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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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A Twenty-Minute Town

A Twenty-Minute Town

What are you thankful for?

Dear Des Moines,

In a few weeks’ time, the calendar will mark eleven years since my family and I arrived here—we were five people, two cats, two dogs (one of them dying) on a icy sixteen-degree day complete with a wind chill that was way below zero. Halfway up the stairs of our new suburban box, a house the square footage of which quite possibly exceeds the cumulative footage of every other house I’d lived in before, I sank to the mini-landing and thought, “We’ve made a terrible mistake, moving here.”

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The Iowa Capitol, beautiful outside and worth a visit to see the twenty-nine types of marble inside!

Last week, I drove Sixteen to orientation for his winter/spring position as a Senate Page. As he struggled to tie an acceptable full Windsor knot in a new tie, a gift from his grandmother Ninety-One, on the drive downtown, I suggested he remember this moment. In twenty or thirty years, I told him he’d be effortlessly tying his tie in the back of his limo on his way to work. Or maybe he’d be so rich he wouldn’t have to wear a tie. “Or so poor, I can’t afford one,” he smiled, something neither of us believes will happen, but it completed my thought in the cheerful way that we riff off of each other. Oh Des Moines, even as I was marking the moment with him, cruising along I-235 toward the capitol building, I was remembering a much earlier foray on the same highway from the first year we lived here.

We knew hardly anyone, arriving halfway through the school year, and Sixteen, then Five, was put into the afternoon Kindergarten class. Our schedule revolved around his bus to and from the abbreviated school day, interwoven with his sister’s nap. Every Friday morning we drove downtown to the indoor Farmers’ Market. There we purchased milk from Picket Fences dairy, tasty bites for lunch, eggs from a farmer called Brent, and occasional crafts and other delights from the merchants we came to consider our first friends in the area. When he realized his sixth birthday would fall on a Market Friday, Very Nearly Six hatched a plan: we baked mini-muffins together and bearing this basket of treats went to the market as usual. Six made his way through the market, sharing the muffins with his merchant friends. They were truly charmed.

The following fall our schedule shifted and by-then Three was enrolled in morning preschool, her brother at his elementary all day. Still our hearts broke when the indoor market closed, even as the building was repurposed into the wildly successful Gateway Market and some of the merchants went on either to open retail establishments of their own—Café di Scalia, Zumi—or to become a gold standard in local produce: Picket Fences milk, cream and ice cream are now for sale all over the area.

Last week, after I dropped Sixteen, at midmorning on a Friday, I pulled easily into a meter right in front of the county office building. In fifteen minutes I had turned in license plates, netting a refund check, and completed the paperwork, photo and all, to renew my passport. I topped off my meter and walked through the skywalk system to the indoor holiday Farmers’ Market. Hosted in a skywalk nexus for two days in November and two more in December, this is the place to purchase the last tastes of the Iowa summer—jams, jellies, honey, late produce. I scored heritage carrots, watermelon radishes, a tiny tray of baklava for Ninety-One, Dutch Letters for Sixteen and Thirteen, and a hostess gift for a fall party.

I still hadn’t used up as much time in Des Moines as Sixteen, Thirteen and I spent purchasing train tickets in Madrid. Or, I remembered with a smile, my three-hour trip to the Maryland DMV when Thirteen was Three Months and the tip-top of her downy head appeared in my driver’s license photo. So I found a seat in a coffee shop and thought, as I often do, what a pleasant and easy place this is to live.

In fifty years, I’ve lived in six states and two foreign countries. I have dreams of living abroad again and living near the sea again, so someday, Des Moines, it may well be time to leave you again. In fact, I don’t think that I truly believed when we moved here that this would be the place from which my peeps would graduate, but I did know that I wanted them to have a sense of stability, a launching pad into their own lives. You have helped me create this foundation for them, Des Moines, and for this, too, I am grateful.

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Looking west from the Capitol—home is less than twenty minutes thataway!

In the years we’ve made a home here, Des Moines, you have proven yourself to be a town of opportunity, a town of reliable medical care, a town where my bankers know me by name, and a town where I can live on the west side and drive downtown in under twenty minutes without speeding. You’ve come to be a town where without exception no matter where I might be, I will run into at least one person I know. You’re the town where my children are thriving, with opportunities like Sixteen’s Senate page position and Thirteen’s upcoming performance as a Flower in Ballet Des Moines’ professional production of The Nutcracker. You’re a town, Des Moines, that has given me all of these gifts alongside the gift of an amazing community of people with whom I work and play.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, Des Moines, I am thankful that my pilgrimage landed me here. I am grateful you are the pleasant mid-western city that you are.

Wishing you and yours a happy full beaver moon, a glorious Thanksgiving, and a brilliant thank you for riding along on my journey. Namaste, Rxo

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