Life in a Patty

Some generalities can always be made: about women, men, seagulls, you name it.  And then there are always the exceptions to the rule.  My exception to one such Generality About Being a Woman is that I'm a horrible multi-tasker. When I was in my twenties, I deluded myself that I was one capable of multi-tasking, and now that I'm safely thirty I have admitted to myself that I am a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person.  Your twenties are for pretending who you want to be, and your thirties are for realizing who you actually are, I've decided.  Now I can congratulate myself on my newfound maturity, and, at once, painfully wave farewell to the times gone by when I had the option of doing one thing at a time.  Really, that time ended when I had a baby.  Then I was doubly reminded that that time was over when she started walking.  And then triply when she began climbing...and you see where I'm going.  (You may also draw the logical conclusion when you see what time I posted this and every other blog post).  I see other women juggling children at the grocery store, with their coupon binder, washed hair, and unstained clothes, and marvel at them.  If you are one of these women, I salute you.

Of course, in a household with an actor, an artist, and a toddler, there's never one thing going at a time.  And not only do I try to take the best care ever of my little girl, but I also try to do some things for myself (writing here, drawing there, bathing), then I have to earn some money (freelance graphic design work, helping out my photographer friend with some shoots), and still find time to put breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table.  It's at that time -- when the actor shows up for his far-to-short dinner break, and I realize I have no idea what to serve up, and the toddler starts getting cranky, and I realize that the day is almost gone and I've gotten maybe one thing done -- that's the time when I want to consolidate everything in my universe into a big life-shaped patty that I can eat one. mouthful. at. a. time.

Not possible, I know.  But I can make dinner into a patty, and that's what I'm going to do:

I'm starting a project called Life Burgers.  I'm going to take all my favorite (mostly meatless) meals, put them into veggie-burger format, freeze them, and serve them up when all else fails.  I'll be sharing the recipes here, of course, and I'd like you to weigh in, via the comments section, what you'd like to see in burger form.  First up will be a Punjabi Red Kidney Bean Stew gone life burger: kidney beans spiked with ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin, with bits of bright tomato and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Serve it up with a dollop of yogurt and a sprig of cilantro (you know me).  Then after that: a Southern Black-eyed Pea Life Burger with bits of bacon and ribbons of kale mixed in.  Are you getting the idea?  Stay tuned.

The Thankful Thanksgiving Post :: {Brining your Bird}

I had another blog post in the works.  One about how I was paralyzed, and then I realized that it's actually really hard to write about that, even though I love talking about it.  But really, I'm just happy that I'm not paralyzed anymore and haven't been for twelve (twelve!) years.  I'm thankful for the doctors that made it so.

October was a dark, grim, bad month, and I've catapulted myself out if it, with sheer resolve, and a little help from my friends.  And what happens when you put your mind to something?  Lots.  Lots of ideas and creativity flowing out and about like crazy.  I've got worlds of ideas, as it were.

I want to get all the ideas out on paper, but I only know how to draw with my left hand.  Could I be twice as fast if I used both?  Right now I'm working on a poster called "I live here."  I figure, if I was the kind of kid who counted the steps of the Eiffel Tower as I climbed them, it might be of general interest to some kids to know how far away they live from the Great Barrier Reef, the Matterhorn, or the Chocolate Hills.  One of the things from my childhood for which I'm most grateful is that curiosity of other places and cultures was nurtured.  I want to give that curiosity to other kids -- in a poster!

Then suddenly tonight I thought that felt boards should no longer be relegated to the Sunday School room.  I mean, it's like velcro, but doesn't get hairs stuck in it!  It's like a puppet theatre, but you don't have to hold all the puppets in your hand!  Now I have to figure out how to make one.

Then there's the alphabet poster, which I have an idea for, of course, and toys!  Puzzles, architecture blocks, lacing animals...

I'm thankful that I have all these ideas.  I may never get to them all because my body limits me, but I wouldn't trade all the ideas in my head for a pain-free body.  I wouldn't even trade it for a pain-free body and a trip around the world. 

Most of all, as I write tonight, and as I'm about to draw some more, I'm grateful for a little group of friends that I have here in Staunton.  You might recognize them from their enthusiastic thumbs up to everything I post on the running snail & rainbow facebook page.  Thanks, ladies.  I'm lucky to know you all.

Turkey Brine
I think brining is a must for turkeys.  It makes the meat super moist, seasons it inside and out, and makes it cook faster.  If you think you don't have the equipment necessary to submerge your beast and keep it cold, look no further than your crisper drawer.  That's right.  The drawer with all the limp carrots in it.  Empty it out, give it a good clean and put your cooled brine in there.  I have learned the hard way that you ought to reinstall the drawer before pouring the brine in the drawer.  And before you pour the brine in, put your turkey in the drawer.  I learned that the hard way too, and spent the next 15 minutes mopping overflowed brine off the floor.
I've tried a bunch of brine recipes, and when push comes to shove, don't put fancy booze in your brine.  Save that for deglazing the pan and making your gravy.  Don't even bother with apple cider.  You can't taste it.  What you will taste in your brine are various aromatics and spices, so add those with wild abandon. 
The following is very loosely adapted from Martha Stewart Living, November 2001.
Fill a large pot with 8 cups (or so) of water, 4 cups kosher salt, 5 cups sugar, 3 bay leaves, 1 head garlic (cut in half cross-wise), 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns, 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice.  Bring all of this to a boil, stirring until all the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before emptying into your clean crisper drawer.  Add water to cover the bird completely.  Refrigerate from 18-24 hours, flipping your bird over halfway through.

Do-over :: {chili oil and cure-all carrot salad}

The best thing I did in the entire month of October was stuff a bottle full of habanero peppers and smashed garlic cloves, cover it all with olive oil, and let it sit on the window sill.

The rest of the month was a mixture of saddening, angering, demoralizing, painful occurrences.  We had (in no particular order) a death in the family, a job loss, an ambiguous medical diagnosis...and then at the very end of the month it snowed.  In Virginia.  Maybe it was just a weird month.  I suppose there were bright spots, too.  I mean, I know there were, but I also had four colds over the course of the month, so the chances of something lovely happening at the same time as I had a cold was high, if not guaranteed.  I want a do-over.

I think it was the aforementioned chili oil that finally cured me of my colds, though.  After a month of wallowing and getting nothing done and feeling stuffy and achy and out of control, I picked myself up, went in the kitchen, grated myself two gigantic carrots, doused them with the chili oil, a clove of crushed garlic, the juice of a lemon, and some chopped fresh ginger and plenty of salt.  I ate my carrots, cleaned all the dishes, swept the kitchen floor, and looked forward to a new month.

Hello, world

I don't have a story tonight, or a recipe, or any of the usual things.  What I do have, for the first time ever, is an Etsy store.  I could go on for pages acknowledging people, thanking them for their patience and inspiration, but I'd rather just show you what I've got to offer so far.  The photos were taken by my amazing friend and cohort Lindsey Walters of Miscellaneous Media Photography.  Thanks to everyone past, present, and future who supports me doing this.  You know who you are.

And now.....Weather Mouse!

Listening to other people, and listening to yourself :: {Moroccan chicken}

Sometimes it takes forever before you hear what people have been saying to you all along.

Every year at college, we had a visiting artist.  Their classes were always a bit different from the normal studio art classes.  While the other professors really pushed and prodded you, the visiting artists took a bit more of a nurturing, supportive approach.  One of these visiting artist seminars really went back to the basics.  We didn't draw nude figures, we drew cones and spheres and cubes -- hardly poetic subject matters.  At the end of the semester, we met one on one with the artist-teacher and she evaluated our work with us.  I laid out my portfolio of cones, spheres, and cubes on the cement floor and we stood over them.  After a long time, my teacher sat down in a chair and said, "Phoebe, there's a word.  Vocare.  It's Latin, and it means calling.  I think this is your calling.  I haven't said this to anyone for a very long time."  I stared blankly at my shapes, and didn't listen.

I didn't listen lots of other times, too, when my painting professor would beg me not to audition for the theatre productions because he said it split my creative focus and that my work suffered greatly for it.  I didn't listen when my drawing professor told us to do gestural drawings of the whole space, and I zeroed in on the model's face and started drawing her features.  "Phoebe," she said, "we all know you can do the fancy stuff.  Don't flatter yourself."

I didn't listen when my husband told me I should sketch something everyday.  "I don't sketch.  I'm not a sketcher.  That's what makes me not an artist," I said.  I've done lots of not listening.

Then it all caught up with me, and I heard everything at once.  Sketch, do this, don't split your focus...  Because, in fact, people have been trying to buy stuff that I've drawn for a very long time.  So now I'm going to make that possible.  Am I scared that everyone has changed their mind and doesn't want any of this after all?  Of course I am.  But that's not for me to decide.  I'm a matter of days away from opening my Etsy shop, and of putting my work out into the world.  It's going to be a small offering at first, but I'm actually proud of every single piece there.  That's a first for me, and I guess it happened because I finally listened to what everyone said, and that meant listening to myself, too.

One such thing that people have tried to buy.  Soon to be available for purchase at Feast!

As a result of trying not to split my creative focus, I made a deal with myself that I wasn't going to  cook a single new recipe until I opened my Etsy store.  Here's something I've been cooking for a long time.  It's one of my dad's favorites.

Moroccan Tagine of Chicken with Dates, Olives & Preserved Lemon

Tagines are culinary genius.  The specially designed lid allows all the condensation to drip back into the cooking pot, which means you use less liquid and thusly have more concentrated flavors.  They also turn cheap cuts of meat into silky, fragrant morsels.  Don't have a tagine?  Don't worry, you can still make this recipe in a dutch oven (or any heavy, covered skillet or pot), just adjust your liquid -- you may need to add a little more.  The tagine I use is a European one with a cast iron bottom which allows me to cook on the stove.  If you have a proper earthenware one, feel free to adapt this recipe for oven cooking.  I also have a preserved lemon secret to pass on to you, so read on!
Start by making your preserved lemon my way: it takes 3 minutes instead of 3 days.  Okay, it doesn't taste quite the same, but really, it's close enough.  Peel one lemon with your vegetable peeler.  Get every last bit of peel off, in nice long strips if you can.  Put these in a mug.  Now juice your lemon.  Pour the juice over the peel.  Add a heaping soup spoonful of kosher salt and mix it around, trying to submerge the peel in the juice.  Place the mug in the microwave and microwave on high for two minutes.  Set aside until needed.  Give the peel a quick rinse before you use it.  This will keep in the refrigerator for at least several days.
 Toss four chicken legs in the following spice mixture: 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, and 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (or to taste) cayenne pepper.  (I pull the skin off first, but you don't have to).  Put the bottom of your tagine over medium heat and coat the bottom with olive oil.  When the oil is hot, add the chicken legs and brown evenly, being careful not to let the spices burn.  Set aside.  Add a tiny bit more oil to your pan and add two small (or one large) onion, chopped.  Chop four cloves of garlic, and add this when the onions are beginning to turn translucent.  Stir around for a minute or two.  Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water or stock and nestle your chicken on top.  As your liquid begins to come to the bubble, add your final ingredients: 10-15 giant green olives, halved; 6-8 giant dates, pitted and halved; and 2 strips of preserved lemon, chopped.  Stir everything in your pot around to distribute your ingredients evenly, turn the heat to very low, put the lid on and walk away for 30 minutes.  At this point, come back and make sure you have enough liquid in your pot.  If it seems a little dry, add a bit more water or stock.  Turn your chicken legs over and cover the pot.  Walk away again.  If your chicken legs have bones in them, I like to cook them for a good hour to hour and a half, or just until the meat starts to pull away from the bottom of the drumstick.  If your chicken is boneless, obviously it requires less cooking time -- 45 minutes is ample.
Taste your tagine a season accordingly with either more chopped preserved lemon peel, lemon juice, salt, or pepper.  Serve atop a bed of couscous and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or flat leaf parsley.  A salad of very thinly sliced fennel, orange segments, and thinly sliced radishes dressed with equal amounts of olive oil and lemon juice, plus salt and chopped parsley, is a perfect accompaniment.

The Leaves that are Yellow :: {Frontier Pie}

The Very Strange Tree
We have a very strange tree in our back yard.  I think it's a baby tree because it has a slender trunk, but the leaves are the size of umbrellas.  I've tried to find out what kind of tree it is, but the closest picture I can find is in a Dr. Seuss book.  The leaves are already starting to turn yellowish brown and wrinkle up a bit -- a sure reminder that it is, indeed, September, if only the beginning. 

We had a mulberry tree in our backyard when I was growing up.  It was a good for nothing tree, which killed the grass with its stinking, fermenting berries in the summer.  The most dreaded summer chore (second only to deadheading my mother's sticky petunias) was sweeping, nay, smearing, the fallen berries from the center garden path.  You had to hold your breath while you did it, to save yourself from the smell of rotten fruit.  To further recommend this tree, it lost its leaves all at once.  They didn't even change color first.  One day they were on the tree, green and waxy looking, and then next morning they'd all be yellow and on the grass.  My brother and I would be sent out that very day to rake them.  They weren't lovely and crisp like autumn leaves should be, nor did they rake into a big puffy pile of wonderful colors.  They stuck to the rake because they were still moist, they smelled like old socks, and they sat in a great heavy heap on the grass.

My autumn fun not to be stymied by this tree, however, I always jumped into the soggy pile and happily flopped about.  Every year, my brother went lumbering off to tinker with something more interesting, leaving me to imagine the leaves into confetti, a cloud, a dune.

The last fall I ever jumped in the leaves was the year my brother came lumbering back, apparently having found nothing more important to do other than shatter my illusions.  "Phe," he reported with a convincing amount of conjured wisdom and self importance, "There are probably slugs stuck to the bottom of those leaves.  They'll go down your shirt, and then you'll have slugs down your shirt."  And he went lumbering off, smiling, I'm sure, as I catapulted myself out of the leaves and started shimmying and squealing.

This fall both of us are doing, more or less, the things we did then.  My brother is starting a weekly radio talk show on NPR where he'll relay facts to the listeners about where they live and what they might want to do about it.  It probably won't have much to do with slugs, but knowing my brother and his limitless capacity to find interesting nuggets of life everywhere you least expect it, slugs could very well be featured.  As for me, I'm still imagining things, but this time I'm going to do something about it.  See?  Not much has changed.

Frontier Pie
I figure if shepherd's pie is made with lamb and cottage pie with beef, then if you use bison meat it must pie!!  Of course, you can adapt this recipe to use any kind of ground meat.  Bison is becoming increasingly more available, tastes great, is lower in fat than beef, and is grass-fed and humanely raised.
{serves at least two very hungry grown-ups and one toddler, with leftovers}
Coat the bottom of your pot or large skillet (a deep cast iron skillet works brilliantly) with olive oil and place it over medium to medium-high heat.  While the oil is heating, chop one onion, two stalks of celery, and two large carrots into small dice (about 1/4 inch squares).  Add this to your hot oil and saute, stirring frequently, until your veggies start to develop some nice color and your onions go translucent.  Strip the leaves off about five twigs of fresh thyme or a teaspoonful of dried thyme and add this to the pan.  Season with salt and pepper and empty the contents of the pan into a bowl and reserve.  Add a bit more oil to your pan and when it's hot add one pound of ground bison meat.  Season with salt, pepper, and a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, breaking up the meat with your wooden spoon and moving it around the pan until it's nice and browned.  You might need to turn the heat up a bit to get some nice color on your bison.  When it's lovely and brown, add your veggies back to the pan, and a giant heaping spoonful of tomato paste, and stir and fry to caramelize everything.  Sprinkle over a heaping tablespoon of flour, and cook this, stirring, for a minute or so.  Now add your liquid.  You'll need about a cup and a half of wine, broth, water, beer, or a mixture.  I used wine and broth.  Turn the heat to low and simmer while you make your potatoes. Taste and season with salt, pepper, or more Worcestershire sauce if you need to.
Now, I had an epiphany about potatoes as they are concerned with pies like this.  You need a fairly dry mash so that it holds up as a nice crust when you serve it, but you don't want the mash to be dry for lack of unctuous dairy and butter.  Here's my solution: bake (don't boil!) your potatoes.  You can either do this ahead in the oven, or at the last minute in the microwave.  I never use the microwave for real cooking, but in this case it's absolutely forgivable -- just remember to flip your potatoes half-way through cooking.  You'll need about 4 large russet potatoes for this dish.  After you've baked or microwaved them, cut them in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.  Add about 2/3 of a stick of butter, a splash or two of milk, and two heaping spoons of sour cream and mash until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust.  The consistency of these potatoes should still be quite dry.  They should look almost unappetizing.
Transfer your meat to an ovenproof dish (if you've used cast iron, you're all set!) and dollop the potatoes on top.  Smash them around until they're more or less even and all the meat is covered.  Now take the tines of a fork and rough up the top surface -- this will give you lovely little crunchy bits.  Put a few little pats of butter on top.
Bake in a 375 degree oven until everything is bubbly and the top is beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.  If the top isn't browning well, you can broil it for a few minutes at the end of the cooking time.  If you're more patient than I am, let this sit for about 10 minutes after you pull it out of the oven -- it will hold together better while you're serving.