Monday, May 31, 2010

Some foods are like that.

There are dishes I make for the fun of the try, and never make again, and there are others that are crucial to the consistent and rhythmic spinning of my world. One such recipe is so ingrained into my life, that each episode of preparation takes me on a pilgrimage through several chapters of my past. Every single time I make it, memories fly through my mind like a windstorm, a gale leaving me unsteady from the force, the fragrance of loss, and community and laughter lingering in its wake.

You wouldn’t expect such personal drama to be evoked from a simple Caesar Salad, but this one is different. It’s my secret weapon, my Trojan horse. This salad catches people off guard, when they’re expecting something dull and ordinary, but instead are satisfied in an almost primal way. It leaves you feeling nourished, nurtured and completely satisfied, a simple meal that has somehow woven together the years, and the disparate pieces of my life.

This Caesar Salad has been a trusted companion through at least three of my recent past lives. When I was a family of four, it was a weekly tradition, eaten by candlelight, shared with two growing girls and a good-hearted man. The little one’s first triumph of reading came during one of those meals, a ritual-prayer the object of her determined syllabic odyssey.

It’s been present at countless community gatherings: family dinners, meals with girlfriends, holiday potlucks, and the like. Flashes from various events add to the soliloquy of images that come up each time I make this meal. I see a composite of myself over the past nine years, Caesar and red wine abounding, stories, jokes and dreams swapped with those who have co-starred in the story of my life. Some foods are like that. They hold a power over us, like Christmas rituals we refuse to let go, or birthday traditions that glue the years together.

What gets me every time I make it is thinking about how this salad has evolved over the years. It is not the same recipe I first attempted, and its evolution is a direct manifestation of those who’ve enjoyed it with me. The routine actions of seasoning croutons, buying dijon, and blending these basic ingredients, transport me to places in my memory where the ghosts of friends, current and former reside. Their influence is clearly visible as I ponder the unconventional additions I might toss into my final salad. As I sit down to eat, I send thanks to the universe for those who swept through my recollection while I prepared my meal. Each has been a significant part of my life at one point or another; each has left a culinary legacy that will linger, for as long as we make this salad.

Jen's Caesar Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit July, 2001

I love this salad and always have the ingredients on hand in my refrigerator. The dressing keeps well for a good month, so make a big batch and enjoy it at the end of a rough day, or throw it together for an impromptu meal with friends. It's delicious with sliced apples or grilled chicken added. Or, for an easy elegant meal, marinate a steak in olive oil, rosemary and garlic, salt and pepper the heck out of it, grill it and lay it thinly sliced atop the salad. Serve with a tasty bottle of red.

*Note to the anchovy averse: I was an anchovy avoider when I first made this recipe, yet I knew that the caesar dressings I'd enjoyed had anchovy in them, even though I couldn't taste it. I have experimented over the years, beginning with no anchovy, and increasing to almost following the recipe (16 filets!). The amount in this is minimal, but necessary. Trust me at least one time, open your mind, and take a risk; make it with the anchovies. I promise, you won't be sorry.

For dressing:
1 cup finely grated aged Parmesan cheese
3-5 anchovy fillets (depending on size and preference)
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups olive oil

For croutons:
Olive oil
1 garlic clove
Cayenne pepper
4 slices day old bread (I use my favorite multigrain)
Salt and fresh pepper

For salad:
Washed and coarsely torn romaine lettuce leaves
Large handful of arugula
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine Parmesan, anchovies, lemon juice, garlic cloves, and mustard in processor; blend well, until it is a smooth paste. This may take a while, and the sound of the blender may drive you nuts, but keep at it until it is creamy and luscious looking. With processor running, slowly add olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut tip off garlic and peel. Rub garlic over al sides of the bread. Brush bread with olive oil and cut into bite sized cubes. Spread out bread cubes on rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bake just until croutons are golden, tossing them about occasionally, 15-20 minutes.

Place romaine and arugula in a large bowl, along with any other ingredients you feel like adding. Add dressing a little at a time, and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese. Toss to coat. Add croutons and toss well.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Smoke Signals

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~ Mary Oliver

My current work year began amidst fire and smoke and ash. For weeks, the mountains above our school were consumed with flames, the air heavy with smoke, a cloak of ash weighing on everything for miles around. In what seemed like a direct parallel to the state of emergency that surrounded me, I entered the year feeling restless and at odds with my life. A fiery passion I could neither identify nor satisfy was simply brimming over, and it was clear that something new was at work within me.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that in an effort to cope with my inner commotion I turned to cooking. My own little food revolution commenced, and I began to cook on a level I‘d never attempted before, planning meals in courses, pairing wines, and trying dishes I’d known of, but never prepared myself. What I once would have dubbed “having a few friends for dinner” turned into full-fledged dinner parties, surprising even me with their quality of experiential transcendence. Of course, the more these events took place, the more restless I became at work, and I began to obsess about moving in a completely new direction with my life.

Over several months I considered every food related path I could think of, giving each its moment in the sun and careful consideration. The ideas ranged from teaching cooking and gardening in high school, to working on a farm, interning in a restaurant kitchen, or even starting my own little café. The ideas came and went, and while each was intriguing in one way or another, not a single one felt right. Tucking my frustration in my back pocket, I let my passion be my guide, and kept cooking and entertaining, trusting the answer would reveal itself in time.

Then, as the first decade of the century came to a close, I began to write. I don’t think I had a choice in that. Ideas would fester like smoldering wood, haunting me with their ghostly presence until I gave them form. Once expressed, the urgency would leave, and I’d feel grounded and calm and released. I was not three weeks into my new writing adventure when the answer came to me clear as day. Early one morning I awoke from a dream and sprung out of bed like sparks from a fire. In an instant, the questions dissipated and I felt absolute clarity about what I want to do with my life…what I’ve always wanted to do.

I was eighteen the first time I stayed at a Bed & Breakfast. My friend Elona and I were on a road trip around California and for some reason we were obsessed with staying at B&B’s. I’m not even sure when I first learned of their existence, as they made no appearance in my childhood that I recall. My first experience was at an understated little place, an extra room that a sweet old lady offered by the night for a decent price. From then on I was captivated, and every vacation I took was an opportunity to experience yet another independent Inn. I began to read about establishments all over the world, fascinated by the experiences Innkeepers would create for their guests. In the quiet corners of my thoughts I’d spend unguarded moments dreaming of creating my own Bed & Breakfast someday. But I’d catch the thoughts before they went too far, reminding myself that only retired people with money can do such things, filing the idea away in my mind under the dreary designation IMPOSSIBLE.

It’s amazing to me how adeptly we can hide things from ourselves. Over the past eleven years, while I diligently worked on earning my teaching credential in Spanish, then my master’s in counseling, I also worked on perfecting the craft of hospitality. I have been honing my skills as a cook, and creating the garden of flowers, and edibles that surrounds the little pink house I rent. I’ve been playing with interior decorating, experimenting with color and space to create a home that would give my guests a sense of peace and release when they walked through the door. More importantly, I’ve been attempting to perfect the talent of hosting, learning what puts people at ease, and makes them feel cared for, relaxed and refreshed.

All this homemaking meant putting money into a house I did not own, which would nag at me considerably as I began each new project. But every time I tried to talk myself out of the latest scheme, I’d tell myself, “It’s ok, I’m practicing. None of this is wasted. This time and money is an investment in something bigger.” Over and over I repeated it to myself like a mantra…I just hadn’t let myself in on the secret of what I was practicing for, and honestly, I never thought to ask.

Since the dramatic opening of school last Fall, the landscape of my inner life has been undergoing a controlled burn of sorts. The extraneous and unnecessary has been cleared away, making room for the growth of something that’s been lying dormant for years. Like the seeds of the sequoia whose germination is dependent upon heat and flames to breakdown its outer shell, I seem to have needed a year of chaos and confusion to open my awareness to what was right in front of me all along.

Among the Australian aboriginal people,
there are big dreams and little dreams.
A big dream must not be ignored.
It may be big enough to clarify and enlarge your purpose here,
big enough for you to find the story of your life inside it.
~ Robert Moss