Ice-Cube Zen

I hate being late. I’m pretty sure this dates back to a childhood obsession with “people pleasing” that has carried over into my adult world. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s nice to show up on time — professionally speaking, this is a bonus, and I think when you’re a dinner guest or meeting a friend, promptness is a courtesy we all can appreciate.

The thing is, I’m realizing that my race to get out the door is inhibiting my ability to live in the present. This is a goal of mine, now that I am in a transitional life phase (that sounds ominous; it shouldn’t).  With all of my children no longer children and living primarily on their own, I find that the mental energy I expend during most days centers around work and…work. Again, this is good — from a professional standpoint, I’m being productive and I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something (again, the people pleasing rears its sometimes ugly head). But the days are whizzing by, and I’m realizing that there is a real peace and satisfaction in sometimes doing and thinking nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing of consequence.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical suggestions for how we become more mindful. One of my favorites:

“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

It’s been more than a decade since I first picked up the Zen master’s seminal work, but for some reason, this passage has stayed with me. And I was reminded of it today as I was filling the ice-cube trays.

In our house, this is a job usually reserved for my husband. I can’t give a good reason as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, well, he just has more patience than I. There are 6 trays in our freezer, and emptying and refilling them all at once takes — oh, I don’t know — maybe 3-4 minutes. In my world, that’s 4 minutes I could otherwise be accomplishing something. But today, armed with a renewed commitment to living presently in the moment, I filled the trays. And while I was filling the trays, I thought of nothing else but filling those trays. Watching the small cavities gradually transform from empty to full was gratifying — A little nugget of momentary peace.  I’ll take it.

Baked Rice Pudding
This dish, in addition to filling your belly with warm, sweet satisfaction, offers good practice in mindfulness and patience, as it requires some babysitting, a little extra TLC, if you will. But oh, it’s worth it.

Ingredients:
4 c. Whole milk (more as needed)
⅓ c. Arborio rice
⅓ c. Sugar
1 T Unsalted butter
½ Cinnamon stick
1 t. Vanilla extract
Zest from one orange
Fine sea salt
Optional: ½ c. dried fruits such as raisins, currants, cherries, etc.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, rice, sugar, butter and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour into the baking dish and distribute evenly. Bake, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15-20 minutes — this is where the patience part comes in — until the rice is very tender and has absorbed most of the milk, about 1.5 hours.

Remove from the oven and stir in vanilla, orange zest and a pinch of salt (*if you’re adding dried fruit, this is when you’ll want to do that). If the pudding seems too thick, stir in additional milk until you have achieved desired consistency. Spoon into bowls, and enjoy! (makes 4-6 servings)

–Adapted from Comfort Food for Williams-Sonoma (Oxmoor House, 2009).

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Adventures in Ayurveda

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My kitchen journey took a right turn this past weekend when I reconnected with an old high school acquaintance. Susan is a certified Ayurvedic consultant with a fascinating story. After many years of living and working in the Middle East, she resettled … Continue reading

We are All Here

Life is fragile, unpredictable, precious, a gift.  Instinctively we know this, but in our day-to-day existence, we tend to forget. Fortunately, there are reminders: birth, death, illness, celebration, and other life milestones.

A few days ago, for my family, it was a near tragedy that turned the light bulb back on.  A few days ago, my daughter’s dog was hit by a car.  It happened so quickly–a split second decision to take off his leash before he was fully in the house. Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and this rambunctious puppy was out the door and in the street in no time. He survived, albeit bruised and bleeding. This poor creature, abused as a puppy and shuttled from shelter to shelter until, miraculously, the universe saw fit to bring him to us, has once again had to prove his mettle. But he is strong and he is loved–more than he ever could have imagined–and he will survive.

So now we transition to recovery mode.  Our maternal instincts will kick into overdrive and we will nurse this pup back to health until he is good as new. But for my daughter, who has learned a powerful lesson on love and loyalty, and for the rest of us, for whom those few seconds of sickening fear will forever remain frozen in time, life, in all its imperfection, has become dearer.

To celebrate life and to just plain help us all to feel better, here is an updated spin on the ultimate comfort food, courtesy of Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, aka The Fabulous Beekman Boys.  Their book, The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook, is all about embracing cherished moments with family and friends through food.  I have taken some liberties with their “Macaroni and Cheese with Mushrooms and Kale” to suit my family’s personal tastes.  Plain, sophisticated, out of a box (though not my personal preference), it really does not matter — as long as you enjoy with those you love most.

Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook)
This rustic version of the tried-and-true classic includes heart-healthy greens, robust mushrooms, and a hint of earthiness from the thyme and paprika.  I added some smokiness by including about a cup of smoked gouda cheese.

Ingredients:
3/4 lb. kale or other green leafy vegetable
8 oz. elbow macaroni
3 T. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. cremini or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 t. dried thyme
1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. low sodium chicken stock
2 c. milk
1-1/2 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1-1/2 c. sharp cheddar, shredded
1 c. smoked gouda, shredded
2 T. butter
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the kale in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes.  Remove the kale, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.  Drain again, squeeze to remove excess water, roughly chop and set aside.  Meanwhile, add macaroni to same pot of boiling water and cook according to package instructions.  Drain.

In a dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute until aromatic.  Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally for about 2 minutes until the mushrooms wilt and begin to release their juices.  Stir in the flour and cook until well blended with mushroom mixture.  Add about half of the stock (more as needed) and continue cooking for another minute.  Add remaining stock, milk, paprika and salt and cook, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in the cheese until melted.  Add the macaroni and kale and toss to coat.

Transfer mixture to a glass 9 x 13 dish or individual ramekins.

In a small skillet, melt the butter and add panko, stirring until bread crumbs are fully coated.  Sprinkle over top of the mac and cheese and bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown.

Set aside a cheesy elbow or two for your pet!

The Family that Cooks Together

My daughter and I are collaborating on a cookbook. It’s not exactly a cookbook, per se, more like a shared compendium of recipes. We began the project at her request about a year ago, shortly after she returned from a semester abroad in Samoa. Something tells me that after four months of little more than taro, rice, coconut milk, and the occasional spit-roasted pork, she returned hungry–not simply for food, but for options.

Two years earlier, when she first left for college, I packed a copy of The Healthy College Cookbook in her duffle. Self-described as “quick, cheap, and easy,” the book was full of options for the the student seeking more than just dining hall fare. Honestly, if I had had access to recipes for “Easy Chicken Philly,” “BLT Taters,” and “Orange French Toast” as a young (and usually hungry) college coed, I’m thinking I would have learned how to fire up that skillet long before I got married.

In any case, I love that the students who wrote the Healthy College Cookbook, now all Williams College alumni, dedicated it to their families. I have a hunch that it was the mothers, fathers, siblings, and others with whom these first-time authors shared their tables that served as inspiration for the project. Let’s face it, when we are away from the ones we love, we hunger for more than just food. We long for the familiar company, conversation, sounds and smells that conjure happy memories and allow us to be ourselves.

Which brings me back to the mother-daughter recipe collection. It remains a work in progress; in fact, many pages are still blank. Which is the best part really, because the recipe book is more than a resource for those days when you just can’t decide what to make for dinner. It’s a reflection of our best days in the kitchen, our tried-and-true favorites, and our creative whimsy. It offers a glimpse into who each of us is and forever links us to one another. As long as there are pages to fill, the conversation will continue. Which is a good thing, because I still have a lot to learn.

Hangover Home Fries
Okay, no surprise here that this is one of my daughter’s contributions. Trust me, you will love these-hangover or not!

Ingredients:
3-4 potatoes, washed and diced. No peeling necessary*
1 large onion, diced or sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch (or more, according to your heat preference) dried hot pepper flakes
2 T olive oil
1 t dried rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

*Feel free to pre-soak the potatoes in order to expedite the cooking process, although this is not necessary.

In a pan, sauté onions, garlic and hot pepper. When onions start to soften, add potatoes. The onions will ultimately crisp up, as potatoes will take some time to cook. Stir occasionally until potatoes start to brown around edges. Add rosemary, salt and pepper. Enjoy with ketchup or maple syrup.

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