Blessings Counted – Annotated & Abridged

Last week, my most favorite of holidays! It’s changed over the years and probably will again at some point. There’s something to be said for a day to gather with family, none of the pressure present from having to secure gifts for the giving, only the preparing and sharing of masses of quantities of food, and then the subsequent plopping down onto comfy couches and such until the veritable food coma passes. More importantly a day that should one choose provides the perfect opportunity to reflect back on the year’s happenings, and recognize the good. What one’s thankful for. And blessed by. There is always, always something to be thankful for, no matter how small it may be! Once identified, it can so be focused on as to grow and grow, be magnified until it spreads multiplying to eclipse the bad, birthing new hope into the dark places. Below, a partial list of what I’ve been thankful for this year …

As I sat down next to her, she reached over and scooped up my hand.

A few weeks back, I stopped by my grandma’s one evening on the way home from a day out and about. My mom is currently living there as well, so it was a two-birds-with-one-stone-kinda-deal. Since my grandpa passed away nearly two years ago, my grandma has allowed it to make her bitter on many levels. She can be quite awnry and contemptible and, though, I love her, as she’s the “grandma,” it’s hard for me to stay in her presence for very long. I wish she’d apply some of that fiestiness she has for good, instead of towards just being stubbornly “right.” She’s often alone in her “rightness.” Upon entering the living room, my grandma wasn’t nestled in her usual plush chair rocking and sewing. Instead she was on the couch where she immediately beckoned for me to come sit. As I sat down next to her, she reached over and scooped up my hand. My heart warmed and I instantly felt a rush of acceptance. That was all it took. She held my hand as my mom sat across the way and time passed by. My grandma fell into her usual routine of asking if I watch “the Wheel” and that Jeopardy show, as she asks me every time I see her. She was loving and kind, I didn’t want to leave, I just wanted to bask in her offering. It’s by far my favorite moment with her! I needed that.

Every autumn, there comes a point when a crispness in the air arrives, settling into more days than not, and it comes time for “The Annual Lobster Shower.” One of those showers where the water’s so hot it may burn your skin right off and you just don’t care because you’re chilled to the bone. The water beats down building an internal warmth chasing away the cold. Any energy to be had has been melted far and away and you’re just a pile of matter encased in an outer soft shell of bright red lobsterness. Utterly spent! There’s nothing to do, but fall into bed at that point and marvel at the toasty warm goodness that fills and surrounds you. Such events require a “le sigh.” Le sigh …

For gratitude itself, for understanding it’s power to restore and renew even the most wretched of lives. It can provide a release from anger and bitterness, sadness and despair. It can cause one to begin seeing the joy in everything, not by erasing the harsh realities of this world, rather by replacing the harsh realities within ourselves. It starts ever so small with the smallest of acknowledgments: The mailman smiled at me today. I’m stuck in traffic, but hey, I have a car. I woke up to another day, another chance. These acknowledgments accumulate, grow, until they’re a juggernaut of change that cannot be easily halted, and one day you look around at the life you knew and the scape has changed. For the better. I am thankful for so much these days that I feel I may burst at times, I can’t contain it, it’s gonna shoot outta my heart, hit the sky and rain down on everything, cover the world in new joy, giving new eyes to see from. There’s a quote in that movie American Beauty that says, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” I feel like that more and more! Even at the lowest of the low.

Many have no food, no shelter, no escape from the elements

It’s occurred to me that what I’ve deemed as problems and struggles in my life, are nothing, nothing in comparison to what the majority of the world has to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Many have no food, no shelter, no escape from the elements whether that means a place to warm up or a place to cool down. This is a common realization, I know. Here, so many of our problems are as follows, though:

• My air conditioning isn’t working. (One is lucky enough to have air conditioning in the first place)
• It’s too cold in here, turn the air conditioning off.
• Man, I have to do laundry: Dump multiple clothing items in washer, press/pull button and/or dials. Whew, workin’ up a real sweat there!
• The store’s out of BBQ potato chips. Gotta choose from one of 20 plus other flavors. Bummer!

So, within the past year’s time, I’ve grown to appreciate what I deem as trials in my life. Yes, my problems, I’ll take any day. I’m positioned perfectly to make all my dreams come true! A cliche phrasing of words, a most desired sentiment. It so grabs me as to fill me with fight and renewed strength.

I woke up one day recently to check that shelf in my mind where I store that nasty fear of ABANDONMENT I’ve had ever since my mother stepped down from sanity and left our family reeling at the age of 14. Only to find that I no longer seem to fear others abandoning me! My weakness, to go unacknowledged, forgotten, abandoned. If you want to hurt me, that’s the way to do it. Or was. Assuming you’re one in my heart of hearts. In varying degrees and for varying reasons, some my own fault, others not, I’ve experienced what I named as my worst fear more than one should, and seeing I can live through it only to still choose to love and forgive and remain open, untainted, means more freedom. And further still, I’ve learned sometimes those who’ve left, they come back. ♦

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Part II: It Should Be Entered Into With Abandon Or Not At All. -Harriet van Horne

My dad has gifted a subscription of Martha Stewart’s little EVERYDAY FOOD magazine to me for the past three-ish years or so. Each issue is designed and layed out in such a way for optimal understanding. Not at all overly stuffy and complicated as can often be found in her MS Living magazine. Provided are recipes that run the gamut from simple snacks to full-blown Sunday dinners along with a pantry list of necessary staples and an accompanied grocery list to make the recipes set forth each issue. Très facile!

I began by laying out a template for each day of the week consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a mid-morning and afternoon snack, and of course, dessert in the evening. Brainstormed all of my favorite foods and cravings as well as what a healthy, balanced menu should include. Then, I continued by marking down the issue and page number of any recipe I found I’d like to try from EVERYDAY FOOD. After sorting my findings into lists for the appropriate meal category, I fitted all the collected recipes, as well as the afore mentioned favorite foods and cravings, into the template.

Do tell us, Deborah, what did you do from there? You’re too kind to ask … I based my meals on a 4-week plan, so 28 days with a few spare ones at the end left open for spontaneity. Yes, planned spontaneity, the moron of oxies. I then expanded that plan into a 3-month plan so that repetition, a peeve of mine, is not much of a factor, aside from the pasta favorites and steak (STEAK! Oh, just you wait …)

It’s been quite the process, what with the planning and all, but after having found myself overwhelmed in my attempts last year and also beaucoup food going to waste for lack of preparation, it was clear I had to get down to business.

Had to fight feeling tied to the kitchen at first despite my passion for it, but that passed as I kept at it. Music has gone a long way in providing peace and energy simultaneously in which to cook by. The main problem with the whole affair so far is that I’ve found that I gotta start early enough in preparing the meal, when I’m not yet ravenous. If too much time passes between when I last ate and dinner, that’s trouble!

Love working with people in the kitchen, (you may be put to mild work if deemed worthy) the give and the take of it all is a great thing indeed!

Another thing, I went for years typically eating once a day around dinner, often much later even, during a slow time at work, say 10pm, with impromptu bites of the occasional salad or breadstick here and there. So, I must remind myself to actually eat at times, especially at breakfast. There was a time during the summer where I felt very lonely in not having anyone to share this whole new adventure with. It passed and I choose to think on all of my learning as an investment in providing well for my future family and in the meantime, at the very least, myself. Yay, self! At some point, as more familiarity builds and settles in, I plan to have more people over regularly for company. The ones I’ve had have been a great time! Love working with people in the kitchen, (you may be put to mild work if deemed worthy) the give and the take of it all is a great thing indeed! My aversion to repetitive meals has hindered me in building the familiarity with the new recipes I desire, though, it seems.

Not at all sure how to handle the dilemma of the picky eater! I’ll bend over backwards and do a short jig to make someone comfortable when they’re over for a visit. How does that translate into a meal, though? I’m serving what I’m serving and surely would leave mustard off your sandwich were you opposed to it, or pass on the olives atop the salad, but there’s a line to draw. Somewhere. My sister is one of the most selective (read: picky) eaters on the planet at times and we don’t see eye to eye much at all when it comes to chow. Real food to her comes straight from a box. Real food to me comes from the produce section, dairy, and bakery. Whole foods, yes. Kraft, just say no!

Throughout the year, there’ve been horrendous mess-ups. Just as in creating anything, I’ve learned that the mistakes teach just as much, inherently more in fact, than the successes. Super frustrating at times, but all to a satisfying end, yes? A tomato soup thickened with shredded carrot, where I figured the more the carrot, the merrier the soup ended up tasting like butt (I imagine). The little salsa that couldn’t, so much onion that it was wrong, just plain WRONG, more white than red. The glue, I mean mashed potatoes, at Easter. Such a lonely ham, it was …

I so love to chop stuff! Give me a sharp chef’s knife and some fresh basil, or some garlic for the mincing, and call me happy. There’s freedom in cooking, it’s that whole art thing again, whereas baking, is far too rigid, often an exact science. Am happy to report success and fun to be had with each baking attempt thus far, even so! Pies are a particular forte, most especially cherry peach pie with the top crust pieced together from cut out stars. Oo-la-la!

My number one aspiration when embarking on my plan early this year was to learn how to cook a steak to taste like it was ordered in a restaurant. A good restaurant. That melt in your mouth, crazy-tender, thick bit of perfection, with a bright pink center (medium for me, please, medium rare, if you tend to overcook). STEAK! MEAT. Crave. Want. Love. Yum. Triumph! Seared joy on a plate. A sizzling hot pan, the right amount of oil rubbed into the flesh, and plenty of salt and pepper applied to both sides to draw out the flavor and create that semi-crusted goodness. It took me a few steaks to get it right, I must say, the timing and temperature were real buggers!

I’ve got presentation down I’ve been told, but what a cruel trick to create a dish looking good enough to eat only for it to then possibly fall flat in the taste department, right? Not havin’ THAT! Hence, my fervor in plan of attack.

You’ll find no little dishes of preprepped ingredients ripe for the combining into a seemingly too easy recipe

Have been making it a point to watch the food network off and on for well over a year now in order to kinda steep my thoughts in all things culinary, to emerse myself in the language and inner workings of food and its preparation. I’ve learned so much just by watching! This definitely goes against my sometimes general philosophy of “Kill your television.” Giada De Laurentiis can do no wrong with her Everyday Italian. Mario Batali and Michael Chiarello are good for the teaching as well, and that Rachel Ray, though, mercilessly mocked by my favorite of favorites Anthony Bourdain, is an excellent real-world example on her series 30 Minute Meals. All due to the premise- you’ll find no little dishes of preprepped ingredients ripe for the combining into a seemingly too easy recipe, nothing placed into the oven only to pull out the perfectly finished product for viewing a moment later. All great and I suppose necessary tactics for most cooking shows. On 30 Minute Meals, you see Rachel accomplish all but the cleanup within the given 30 minutes, minus commercial time at that! From the gathering of ingredients at the fridge and in the cupboards to the heating of pots and pans, the chopping and mixing, and the sauteeing and grilling all to the plating, done right there at the counter with a cutting board and the real life shuffling of any number of items in a limited amount of space. Love that!

Must conquer the current menu of recipes, basically really good beef or chicken enhanced with marinades or spice rubs, accompanied by a fresh vegetable or fruit, salad or rice dish. Included: Rolled flank steak with a pepper remoulade, grilled nectarines, roasted carrots w/lemon dressing, cilantro lime rice, sauteed pineapple in brown butter, grilled sweet potatoes with scallions, Tuscan bread salad, cinnamon chicken, rosemary onions, honey roasted plums, brown rice and edamame, and so on.

Next up, braising, and all things Asian, a close second in the favorite food genre. Have allowed myself a few stirfry dishes in this menu cycle, and had success in creating a particular sauce for the first time, familiar from when dining out. I was disgustingly self-congratulatory that night, I tell you! Beyond that, lies the tackling of seafood and who knows what! Any requests? ♦

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PART I: Cooking Is Like Love.

Recently I was completely inspired by another’s blog (Hi, Jean!) concerning the topics of food and cooking. Some of my thoughts on all things culinary …

That said, here in our society food can and should be so much more than fuel

I truly believe life is what you make it! From what you choose to fill your mind with, the thoughts you feed on, to the way you decorate and keep your home, the tone it evokes with lighting and music provides atmosphere, a feeling you hope others will be enveloped in and carry with them. I create my own world, not to escape reality, but to enhance it. That most certainly includes food, and the whole experience of dining. My dad’s former chastisement as to why I often make such a production out of everything has shifted over time to sincere compliments for creating beauty, building a home that’s inviting, and for my chasing after a newfound passion for cooking whole heartedly. The words “You should be a chef!” are heard from his mouth, despite his less than adventurous “meat and potatoes” view of food that contrasts starkly with mine. At its most basic, I try to think of food as fuel, my body as a machine and a gift, I get only one and if I mess it up too badly, I have to leave early. That said, here in our society food can and should be so much more than fuel, we’re afforded the privilege and luxury of abundance.

Growing up, I always wanted to help in the kitchen as lots of kids probably do. Generally, I was considered in the way and made to leave sooner than later. By the time I was a teenager, I really looked at any cooking to be done as an inconvenience, and had crossed over into the realm of thinking it was a necessary evil to be hurried through and accomplished with minimal effort so as to get back to life. Then in my early twenties, I began preparing picnics here and there for friends and boyfriends and discovered I really enjoyed it! Classic sandwiches led into experiments with the occasional offbeat meat or cheese combination and then grew to the inclusion of all kinds of breads and spreads. A sandwich connoisseur, I am! And such a bread snob! No plain, packaged, pre-sliced, ordinary white or wheat bread for me, no sir. It’s gotta be whole so that I can determine the thickness for myself -thick-cut mild sourdough for French toast with bite. Thin-cut grilled jalapeno cheddar bread with pepperjack, roast beef and chipotle mayo for a sandwich/soup combo. Bakery-bought cinnamon-raisin bagels toasted and spread with crunchy peanut butter, slightly melted, and piled with crispy bacon, Presley inspired, a little frightening, but I swear you’d love me if I made you breakfast. Later on, as a volunteer on the 20something leadership team at my church, there were plenty of opportunites to prepare dinner for a large group, sometimes alone, but often with others ready and willing to be delegated to which added to my learning and now loving of entertaining.

This and then that kept me from delving much further into actually learning anything substantial in the way of cooking, and years passed by, while I waited for a time when I wasn’t in school or working or volunteering too much. Enter this past January! After a few false starts last year, I’ve really got down to business about cooking this year. It’s such an art thing. A feast for the senses, from the aroma wafting up to fill your nostrils, to the sight of the rich and decadent. The first taste exploding in your mouth, a culmination of flavors dancing on the tongue, beckoning and calling in enticement of more, heavy with satisfaction. Nothing short of ecstasy. The smells and textures, the colors, they provide infinite combination possibilities. It’s like love in a whole new form.

My role models have been few and far between when it comes to cooking:

• A distant and rarely seen uncle who makes killer salmon on the grill no matter the season or weather.
• Two friends, husband and wife, who worked beautifully as a team in the kitchen last Thanksgiving, to provide a meal to blow nothing less than your socks off.
• A few of the cooks where I once worked …

There’s a popular belief out there about simplicity in cooking, a minimalist view where one learns to prepare quality ingredients well.

Yes, thanks to a few too many years working at an Italian restaurant, I’m all about the pasta. Favorite food genre: Italian! Too often when I mention that, people say something like, “Oh, you like Italian? I guess it’s alright, but kinda boring.” Oh, do let me convince you otherwise! Surely, you’re referring to that old standby of spaghetti and meatballs, I take it? Enter REAL Italian, thank you very much. I shall make you any number of delectable dishes, a Chicken Cacciatore, a Fettuccine Primavera, Bucatini all’Amatriciana, or one of my very favorites, a Chicken Picatta or Marsala, maybe. Picatta, so good with a butterflied chicken breast in lemon sauce with capers, and the Marsala, based on the sweet red Marsala wine reduced down with just a bit of heavy cream among other ingredients and combined with mushrooms over pasta. How about a Penne all’Arrabbiata, meaning “angry,” so spicy with its abundant crushed red pepper and garlic. I simply adore garlic with a capital “G”. I forgive you, if you don’t. Or Pasta alla Puttanesca which means “Pasta in the way a whore would make it.” Or if you prefer, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, “whore’s spaghetti.” Made with Kalamata olives, crushed tomatoes, anchovies (just the essence and a smidgin at that, so no worries) capers and garlic. The name’s origin? Possibly the sauce’s spicy flavor, though, I was taught that the ingredients was placed into many a glass jar during the morning back in Naples, Italy. Those jars were then lined up along the window sills of the brothel where the hot sun would beat down on them throughout the day causing the smell to waft out and down the street to passersby, potential customers, drawing them in for more than a meal. Either way, baby, that be the schtuff!

So, as of this past January, I had sandwiches, breakfasts, and pastas down. Time to expand! I have some stellar cookbooks, but when browsing through them, though, inspired and appetite wetted, the list of ingredients per recipe can be nothing less than daunting. So, I set aside my cookbook collection in want of starting with the basics. There’s a popular belief out there about simplicity in cooking, a minimalist view where one learns to prepare quality ingredients well. That’s where I chose to begin. ♦

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