Things that come to mind, and the people who come with them :: {Portugese Bread and Garlic Soup}

Christmas tree pick-up was this morning.  We dragged ours out to the curb, and looked up and down the street at the other dejected trees patiently waiting in the January drizzle.  Christmas decorations have all been stowed and the house looks a bit empty, like it's waiting for the spring sunshine to fill the empty corners. 

This is the time of year that I wish I remembered how to knit.  I've learned a bunch of times.  Once when I was very small I managed to complete a set of wrist-warmers.  These might be a Swiss phenomenon, but if you can remember that fingerless gloves still can keep your fingers warm, imagine how hand-less gloves might keep your hands warm.  The point is, they do.  Another time I learned to knit was my freshman year in college, when one of my hall-mate's dad's taught us.  It was January term, which meant we only had to take one class, and it was pass/fail.  We had lots of time on our hands.  In the evenings, we would all gather in one room, listen to Barry White, and knit.  I have absolutely no recollection of what I was even working on.  I doubt any of us do.

My great aunt, who had a story more harrowing than most, was a great knitter.  She knit me an army of pink sweaters when I was little.  I especially liked it when she chose yarn that had sparkles in it.  Throughout her difficult life she managed to maintain a child-like joyfulness, so I wouldn't be surprised if she chose the pink sparkly yarn for her benefit, as well as mine.  She was also a great maker of Schnitzel, and I fondly remember going over to her apartment to eat a huge steaming platter of it, decorated with lemon slices and served with potatoes, bread, and a salad.  After lunch, she would knit while all the grown-ups talked.  She's the only person I think I'll ever meet who actually kept her current knitting project tucked in her bosom.  This fascinated me as a young girl, and it was as good as a magic trick when she would reveal first one arm, then two, then the entirety of a full-sized sweater from her voluminous cleavage.

Tante Emmy and Onkel Paul ready for feasting.  Note the amount of Schnitzel she prepared for three people.

She left our family a great legacy -- she was the only one of her siblings who was strong enough to recount the stories from the war, the only one brave enough to face life with perpetual cheer and generosity.  Perhaps one of these Januaries I'll relearn how to knit again, perhaps when my daughter's old enough to do it, too.  Until that happens, I have a big box of pink sweaters, some with sparkles, that I hope Tante Emmy sees my little girl wearing, wherever she is.  They would have had a good time together, those two.

Portuguese Bread and Garlic Soup
This soup is many things: it is fast, frugal, a good use for stale bread, delicious, simple, comforting, and healthy.  As with most simple things, the quality of the ingredients is crucial, but these are all things that you either have on hand, or are easy to find.  You can have dinner on the table in 10 minutes.  Adapted, barely, from The Mediterranean Kitchen.
Cut thick slices of day-or-two-old crusty bread, a piece or two per person.  Heat a soup pot (or a small pot if it's just you) over medium-high heat and add a pretty generous glug of good olive oil (probably about 1-2 tablespoons per person).  When the oil is hot, fry the bread in a single layer (do as many batches as it takes), on both sides, til nice and golden.  Remove bread and rub with the cut side of one clove of garlic (per serving).  Place bread in soup bowl.  Add another glug of olive oil to the pan, roughly chop the garlic you just used, and add it to the pot.  Garlic burns quickly, so stir it around for only about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.  Add a soup-bowl-full (per serving) of chicken or veggie broth (homemade if possible) to the pan and bring to a simmer.  Lower heat to medium and crack an egg (per serving, and one at a time) into a cup or small ramekin and carefully slide into the simmering broth.  Use a spoon to nudge the whites around the yolks.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the whites are completely opaque.  Repeat with as many eggs as you need, but cook no more than two eggs at a time.  Ladle an egg into each soup bowl, adjust the seasoning of the broth with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the broth evenly amongst your soup bowls.  You can enjoy this as is, or you can garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro, red pepper flakes, or Parmesan cheese.

More introductions

After a bit of silence on my end, I've got another creation for my Etsy store

I had the idea for this piece ages -- well, months -- ago, around the time I decided to open an online store and take matters into my own hands.  For a brief time (though the brevity of time paled to the intensity of it), I couldn't fall asleep at night because of all the ideas that would flash through my brain.  I couldn't start working on the ideas, though, because my head would be clouded with the next idea, and the next, and the next.  I wrote them all down; some in a book by my bed, some on my computer, some on scrap sheets that litter the refrigerator.  Eventually I had to stop myself from dreaming and start whittling away at the list.  That's always the hard part for me.  The ideas rush in like a geyser, but sitting down and making them exist on paper is like milking a rock.  I guess part of that is because I'm afraid I can't translate what's in my head onto the paper.  Sometimes it's because parts of the project still haven't been imagined.  Either way, when I told my husband that I had a pretty good idea about what I wanted "Fill my heart with song" to look like, he stared at me in that maddening way he does when I know he's about to say something I a) already know but have been trying to forget, or b) don't know, but should, and said, "Well then why haven't you drawn it yet?"  (This instance, I'm ashamed to say, falls under option b).  I scuffled off, muttering wordless sounds of bruised pride and humiliation, and set to work.  

This is, in fact, what a song-filled heart looks like (it also comes in black & white).  Get it here.

As luck would have it, this project flew out of my fingers with little to no sweat or tears.  And for once I was able to shut off the graphic design side of my brain that wants me to trouble shoot how this creature gets in and out of his suit.  I'm actually delighted that I have no idea what kind of creature this is, let alone how it gets its suit on and off.  Is it a flightless fairy?  Who knows -- these things I cannot put words to, and that's what makes them have a life of their own. 

Things left undone :: {refried beans}

One of my sincerest regrets is not finishing my creative non-fiction class in college.  Regret is probably the wrong word, since withdrawing from that semester was not a bad decision, but a necessary one, as I was unfocused and, to boot, had tonsils which had become veritable anthills in my throat, complete with a civilization of hardy bacteria.  I had to get those cut out, and also had to find focus (which I eventually did, through a year away from school spent interning at a great graphic design firm and learning to tango dance).  Life went on, I went back to school, studied art, got married, lived in England, had a baby.  I never got to finish my story about Clarence, though, and I think about it all the time.  Really, quite often.

The assignment was to interview a more-or-less stranger, and then write about whatever we talked about.  As a Very Shy Person, this was a horrifying task.  I finally settled on Clarence, our neighbor across the street, who was an easy target because I had seen him around, and, more importantly, he was even shyer than I was.  I had my mother set up the interview.  Clarence was a real life Carson McCuller's character: a bit trampled by life (and wife, I daresay), with hobbies that existed out of his generation and vocation, and with a smile like a pleased little boy.  We especially saw the smile when he would offer us whole Shoo-fly pies, convinced that somewhere along the line we had told him that it was our favorite.  (It wasn't.).

Clarence and I lived on the street between Apple Tree Alley and Pear Tree Alley. (image from google maps).

We sat at his tidy kitchen table, me with a notepad, and both of us with a sugary drink.  The conversation was halting at first, me unsure of what I should ask, and he baffled at the idea that he would have anything interesting to say.  I don't remember asking him for his life story, but he gave it to me, because it was probably the first time in his life that he guessed someone might be asking.  He told tales of cooking on the back of a truck during World War II, how he started knitting, his special technique for apple pies.  He went on and on, occasionally getting up to tend to the canary in the window or to bring his wife a plate of food.  Clarence never knew that he was a great character, really his own person.  He just gently went through life, taking care of his rotund and infirm wife, and one day quietly passed away.  I wish my notes from his narrative hadn't been lost and that I could share his apple pie recipe with you.  It wasn't the best apple pie, but Clarence had spent years perfecting it, and that was Something.

 Best-ever Refried Beans

This isn't Clarence's apple pie recipe, but something equally as humble, and good whenever you need something comforting.  This is my favorite way to make refried beans.  It's probably not at all traditional, and that doesn't bother me a whit.
 {makes enough for about two bean-centric meals for two grown-ups and a toddler}

If you have time and foresight, you can put about 2/3 of a bag of black or pinto beans in your slow cooker with some water and salt and cook them til they're very tender (you will be mashing them, after all).  If you don't do this, use one big can or two small cans of beans.  I think black are the best here, but pintos are a close second.

Chop an onion, a 4 inch piece of Spanish-style chorizo, and a poblano pepper into smallish bits and add it to a medium-hot pan with a pretty generous coating of neutral oil.  You're not sweating the onions here, but properly stirring and frying them.  The chorizo fat is going to render out and the paprika in the chorizo is going to turn everything a very appetizing red color.  When you're almost happy with the tenderness of your onions (you don't want them crunchy), add a clove or two of chopped garlic.  Stir that around, being careful not to let the garlic burn.  Turn the heat down a bit and add a generous teaspoon* of cumin.  Stir it around to get it a bit toasty and then add your beans.  Add a small amount of water, bring everything to a bubble and start mashing the beans with a potato masher.  Add more water if you need to, just to get the consistency of a nice pasty bean mash.  Taste for salt, and if the flavor needs a bit of brightening, add a squirt of lime (or lemon, in a pinch).  I always end up adding lime, because I love it so.

Ways to use these beans:
  • Piled in a bowl, garnished with cilantro, jalapenos, crumbled cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, or whatever you fancy.  Eat with spoon while playing with your baby on the floor.
  • My new favorite burrito is a spin on a Mark Bittman recipe: beans, wilted kale (Try it! You don't even need to bother seasoning the kale because the beans are so awesome.), cheese, and salsa.
  • My other favorite burrito is a spin on something the Hollins University cafeteria used to serve up (inspiration can be found anywhere): beans, mashed sweet potato, cheese, salsa, sour cream.  If you happen to bake a few sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week to have on hand, this comes together so quickly.
  • As a side dish with whatever, even breakfast!
 * This I have corrected the amount of cumin because an unfortunate reader with very large hands said that a "palmful of cumin" rendered his beans inedible.  Thanks for the correction!  We're really only aiming for about a teaspoon and a half.