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Stirring the Pot

What’s for dinner?

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Tweaking the menu from last year in anticipation of a crowd, I’ve printed out recipes, made multiple shopping lists, and started to stock pantry items. The swirl of definite maybe guests is sifting into a group of college students arriving Wednesday night with Eighteen, repeat guests from last year who know how to make a party, and relatives flying in on the day itself. I will shop for two days, cook for the two more, iron the linens and fret over the table settings, and I will love every minute of it. Thanksgiving, a holiday about gathering together, making and enjoying great food, and expressing gratitude, is among my very favorites.

Preparing an elaborate holiday meal is the kind of cooking I relish. From my early days, though, I’ve always been drawn to cooking. When I was little and I noticed my mother starting to pull out equipment in the kitchen, I would stop whatever I was doing, find a chair, and drag it to stand next to her, ready to help. I learned early to follow a recipe, readily ate a wide variety of foods, and found a love for the science of baking as soon as I was old enough to manage the oven on my own. By fifteen I made noodles and bread from scratch, mastered buttery chicken Kiev, plated a lovely salade niçoise, and annually crafted the family holiday favorite, bûsch de noël.

Flash forward twenty-some years and I found myself a very different kind of cook. Both of my children were specific eaters, but of specifically very different tastes. The daily grind of producing supper felt like a complicated dance of trying to please everyone that generally resulted in settling on a lowest common denominator, boring for both diners and cook. To complicate matters, while my peeps were still new on their gastronomic journeys, their mother shifted into vegetarianism (technically lacto-ovo-pescatarianism). To this day I honor my omnivores and try to address their tastes. The daily grind of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table and in their lunchboxes often feels relentless.

When Eighteen was still in elementary school, the honors program held a “Night of the Notables” event. Students learned about and then portrayed a variety of important historical and living people—dressing in costume and talking about the people whose lives and work they admired. Eighteen chose author Michael Pollan.

In those days, journalist, lecturer, and academic Pollan had hit one out of the park with publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, not, perhaps, standard reading for an elementary student. Having inhaled the young reader’s edition, my son co-opted my full version and read it cover-to-cover more than once. My memory falters a bit, but I think we made stuffed mushrooms to serve at his station—like his choice of Pollan, they were unusual and met with surprise by more than one in attendance.

Pollan’s star has continued to rise with good reason. He writes with vigor and conviction about the plates we put in front of ourselves and our families. Given the fandom in our household, I keep an eye on his work with affection. Recently I read an interview designed to generate publicity for a Netflix series tied into his most recent publication, Cooking. Pollan said: Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time…. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Huh, I thought, captivated. He’s right. Other animals prepare their food, present it to one another, and have rituals around it, but no other animal cooks what it eats. Thus, whether creating a meal for one or a feast for a crowd, the act of cooking is truly a human one, something unique to the species. I’ve been so nourished by Pollan’s words that even simple weeknight dinners have become more absorbing for me.

A week before Thanksgiving, on Thursday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrot, garlic, and yellow pepper, turning them in pre-heated avocado oil in my soup pot. When they were tender, I added one of my favorite ingredients, a no-chicken chicken stock that somehow satisfies the rich warmth of chicken broth, the only thing I missed when I stopped eating poultry. That pan was on the stove waiting for the burner underneath it to click, click, click to a flame. When I returned home in the evening, I heated the broth gently and set to boil water in the pan on the next burner over, adding rice-ramen noodles that were be done in a matter of minutes. While the noodles drained, I reused the noodle pan to braise some escarole, my hands-down favorite green. Into warm broth went trimmed snow peas and then the cooked noodles. Fifteen enjoyed her weeknight ramen without greens; I piled them into mine.

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Leftover ramen, delicious on night two!

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Prep for one of Fifteen’s favorite weeknight meals: Eggies with asparagus and cheese. 

 

Fifteen and I are nearly always dashing in to a dark kitchen after dance, but with a little forethought and some pre-assigned leftovers, I’ve been setting our places with healthy, warm plates and no sense of drudgery. Incrementally Fifteen’s palate is expanding—and our dinner table conversations can’t be beat.

Under the energy of the new moon, may I wish you and yours the most wondrous Thanksgiving. I’m ever so grateful to each and every one of you who stops by to read these words. With all my love, Rxo

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Baklava Ballet

What nationality is that, French?

This morning I watched my leggy daughter, just a couple of weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday, climb on the school bus, her jam-packed backpack tugging at her shoulders, a rolled poster for geometry under her arm, and a Rubbermaid cake box balanced between her hands. Her hair, the natural tawny growing out from under henna red, tumbles down her back. Blue eyes and pale skin that burns even in the late afternoon sun divulge her Irish heritage. Today she is wearing her lucky shirt. “Why is it lucky?” I asked her last night when she announced her wardrobe choice for today. “Well, not so much lucky,” she relents. “But good things happen to me when I am wearing this shirt. Ollivander picked me in the wand shop.”

Waiting for the bus this morning, she recounts the wand shop incident—we were one of first groups ushered into Ollivander’s wand experience at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, where one young person is selected by Ollivander himself to be fitted for a wand. Fourteen was that wizard and she gamely waved one wand and then another, as Ollivander sorted and muttered, the spells she cast wrecking havoc on the shop. Flowers wilted, lights flashed, and the chandelier threatened to fall on the watching crowd. When at last a wand cast the desired spell, Ollivander declared: “The wand has chosen the wizard!” We were ushered into the next room where the wizard’s father plunked down significant cash for the wand. The wizard twirled with glee.

She was just remembering the magic of being chosen when the bus screeched to her stop and she climbed out of my car. “Keep the baklava upright,” I reminded her. She tried to bump the car door closed with her foot and I waved to let her know I’d get it. It’s a good thing, I thought, watching her juggle the box to show the driver her pass, that her viola was already at school.

The baklava will net Fourteen extra credit points in Global Understanding. I wanted to kiss her this morning when she expressed compassion for students who might not have access to the extra credit because they wouldn’t be able to make food from a region of the world the class has studied this year. I was far more skeptical a week ago when she told me she’d like to make baklava together. She had even looked up recipes and talked it over with her teacher. “I didn’t realize you’d been studying the Middle East,” I stalled.

“Oh yes,” she enthused. “Plus, it’s my heritage. I’d really like to try. Can we? Please?”

I had a dim memory of making baklava years ago, of it being a lot of work and of winding up with a drippy sticky overcooked mess. The flaky nutty pastry—the very mention of which used to send my father’s visage into spasms of imagined delight—is a culinary treat I had relegated to something someone else makes, like choux pastry, sushi, and fondant. “Send me the link to the recipe you found. I’ll have a look.”

I end up countering with a different recipe and scheduling “make baklava” on the family calendar.

Dinner finished, dishes done (we are, after all, living in the Pinterest House—see “Following Instructions”), Fourteen and I set to work assembling ingredients. We first created the syrup, and while I watched the needle on the candy thermometer work its way line-by-line to 225°, Fourteen did barre routines, her otherwise intense ballet schedule on a brief hiatus between sessions. “How’s the chemistry going?” she asked between pliés.

“Almost there.”

“Great, great grandmother Turkman wouldn’t have had a candy thermometer.”

I realize I don’t actually know if Fourteen’s great, great grandmother was even a cook, let alone a baking whiz. But it doesn’t matter—she was with us in spirit as we tried to tap into what I believe to be a family legacy. “She probably made her own filo, too.”

“Ugh,” Fourteen had already retrieved the filo out of the freezer and seen that even pre-made, it’s tricky to work with. “That would be really hard.”

Syrup made and cooled, filling nuts ground with sugar (in the food processor, another huge convenience I know I didn’t have the last time I tried), butter melted, filo at just the right temperature, Fourteen was at my side and we were ready to begin our assembly project. I made a last minute pan switch and she diligently brushed each filo sheet with butter before I layered on the next. Eight sheets with butter between, half of the filling, eight more sheets buttered, the second half of the nuts and sugar, eight more sheets. The only place the recipe let us down was in the cutting directions—I soon wished I was working in squares instead of diamonds, but as directed I gently sliced through the top layer of filo, we sprinkled the baklava with water, and into the oven it went.

“It’s so interesting that so many cultures claim baklava,” Fourteen remarked.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “But I feel intensely that it’s ours, and we’re making your great, great grandmother and your grandfather very proud.”

The flaky, gently browned pastry that came out of the oven 35 minutes later took on a generous amount of the syrup. Eighteen joined us in the kitchen looking disappointed that the recipe now specified, “cool for four hours.” We didn’t wait, but tasted the edge pieces and scooped up the filling in spoons. Flaky, crispy, sweet, and nutty, our baklava is beyond delicious. “Your great, great grandmother Turkman could be nothing but very proud,” I said of the woman I never met, but whose surname I proudly have kept as my own all these years.IMG_8304

“She really would be, wouldn’t she?” Fourteen was elated.

My first slightly panicked thought upon waking this morning was how on earth would we transport honey-soaked baklava to school. I hadn’t even opened my eyes when something about cupcake papers swam into focus and I had a plan. Cut through on the pan last night, the baklava was even easier to divide in the morning, and I successfully transferred many pieces into the container for school. I also set aside baklava for my Greek friend, whom I would see shortly at the coffee shop for our writing time, for my Egyptian friend with whom I planned to connect later in the day, for my mother, who isn’t the least bit Lebanese but took on the food heritage of her married name with enthusiasm, and for Eighteen, who, like his sister, is just one-eighth Lebanese. And me? I enjoyed baklava and strawberries for breakfast, before heading out the door.

If you’ve ever thought Bourjaily is French, you’re not alone. But it’s Lebanese, as I’ve told the many people who’ve inquired over the years. Sometime when we’re having a drink together, or enjoying tea and baklava, I’ll tell you the story of how great, great grandmother Turkman came to America, as told by my father. Meanwhile, with the intention of getting back on the IMG_8182posting track, here’s a picture from teaching Yoga under the Stars at the Science Center earlier this spring in celebration of yesterday’s new moon. As ever & with so much love, Rxo

Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver

It’s a rainy Friday in May, cool outside the coffee shop. The line for the drive-through wraps around the building and winds through the parking lot. Most of the tables are full. My writing partner and I are nestled in our customary spot, the twin chairs in front of the picture windows just beyond which the cars edge forward, their drivers anticipating coffee for their morning commute. “Perseverance,” my writing partner counsels wisely, “we just need to sit in the chair.”

My tea tastes more like the cream I impulsively added to it than black tea. I’m shifting and fidgeting in my chair, balancing my laptop on my knees, wondering if I can get into the creative flow that I came here looking for. For some time Mary Oliver’s quote has been on my desktop, at times mocking me, at times simply calling to me. I want to explain to her that I’ve been paying attention and plenty astonished by the last two months. I’ve been failing at telling about it.

In the big picture the pieces have shifted and shifted again, like one of those puzzles where you keep sliding the tiles around to make a pattern or organize the numbers. Seventeen is now Eighteen and finishing his first year of college in a blaze of excellent grades, new friendships, wonderful memories, and age-appropriate frustrations in pointing his car toward home where he understandably feels his life goes on hold for the summer. IMG_8170Fourteen will be Fifteen shortly—the past four months together have been a wonderful exploration of our mother-daughter duo—and she is excitedly headed toward summer through the end-of-the-year obstacle course of finals, projects, recitals and concerts.IMG_8173 Ninety-Two has come back stronger than before from a health crisis in April, astounding us all. My house is on the market, creating a combination of uncertainty about where we’ll live next and requiring the constant upkeep of living in a “Pinterest house.” Each of these is a story unto itself, full of little and big astonishments; spring, though, is about mushrooms and rainbows. So it is these I shall tell about:

Mushroom Soup

Ninety-Two’s health crumbled in early April. Another hospitalization landed her back in skilled nursing, where a team of physical and occupational therapists helped her get back on her feet. The fabric of support from friends and family for both of us was truly astonishing. From meals delivered to rides for Fourteen to flowers on my doorstep to kind words via email, phone, and text, we felt the love from near, far and wide. One email arrived with this welcome news: Morels … Found a bunch and I’d like to share them with you. Might make your mom happy.

My mother and I delighted in morel season on our farm, going out into the woods to look together, squealing when we found a mushroom. They are undeniably delicious, but also a herald of the spring with summer to follow, seasons of ease and abundance, of heat and leisure, of a shift away from the arduous slog that was winter life in the country. Disappearing as quickly as they appear, morel mushrooms are earth-magic, little wonders like four-leaf clovers and rainbows that you will only see if you pay attention.

Our morel benefactress zoomed up to the yoga studio in her black car and handed me a paper bag through the window. I hopped from one bare foot to the other on cool pavement in my bare feet, telling her I had devised an entire plan since her email the evening before. At home with the morels, I started diced onions in oil, the beginning to any good recipe and one that used to bring my mother out of her room when the scent of sizzling onions wafted around the corner. To these I added garlic and chopped crimini, then mushroom broth, simmering the flavors together. IMG_8153With the immersion blender on its last legs, the motor whining as much as it smooths, I puréed the soup in the pot and added thick cream from a local dairy.

Leaving the soup on low, I turned my attention to the paper bag bearing the most perfect morels. Lifting them one-by-one, I carefully sliced them the long way into quarters while my pan heated on the stove. Cooking them the French way meant tossing them into the hot pan without oil or butter, turning them rapidly and waiting for their liquor to release. When they were just right—cooked through with their edges and flavors intensified by heat—I tossed them into a thermos and trapped their heat with the lid. The soup went into a second thermos, and both went into a bag with a bowl, a cream-soup spoon from our farm days, and a kitchen towel. Defying the Pinterest house, I left a mess in the kitchen and went to deliver spring to Ninety-Two.

Whatever the results, there is something life affirming about knowing the impact of our actions. I’ve gotten things completely wrong plenty; sitting with the feelings of regret or dismay or despair is the surest way to forge through and rebound, but it isn’t the least bit pleasant. On occasion, I’ve gotten things completely right. Delivering morel mushroom soup to my convalescing mother was one of those occasions, worth everything I put aside to make the soup while the mushrooms were fresh, worth every dish I zoomed home to scrub in my otherwise barely used for-sale kitchen. I watched her exclaim and spoon up every bite, adding more broth so that each spoonful was a silky mixture of soup and mushroom. Later, while Fourteen and I were enjoying morels with eggs and asparagus, Ninety-Two’s email arrived, celebrating the soup and, in hindsight, heralding the turn toward her remarkable recovery.IMG_8154

Which leaves just rainbows to tell about—if you live in the Midwest you’ve seen some amazing ones recently. One morning I woke up in the yellow glow of morning and realized I had woken up inside of one (pictured below with May hail and the rainbow that followed). If mushrooms are earth-magic, then rainbows are the generous gifts of sky and wind and rain and sun, heralds of changing skies and astonishing times to come. But we won’t even notice them if we don’t pay attention and we won’t receive their gifts if we aren’t willing to be astonished. With intense gratitude for your presence on my journey and for letting me tell you about it, Rxo

Timed Travel

Why Spain?

My daughter, Eleven, makes and sells Garnet Granola. Packaged in brown craft paper bags with labels listing the contents, the granola sells well at the yoga studio. It’s like an on-going bake sale, an entrepreneurial enterprise I encourage because eleven-year-olds can’t find much work and she wants to earn money. The granola, adapted from a recipe I first encountered pregnant with her and staying in an inn in Eason, Pennsylvania, is studded with nuts and dried cherry and cranberry garnets. It’s delicious. Her client base has been encouraging and a few have asked, “What’s she raising money for?”

The newest batch of Garnet Granola and the granola company's CEO.

The newest batch of Garnet Granola and the granola company’s CEO.

“We’re saving for a trip to Spain.”

Mostly this elicits stories from well-traveled yogis who have trotted many regions of the globe, but last week someone asked, “Why Spain?” There isn’t really a short answer, I want to tell her; it’s this:

The first apartment in Barcelona was a deep green cave, rooms end-to-end with next to no natural light. We only stayed there a few weeks, and then we moved to a sunny place where I had a little room all my own. I wore a tartan skirt to school and stood on the corner of the street every morning playing cat’s cradle with my mother until the van marked Uniroyal in red letters pulled up and drove me to school. I feel like we sat on tires loose in the back, but as I fashion the snapshots of memory into something like a narrative, I don’t really know if the tire part is the story as it was or the story as I want to tell it.

I was eight years old, in third grade in an English-speaking private school in Spain. My father was on sabbatical, working on a novel and getting in touch with his inner Hemingway. The rest of us went along for the adventure. My brother adjusted the best, opting to stay through the end of high school, coming home summers and long holiday breaks. For me Spain was not a good fit—I missed my cat, my friends, my Iowa life. Maybe as a result of never settling in, I have very few solid memories of the time in Spain, a time that was meant to be a whole school year but ending early for my mother and me—we returned to the Iowa farm in January.

What I do remember intrigues me and I like to take the memories out and examine them. I can remember the markets and shopping to make paella. I can remember the vendors who sold tiny figurines for Christmas crèches. I can remember some of the extraordinary Gaudi architecture, sandcastles in bright colors dotting the city. I have an image of the beach in Sitges, a memory of wearing an orange wool poncho and clogs, and I can still taste the charred artichokes that came out of a huge fireplace grill in the restaurant high on a hill where we dined several times. As I remember one item, one smell, one flash, I am gratified when another follows. And even though I know I did not want to be living in that foreign world, the memories are not unhappy ones.

Although my earliest exposure to a foreign language was this immersion, I can manage basics in both French and Italian but speak next to no Spanish. Living there, I got practiced enough at saying, “No hablo español” that Spanish speakers didn’t always believe me and would jabber rapid-fire in my direction. As an adult, I’m disappointed I don’t know Spanish. So I am delighted that Eleven and Fourteen have each been studying Spanish since they were six. This summer they’re off to Spanish language camp, where they can immerse in language and learning. But next summer we’re heading to Spain, or at least I really, really hope we are.

I’ll turn fifty in August 2015, and two years ago when my junior high friends were visiting for a few days, we talked about how we should celebrate fifty together. One woman lives with her family in Marseilles, another in Washington, DC. The fourth comrade is in Hong Kong—Spain seemed like a natural choice. We put a pin in the conversation—let’s try, we said.

Then Fourteen came home last year talking about a school trip that would take him to Spain and France this June. He pondered it, the expense, the realities of being far, far from home. When Fourteen was born, I started setting aside a dollar a day for him. After a couple of months, I put him in his stroller and off we wheeled to the bank where I opened a savings account in his name. Every month I made a deposit and I started to do the same when Eleven arrived. Eventually those savings accounts were turned into CDs with the idea that the money would fund that school trip or similar big-ticket luxury item. So here was the opportunity.

When he realized the Spain trip overlapped with the very much closer Simpson Jazz Camp in Indianola, IA, he hesitated: “I don’t want to miss Jazz camp. I got so much out of it.” I was a little puzzled—six days of trumpet versus seventeen in Europe, but I simply said, “You know, I’d really like it if your first European experience was with me.”

“I want to go to Europe first with you too,” the words tumbled.

“You, Eleven, me. Let’s all three go to Spain together when I turn fifty.”

And just like that the dream trip to Spain became a real goal. We wish to spend a week or so traveling and a week sitting still, ideally in a house somewhere, a grand rendezvous with my friends and their families. I look forward to making new memories with my peeps and wonder if anything I see, hear, smell, eat or experience will refresh my memories of the country where I once lived.

I’m dropping change in jars and we’re saving the profits from Eleven’s growing granola business, any extra bit tucked away. Given the choice between a night out and cooking one more family meal, I’m trying to take the less expensive route so that this dream trip with my darlings can really happen. Thanks, as always, for tuning in! Namaste & much love & happy new March (spring soon!) moon, Rxo

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

What to feed the baby next?

Maybe I was a little ahead of the throngs, but when I strolled into his high school one morning recently, based on Thirteen’s reports, I expected to push through knuckle-dragging linebackers and towering hair-obsessed damsels. These larger-than-life characters populate Thirteen’s subconscious and often come visiting in the middle of the night, when he has a bad dream. And just as we did when he was younger, he tells me what happened in the dream and then we put it in a bubble and blow it away.

Walking through the hallway I saw, simply, teenagers: teenagers with backpacks; teenagers eating the last of their breakfasts; sleepy teenagers; teenagers with dyed hair trying to figure out who they are. I arrived at my son’s classroom where he was calculating problems on a worksheet just behind two of these behemoths; they were greeting him warmly. I presented Thirteen with his forgotten lunch. He played it cool: “Oh, yeah, I guess I might need that.” And then I saw what he sees—mini adults with iPhones and swagger, a foot or more taller than he is, shouldering their overweight backpacks and the world with apparent ease. And then he did what he often does and leaned the top of his head toward me for a kiss. The peck and the lunch delivered, I left him to his work.

Thirteen’s lunch contains the same thing every day of the week: half a turkey, lettuce and cheese sandwich; an apple and a full-sized carrot; something crunchy like pretzels or popcorn; a water bottle and a tiny treat. With little variation I’ve been making this lunch for him since second grade when he decided he really couldn’t abide school cafeteria food. Ten takes her lunch too: a mini whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese, applesauce, popcorn or goldfish, a clementine, a carrot and a treat. With so much predictability and so little variation in menu, you would think making these lunches would be automatic. Instead, it’s ten minutes of my morning when I can’t really think about anything else—just get those lunches made, packed into their insulated lunch sacks, the water bottles filled, and don’t forget the ice blocks. Too often I don’t get started until there are just a few minutes before the arrival of the first bus, so I rush and risk switching the items between lunch packs or leaving out the ice blocks completely.

I’ve said it so many times that I’ve worn a groove in the record, but from the second they were born, feeding my children has been the most stressful part of being their mother. I’ve been a tyrant about sugar, insisted on whole grains, and won’t let them drink soda except as a special treat. Hard candy has been virtually outlawed, they don’t chew gum, and their approved sweets are rationed. If a fruit or vegetable can replace a crunchy snack, we go that route.

“But Mommy,” Thirteen will remind me, only half joking, “my friends all drink Mountain Dew and they’re enormous.”

He’s right. They are. This is the year that boys begin to grow and reach towering heights. Thirteen’s friends over the summer bypassed their parents in height, and they weigh, in some cases, nearly twice his 78 pounds. How can I not second-guess what I feed him? Whether I feed him enough? What to make for dinner?

This summer the chorus of questioners became larger. My reassurances that his growth spurt was bound to happen trailed off in favor of

It was a long morning …

consulting with the pediatrician, an endocrinologist, and his geneticist. And so we found ourselves in a clinic room, Thirteen plugged into an IV, for a series of blood tests to determine whether his body is making appropriate amounts of the hormones he needs. The test took four and a half hours, from start to finish, and involved medications, needles, ten timed blood draws, and a frightening injection of insulin during which he became dopey, sweaty, and limp. We will wait three weeks before we have results.

While we wait (and wait and wait), I remain grateful to the geneticist who assures me that just like Thirteen’s array of early-childhood issues, his health now is related to his own body chemistry, not something I may or may not have done as his mother. I am grateful, too, to another mother who reminds me that eating healthily builds a disease-proof body. I am grateful that I have two children who eat well when they’re hungry and don’t overeat.

I have always known that Thirteen would not be an overly large man, but walking back through the high school hallway on my way to my car, I was arrested by MEN and WOMEN in black and white tiles announcing the student restrooms. I didn’t see men and women when I looked around; Thirteen, waiting for those hormones to kick in whether spontaneously or with medical intervention, must see them everywhere he looks.

The full frosty moon shines on us all at the end of November. Wishing you a lively month ahead filled with the sweetest of delights. Thanks, as always, for sharing my journey, Rxo

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