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.


  1. This is so beautiful Jen - the writing, the photos, the event itself... not to mention one of my favorite poems, and that recipe! (Can't wait to try it).

  2. Jen, I really enjoyed reading this. Very impressed with the quality of writing and presentation. Teach me how to do this. I sure related to the India part of the story. Somehow it induced a deja-vu! Clive

  3. Well I finally signed up for a google account just so I could post here and keep track of your blog without Clive having to forward it to me each time. Very well written. I'm laying in bed sick and have not been wanting food, but reading the descriptions of what you made, awoke a hunger. Now what do I do? That is also a favorite Rumi poem of mine.

  4. Thanks for signing up Eruch! It really means a lot to me...I hope your hunger has returned, and you're recovered and ready for the weekend by tomorrow. Yeah, that poem just gets me in the gut every time I read it. Especially those last two lines...breathtaking.

  5. Clive, I can't imagine why the India part struck you?! :)

    Thank you for your kind compliment...I'll show you everything I know! (Which is little...)

  6. I randomly clicked on this entry during a bit of insomniac reading, and wouldn't you know it - it's exactly the thing I needed! Someone said to me yesterday "Look, I got you a present!" and handed me a kabocha squash. Now I know exactly what to do with it!

  7. No Blue Food, hope you were able to make this...if so, let me know what you thought of it!