28 April 2009

pain dinner

"Do you want Mommy to have to go to the hospital for a long, long time where you won't be able to see her very much?" I ask MoMo.

"I'm feeding my fire engine ice gas!!" MoMo says, in his extra-charming voice, the one that sounds like knows he might be in trouble but thinks he might be able to bluff his way out of it.

"Seriously. I'm going to have to go to the hospital and get lots of shots if you don't stop pouring water all over the floor."

"And my fire engine likes apples."

I give it up. I guess I haven't trained my three-year-old well--he doesn't respond to guilt trips. I'm in too much pain to try to stop him from washing his fire truck with ice chips and feeding it bits of apple.

I have one of those backs that likes to "go out" on me. I don't know what the actual medical phenomenon is that makes it do that, but it creates a sharp stabbing pain in my lower back whenever I move.

But can I just stop moving? 
No, I cannot.

A snapshot of the kitchen floor in front of the stove looks like this: Momo holding a damp rag, sans pants, over his fire engine, a bowl of crushed ice, a butter knife, a syringe with a blue bulb, chopped up pieces of apple and red cabbage, splotches of dried hot chocolate blooming on my white tile (I hate the person that chose that white tile).

My dinner menu plan starts out like this:

*Carrot Tomato Bisque
*BLT's on Wholegrain Bread
*Purple Cabbage Slaw

I think about my options.

It's 6.30 pm and Christian won't be home until nine. It's February, and sort of half slushing/half snowing outside. My back is KILLING me, and Cecily has just squirmed onto my lap and said, "I feel like I'm going to throw up!"

Scratch the Carrot Tomato Bisque.

Cecily needs me.

And my back screams every time I even think about chopping onions and carrots.

I walk Cecily to my bed and turn on PBS Kids. (I love you, PBS Kids!) We lie down (Cecily lays herself down while I lower myself to my knees and then roll on to the bed, breathing through the pain.) I snuggle with her until she doesn't feel like she's going to throw up anymore, and take her temp: 99 degrees.

Back in the kitchen, I think about dinner again.

Here's the thing: every time I decide it will just be easier to skip dinner and let the kids eat cereal, it backfires. I don't know if it's just me or what, but take away my routine and all hell breaks loose. Someone spills cereal all over the kitchen floor, everyone's hungry an hour later, and it somehow seems it takes almost as long to make and clean up cereal as it does a more proper meal.

And no one's happy, especially not me.

So I decide to cook through the pain, and my menu shifts slightly:

*Build your own BLT's
*Purple Slaw

I hobble around, turning on the oven, stretching out strips of bacon on a jelly roll sheet, and gain a minor amount of satisfaction at how straight the rows of bacon are.

(Did I mention that I decided to take one of Christian's muscle relaxers for HIS back pain that the doctor had given him a couple of months earlier? Did I mention that you're not supposed to take those during the day, which I always thought was just so you wouldn't fall asleep when you should be working or driving a car or something, but I discovered that those little puppies make you catatonically depressed?)

Somewhere between catatonically depressed and suicidal.

So that's where I'd been all afternoon. A place called Catatonia, willing myself to go on and praying, not hoping, actually praying, that the hours would pass.

By 6.30, I was only a teensy bit better.

I put away the groceries I had bought six hours earlier.

I scatter a handful of walnuts onto a cookie sheet and brown them in the oven, thinly slice a tomato.

(I'm sorry, Alice Waters, for eating a tomato in February. I know it's wrong.)

And then sit down on the couch to rest my back. I check my email, my blog, my facebook.


My caller ID. It's been nearly 24 hours since anyone called. Not on my land line or on my cell phone. So in addition to feeling alienated by February, I'm now alienated by the human race.

With five easy modes of contact, not one human being has attempted. Not even my mother.

I go to Bittman's blog. That always makes me feel better. Lula snuggles against me on the couch and we watch Bittman make a "simple chocolate souffle." Then a parmesan cream cracker.

Lula is so excited by the cracker, as am I. I really hate paying four bucks for a box of un-tasty crackers.

I agree to let Lula try making them, telling myself it's good for her math and reading skills, and maybe it will cheer us up.

It sounds hokey, but the cooking and baking smells really do make me feel better. The bacon comes out of the oven, the walnuts are cooling on the chopping board, and I'm seeing my way clear of the muscle relaxers and into dinner.

We might actually get a meal out of this.

And I love how straight and flat my bacon strips are, how thin and uniform the tomato slices.

I plate the lettuce and tomatoes, and put slices of bread in the toaster. I don't plate the mayo, just open the jar and put a knife next to it.

(I'm so sorry, Alice Waters, for not making my own mayo, especially when I have those Clifford Family Farms eggs in the fridge, the ones that would be perfect for homemade mayo. I just couldn't. I promise I will soon. I will soon stop purchasing mayo and making only my own homemade mayo. I just can't do it tonight.)

As I start to make the slaw, I'm having trouble cutting, due to back pain. I wanted a thinly sliced cabbage that is slightly more substantial than a shred, but I can't do it because it requires a back-killing stance.

Looking at the walnuts gives me an idea--I'll cut my cabbage all skiwompus and call it rough cut slaw. Looking at the walnuts gives me another idea: Waldorf salad. More chunks. It'll be a chunky, sweetie purple salad. I glob a spoonful of mayo into a bowl, pour a glug of apple cider vineagar over top (after sadly realizing I'd used my last lemon the day before), and squirt a glop of Jack Daniels' mustard on top, a tsp. of sea salt, and a big spoon full of cousin Stan's fantastic honey. (More about cousin Stan and honey later). I whisk it together, grind in some pepper after I can't find the pinch of cayenne I'd wanted to use, and chop up the apple and walnuts. This salad is really tasty, and my kids like that it looks pinkish from the cabbage.

I'm feeding a crew of mixed eating levels here.

Fifteen years in the classroom taught me to design assignments that could extend out for the faster learners or break down for the slower learners. This meal has some extension and break-down options.

Has anyone noticed that kids don't like sandwiches? Number one, they can't see what's inside, number two, everything's mushed toghether, and number three, sandwiches are often too tall for a three-year-old's tiny mouth.

So I break it down.

Normally I try not to dumb down dinner for my kids, but, given how badly my back was hurting, I made an exception. I put ingredients on the plates so that the kids could either make their own sandwiches or eat everything separately.

Momo and Cecy opted to eat everything separately, though Momo enjoyed wrapping his bacon in lettuce and eating it that way. Cecy opted to eat a couple of bites of bacon and then go back to bed, which confirmed that she really was actually sick, as she loves bacon very much.

Lula opted for a bacon and lettuce sandwich, tomato on the side. And when Bonnie dropped by 30 minutes later, and Christian arrived home two hours later, they could make their own sandwiches and plop some chunky purple Waldorf on the side.

Final Menu:

*Build your own BLT's
*Rough Cut Purple Waldorf Slaw

The crackers come out of the oven and are quite delish. Lula breaks them up into squares and I eat a couple topped with purple waldorf. And she comes up with the genius idea of scoring the scraps of leftover dough into tiny squares and baking them into soup-sized crackers. If I had made the carrot tomato bisque, those crackers would have been perfect on top.

After dinner, Bonnie works on my back while Momo sprays himself in the eye with air freshener.

And regales us with stories about fires and the Statue of Liberty and how his "Chef's Glove" caught on fire. He even brought us the Chef's Glove to show us the char marks from the heating element in the oven, and a piece of blackened bread that he had cooked while I wasn't looking.

I would ground him for cooking without adult supervision, but he's only three.

What can I do?

Momo's on his own now.

Dinner is over, I'm flat out on the bed getting my back fixed and feeling like, if nothing else, I had made dinner. Like a champion Olympic athlete for making it through dinner. For making it through the whole day, really, but there's something about cooking through the pain that gives me an extra modicum of satisfaction.

No one can take that away from me.

I really do feel inordinately proud.

It's silly.

But it's the one thing that made the day okay.

Dinner plus pain is a challenging menu, a palate stretcher, but if you come out on the other side, you'll find it has it's own purifyingly character-building rewards.

27 April 2009

menu forecast

Here's what I want to cook this week:

M Chicken & Black Bean Chilli

T Red Lentil and Butternut Dal with Cucumber Raita

W Mushroom and Sirloin Stroganoff

TH Baked Campanelle with Tomato Cream Sauce (last of Summer '08 frozen tomatoes!)

F Lula Cooks! C & L have dinner date.

Sa Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup

Su Waiting for inspiration--what to make for a dinner party, six adults and seven kids. Feel free to post your ideas!

26 April 2009

stellet licht

Last night in Boise we saw this strange and beautiful movie directed by Carlos Reygadas.  It's set in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, and has a slow, minimalist feel that reminds me of 80's art cinema.  Christian especially loved the sound in the movie, which substituted for music.  I loved the silence. And the big Van Gogh painting shots.  See it, and let me know what you think of the ending.

21 April 2009

depression dinner

You are craving a meal that is gentle enough for an invalid and will be spooned to you by a stern nurse. One who will enforce the rules of recovery in such a clear, strong way that you know: follow her dicta and you will be ok. 

Something with a mild broth, a piece of tender white-meat chicken, a turnip or potato, maybe.

The craving for clarity is overwhelming.


All of my life I've suffered bleak cycles of depression that I still can't fathom.  Sometimes they come every year, sometimes every two or three, sometimes they connect to hormonal fluctuations like pregnancy and nursing, or weaning, or puberty.  Sometimes to seasons. Or sometimes not.  I can one time assign causality to an episode, but another time not.  Once it seemed the death of an aquaintances' four-year-old son from leukemia triggered a mourning that stretched into a deep black crevice.  One time it was weaning Lula.  Another time it was rain.

It seems bleak to write about it, it feels like a moral failing, and a self-indulgent topic, and yet it's the only thing I know: this enemy, this friend. My long-standing companion.

I work to keep above it, but sometimes work isn't enough.  

Here's what it feels like, and I'd give my eye teeth, as my mother used to say, to know how many other people go through this, and how often:  a dream verging on a nightmare where you feel a vague sense that you should be finding someone, or driving somewhere, or running,  but you can't remember what it is you are to do, you just know something is wrong.  So you try to call out to ask, or stop someone on the street, your mother, or a police officer, but you can't lift your arms, and your voice won't come out.  The call to action is there, but the ability to move is gone.  

And then it gets worse.  You start praying.  You ask God to make the time pass quickly, because, like in a bad dream where a part of you knows that when you wake up, normalcy will return, you know that only the passage of time will get you to the other side.  But you want to get there before you begin doubting the existence of normal.  

So you sit on the couch and you pray.  

Please God, make the time pass.  

And then it gets dark.

The stern nurse says briskly, "Get up now, and start dinner." 


So I go to the kitchen.  One of the things that happens in this dark valley is disordered thought.  "What was I thinking?"  I ask myself, out loud.  "Oh yeah, make dinner."  I need to hear my voice to know what I am thinking.  

So I know I am trying to make dinner.  Now I have to make decisions, but the choices are overwhelming.  

I could make macaroni and cheese, but the pot I use to make my bechamel sauce is dirty.  I would have to wash it first.  Could I do that?  And could I also grate cheese?  And the table is cluttered.  Will I clear it off?  Or could I just hand everyone a plate of food and let them clean their own spots?  

Both options seem odious. 
I feel unable to find a solution to this simple problem:  can I make dinner and set the table? Both ways seem wrong and hard.

I just don't know what to do first.  So I sit back down.  "You need to make dinner,"  I say aloud.  

"Yes," the stern nurse says, "Get going."

Please, God, help the time to pass.

When I turn on the lights, I start to feel a glisten better.  

"Okay.  I'm making dinner.  I can make. Rice.  A fried egg. Greens."

I get out the rice cooker.

"What was I doing?  I was making dinner.  I am making dinner.  And I need to start the rice first because it takes 25 minutes." A small space clears on the disorderly desk in my mind.

But which rice am I making?  The white rice seems a good choice, comforting and unchallenging. 

It is wearing to lift the big rice bag, to measure six cups of water, to pinch in a teaspoon of salt and a pat of butter.  But when the rice is cooking, and its new baby smell steams out into the kitchen, a modicum of ease spreads to my shoulders, up my neck and into my brain.  

We have rice to eat, the most humble and beautiful food.

Eggs are easy.  I have one carton left from Clifford Family Farms, and their prettiness lifts one more ounce of heaviness from my arms, one of the first flashes of pleasure I feel all day.  Because they come in so many different sizes and colors, and I know the yolks will be bright and unclouded, and I've seen the chickens myself, and they seem happy enough. 

I set out five eggs on the counter to temper.  Half a stick of butter.

Greens are more challenging.  The chard seems too hard to eat right now, too bitter.  So I decide to make a salad with red leaf lettuce and cut the chard into a thin frisee that will make it easier to eat.  I wash leaves and pat them dry.  Rip up the lettuce, frisee the chard, smash a clove of garlic.  Sprinkle kosher salt in the wooden bowl.  Massage garlic into the wood.  Feel another spark of pleasure at the lettuce and chard in the bowl, such deep greens and reds, such leaf.

"See,"  the stern nurse says, "the fog is clearing out.  Keep it up, young lady.  You're almost there."

Melt butter at medium heat.  Toss greens and oil with my bare hands, then vinegar.  

Grind salt onto the eggs, flip their fragile bodies upside down.

I plate up the food:  a few tablespoons of rice, three lettuce leaves, an egg slid from the buttered pan onto Cecily's plate.  Leave space between the foods. 

Christian taught me that.  Make it easy for her, make it clear and doable.  Don't overwhelm her with too much food.  For so many years I thought if I put a lot of food on my kids' plates, they might eat more.  The opposite was true, and I've just learned this truth in the year that Eva went off to college, eighteen years after I first became a mother, three years after the last time I will have a baby.

Something to feel bad about is what a slow learner I am about really simple things.  And then to feel bad about feeling bad.   How do I feel bad about finally figuring something out?  Shouldn't I feel proud?  

Ask my dear friend, the black cloud crammed underneath the refrigerator.

With all of the lights on, the quiet fry of eggs, the loud, laughing children, though, waking up from the nightmare seems plausible. 

It is six-thirty, the children's hour, and I know where everyone is.  Momo is lying on the floor guiding his remote control car around.  My mother is picking out ties at Ross for the groomsmen at Katie's wedding.  Eva is watching House with her new best college friend in New York. Ingrid is sleeping in Oberdorla, Germany at the home of her host family with her stuffed bunny Chester at her side.  Lula and Cecily are coloring Valentines.  

Christian, the inadvertent partner in my depression, is trying his best to leaven the evening with jokes and happy talk with the kids. All are accounted for.  

All of the tangible beauties in my life, the soft egg and the soft cheek, the soft word and the buoyant giggle, softnesses that should be enough to envelope and blot out the darkness.

Vinegar, salt, butter, oil. Yellow, white, green.  The plate, the fork, the laugh, the clink.

My Nurse crosses her arms, purses her lips, gives me a meaningful look.  "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," she says.  "Get up, get out, and get on."

Today is not the day that I will fall under the train, or drift to the bottom of the ocean.  Today is the day that I will cook an egg, fluff some grains of rice, salt a salad.  

Today is the day that I will reassign created matter into plates of food: colder, hotter, smaller, flatter, firmer.  

I will hold on to the table and the glass of water as proof that this was only dreaming.  

That this darkness was only a mirror for the light.


20 April 2009

poached egg

A poached egg is really the most delightful food in the world.  I love a bite of firm white dipped into the yolk, love to salt each spoonful individually so as to get the flavoring exact, but here's the thing:  I want my poached egg to be round and smooth, firm with just enough runny yolk in the middle, but I'm not so good a poaching an egg--mine come out with the white dispersed or frilled, the yolk too runny or too firm.   

I'm looking for the perfect method.  Anyone?

19 April 2009

It's been awhile.

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
Here is what happened:
1: Went to L├╝beck. Had chaperone crush. Learned about Europe. Befriended Slovakians, avoided neo-Nazis. Decided to be myself.
2: Went to Italy, about which I will say slightly more:
I was staying with three of the Jacobies right by Florence. We took exciting day trips to San Gimignano, where we climbed a big huge tower and pranced through meadows of daisies, and Siena, which has a wonderful and big church designed by Bernini, aka my favorite artist. Also, the center square was voted the best in Italy. It was really good. I drank from the Fountain of Joy and bought an orange bra.
In Florence We visited lots of art: The Birth of Venus and David of course, a whole exhibit of Bernini's, and a lot of other things. For Easter Kendall and I both searched and received enormous chocolate eggs-- the Easter Bunny, looking to test my limits of uncouthness, hid mine in Wade and Kindra's closet, but in the end Kendall found mine and I found hers (in the dryer). In Florence every year a cart full of fireworks (pulled by four white oxen with flower hats) is exploded in the center square at noon. It was pretty killer, except for the enormous crowd. I saw over them by standing on a pole (really, on top of it-- I haven't balanced on such a small point since the circus troupe days)I was wearing a skirt and angel wings, but I decided getting a proper view was more important than dignity.
New discovery: wisteria. It smells so good. Mom, you should plant some asap.

17 April 2009

cooking fast broken

I broke my ten-day no-cooking streak yesterday by making the following:

*mini-quiches (ham, artichoke heart, asparagus, swiss cheese) in cupcake tins

*oven-baked sweet potato fries (wanted to put tamarind paste in the fry sauce, but alas had none in the pantry)

*vegetable tray w/lightly steamed and raw vegetables: broccoli rabe, asparagus, yellow peppers, jicama,  and purple fingerling potatoes with an red pepper hummous dip

*today will make pasta w/ leftover broccoli rabe and potatoes

07 April 2009


In lieu of me posting pics and describing Katie's wedding, check out her photographer Maria Nissen's blog: www.marianissen.blogspot.com.  She did a good job of conveying the warm feelings/raucaous vibe of the event.



04 April 2009

family dining

Spring fever has really taken over my brain, and I'm really neglecting my cooking, but I have created two new recipes lately that were quite good: Rolled Italian Meatloaf and Chicken Black Bean Soup. Like most of my recipes, I use a lot of ingredients, but they're not difficult to make. First, the meatloaf:

Rolled Italian Meatloaf
(serves 20 +--perfect for the huge Mormon family Sunday dinners we regularly attend/cook for if you don't mind taking out a second mortgage on your home to pay for it)

2 lbs ground chuck
2 lbs sweet italian sausage
3 large eggs
1 med. onion, finely chopped
1 bunch italian parsley, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, grated
6 oz. grated parm. reggiano
1 can tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup fine bread crumbs
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
6 oz. oil-packed sun dried tomatoes
large bunch of basil
s + p to taste

*In large bowl, mix together ground meats, parmesan cheese, eggs, tomato paste, garlic, parsley, bread crumbs, and s + p until thoroughly combined.

*On two overlapping sheets of parchment paper the size of a jelly roll pan, press mixture into a large rectangle a little wider and a little shorter than the jelly roll pan.

*Sprinkle sliced mozzerella, basil leaves, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes over the rectangle, leaving a one inch margin around the sides of the rectangle.

*Using the edge of the parchment paper, begin rolling the meatloaf.

*When the roll is formed, press the edge into the meatloaf to seal.

*Bake on fresh parchment paper in a jelly roll pan at 350 degrees, or until your meat thermometer reads 170 degrees fahrenheit.

Cheaper, healthier, even more delicious, and still capable of feeding a large Mormon family, is

Chicken Black Bean Soup

1 3 lb whole chicken
2 large onions
9 cloves garlic
1 T. chili powder
1 T. cumin
1 T. smoked paprika
2 T. whole dried oregano
2 14 oz. cans chopped mexican tomatoes
2 small cans chopped mild chiles
2 cans black beans
1 cup sweet corn
1 cup hominy (optional)
1/2 cup white wine or apple juice
s + p to taste
olive oil
vegetable oil

for toppings
1 large bunch cilantro, washed and leaved
6 limes cut into quarters
1 cup finely grated swiss cheese
1 cup crema or sour cream thinned with milk
6 corn tortillas cut into thin slices

*Cook chicken in slow cooker with one quartered onion and three crushed garlic cloves on low for eight hours (or, if you don't have all day, simmer for an hour on the stove top in large stock pot.)

*At dinner time, chop remaining onion, peel and grate 6 cloves of garlic and begin softening over medium heat in 2 T olive oil. Add all dried spices and continue cooking for several minutes. Meanwhile,

*Strip meat from bones of chicken and tear into large, but manageable pieces. Skim fat from chicken stock, and, when onions are completely soft and spices slightly browned, pour stock into soup pot.

*Add chicken, rinsed beans, tomatoes and their juices, corn and hominy, s+p, and apple juice or wine. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

*While soup is simmering, prepare toppings: fry tortilla strips in vegetable oil over medium heat. Drain on paper towels.

*Fill small bowls with limes, cilantro, cheese and crema.

*I like 2-3 lime wedges per large bowl of soup.

*Of course, everything will be more delicious if you cook your own black beans, roast your own chiles, and slice your corn off the cob, but people in BMF's just don't have that kind of time.