26 December, 2009

sunny spells, scattered showers

The drifts remained long enough to give us a rare realization of our "white Christmas" dreams, but now the rain has fallen on our snow-globe world to bring on the bleak midwinter. The presents are not surprises anymore, the candles have burned down, and the yard is a slough.

There is consolation in standing under the sapphire lid of night. I tilt my head back - back - back so far that none of the dead earth steals into my attention. If I stare intently enough, maybe my eyes will draw the hope out of the stars. Maybe time will stop for a little while, or better yet, turn back to the days before these tears and before the man in the wheelchair lost his vivacity.

They say that to be broken is to heal, to bear the cross is to win the crown. I didn't realize how long in coming the healing and the crown could be. I know the Child came to eradicate eternal scourging, but oh, we must still live this life. We must still bear the cross with no notion of how long the road will be. Journeys are pleasant when one's companions are familiar. When their personalities are known and loved, one has faith that whatever the road brings, all shall be well. This man is not who I know, though. Give my father back to me and I will gladly walk the roughest road. I will push the one who cannot walk and I will carry the things he cannot hold. But there are decades left and he is so altered in spirit. Can you not give him back to us? Not the body -- the body we can care for -- but the spirit, give it back, give it back. Why have you let it fall so far? I am not strong enough to pull it back up. I am not even strong enough to fully enjoy the sunny spells, for the showers are now too frequent to forget.

I know that the Child was born to be the answer to all these cries, and most days I can hear him. But today there is interference.

19 December, 2009

This is how I am spending the snow day.

And while I bake, I am listening to this and this.

24 November, 2009

Good eats in the 202

The last couple of weeks have been excellent in terms of culinary adventures. I should switch job more often...One gets treated to so many good meals! Highlights:

Quite excited about this place. They offer cask ale, which I'd never tried before. Cask ale is beer that is unpasteurized, unfiltered, not carbonated, and served at room temperature. I tried an IPA and was surprised by how sweet and smooth it was. While I tend to like beer cold and crisp, I am glad to have tried something new. Another revelation was the Mac & Cheese Sticks appetizer -- Mac & cheese breaded with garlic breadcrumbs and fried! I appreciate innovative bar food...

-Haad Thai
Spring Rolls came with a delicious sweet & sour sauce. For my entree, I enjoyed the Panang Gai, chicken in a curry peanut sauce with basil. It was really flavorful without being too heavy.

I am itching to go back to this new gastropub! We took advantage of the happy hour specials and enjoyed some great fish & chips. Later in the evening I ate Bubble & Squeak for the first time. This is a traditional British dish made from the vegetables leftover from a roast dinner. It can include potato, cabbage, peas, onions, and brussel sprouts. These are mixed with mashed potatoes and fried in a pan until brown and crispy on each side. It was a thrifty use of leftovers "back in the day"....Now it's very satisfying comfort food! I also had an incredible cocktail called "Dutch Courage." Wish I could remember which liquer was used.....However, the essential flavors were lemon and rosemary, topped with frothy egg white, and garnished with a big sprig of rosemary. Being a rosemary fanatic, I was quite delighted.

-Bibiana Osteria Enoteca
This restaurant is fairly new but seems to be doing well. Every part of my experience there was excellent - Very polished service, good recommendations from our waitress, not a very long wait, and of course, excellent food! I enjoyed the smoked potato gnocchi with brussel sprouts and pecorino. The portion size was perfect - It left me feeling very satisfied but not uncomfortably stuffed. Just "enough," which I think Europeans have a better grip on than most Americans. The gnocchi were light and fluffy and slightly smoky. The brussel sprouts were a bit crispy, which added some nice texture to the dish. For dessert my friend and I enjoyed the fresh milk gelato and the "bomba chocolate." It sounded very decadent, but was surprisingly light. I would definitely like to return to Bibiana sometime and experience a leisurely dinner, with every course. Perhaps for the next celebratory occasion. :)

13 October, 2009

I'm only 17 pages in and I can tell that this is going to be a pivotal book in this hungry season of my life.

"The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world."

- p. 15, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford

12 October, 2009

Timing is a funny thing. I can only throw up my hands and laugh at this unsettling trend in my life -- unfinished projects, untended interests. The whole reason I undertook this Gourmet project was to work on bucking that trend, while doing something I love with the aid of a magazine for which I have an inordinate affection. First month: A success. I was ready for whatever November would throw at me.

Then Conde Nast sucker-punched me and all foodies everywhere with their decision to pull the plug on the finest institution in American food journalism. I felt physically ill when I read the headline, hoping for a few dizzy seconds that it was all a cruel joke, a pretend headline ripped from "The Onion." But no. No, after the end of this month I will have one less of the simple pleasures that connect the dots of my days. Every month I look forward to -- you could very well say that I crave -- the arrival of the next issue, wondering what glorious work of art will grace the cover, what new parts of the world I will learn about through food, what food-related issues and controversies will have been uncovered through excellent journalism. Good food and the enjoyment of it is one of the lenses through which I love to look at the world, and this past year Gourmet has been a wonderful teacher. The prospect of life without it is a gloomy one.

I think it a great shame that quality must suffer in deference to the mighty dollar. I think about this often enough as one who is interested in design, art, museums, etc. Cultural institutions are the first to suffer when funds are tight. I understand that at the end of the day, a magazine is a business, and a business decision must be made. But I'm still not content that things must be this way.

As for cooking, I'll continue, but I'm not sure yet what my new motivational "dare" for myself will be. For now I will enjoy what is here and in no danger of being ripped from me: the faithful arrival of autumn, the very best of the four seasons; the pleasure in making big pots of butternut squash and lentil soup; and the community that can indeed be found, "even in the suburbs."

05 October, 2009

This weekend I was near little Bedford, PA for a church retreat. I always look forward to this annual event, because it is a weekend spent in woodsy tranquility, amidst rolling hills that look like something out of a Thomas Hart Benton painting. We cradle mugs of warm something in our hands all day, we pull out the sweaters that have been dormant all summer, we sit on rocking chairs and get to know each others' weekday selves. Let us really relax, and there might even be some square dancing.

Late in the afternoon on Saturday some of us went to the Jean Bonnet Tavern (est. circa 1762, French pronunciation optional). In the sun-filled tavern, seated at high oak tables, I enjoyed the best pumpkin ale I've ever had; it had a lot more spice than I expected. I also tried something so simple that I would never have thought of it: Oatmeal Pie. It consists, quite simply, of oatmeal baked in a pie crust. I was skeptical until the first maple-syrupy bite. Rural PA, sometimes you have your moments of brilliance.

27 September, 2009

Sugar, sugar

I've given myself a pep talk. Time to quit talking about wanting to learn to cook someday. Time to simply pull out the pans and the books and start doing it, by trial and error. About a year ago the thought occurred to me to cook each month's cover recipe from Gourmet magazine (No, I did not know about "Julie & Julia"...This is not my quest for a book deal!). I put the idea on the shelf for a while, but recently decided it would actually be a very good challenge to undertake. A way to learn by doing. I begin with October's Red Wine Caramel Apples (and I must admit that when the magazine arrived in the mail I was rather relieved to have something that looked easy for the first go...No sushi or lobster or mangosteen ice cream). I've always loved both caramel and caramel apples. As a child of about seven, before I'd even had a caramel apple, I was rather intrigued by them because of an exchange in the claymation version of "Wind in the Willows." One little field mouse gets his toffee apple stuck to the back of Mr Badger's coat. I wonder now why it looked so appealing after having been pulled off a wool jacket, covered with fuzz, but who can understand what a child decides to fixate on? Anyway, from the moment I watched that movie I craved the caramel apple experience (minus badgers).

I am 22 and have never made caramel before today. Not something I felt particularly interested in botching. Nothing is so luscious as good caramel.....and nothing is quite so tragic as a burnt attempt at caramel. Before I began I read David Lebovitz's tips on making caramel and armed myself with a bowl of ice water and an oven mitt. No chemistry goggles to be found, unfortunately.

Gourmet made a simple addition to a simple list of ingredients: red wine. I had Cabernet Sauvignon on hand, so that's what I used, but perhaps I should've researched what other cooks have tried. No matter, in it went, and it smelled like Christmas as it merrily bubbled.

The wine took longer to reduce than I expected -- closer to 20 minutes. I then began the caramel. This process also took longer than I expected, but I didn't want to try to rush it and end up burning it with too high a temperature. I am trying to be less timid in the kitchen (who was it that said food can sense fear?), but neither do I want to be overly-confident when dealing with science I don't understand! So I watched carefully and swirled the pan every so often to make sure that the caramel colored evenly. At first it seemed that the sugar would never dissolve and boil, but I got quite excited when it very suddenly began bubbling and taking on an amber hue. It's really a beautiful transformation.

Then, in went the wine and cream. It doesn't translate very well in the photo, but it was such a gorgeous, deep red! I almost let it burn, I was so fascinated by examining the color.

Once the caramel cooled to 200 degrees I dipped the apples in it. I think I achieved a decent consistency, though I'm not exactly sure since I'd never made it before. It's not grainy, at least! I feel quite pleased to be able to say that I've successfully made caramel. No fire alarms were involved.

Thus ended my first foray into confectionery, as well as the first installment of my monthly dose of culinary self-education. I have no clue what to expect for November...."Tofurkey Three Ways"?

17 September, 2009

These days tumble and blaze. I conceive a new dream every hour, lift each one to the sky with naive hands, and stand perplexed while they crash as quickly as they were born. Do they die because I voice them too soon? Do I thrust them too high? I ought to learn my lessons; when I was a child Icarus warned me of the wax in the wings.

24 August, 2009

Grace in the wilderness

Jer. 31: 2 "The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness."

I write from the waiting room of the shock/trauma ward at a hospital in Baltimore. I never expected to find myself here, I must say. At least, I never expected to see my father here. But we can never predict how we will learn life's lessons. Four evenings ago, my father sustained severe injury to his spinal chord after a car hit him while he was riding his bike in our neighborhood. For more than 24 hours he was silent, his left eye only opening a sliver, his oxygen and nutrients being supplied by machines. We spoke into his ear and stroked his hands, but had no certainty that a soul inside could hear or feel that we were there. That first night was the worst of my life. I hope I never again have to watch my bewildered, slender mother standing over the sedated body of her husband of 26 years, wondering if they'll speak again and wondering how to tell him how much he is loved. My father's body, normally impressive and towering, looked so small under that white sheet that is always seen spread over the dead. I didn't like that sheet.

But that night is over, and he is not dead, and he is no longer silent. He is breathing, conversing, and eating. He still has no feeling in his lower body. While there are clouds over us that will remain for some months, I write to you from a wilderness that has been surprisingly flooded with grace. Who knew that in this nightmare we would meet a Savior in a clearer way than ever before? I'm learning so much from the way my family has been constantly upheld by people around the world. I've never been so thankful for the worldwide Church, and for what it means to be a part of it. It means that when one member must drink a bitter cup, they do not have to drink it alone, for indeed this mysterious love binds us together--even when we've never met--and teaches us to bear each others' burdens. I find it comforting, as I lie in bed at night unable to sleep or to pray with much clarity, to know that in that moment there are many others who are praying for us...giving words to my requests when I don't have the power to think of them. I look forward to being able to do the same for someone else someday.

I guess there are many things we will only learn by experience. It is easy to talk about God, to talk about prayer's power, to try to explain away the bad things that happen to good people...but until I was in a tragedy, I never knew what it all really meant. Don't think that this is fluffy, empty "Christianese," but I truly, truly find that I'm simply unable to ask "WHY?" Or at least, I can't ask it in anger. I flinch at the thought that this might all sound very "Pollyanna," and I myself could not believe this peace unless I were living it. If we had no eternal perspective, this would make no sense and we would have no hope. But we can already see many ways that this tragedy (and I do believe it's okay to call it a tragedy---I'm not trying to glaze anything over) is redeeming a lot of relationships, teaching us how to receive generosity, and showing us that even when we can't see the next step there is Someone watching over all the little details that we must sort out. The physical pain of this life is indeed a great burden - but it will end, and beyond it our only burden will be the weight of glory. The Psalmist marvels, "I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." My father still dwells in the land of the living, and we do indeed see the goodness of the unseen God in the visible outpouring of love and care. We're simply unable to lose heart. May these lessons remain in our hearts as we go forward into a very, very unclear future that surely holds a lot of change for our family.

06 August, 2009

I think that we are so used to living under some degree of stress that we cannot quite function without it, as much as we talk of longing to be free from it. Sometimes, when everything is peaceful, I can't fully realize that joy because I feel a sneaking sense of guilt. This is too good to be true. Surely something must be wrong if there isn't something about which to be mildly frantic. Do we thrive when worries are pestilential? Perhaps they reassure us that our lives are full of something...as though we are rich if we have so many things worth concern.

I don't like it this way.

15 June, 2009

Simple pleasures

On Saturday I went to the Dupont Circle location of a restaurant I've long wanted to try. Le Pain Quotidien highlights organic ingredients, environmentally-friendly furnishings, and simply beautiful bread. Oh, and one of their trademarks is a long communal table - a challenge to Americans who love their personal space, but a delightful idea. My friend and I opted to sit at a smaller private table for our first visit, but I will surely go back and sit at the communal table another time.

We ordered coffees, and I couldn't restrain my delight when our waitress brought us not mugs, but bowls just the right size for cradling between your two hands. If this does not guarantee that you are in for a cozy two hours, I don't know what does. On each table are jars filled with strawberry compote and "Brunette," the praline version of Nutella. This I slathered liberally over the delicious whole-grain bread that accompanied my Paris ham & Gruyere omelet. The omelet was quite good, and just the right size - not a gargantuan diner omelet, but big enough that you feel you are getting your money's worth!

The restaurant was busy with the Saturday brunch crowd, but while multiple waitresses glanced at our table we were never made to feel rushed. Our check was not brought til we were ready for it. As the waitress cleared our dishes, I thanked her for letting us just linger for so long, monopolizing the table. She said, "Oh, that's what we're all about here!"

I knew I liked this place.

01 June, 2009

This is my effort to work out a thought...

I visited my grandmother yesterday. I've always loved going to her house; it is full of the relics of my heritage. There are objects and images that have been protected long enough to let me glimpse the humanity behind the names on the family tree. Since childhood I've been enchanted by these things because of the stories behind them - which are the roots of my own little story - and because they let me go far away from here and now while still remaining myself. I suppose in a way I've often pitied people whose families did not have much interest in their heritage - perhaps it seemed to me that without that, they did not fully know or possess themselves.

Yesterday, though, I was struck by a new thought as I looked at a photograph taken by my grandfather of my sister as a toddler. It was a moment he snatched because he found it meaningful and wanted to remember it. It was part of his definition of Emily. She was too young then to have any memory of it now. This moment is a part of her life, but it is his memory. In a way, he owned that moment of her life. Without memory, how fully do we own our lives? I began to think of how many other such instances there are in each of our lives.
How many people carry memories of me that do not exist in my knowledge of my own self? My infant years belong solely to my parents or those who held me, watched me, heard me. I do not own some of those formative moments; I existed at that age, I was myself at that age, but I do not know myself at that age. For two years my self was only theirs. I can have some secondhand knowledge of the strands of my life that someone chose to record, but even in those instances I am subject to someone else's decision over what deserved to be remembered. All else is a great unknown to me. What a thing to say about my very own life.

So we do not fully own our pasts, do we? I suppose that, similarly, we do not fully own our futures either - I mean, how we will live in others' knowledge when we are gone. Just as I could not choose which moments of my childhood to preserve and be defined by, I will have no control over which of my images, objects, or words will last for my descendants. It is at once an exhilarating and a terrifying thought. How will I live in my descendants' second-hand knowledge of me? In what unpredictable ways will my story contribute to my family's story/culture years after I have gone?