Perfect for a roadtrip.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons gluten-free all-purpose flour (or regular)

2 cups whole milk, warmed

1 cup grated cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

3 cups gluten-free macaroni, cooked (or regular macaroni)

1/2 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley, and a pinch of cayenne

Oil for cooking

Method

Prepare macaroni noodles according to package directions; rinse with cold water and set aside.

Make the béchamel: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter until it is bubbly but not brown. Add your flour and cook until it begins to smell slightly nutty and to faintly color (not too dark – it’s a white sauce). Using a whisk, add warmed milk and whisk until there are no lumps.

Continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce begins to boil. Turn heat down slightly and cook for two minutes more.

Remove from heat and add cheese. Stir until completely melted, then taste before adding salt and pepper (cheese varies in saltiness, so don’t salt until the very end).

Add cheese sauce to cooked pasta and stir.

Place in ‘fridge until completely cooled.

Season breadcrumbs and place them in a shallow dish (a pie pan works here).

Remove macaroni from the ‘fridge. Using an ice cream scoop (or your bare hands, you beast!), form mac-n-cheese into 12 balls. Roll each ball in breadcrumbs, pressing the breadcrumbs firmly into the pasta. Place in the ‘fridge while your oil heats.

Pour about two inches of oil in a large pot. Bring oil to 350 degrees. Carefully drop macaroni balls into the hot oil and cook for about two minutes until the outside is brown and crispy.

Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Serve warm. Prepare not to do much for about an hour after you eat them.

Recipe notes

  • I used Colby-jack cheese for its creamy texture, but cheddar, fontina, and gouda are all good options.
  • The gluten-free pasta I prefer is Tinkyada brown rice pasta. No soy, no corn; it acts very much like gluten-y pasta. I cooked it slightly less than the package directions to account for the bit of cooking that occurs when it is fried.
  • Don’t buy expensive gluten-free breadcrumbs: make your own. For 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, I toasted four slices of gluten-free bread in the oven and then let dry completely before placing them in a sealed Ziploc and bashing them with a rolling pin and seasoning them. #Boom
  • If I am being honest, which I always try to be, this is a completely decadent, totally unrealistic regular meal. This recipe is why Americans have high rates of cardiovascular disease. But the mac and cheese itself is delicious; when not travelling, I favor a big plate of this and some peas.