Friday, January 22, 2010

The Beauty We Love

Before I was born I spent three months in India. Well, my birth mom did, along with my birth father. I was kicking around and forming myself amidst the sounds, smells and spiritual surroundings of that holy place. I can’t help but imagine it had some impact on my most unconscious core, leaving an indelible mark that would later surface in the form of an obsession with yoga, warm curries and garlic naan.

However, long before saag paneer and downward dog came into my life, I was brought home by my adoptive family to live in the safe and stable suburb of Arcadia, California. Although the spiritual atmosphere in my new home was different than I imagine India’s to be, it was no less earnest. In addition to the nightly prayer at dinner and occasional devotions we shared as a family, church was a regular affair that was not to be missed. My three siblings and I attended Sunday school and youth group weekly, and I went to a Presbyterian summer camp annually, from the time I was six weeks old until I was twenty. I was a seeker early on, ever intrigued by the spiritual nature of the universe, filled with a longing I couldn’t explain.

Growing up in the church had its upsides and downs. It definitely helped me develop a solid foundation, both morally and spiritually, and there’s something about the story of Jesus as savior and deliverer of hope that I think carved hopefulness into my being. It’s always lingering around, even in the darkest of times. Of course, the church has a rather bleak history, and the older I get the less I can reconcile one group’s limiting idea of God with the diverse and beautiful world I see around me. I once read a license plate frame that pretty much sums up how I feel at this point: The Mystery of God is Enough For Me.

So I don’t go in for much organized religion these days, but every now and then I long for the ritual and ceremony of church, and all the smells and bells that go with it. I am soothed by the procession, the candles and banners waving; by kneeling in pews, taking bread and wine, not to mention the blessing that always follows. When I need it, I have a stand-by church, a place I feel at home, where I don’t have to check myself at the door, but can be completely myself. When you’re a spiritual mutt like me, such a place is a true blessing.

I had planned to attend this past Sunday, but when it came down to it, I felt compelled to stay home and cook instead. So that’s what I did. With storm clouds brewing, I spent the entire day in my warm kitchen, assembling a Sunday Supper I would share with three good friends. I cut up my farmer’s market chicken and followed Julia Child’s recipe for coq au vin. Anytime you begin by sautéing bacon in butter, you know otherworldly things are about to happen. I browned the meat, added some cognac and lit it on fire. My organic fowl was then submerged in a bottle of French red wine, homemade broth, with a bay leaf and fresh thyme thrown in for earthiness. I’m telling you, at this point, things began to get downright holy and I knew home was the place to be.

The aroma of the braising stew wafted through the house while I moved through the preparation of my other dishes. I roasted pearl onions, mashed Yukon gold potatoes, and prepped swiss chard for a last minute sauté. I roasted kabocha squash, made fresh bacon dressing and toasted a handful of pecans.

Cooking, pulling food from my garden, using a plate as a canvas for color, shapes and textures, these are activities that hold me together. Their rhythmic and ritualistic nature keep me grounded and help me process when life gets crazy. Sharing beautiful food with friends is like icing on a cake, a sweet and satisfying affair. Sunday evening was no different. Despite a few moments of cooking-chaos and some last minute scrambling to handle my leaky roof, the night had a certain magic to it. It was raining, spirits were flowing, laughter was abundant and dreams were shared. The food and wine were revelatory, the flavors perfectly complementing, with textures that caressed the palate like a massage in the mouth.

For me, when it comes down to it, the ritual of preparing good food and sharing it with friends is like an act of prayer in which I commune with the divine. Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he shared wine and broke bread with his friends and disciples, saying "do this in remembrance of me." Church has its place in my repertoire of spiritual practices, but for a truly centering experience, I’ll take a good meal with soulful friends any day of the week.

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don't open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Warm Kabocha Squash Salad with Arugula, Bacon, Roncal and Pecans
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

All agreed this starter was one of the best things we’d ever tasted. I served it with a substantial white wine (Justin Chardonnay) that held up nicely to the rich squash and hearty bacon. In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe. I promise it's worth the trouble.

½ cup pecan halves
6 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 lbs. kabocha squash
1 Tbsp. thyme leaves
2/3 lb. slab applewood smoked bacon (thickly sliced will do)
3 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
8 oz. young dandelion or arugula greens
¼ cup thinly sliced shallots
¼ lb. hunk Roncal or Manchego cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the over to 375 degrees.

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and toast about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they smell nutty. Toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil and a pinch of salt. Turn the oven up to 425 degrees.
While the pecans are toasting, cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place the squash, cut side down, on a cutting board, and use a sharp knife to remove the peel. Slice the squash lengthwise into ¾-inch-thick wedges.
Toss the squash wedges with ¼ cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, some pepper and the thyme. Place the squash flat on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven about 30 minutes, until tender when pierced.
Meanwhile, cut the bacon into 3/8-inch-thick slices and stack them in two piles, then cut the bacon crosswise into 3/8-inch even-sided rectangular shapes or lardons.
In a small bowl, whisk together the sherry vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and ¼ teaspoon salt.
Place the greens in a large salad bowl.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 1 minute. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until the bacon just begins to brown but is still tender and chewy. Lower the heat to medium, add the shallots, and toss to combine. Remove the pan from the heat, and swirl in the vinaigrette to warm it. Add the warm squash and the contents of the pan to the greens. Season with ¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper, and toss gently to dress the salad. Taste for seasoning.
Arrange half the salad on a large platter. Use a vegetable peeler to shave some Roncal over the salad, and sprinkle half the nuts over that. Top with the remaining salad, more shavings of cheese, and the rest of the nuts.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Standing Proud

Every now and then I hear her call from somewhere just outside my house. It’s a sort of unattractive honking sound, but to me it is beautiful, and vulnerable, and wild. She sounds her voice early in the morning at sunrise, and sometimes at dusk, when the sun is setting beautiful and neon through the trees that face her habitual perch. I imagine she ends her days weary, hollering to the heavens, wondering how she got here, and why she can’t find a mate in this godforsaken neighborhood. And while some may hear no discernable difference in her early morning cry, I am sure it becomes a song of gratitude for the new day, an earnest chant of renewal and hope. Whenever I hear her call the sound strikes me to the bone and I am flooded with a sweet sadness.

She is a solitary peahen, and has spent the past six months living among the jungle of parrots and crows that reside in the trees of my little So-Cal street. Each evening at dusk she startles passersby as she flutters from the sidewalk into the tree in front of my house, bunking down for the night, awaiting the light of a new day. The nearest peacocks are at least nine miles from here, and they don’t seem to be big on flying. So, she spends her days alone, meandering busy and quiet streets alike, proudly perching on neighbors’ roofs, snacking in my little veggie garden, among other adventures, to be sure.

Perhaps the discontent I imagine she laments is actually a projection of my own state of affairs at present. For me, life at 38 is oh-so-different than I had planned. I am single, with a womb that’s on the verge of closing its doors for business. And while I would love to build a life and family with the right man, I am on a no-compromise man-diet, and up ‘til now, this town hasn’t produced any greater possibilities for me than it has for my solitary peahen. I have a good (and safe) job doing something important, and I like it, but I do not love it.

There are plenty of reasons I find myself in this particular place on the brink of 2010, and none of them can be traced back to anyone but myself. But blaming myself doesn’t settle any better than blaming another. I like who I am, and I’ve lived quite fully, if not traditionally, over the years. I’ve had experiences I treasure, and both the good and the bad have contributed to the me I’m sitting with today.

So, this isn’t about regrets. And although I do have my moments of hollering to the heavens about things not turning out as I’d hoped, I’m finding myself pleasantly surprised by the fabric of my life these days. My youth was spent caught in a chaos of my own making, while I longingly imagined a more grounded sort of existence. It took the loss of all I thought I wanted to open my mind to the possibility of creating a simpler, more intentional life. And so I have. My weeks are filled with yoga, good friends and supportive family, numerous farmer’s markets, a garden to tend, spontaneous adventures, and a ridiculous amount of beautiful food. Some nights are filled with amazing meals and the laughter of friends, while others are quietly spent nestled in bed with a good book and two crazy cats.

So while this isn’t exactly the life I planned to be living at 38, I’m finding this PLAN B version surprising, and abundant, and more authentically satisfying than the fairytale I had imagined at the age of 25. I may shake my fists at the gods now and then, but I will continue to live hopeful about what the new day may bring. In the meantime, I am pursuing a full and abundant life of my own making. From now on, when I hear that haunting call from somewhere outside my house, it will be a reminder to me that I too am beautiful, and vulnerable and wild. And it seems, even I can find contentment in the simplest and most solitary of places.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Starting Point

The idea of this blog came to me a while back, and I’ve been sitting with it for a few months, trying to sort out the details of Who? Why? and What the hell for? I am wary of any impulse to put my personal process on parade, because I’ve walked that road before, tripping in my own good intentions along the way.

Originally I wanted to write about food…because I obsess about food. Real, simple, sexy food weaves together the moments of my life, both the mundane and the memorable. I feel a passion for food that borders on pathological. Although, judging from the plethora of food blogs and food related memoirs out there, my experience is not entirely original.

But while waiting and observing my impulse to write, I’ve been surprised by my thoughts’ meanderings. They’ve been varied in topic and concept, although all have led back to the over-riding theme of my life these days: What does contentment look like when your life is shaping up to be something very different than you had expected?

At the moment, I also seem to be enduring a mid-life-crisis of sorts. My mind is inundated with a myriad of unexplored dreams and potential forks-in-the-road, questions of purpose and destiny and spiritual calling. Which of course leads me to ask myself, “What the hell am I doing, thinking of changing course again?”

The bottom line is this: I don’t know why I feel compelled to write about this journey, neither can I explain effectively why I want to post it publicly for people to read. I do know that I love to play with my process of growth through writing, and as a writer I hope to mature. So here I will attempt to do those two things, and what comes of it will be a bit of a surprise…to us all.