Friday, October 12, 2012

Beautifully Old

Good food isn't the only kind of thing shared by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks fame.  She also regularly posts favorites lists that contain varied offerings.  One link on her last list was to a video of a lovely and admirable 95-year-old with the face of a wise old woman and the agility of someone much younger. You can find it here.

I want to age like that woman: bravely accepting the passing years with grace while maintaining myself in the best fashion I can manage. There is no way to avoid being old; there are a few ways to have at least a chance of avoiding decrepitude. Eating right, exercise--the usual daunting saviors.  It probably helps to be born a Russian ballerina, but a steady yoga practice and some vegetables can't hurt.

This isn't the only Wise Old Woman I've admired.  I have a couple of other examples of feisty aging tucked into a folder I've labeled Great Old Gals.  One is lean and gray haired, apparently resting from shoveling in an urban garden.  The other is plump in the middle with spunkily short hair and a sassy look, perched on the bed of her well decorated room. Both say to me that you may have to get old but you don't have to quit doing, or lose your good taste and spunk.

I often threaten to let my hair reveal it's naturally premature silver and to then cut it off into a sassy pixie like my second Great Old Gal's or punky spikes like those I saw on a lady in the grocery store once.  I thought she looked cool.  Grandma + cool is a word pair I want to make mine someday.

For now, I'm blessed with a son who thinks I look too young to be gray-haired.  I'll honor his wish for a while and play along with the cultural fantasy that says dyed hair makes you look younger (research would disagree--read Anne Kreamer's Going Gray if you doubt), even while I know my day of reckoning is coming.

I don't mean that in a gloomy way.  I simply will not be the shriveled little old lady--and that's what I'll probably be, sweater-clad at that--with overly dyed hair that contrasts not at all flatteringly with her aged face.  I believe that there comes a time to get real and face what can't be evaded.  I want to be ready for that time when it comes.  I'm gathering my role models now--women who look their age, but look very good for it.  I want that to be enough for me, since it's a more attainable goal than forever 21.

In case you're thinking it, I'll say it: I know I'm thinking about this early.  It has always been my tendency, for good or ill, to work ahead.  But then, I may have been forced to. My gray--gads, probably white under there somewhere--hair isn't even a sign of age really, for it came early.  The first silver sproingers appeared at my crown when I was 21, a trait inherited from my mother, who never covered the evidence of her DNA oopsie.  All these years I've only been righting my own little genetic mistake.  Who wants to be the early graying mother of a preschooler?  I didn't.

Even so, the decision to start coloring my hair was a difficult one.  I am a strong believer in being as genuine as humanly possible.  It felt like fakery, which it is, to hit the bottle.  I waffled on principle until a friend said that she considered hair coloring to be an indication, not of falsehood, but of taking care of yourself.  That helped a little with my decision.  Graying when your child is three years old--and you didn't have him late in life--helped a lot with it.

Regardless of when I quit covering, which is a symptom, I want to be at peace with the bigger reality, which is that we all age and die.  There are plenty of reasons to be upset in this life.  I don't want to waste my energies being in denial of something I can't change when there are other things that I can.  I've almost stopped giving myself temporary face lifts in the mirror.  I'm getting there.

I don't know what my destiny will be, but imagining a lithe, peaceful seniority sure beats assuming useless decay. And if visualization works, I'm seeing me as a Great Old Gal.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fennel and Apple Salad with Juniper

Oh, how I love this salad.  I love it so much that I wanted to record and share it, so much that I raced the dying-earlier light to photograph it.

And oh, how sorry I am that I had forgotten it for so long.  Again.

I first discovered it during culinary school.  A member of a final menu team for one of my classes, a far better traveled and dined woman than I, suggested it.  If I remember correctly, the recipe came from a New York restaurant's cookbook.  The name was perhaps Chanterelle, after the mushroom?  Hard to be sure since New York restaurants are alien to me.  It matters not.  I agreed to be the tester for the salad and proceeded to have one of those tiny but mind expanding taste experiences.

There are many fennel and apple salads, I'm sure.  The remarkable ingredient in this one is juniper berries.  Not your everyday ingredient in rural eastern Kentucky. Those had to be purchased in the city, and were also alien to me.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm always ready to be surprised by the grace note that takes a dish from expectedly good to minorly life changing.

First of all, the fennel and apple are perfectly harmonious.  The textures are both crisp, but in subtly different ways.  The flavors are as highly complementary as a soprano-alto duet singing neighborly notes, with the sweetness of the apple taming the licorice flavor of the fennel, and the licorice flavor of the fennel grounding the sweetness of the apple. Those two ingredients are the entire body of the salad, but they're enough because they're so suave together.

The dressing is a simple mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Standard so far.  It gets more interesting with the addition of the juniper berries. They add a flavor that I can only describe as eating fresh air, as if the crisp piney scent of a woodland walk had become a flavor. Refreshing to say the least.  Mind expanding to a woman who didn't know that either juniper berries or such an aroma could be eaten, for pity's sake!

I have adapted things occasionally. I think the fancy Chanterelle chef used a green skinned apple.  I happen to like the tiny slices of color provided by whatever red skinned apple I have around.  I have even added grated or julienned carrot to the mix. Yep, still good. And perfect for this time of year when a little crisp is in the air occasionally, too, and the produce involved are in season.

Truth be told, I could be as out of physical touch as most Americans with what foods occur when in nature.  Seasonality is something I know about empirically, from a distance.  I don't have to live with it or by it.  Choosing produce that I know to be in season, even if the evidence isn't overflowing at my local supermarket, lets me at least approximate seasonality.  So maybe it's appropriate that I re-discover this salad only every fall, in it's own time.  Absence makes the palate more grateful. One less reason in life to feel guilty. I can now enjoy our reunion and anticipate another next year.

This salad is also my favorite kind of dish, one with a simple but elegant idea, comprised of basic ingredients with a remarkable fillip, no recipe required really, effortlessly impressive.  

My internet search didn't turn up the Chanterelle version of the salad that I remember, but a version by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will do nicely.  I certainly agree with him on one point.  Having tried slicing the apple and fennel with just my knife, a mandoline is definitely the tool for the job. Now you can add two things to your repertoire.

Fennel and Apple Salad with Juniper Berries
Adapted from Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Serves 2-4

1 fennel bulb (about 12 ounces)

1 large apple
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
15 juniper berries

Trim the fennel, but keep some of the top feathery fronds for garnish. Cut the apple into quarters and core it (do not peel).

Cut the fennel against the grain as thinly as you can, preferably on a mandoline. Cut the apple as well into the thinnest possible slices. Toss the fennel and apple together with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Crush the juniper berries with the side of a knife and then mince. Stir them into the salad, toss, and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. 
This recipe keeps well for up to a day; refrigerate in a covered container and bring to room temperature before garnishing and serving.
Just before serving, garnish with the minced feathery fennel tops.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I'll Be Glad When

Tonight I was very, very sleepy at an hour more suited for toddlers than grown ups.  At 7:30 I was already drifting off in front of the computer screen.  I believe in going to bed early when necessary, but that hour was a little too early.  So here I am instead.

It's been a weird week, with my husband gone all evening for play practice. I'm fine until bed time.  Then the silence suddenly grows large and heavy and, yes, loud, with a high whine of loneliness in it.  It's hard to believe that I used to be adept at living and bedding down alone, with no discomfort.  I'm out of practice, that's all, but I'll be glad when this circumstance is over.

Always a funny thing to say: I'll be glad when....  There may not be a future "when" in which to be glad.  Better to be so now--if not generally, then about whatever there is to be glad about even if there are other things still unsatisfactorylike all the good dinners this week even if I would rather have had my husband with me to share them. 

What I mean when I say that phrase is not that I refuse to be happy or that I am incapable of being happy until circumstances change. I only mean that I will be glad about getting back to our normal life, with dinner companionship and warm feet to rest my cold toes upon as I read.  I will be glad to be spared the challenge, however surmountable I've proven it to be in the past, of starting off the night's sleep with an acute sense of aloneness and vulnerability, neither of which is any more true or false than other nights when I'm not at home alone, nor of more duration than an hour or so anyway, but which are also unpleasant. 

Let's say that I'll be more glad when this is over.  My entire happiness isn't hinging on getting back to a life circumstance that I like better, but I will rejoice just a little and heave a great sigh of relief when our regular shared schedule resumes. 

Funny how circumstances affect our perception of reality.  I am the same woman in the same bed in the same house as every other night, yet I perceive the experience differently due to the absence of one part of the usual whole--that beloved other who shares this touching-down space.  It's a phenomenon as old as time and couples, but unsettling still.  I'm very glad indeed that it is, as far as I know, only temporary and that I have a husband I'd rather have home than out of my hair.

Just now, there are sounds I can't readily identify from out in the dark somewhere, and I prick my ears, wondering.  Even the cat hasn't come back in to provide a bit of aloof relief.  If the dryer weren't running still, I would disappear into my down covered bed with a fresh novel to drown out the ridiculous feelings my badly trained body/mind can manufacture.  

Wait. These situations are why there's a fluff setting on the dryer.  I'll call in that ornery cat and give it up for the day, turn on David's crutch of a fan, and bravely surrender to the silence that I know isn't nearly as scary as it seems right now. 

Conquering the fear of being alone?  Been there, done that.  I'm glad to know that I can.  I'm equally glad to know right now that I don't have to do it again for much longer.

The dryer just buzzed, the cat is pawing at the door, and I've exorcised my ghosts here where it was fun again. I'm glad about that, too.  Let's see how the silence sounds now.