Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Idea of Fast Food #3

I can't believe it happened so quickly, but here's another in this little series of mine. It's that kind of season, a time for speedy suppers, maybe even assembly only. Again.

This throw together salad supper is zippy and zingy by virtue of kalamata olives, pepperoncini, and pepperoni. (Dang, I should have said peppy!)  The beans and cheese, along with the pepperoni, add creamy, chewy texture and protein, so it feels like dinner instead of a bowl of leaves. Gotta have that bottom note to make it to bedtime without a snack.  A hunk of crusty bread to mop up the last of the viniagrette helps, too.  Quite continental, but so easy.  A little slicing and stirring, and dinner's done.

The stirring would be for the vinaigrette.  Please promise me that you'll make your own.  It's just too simple and easy to leave to some factory and their God-knows-what additives.  I mean, you're not even cooking.  What's a little whisking?

This is another dinner that doesn't need a recipe really, but since it's handy I'll include it. Now, gotta go.  I just thought of two more things I need to do tonight.  Yikes!

Pepperoni and White Bean Salad
Adapted from Cooking Light Super Fast Suppers
Serves 4

6 cups baby spinach
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
24 pepperoni slices, cut into thin strips
1 15-ounce can of white beans (navy or cannellini), drained and rinsed
1/3 cup sliced pepperoncini peppers, drained
1/4 cup sliced kalamata olives (or other black olives)
1/2 cup chopped parsley if desired
1/3 cup of your favorite vinegar
2 tablespoons or so extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano

Combine the first 7 ingredients in a large bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Pour dressing over mixture and toss well. 

Spoon salad onto individual plates. Sprinkle with cheese.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Idea of Fast Food #2

For folks on the academic schedule, things are starting to heat up.  The first day of school will be here before I know it, and before that there are meetings to attend and syllabi due and, for some of us, new buildings to move into as well.  I've been petting the head of that part of myself I call Anxious Annie of the Clipboard for days now. (She likes that much better than being denied.)

Thankfully, yesterday was Friday.  I had made a little headway against the to do list in my head, and then Dave called to say that an impromptu guy night was happening.  I didn't even have to make dinner!

Oh, but I like to make dinner. Dinner is the sensual punctuation at the the end of all the efforting that the work day requires.  I won't give it up, but I will turn to what I consider fast food, especially when the stress is falling away and cooking isn't even required, a welcome bonus in the heat of summer.  

A few days ago, a latent craving had appeared on my mental horizon, an item added to the list of things to eat and record soon.  When the evening became just for me, I knew it was exactly what I wanted: white bean and tuna salad.  Creamy and umami-laden in an oceanic way, yet light and virtuous,  because virtue thy name is beans-and-omega-threes.

To add a vegetable in the absence of the leafy greens I usually nestle the salad into,  I made a bed of what I'm calling zucchini carpaccio--mandoline-thin slices of zucchini drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkled with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and one finely diced oil packed sun dried tomato for jewelry.  That was a pretty good idea, too.  Accompanied by a well-chilled glass of rose` wine, it was the perfect bowl for my unwinding evening.

(Public service request: If anyone knows how to produce a real accent mark on the average keyboard, would you please enlighten me?  Thank you.  We now return to our regular programming.)

Again, this is dinner that doesn't really require a recipe.  Throw some drained tuna and cannellini or other white beans in a bowl, add red onion, chopped parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to your taste, and you're done. If you want to be fancy, add capers, tomatoes, other herbs, or whatever strikes your fancy, so that your super easy home made fast food dinner hits that appetite spot that makes you lay down your spoon and say, "That was just what I wanted."  

This dinner is proof that with the right pantry ingredients and fridge staples around, anyone can  whip up dinner with next to no effort and without the negative load of resorting to greasy takeout.  Definitely another one of my ideas of fast food.  Filed! (Along with  #1 here.)

Friday, July 27, 2012


Tourist Town

The pizza house man 
plants his open flag. 
Soon he'll feed hungry
tourists searching for that
experience to tell their
friends about or recall
together in a warm moment.
(Remember honey?)
That's what we've all
come in search of--
a pleasant memory,
the feeling of away, 
with a parking place.
We hunt it down
while the swans 
bob on the bay
with nowhere to go,
not even moving
with the chop.

Sea Glass

surf pounded jewels
tumbled and
journey clouded
broken and rounded
beautiful debris

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Be The Swans

Dave and I returned recently from a six day trip to Rhode Island.  It was lovely, but arduous, more an adventure than a vacation. 

We experienced many challenges just getting there: torrential, visibility-destroying rain across the entire state of West Virginia;  Manhattan traffic; and three hours of bumper to bumper creeping across Connecticut.  We thought we'd arrive at our destination at 6:30pm.  We didn't make it until 10:00pm.  So much for getting pleasantly settled in.

Once we did finally make it to the B&B I'd booked, I was disappointed.  It wasn't as well kept or decorated as I'm accustomed to for that mode of lodging.  But I knew I wasn't in great shape for accurate perceptions after two days of difficult travel.  I cemented no judgments. Instead I focused on the cool breeze and lapping water sounds wafting in through our window and the view from our private deck overlooking the bay that takes up one third of the state.  Then I got a good night's sleep. 

As I expected, the next morning, sitting in the dazzling sunlight watching dozens of swans bobbing gracefully on the water only feet away while we ate a three course breakfast delivered to us by the very sweet innkeeper, it all looked a bit better. 

While Dave was in the stone carving workshop that caused the trip, I was free to tour around.  I thought for sure that this was where it would all turn around decisively.  Unfortunately, I chose to visit three of the most tourist-mobbed destinations in all of Rhode Island.  They were so packed that I didn't even feel up to trying to find a parking place in Jamestown and Narraganset or agreeable to paying $15.00 to $20.00 for one in Newport. I ended the day disappointed, even though I'd also helped Dave do the one other thing he wanted to do while in the area--find H. P. Lovecraft's grave.  He was experiencing satisfaction.  I was still waiting. 

I've learned not to sing along with negative feelings every time they appear.  The bonus of  gaining the wisdom that I am not my feelings means that even when I experience them (the negative ones that is--the positive I'll gladly own), I know that they can and will change.  Many an experience starts out rough and ends happily.  I was sure that I'd be blessed with that transformation eventually.  Until then, I reminded myself that it was OK for this trip to not be about me.  When I have traveled with my son to major league baseball games, my personal preferences have been second tier to making a memory and a dream come true for my young man. Surely my husband deserved no less consideration. 

So many times I've come up against this grasping, which is really based in fear that I won't get what I want.  As I recently did on my clouded shopping trip, I let my agenda go and waited.  Dave kept apologizing, feeling badly that I wasn't enjoying this trip that he felt responsible for, given that his workshop was the impetus.  I kept telling him not to worry about it, and I meant it.  Having bad feelings arise, more out of habit than anything else, and buying into them can be two different things.  I still felt sure that the experience could turn around at any time.

The second day, after counsel from locals, I found my personal state of vacation while Dave was tapping away at slate.  I went to the little bay side town of Wickford and strolled a shaded street lined with colonial houses so venerable that they all bore plaques noting the date of their construction and the name of the builder.  I prowled in a few charming shops and found the perfect souvenir, then cached myself on a vine bowered bench to watch the tourists and find the poem in what I saw.  Scribbling in my Moleskine, I felt like a real writer, which was wonderful in itself.  Over lunch, sitting by a breezy window held open by a tall jar of sea glass, I felt inspired to jot a few more lines.  My little visit lasted only two and a half hours, but it was all I needed to feel that the trip was complete for me.  I note that, as so often happens, I got what I wanted when I was quite through with trying to insist on getting it. 

Yet, it got even better. I bought chocolate sea salt caramels made on the premises of another small town's shop on the way to pick up Dave.  Then I took him back to my new favorite Rhode Island town to enjoy the peaceful sights and a good, affordable dinner on a breezy dock with a view of boats in the harbor, after which we shared my precious and highly sufficient chocolates.  We ended the day reading peacefully on our deck as the light slid away and delighting in a fireworks display put on across the bay after dark. All was righted, as I had known it would be.

Well, there was the trip back, with multiple (I lost count after four) traffic slow downs and torrential rain in West Virginia AGAIN.  But there was also an easier route past New York City recommended by the locals that yielded a bonus for Dave of lunch in Sleepy Hollow, and the lovely room and delightful innkeepers in Pennsylvania.  

Oh, I almost forgot the news of the cat sitter's spill down our steps, which caused us some guilt.  But that didn't matter in the long run either, since there was no serious injury.  Life rolls in waves that we label good and bad.  It just doesn't pay to get too upset about, or by, any of it, if we can at all help it, for the bumps in the road are neither the journey nor the destination. They undeniably exist but aren't worth remembering prominently

When I look back on this trip, I'll remember the driving hassles and brief disappointments, but I want to highlight the pleasures: morning sun more brilliant than I've ever seen before; the rippling shadows on the ceiling cast by lapping water; graceful swans resting confidently on the deep bay; the sounds of children playing in the evenings as we read quietly; the most successful mix-and-match travel wardrobe I've ever been able to assemble; the kind of innkeeper who has to hug you when you leave.  

When I let go of my expectations and insistence, some very "imperfect" people, places, and times can be deeply satisfying.  Inconveniences and disappointments will arise, but so will sufficiency.  I just have to be like the swans we watched--unruffled and graceful, trusting buoyancy, riding the current but never swept away. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Wants to Be Written

What wants to be written
is the mystery of despair,
the majesty of the sky,
the marginality of existence.

These are the truths unborn
moving under our skin.
They strain to emerge,
to take face and breathe,
blinking in the light,
announcing their presence.

They are eternal and newly born
each time we pause,
write it down,
outline the feeling of being,
with all its tears and joys.

What wants to be written
is me and you and the
cloud changing chaos of
trying to live until we die.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Another Super Salad

Two potluck dinners in one week means two favorite salads.  This one boasts the crunch of finely chopped broccoli and toasted sliced almonds, the sweetness of raisins, and the nip of red onion, bound lightly with tangy, creamy dressing. It's perfect for when you want the aforementioned tangy and creamy in a salad that doesn't involve cabbage.

I was introduced to the idea by Deb at Smitten Kitchen, although I have of course adapted it to my own tastes because I can now.

Deb uses her buttermilk dressing.  I most often use the standard homemade cole slaw dressing combo of mayonnaise, white vinegar, and sugar, although sometimes I add a little buttermilk if I feel in that mood.  (This time I did.)  It's good either way.

My other customization is dispensing with measuring.  I start with what broccoli I have, using the stems as well as the florets.  Please consider doing so, too.  The stems are eminently edible, in case you didn't know.  Removing the withered end and the tough outer covering reveals a juicy-crisp, almost tuberous bonus ingredient--the very thing that's in those plastic bags of "broccoli slaw" at the grocery store, except that you didn't pay $2.99 for it, and it's not dried out! Run it through the food processor's shredding disk or your hand shredder and feel frugally victorious.

As for the other ingredients, I adjust them to my tastes.  Instead of dried cranberries, I use raisins because they're always in my pantry.  I like more of them, too, as well as more nuts, and less onion.  The dressing I just eyeball, in much the same way as I make my ranch-like dressing.

I do totally agree with Deb about one step: toasting the almonds.  I know about the magic of this step. I can't believe it took me this long to do it for this salad!  Do not be the dope I was.  Toast the nuts and toast yourself for doing so.

One note about getting broccoli florets finely chopped: not as easy as it sounds.  Deb suggests using the slicing blade of the food processor.  That technique seems to yield me a goodly number of thin slabs that still require some knife work to qualify as small and and harmonious with the shredded stems.  I've also tried doing all the chopping and shredding by hand, but that's a bit tedious.  I usually settle for the compromise of using Deb's suggestion and fine tuning it by hand.  And no, I can't just leave the slabs.  Why, that's like leaving the blankets uneven on the bed!  Crazy talk!

I've produced a recipe here, but do as you feel led, because you can, too. 

Broccoli Slaw
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes about six cups of slaw

2 heads of broccoli
1/2 cup thinly sliced almonds, toasted
1/3 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup mayonnaise 
Buttermilk to thin, if desired
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, if desired

Trim broccoli and cut it into large chunks. From here, you can either feed it through your food processor’s slicing blade or simply hand chop it into smaller pieces. I used the florets and the stem, shredded, but if you have a broccoli stem aversion you can just use the tops.

Toss the sliced broccoli with the almonds, raisins or cranberries, and red onion in a large bowl. Meanwhile, whisk the dressing ingredients in a smaller one.  Pour the dressing over the broccoli and toss it well. Season well with salt and pepper to taste if desired.

Store in refrigerator.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Little Mantra

I went shopping in the city last Thursday.  It did not go well.  I wandered Target in a fog for about two hours selecting and then rejecting things, unsure why I thought I needed them or convicted because I wasn't sure the money was there to buy them.  My acquisition urge was raging, but I had no clear soundings for choosing.

This fuzzy wanting state descends upon me sometimes when I'm shopping, usually when I'm alone.  I see so many things that seem desirable. I want that, and that, and that other thing, too!  I just want until it seems a twitching, almost compulsive urge that needs to be, not satisfied, but relinquished. 

With that in mind, and after accomplishing the task that caused the trip and more (Discontinued nail polish matched! Sherry vinegar obtained! Deeply discounted winter shoes found!), I saw the wisdom of letting it all go and heading home.  When the winter shoes didn't fit at home the way they had in the store, I lost grip on contentment once again. My felt happiness was still disturbed that night, which made it difficult to write with fun (Unhappiness is not a good muse. It's taken me days to write this.),  but reflecting on the experience did remind me of something I've often fallen back on in times like these.

Ten years or so ago I was newly separated, busted down to a studio apartment and adjusting to getting by on....less household income, shall we say.  I remember an evening when I entertained myself by leafing through a catalog and turning down corners of pages containing items I wanted. When I closed the catalog and saw all the folded corners, I realized that there was no way I would ever be buying all those things.  This was a depressing thought, a limiting thought.

I had run up against this knowledge before.  I had always thought I wanted a great many things and never had money or debt tolerance to buy even a fraction of them. The situation had always been a downer.  But that night I decided that I didn't want to be miserable any more about a situation I could not change and a desire that felt outsized and misguided.

After all, I did not need any of those coveted things.  I decided that I would let my life tell me what I needed, and that's what I would buy.  I found myself saying these words in my mind any time I felt full of that bottomless want:

 Let your life tell you what it needs

The phrase served as a reminder that I had what I needed and the ability to supply those needs.  Anything after that was a bonus.  Neither advertisers and manufacturers, with their promotions and persuasions, nor my own compulsions were the arbiters of my purchasing power.  My own genuine life needs were.

After a few instinctive fall backs, the phrase achieved official mantra status.  I didn't avoid feeling disturbance last Thursday, but I did fall back on my self created wisdom while lost in Target.  That's why everything went back out of the cart except the $8.00 nail polish that I was clear I wanted and knew I could afford, and why I looked for winter shoes whose absence had been noticed last season.  When the inner toddler gets a case of the gimmes, it's time to walk away and breathe and only buy what I'm clear I've had an inner order for.

Of course, sometimes I wish later that I'd walked away with an item that haunts me. This is the collateral damage of acquisitive attacks, when true desires become indistinguishable from passing ones. I still remember the sandals that made my feet say "Ah" two summers ago in Richmond.  And now there's the pewter ones I left at Target on Thursday.  I regretted that omission as soon as I was on the interstate home. But letting go is the only way to find peace about it, and they might have felt different at home, too!  Producers will continue to make pretty things to want and then try to convince us to buy them. There will always be more to acquire, and happiness isn't found in obtaining any of it.  Life truly does go spinning on, and just as happily.

The greater wisdom of my little mantra is that I'm instructing myself to look within for purchasing guidance rather than without. Desires that arise from authentic living in that way are worth honoring.  They are usually meaningful, even if they are also for shoes.  They come from and augment the process of becoming my truer self. They are not about acquiring, or holding on to something, so much as expressing, or letting something out. That twitching wanting is a need to fill an emptiness.  Fully funded and soul-led shopping is about adding to fullness. Like distinguishing salt and sugar, two purchases may look the same but taste very different.  One is sweetly free, the other bitingly tight.  Only the buyer knows the difference.

I'm thankful to know that difference now.  I can't avoid being human and therefore vulnerable to attacks of the wants, but I can choose wisely to pat that urge on the head and say, "Now, now.  You know that's not the way.  Put your little hands down and let's go home where we have all we need."

The best part is more enjoyment of what I do buy.  New pretties without a guilt hangover make life finer indeed.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Random Reason to Rejoice #19

The gentle pop of those red roses against all the greens in the room.

When I made the curtains,
I feared that using more color in the room would be limiting.
 I forgot about a little thing called contrast.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Super Summer Salad

Why yes, I do love alliteration.  But look at that up there.  Doesn't it look super?  Super healthy anyway.  A perfect salad to take to those hot outdoor potlucks when a mayo-dressed dish is downright dangerous. (Whoo, that was a great run of d's! And I didn't even plan it!)

I found the recipe years ago in a slim publication called Nutrition Action Healthletter, although they freely admitted that it was originally a Cooking Light recipe. I checked: the only change the square-sounding Healthletter made was using oranges instead of tangelos.  Hardly a sacrifice.  Have you tried finding tangelos in the grocery store lately?  Exactly.

The easier-to-obtain oranges hang out with black beans, red pepper, onion, cilantro, and a touch of cumin, bathed in an orange and lime juice dressing.  A little sweet, a little creamy--and a little spicy if you include the hot sauce.  I don't because I don't like heat as much as I like alliteration, but suit yourself.

A little brown rice or hot cornbread could make it a meal. It also makes a very nice side for chipotle-lime marinated chicken, which we really should discuss some day.  I've made it three times. It must be a keeper. But that's for another time.  If your virtuous side needs a cool new bean dish, give this one a try.

If you don't know how to segment an orange, go here.  He's a little over weaning but pithy.  Get it?  Pithy?  Oh, my. Now I'm doing puns.  Let's get to the recipe before I do further damage. 

Black Bean and Citrus Salad
Makes 6 servings (3/4 cup each)

Note: I squeeze what's left of the oranges after segmenting to get the juice called for.  It's just about right.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced red bell pepper
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
1 1/2 cups orange sections (about 6 oranges), membranes and pith (Ha!) removed
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and pepper and saute 5 minutes or until tender.  Combine the orange rind, the orange juice, and the next five ingredients in a small bowl.  Combine the onion mixture, orange sections, cilantro, and beans in a large bowl.  Add the juice mixture; toss to combine.

Nutrition information (because I have it): Calories 230, total fat 3 grams, sat fat 0 grams, fiber 9 grams, sodium 480 milligrams, cholesterol 0 milligrams, carbohydrates 48 grams, protein 10 grams.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sabbath Surprise

You don't know it yet, but these are my angels.

This past Sunday I was deprived of my usual afternoon delights.  Normally I take to the deck or the couch with a stack of soul-nourishing books, escaping for hours into a beautiful, poetic, thoughtful world.  That little weekly vacation is anticipated all week and prepares me well for the next one.  I am dedicated to this Sabbath rest and loathe to give it up.

But I am also committed to being the chair of the hospitality committee at our church.  This position means that I'm in charge of any dinners we have.  I'm happy to serve in this way.  I've long wanted to feel capable of it, and it's a pleasure to relieve a dear friend who served in this capacity for twenty years.  But when they fall on Sunday evenings, shortening my precious afternoon idyll, I feel just a little resistance, despite my spiritual willingness.

So it was with a little reluctance that I came home and cooked a dish instead of reading blissfully, and then returned to the church for activity instead of remaining home for blessed idleness.  Three gifts made it all worth while.

First,  IT RAINED!  Holy relief! After a month or so of drought, it finally rained and good.  Even though the road was blocked by a downed tree and electrical line, causing us to turn around and find an alternate route and arrive later than planned--even though my new suede sandals got wet--even though the church basement sprang a leak that electrically endangered my burger-frying husband and caused us to lay down a path of towels to avoid slipping on the wet tile--yes, despite all that, I was deeply grateful for the shower.  The thirsty earth needed a drink, and I rejoiced at its slaking.    

Second, I was as moved as usual by the deacon ordination ceremony that my church puts on. It's a simple affair, with brief faith stories shared, a few songs sung, and a laying on of hands, which is my favorite part that always causes me tears.  Those who have never served as deacons before and are therefore being ordained or blessed by the congregation seat themselves in chairs.  All members who wish to do so step behind them, lay hands upon their shoulders, and whisper whatever prayer or words of encouragement they wish to offer.  Having been the recipient of such a shower of affirmation, I can tell you that it's a huge blessing requiring a hanky.  I am always moved both by remembering what it's like to receive this different kind of shower and by feeling privileged to give it to others. 

By this point, having fed people successfully and experienced an emotional blessing, I was already feeling richly repaid for leaving my cave of self nurturance.  Then came my third reward.

The college concert choir often uses our sanctuary for rehearsals and performances, both because the room has very good acoustic qualities and because the college choir director is also our church choir director (We are so lucky!) who knows about the sound gift.  As it happens, they were practicing that very night for the World Choir Games. (Who knew there was an Olympics for choirs?)  They invited us to come up after our service to be their practice audience.  Of course, most of us said yes. I certainly did.  I've been to these concerts before.  They are not to be missed, even if it was running up against my equally sacred bedtime schedule. 

From the moment they began singing, I was utterly transported.  It was angelic music, the kind of crafted singing that always makes me feel that I should go live a life full of things as beautiful as that music every day and never settle for less.  Sitting there rapt in their gorgeous sounds, I wished that kind of life for every one of them, too, these young souls giving their swaying all to deliver the melodies.  There really should be a world where soul moving singing is rewarded as well as paper pushing. That's my idea of heaven on earth. 

When they were done, applause did not do it justice for me.  I ran up to the stage and did what felt right: I got down on my knees and bowed my thanks.  A gift of beauty like that merits prostration from joy and gratitude, and I shamelessly offered it. 

Oh, but I almost forgot.  It wasn't over yet.  On the drive home, we were treated to a beautiful sunset whose glorious pink was reflected in the wet asphalt so seamlessly that it seemed we were driving on the sunset itself.  Were I fully the person I want to be, I would have snapped a humble cell phone picture of that wonder, too.  

Obviously I was not a bit sorry at the end of all these blessings that I had "served" instead of putting myself first. In truth I was triply rewarded for my little bit of giving, so much so that it felt like no sacrifice at all.  Following my callings always pays off.  Sometimes like an instant win in the Big Love lottery. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dry Faith

drought burns on
the grass dries and crunches
no need to mow
what isn't growing
and seems dead

but underneath
the roots wait
matted and conserved
ready to rocket their
greenness straight up 
when rain comes again
so resilient and patient
in their nearness
to the source

at the slightest 
provocation they'll
raise their heads and riot
the chore of mowing
will be an offering
to the god of plenty 
and regrowth

Friday, July 6, 2012

Freedom Curtains

Some people grilled burgers and watched fireworks on July 4.  I made curtains.

I have nothing against a juicy burger, especially if it's made with my father-in-law's good beef, or a grand display of sky flowers, as I saw them called on another blog today.  I just had different priorities for a bonus day.

My internal curtain alarm had been going off for some time now.  The time had come to dress that picture window; the inner toddler was quite clear about that.

I always carry a list in the back of my mind and on paper of decorating projects.  Occasionally one rises to prominence in this way, like the answer in an eight ball, and I go with it.  As long as I have money and supplies, that is.

As it happened, I had printed sheets from WalMart originally bought for our bedroom (Why, yes, over a year ago.  How'd you guess?), whose colors actually worked charmingly with the decor downstairs instead.  I slapped away fears of regret and just did it.

We're both very happy with them.  The sumptuous print contrasts serenely with the rough boards of the walls and harmonizes with my much beloved bench and the poster I've had since college, and the billowy drape softens all the lines and rectangles in the room. The bit of extra length allows them to puddle softly on the floor, adding further muchness.  I tried samples of other, more neutral fabrics, which would allow for more variety in table decor, but the unintended sheets were what spoke to me.  Gut response trumps practicality.  Practicality apparently isn't so much my thing any more.

In my own way, they're a personal declaration of independence.  I have cast off (mostly) the judgment and fear and doubt that used to prevent me from doing what I dreamed up.  I still bog down momentarily, but then I get bold and plunge ahead.  Never mind the what if's and negative possibilities.  Who knows what the future holds?  Let's have curtains three hours from now!

And that's all it took.  Three hours--and a little crawling around on the floor.  Hardly sweat shop labor because they're simple.  Just hemmed panels hanging from bought clips.  If you were able to look closely, you'd see that all the hems don't even match in width.  I left some pre-existing ones to save myself some work.  I don't know why I told that.  You'd have to be looking to even notice.  And then you'd deserve what you found.  That's my position on dust under beds, too.

Another something done, another idea birthed and swaddled, feels so good!  And the joyous doing (I don't count my few cursing moments--the point is I don't let frustration stop me any more) comes from self compassion.  When my thoughts constantly chorused my unworthiness, I quite naturally didn't feel like doing much.  Why put forth effort when you believe the results will be bad?  I have more optimism now.  Plus, I've learned that finished really is better than perfect.  Perfect exists only in the imagination.  Finished hangs on the wall and makes my eyes happy.  I'll take that please.  With a side order of puddling.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

As I Wish

Letting go is infectious.  I may have found something else in my life that needs jettisoning: my piano.

Let's start with my historical relationship with the instrument. I wanted to learn to play for what seemed like all of my childhood.  My pre-middle-school best friend took piano lessons, and I envied her.  I remember sitting beside her on the bench as she practiced, wishing that I could take lessons, too.  There was no money for such things in our family.  Besides, my friend was an only child.  All resources could be devoted to her edification.  I was the oldest of eight.  I wasn't very old at all before I was some of the resources devoted to the younger children, at least in part.

When I was able to take band in fourth grade, my first question was whether piano was one of the instruments available.  Of course, it was not.  Portable ones were the rule, so I chose clarinet instead.  I did not continue with it in middle school.  Obviously, my heart was not in it.  The piano was my true love, alas unrequited by virtue of enforced separation.

In late high school (I think), my father bought an organ as a family Christmas present.  It came with a few sessions of group lessons to get the buyer started.  I vaguely remember that I attended them, still wanting to play but only being teased with the merest beginner training.

My father bought this organ because he can play one, as well as the piano.  He learned as a child. It just now occurs to me to wonder why he didn't think to teach me to play.  It never occurred to me then.  I'm sure I didn't ask.  I was a wheel that did not squeak if at all possible.  I don't remember asking for lessons from anyone.  I knew that money was tight and that my dad was impatient (I take after him just a little). It never occurred to me to bring up what obviously couldn't be done.

In college, to fill hours, I took two semesters (I think--or was it quarters?) of class piano--group instruction again.  Here was my chance to learn to play at last, even if I did only have a tiny, tinny keyboard for home practice.  It was practically free--I was already paying for school--and they had practice pianos available.

In actuality, it was frustrating.  I wanted so badly to play, to be able to unlock the beautiful moodiness like that in the Chopin CD I listened to at the time.  Instead, I felt myself up against a barrier.  I'd sit at the keyboard trying to will my fingers to move simultaneously or, worse yet, syncopatedly.  My poor brain just couldn't seem to manage the multiplicity of piano playing.  Apparently, I was indeed never meant to be a multi-tasker.  At the end of my time in those classes, I still couldn't play.  Tired of the humiliation of locking up in front of the instructor, I let it go and focused on classes necessary to finish my degree.

As a young adult, my then husband's co-worker wanted to sell her piano.  I bought it.  I still have it, I have moved it three times, and I still don't know how to play it.  The last strong men who moved it complained more when they found out that I didn't know how to play the thing.  That was the first time I questioned, ever so briefly, my attachment to my piano.

I did try to make use of it in my one other stab at learning--using my husband's tuition waiver hours from the college where he works to take one semester of piano lessons from a professor.  It was again the same frustration and lack of progress, even though I had my own practice piano this time.

Currently, the piano--symbol of my thwarted longing--is taking up valuable space in what is supposed to be Dave's studio.  Recently, for the first time, I began to seriously wonder if I really need to keep it anymore.  It's all because of writing.

When I wrote about my pallor--I mean, my ivory skin--and my slender feet, I unearthed ideas about myself that needed to go.  The traits didn't change, but I felt differently about them after probing into the ideas and finding the thoughts behind them, conceptions so old that I'd ceased to notice what I was carrying around any more.  When I did, I found them releasable.  My piano may be one of those burdens.

For most all my conscious life, the piano has been one of the symbols of my wronged status, my lack.  It was tied up in the story of me as deprived, poor, unattended, missing things much desired.  It was all about what I didn't have, the emblem of wanting and not getting.

But I'm an adult now.  I'm responsible for my own life, no longer deprived or held back by anyone but me.  And more realistic, too.

Realistically, here are some other facts to consider.  I've tried--even if not whole heartedly, blocked by low self worth as I was--three times to learn to play my beloved instrument.  None of those attempts seemed to take.

One reason that I may be unsuited to it is the second fact, my irregular nature.  I can't even type well--and I've had those keys memorized since seventh grade.  I constantly hit wrong keys, backspace, and fume.  I have never been able to keep the steady, sure rhythm of a good keyboardist going. Heck, even my heart beat is irregular!  It's a mild arrhythmia, not even requiring treatment, but the point stands.  I'm uneven all the way through. Even singing in choir, I found myself fooled when I thought I could keep proper time without the steady beat of the director. Maybe I'm just too unsteady to be a pianist.

A more practical matter is that I'm vulnerable to tendonitis in my wrists. My inability to properly strike the keys--straight up and down like curved pistons, no reaching and splaying--causes further strain. My work and writing already require lots of keyboarding. Do I really need another hand intensive activity in my life?

But the biggest factor weighing on my mind right now is the questioning my recent writing has produced.  It has revealed that I've carried around sad, outdated ideas about myself that need to be changed.  They've been so much a ground-in part of my identity that I hadn't even noticed them.  When I did, they had to go.

For at least thirty five years I've wished I could play the piano.  So many times I've said exactly that. I have almost always been She Who Never Learned to Play the Piano, a label with an ache of lack in it. It's been part of my identity.  But does it have to be that way?

The newly opened door in my mind shows that no, it doesn't.  Just because I've fingered the baby grand shaped hole in my heart every time I've seen a piano in the past or heard someone play, doesn't mean that I have to now, just as I don't have to view my fair legs with distaste today because a few people in the past did.  I have the power to let go of hurts and move on.  The piano may be an anchor that needs pulling up. 

Of course, the alternative is that I could finally, with my new grown up powers of action, give myself the lessons I've thought I always wanted and check a big item off my life list. I haven't decided yet.  The great gift is that I can be more free in my thinking about it.  The grown up me may not need to play the piano.  It sure hasn't seemed to come naturally to me.  My longing to play may be as outdated as my view of my skin and feet--the child's dream, not the adult's.  I can choose whether this ache is a phantom pain or a true desire, and I have the power to do something about it either way, laying it down or taking it up, as I wish.

Somehow, the decision feels important.  I have felt the crossroads urgency and the old tenderness around the subject as I've written about it. Choosing what to do with this piano requires really knowing who I am and what I need.  Apparently I still have more to learn about both parts.  I also have faith that, with an open hand and heart, I will.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Getting the Hang of It

For my second (the first is here) celebration of simple, steady joy, I choose biscuits.

{Moment of rapturous silence}

I know that they're not health food; we certainly don't live on them.  But bless me this time, I've made some moving biscuits recently.  I think I'm really getting the hang of them.  No, I mean really getting it.  I can remember at least three separate occasions lately when I have said "These may be the best biscuits of my life!"

Please take that bit of bragging as the first grade variety.  I'm so habitually expectant of failure and so notoriously (to me) uneven, that consistent success thrills me.

Biscuits are, again, a simple thing to make.  But they are tricky.  Once you know the tricks, it's no big deal.  Allow me to share some of the ones I know.
  • Go all butter.  Shortening is easier but more deadly, and you can't beat the richness of butter.  Just keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it, and all will be well.
  • Use a soft flour like White Lily if you can.  This trick is not absolutely necessary, but it helps with tenderness.
  • Use buttermilk.  The acidity aids the leavening.  I discovered a couple of weeks ago that you can also use whey leftover from cheese making in place of the buttermilk.  It works fabulously.  (Yes, I've been holding back some of my kitchen deeds.  I'll try to catch up one day.)
  • Include a tablespoon of sugar to balance the bitterness of the baking powder.
  • Leave some of the butter in pieces at least the size of peas.  Their melting creates  steam, which makes more layers.
  • Cut straight down with your cutter.  Twisting will prevent your biscuits from popping impressively straight up. 
  • If you really want to pump up the pouf, pat out the dough into a rectangle, fold it in thirds, and repeat that process another couple of times.  You're now starting to act as if you're making super-flaky puff pastry, and your biscuits will act a bit like it, too.
Another wonderful thing to know about biscuits is that they aren't just for southern down home breakfasts. Your scratch biscuits will put those little yellow cakes from the supermarket to sniveling shame as a base for strawberry short cake made in the original--I mean colonial original--style.

The slight savoriness and buttery richness of the biscuit combined with sugar softened berries and lightly sweetened whipped cream are quite the treat.  Add blueberries, and it's the perfect dessert for the holiday at hand--historical and delicious.

Makes 7-8

2 cups White Lily or all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt.

Cut in the cold butter with your fingers, a pastry blender, or even two knives.  Stop when there are still some butter pieces the size of peas.

Stir in the buttermilk only until moistened.  Turn out onto a floured counter and pat out into a 3/4 inch high rectangle.  If you want impressive rise and layers, fold your rectangle in thirds, envelope style.  Repeat the patting out and folding two more times.

Cut biscuits out using a 2 1/2 inch round biscuit cutter, re-rolling and cutting the scraps.  Or you may cut the final rectangle into even squares if you're feeling particularly...efficient.

Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, until tops and bottoms are golden brown.  Serve warm, or cool and use for dessert!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Return to Normalcy

All storms (Umm, the internal ones)  have passed for the time being, and I'm awfully glad.  I can get back to writing out of the positive overflow of my restored heart and record a couple of very simple things that are much more fun.

Firstly, today, that fabulous salad up there.  Actually, calling it a salad is a stretch. I know you were already thinking it. It's more accurate to call it simply dressed arugula.

Yes, that's it.  But it's really so much more than that.  The particular combination of basic components is so made for each other that it's more enjoyable than expected--the old sum greater than parts deal. Perhaps you've heard of it?

Take a generous handful per person of average grocery-store arugula out of its plastic tomb, drizzle it with good extra virgin olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and grind some pepper over it.  That's the recipe in a sentence.

We were surprised, too!  I know that simple things can be wonderful--I'm in favor of them most of the time--but I was still startled.  And impressed enough that we've eaten these simple dressed greens three times in the last week--the last time so I could photograph them as well as I am able and get this down before it gets away from me.

The best explanation I can find for the inordinate satisfaction given by those anointed leaves is the chemistry between the elements--like the energy in that small but compatible group of true friends that makes for a great party, even when everyone else couldn't show.  The peppery bitterness of the greens gets brightened by the lemon juice, their oppositional balance is rounded by the olive oil, and the salt and pepper do their usual two step on top. What an act!

I did use my good olive oil, sourced and bottled by a local gentleman, bless him.  That could have contributed.  And I do think using coarse kosher salt helped, too--adding crunchy texture as well as its usual flavor save.  There is that old wisdom that when the ingredients are good not much else is needed. This dish may be proof of it. Regardless, it's worth remembering for those times when I need something green and easy on the plate that won't be underwhelming.

If you're feeling all fancy, shave--don't grate, but shave with the vegetable peeler--some real Parmigiano-Reggiano into your little black dress of a salad. Of course you could add all manner of other delights: toasted nuts, dried fruits, other cheeses, roasted vegetables.  Your hardly-blank green canvas can go in many directions if you wish.  But thanks be, it doesn't have to.

Dressed arugula can also serve as an underpinning for the French version of a one bowl meal of lentils and fried egg, which is how the leaves made their most recent appearance here. Since you don't need a recipe for the greens, I've included the directions for the lentils.

Super easy or supper.  Your choice.  I love versatility.

Tomorrow, more simple goodness.

Dressed Arugula Recipe

See paragraph four above.  Done.

Warm Lentil Salad with Fried Egg
Adapted from Epicurious 
Serves 4

3/4 cup lentils (preferably French green lentils)
4 oz thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick strips
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large eggs
Dressed Arugula (see above) or baby spinach

Cover lentils with cold water by 2 inches in a saucepan, then simmer, uncovered, until just tender, about 20 minutes. 
While lentils are simmering, cook bacon in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until crisp, then transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, leaving fat in skillet. Add leeks, celery, carrot, and tarragon to skillet and cook, stirring, until just tender. Add vinegar and boil until most of liquid is evaporated. Remove skillet from heat and stir in half of bacon, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a bowl and keep warm, covered, reserving skillet. 

Drain lentils well in a large sieve. Stir into vegetable mixture and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm, covered. 

Wipe skillet with paper towels, then add oil and heat over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Fry eggs in batches until whites are just set but yolks are still runny and season with salt and pepper. 

Divide lentil salad among 4 plates atop Dressed Arugula or spinach. Top with eggs and remaining bacon.