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10 Feb 2013

A Short Delay

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

When I wrote about patience in my last post more than a year ago, I didn’t recognize how prescient my plea really was. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say in those months. Rather, events have swamped the little boat that is my daily life. At first I waited for the storms to end. Then, once they did, I simply floated in the calm seas.

Soon after that last post, I contacted Hospice of Spokane regarding my mother, who was in end-stage vascular dementia in a local nursing home. Hospice oversaw her care until her death in December 2011; her funeral was four days after Christmas. The day before her funeral, my 12-year-old cat, Henry, died after a long illness. I spent January navigating bureaucracies of insurance, banking, pensions, and Social Security. And when I wasn’t doing things that needed to be done, I stayed blissfully still.

Like a lot of mother-daughter relationships, ours was far from Hallmark-card perfection. But witnessing my mother’s slow, long, steady decline was like watching a tragedy unfold in slow motion without being able to stop it. Twelve years ago, my father, too, died after a descent through dementia, so this journey with my mother felt like a recurring nightmare. For most of 14 years prior to this last one I’ve been caring for a demented parent in one way or another, so in the months after my mother’s death I felt a curious kind of freedom and a sense of relief.

Clearly, the events of those years have shaped me in ways that are still unfolding. And, as a writer, I know that I will have words to share about that shaping. But those words will emerge out of a different kind of energy than what I’ve been able to summon in the past year.

I’ve also had little motivation to dive into public conversation during this contentious year of politics. I have always shied away from arguments; I was never part of a debate team, nor have I studied the techniques of argumentation. Anybody with a little bit of skill in these areas could run rings around me.

I also know that arguments seldom persuade, particularly in the political sphere. Much of what passes for public discourse now is nothing more than name calling and bullying, and I want nothing to do with it.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions on everything from how to treat people to which foods I choose to buy (and I’d suggest that those two spheres are closely related). Rather than debate and argue and spout facts until even I get bored with what I’m saying, I prefer to simply offer thoughts about my choices—my reasons for why I choose to act one way and not another. You may disagree with my choices; you may contest the principles on which those choices are based. You may conclude that my choices would not work for you. And that’s fine. In an imperfect world, we all eventually have to make compromises to principles that we hold dear. Compromising does not make one a hypocrite; hypocrisy comes from refusing to acknowledge when one is compromising.

Here’s the thing: I believe that my behavior and my choices cultivate either good energy or bad energy. And there’s enough bad energy out there in the world that I don’t need to contribute more. So, as much as possible, I aim to cultivate good energy with my choices. And with my words. I don’t always succeed. But I try.

Which brings me back, briefly, to my mother. As her dementia advanced, she grew increasingly agitated, anxious, and angry, and she reacted to the energy of those around her. The best way to keep her relatively calm was to remain calm myself. If I brought bad energy into her space—say, anger or frustration from work, or my own resentment and grief at the situation that we were stuck in—she would ratchet up her anxiety and agitation in response. But if I could present a soothing, reassuring face and voice to her, then she was less likely to erupt.

Of course, the psychotropic meds helped, too—I sang the praises of a certain pharmaceutical product for many months. (For her, mind you, not for me. Not that I didn’t consider snagging a few pretty little anti-anxiety tablets now and then.) But the energy that I brought to our encounters set the tone for how those encounters would go. Controlling my outward energy required an extraordinary level of inner energy. Given how long I had to do that, I recognize why I have been so tired.

A full year has now passed since the end of my mother’s journey. I don’t think grieving or healing happen according to any particular schedule, and yet I recognize the significance of anniversaries. I now have a year of “firsts” under my belt: birthdays, holidays, visits. Tentatively, then, I step back into the world of online expression. I will have more to say about being responsible for the energy that I bring into a room, an encounter, and even the world. But for right now, I will simply say hello to 2013 with the sentiments expressed by poet W.S. Merwin in his poem, “To the New Year”:

so this is the sound of you

here and now whether or not

anyone hears it this is

where we have come with our age

our knowledge such as it is

and our hopes such as they are

invisible before us

untouched and still possible

All that is to be in the rest of 2013 is untouched and still possible. Let me linger in that whisper of anticipation.

21 Sep 2011

Patience

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

Patience Noun. Synonyms: endurance; lack of complaint; persistence; fortitude; serenity.

1 the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French, from Latin patientia, from patient- ‘suffering,’ from the verb pati.

Wisdom teachers come in many forms.

My friend Kathy gave me a small stoneware teapot a few months ago. It’s a pot she had stored in her kitchen for some time, although I don’t remember seeing it before. A former pack rat, she has been working for several years now to slowly, slowly divest herself of items that she no longer needs—and the teapot was one of those items.

As a semi-recovering pack rat myself, I’m happy to assist her quest. And I can justify bringing another object into my home because (A) I drink tea every morning; (B) this pot is smaller than the one I’d been using; and (C) it’s really a lovely teapot, and it brings a spot of beauty to my morning routine. To fully justify, I guess I’d have to get rid of the larger teapot that I’d been using, but I’m not doing that because it’s a good size for those occasions when I’m serving two or three people at a time. Instead, I’ll just watch for an opportunity to pay the favor forward by releasing some little-used possession of mine to a friend who really needs it.

My new little teapot has a short, narrow spout and a high bamboo handle. I discovered early on that tipping the teapot too far forward in order to fill my cup quickly—as was my previous habit—results only in the spillage of hot tea all over the counter. I cannot rush; I have to pour at just the right pace. And when I do, the pale amber arc formed by the liquid is one more beautiful sight in my day.

At the start of each day, then, my teapot reminds me to be patient and mindful. I can’t just splash the tea in the cup while thinking or doing something else; I have to focus on pouring the tea. And when I do, I am rewarded with beauty. Not to mention a cup of lovely hot tea.

This has been a larger lesson for me to ponder in the weeks (months?) since my last post. I was beginning to run out of enthusiasm for writing posts here. I felt that I had hammered on the healthy-and-sustainable-food-on-a-budget theme enough that I was beginning to repeat myself.

Actually, this process has made me think about the purpose of blogs in the brave new world of full-throttle, real-time identity construction. For me, anyway, a blog is about a search—the search to find an answer, the search to find something meaningful, the search for a theme, the search for connection, for linkage. Once the answer has been found and the connections made (“My purpose is to eat healthy foods that are sustainable for the planet and my community and myself, and then to write about it”), then the reason for the blog ceases to exist. Maybe I’m getting too metaphysical here, but I think a blog serves to document the journey and the process—not the destination or the final result. Perhaps that’s true of all narrative writing: The narrative has to take the reader somewhere; it can’t be a static description, no matter how glorious the descriptors.

And so, I am shifting focus slightly in order to write from the process rather than the goal. Over the last two years, since my departure from full-time employment, I have been on a spiritual journey, a journey of self-discovery—or, perhaps, self-RE-discovery. I am following Walt Whitman’s dictate: “Re-examine all you have been told… Dismiss what insults your soul.” Much of what I have been told, many of the rules I have followed, and the behavioral codes I have adhered to, are ripe for questioning.

Global issues clatter about in my head. Our world—the geopolitical realities, the economics and the climate we’ve grown up with—is changing and shifting under our feet and over our heads. I have no control over the actions of others, although I can speak my truth. The only response I can control, in the face of all this change, is my own.

And I’m still sorting out those responses. I strive for consistency, but I make no promises. It’s all still a work in progress. But I’m trying to glean wisdom wherever I find it. And one of those wisdom pieces that appears in many of the world’s spiritual paths is mindfulness.

So, in response to a world filled with distractions, a world that praises multi-tasking as its most valuable skill, my new discipline is single-tasking. When I am writing here, I am writing here—I’m not checking email, or reading the latest issue of The New Yorker on the side, or researching recipes online (although I did just stop and feed the cats so they would stop distracting me). When I eat at home (which is most of the time), I set a place at the table, and I eat my meal. I don’t read or work or watch television, nor do I eat standing up at the counter; I eat, and I savor. Sometimes I listen to the radio as I eat, but often I eat in silence, listening to the sounds of the house and the neighborhood. When I go for a walk alone, I do not carry my iPod, nor do I talk on the phone (or text or check messages). I simply walk.

Part of this is a practical response to my own limitations: I’m just not good at rapidly juggling multiple competing demands for my time and attention. Part is common courtesy: When I’m conversing, I believe it’s only polite to keep my focus on my companion, and vice versa. But mostly it’s about living fully the moments of my life. I want to taste those meals. I want to feel the breeze and hear the sounds of my local world. I want to listen and remember what the person across the table is saying to me. I want to appreciate the sunset in a hazy September sky.

And I want to watch the tea as it flows beautifully from the teapot to my cup. I want to admire the design and the craftsmanship that went into creating the teapot. I want to smell the toasty earthiness of my favorite gen mai cha tea. I want to slow down and not hurry past the moment.

I want to sip my tea, not gulp it.

I want patience in an impatient world.

14 May 2011

To Market, To Markets

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

Spokane Farmers Market in May

The downtown Spokane Farmers Market opened for the 2011 season this morning, in the breezy May sunshine. I arrived within the first hour and had a great time catching up with my pals from Tolstoy Farms and other vendors. Everyone made it through the winter, although Tim from Tolstoy noted that the growing season has indeed gotten off to a slow start this year. A lot of plant starts were available, and just a few early-season vegetables. I picked up some salad mix (baby lettuce and other green leafy things) and baby bok choy from Tolstoy, along with a beautiful bunch of asparagus and some plump green onions from one of the Yakima-area vendors.

The first baby greens of the season, from Tolstoy Farms

Speaking of growing things, I sowed some herb seeds in a container on my front porch the other day, so now I’m waiting to see if anything actually sprouts. There’s a metaphor in there, one that could be applied to plenty of other areas of my life as well. I feel like I’ve been mucking around in the dirt, preparing the earth for the seedlings of my future, but so far all I’m seeing is a well-worked, well-watered patch of soil. I could really use a glimpse of something green and fragile emerging.

On the plus side, our temps hit 70 degrees this week for the first time this season, and it even approached 80 today. Granted, tomorrow it’ll be back in the 60s with more rain, but today’s hazy sunshine sure felt good on my bare arms.

In other news…  Last weekend, I was craving a roasted chicken (that’s before the weather warmed), so I stood in the Rosauers meat section for several minutes, debating which chicken to buy. My choices both came from Draper Valley Farms, a Northwest producer that uses no hormones, antibiotics or animal-derived feed, but one was free range ($2.39 per pound) and the other ($1.69 per pound) was not. All of the chickens were right around five pounds, so the cost difference between the two was about $3.50. My budget is tight enough at the moment that $3.50 makes an impact, especially during the week that rent is due. That $3.50 could buy me close to a dozen eggs from my local Egg Man, a week’s worth of greens, or nearly a pound of grass-fed ground beef. Or a three-ounce bar of high-quality dark chocolate, if my life needs an infusion of joy. (And whose doesn’t, I ask you?)

I hemmed and hawed. I checked out what other meats were on sale. I checked the freezer section for bargains (and didn’t find any). Finally, I walked to the other end of the store, picked up the rest of my items, did a little math in my head, then walked back and picked up one of the standard chickens.

Now, I feel bad that my little chicken didn’t get to run around in the fresh air like its free-range brethren (although the USDA definition of “free-range” might not translate into the bucolic scene I’m conjuring up; see this discussion on the Serious Eats blog). On the other hand, it’s not shot full of hormones and other crap, and it didn’t grow up eating the remains of other chickens or other animals. Nor did it have to travel far from its farm home to my grocery basket. And I had that $3.50 to spend on other needs.

Today, I returned to the meat counter hoping to pick up a pound of ground beef from Painted Hills Natural Beef, another Northwest meat producer that raises its stock without hormones or antibiotics, using vegetarian feed and pasture grazing. But the ground beef wasn’t on sale, so I expanded my scope and found a bottom round roast, just shy of two pounds, on sale for $3.49 per pound. Despite the warmth today, I decided that braised beef was in my future; back at home, I followed the suggestions of a recipe for Armenian lamb stew (Tass Kebab) and adapted it for my beef roast.

Armenian-influenced Braised Beef

Think onions, red wine and tomato paste, seasoned with an aromatic blend of Hungarian paprika, allspice and a touch of cinnamon. The thick, fragrant sauce is enriched by the flavor of the meat (whether it’s lamb or beef); the onions caramelize and practically fall apart in the long cooking time, and the whole thing is rich and heavenly over brown rice. (See Recipes tab.)

I hope that someday I can afford to buy only pasture-raised meats and sustainably grown produce; I hope that the honorable people trying to farm in an ethically and ecologically sound manner can access markets and get a fair price for the products of their labors. I hope that the immigrant moms who live on my street will always be able to afford nutritious food for their children, who are playing outside my window as type this.

But we’re not there yet.

1 May 2011

Spring Tiptoes In

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

Despite the recent cool and rainy (and sometimes snowy) weather here in the Inland Northwest, spring really is here. This April has been cooler and wetter than normal—the La Nina effect is still in place—so early spring growth is a bit behind schedule, but that bodes well for procrastinating wannabe gardeners like me. I’ve been thinking about planting some lettuce and herbs in a container on my front porch, but so far that’s all it’s been—thinking. The container would just supplement the produce I get from the farmers market, but I’m thinking it might be nice to have baby lettuce leaves and other green, growing things right outside my door. Can I do what I need to do to make that happen? Stay tuned.

Within the month, our local farmers markets will begin to open for another season. Sandpoint and Moscow kick things off on May 7, and the downtown Spokane Farmers Market—the closest to my neighborhood—opens on May 14. South Perry, Liberty Lake and Millwood all start up in mid-May as well. While the early markets will have sparse produce offerings, they can be a good source for seedlings and plant starts. Still, I’m looking forward to those first local vegetables: lettuce, green onions, spring peas. They bring the taste of hope and renewal after a long, lean winter.

Speaking of spring veggies, I had my first taste of Washington-grown asparagus this week, thanks to a shopping trip to the Rocket Market last Sunday. I’ve sautéed chopped asparagus with green onions and lacinato kale as a base for my morning egg, and last night I threw some asparagus pieces in with a sauté of bay scallops. Now I’m going to steam the remaining spears and marinate them in a blend of soy sauce and garlic.

I bought the bay scallops at Huckleberry’s the other day. Bay scallops are the little guys, about the size of your fingertip. I love the bigger sea scallops, but they cost twice as much, so I passed them up. The bay scallops ($9 per pound) are farmed, but according to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, it’s a sustainable fishery (as long as they’re farmed in the U.S., not in China, where practices are more questionable), so I can even feel virtuous about my less-expensive purchase. I spent about $6 for two-thirds of a pound of scallops, and I got two meals out of the deal. Not cheap, but not exorbitant, either, and I’m supporting a sustainable fishery while eating food that’s good for me (and delicious, besides).

Since the cool, damp weather has continued to hold us in its grip, I’ve had lots of opportunities to reprise some of my wintertime favorites in the kitchen—and even try out some new things. The latest new thing was a batch of black bean chili that I threw together earlier this week, for my weekly yoga potluck on Tuesday.

The source recipe came from the website of Fine Cooking magazine, but I changed up a few things based on what I had on hand. (The link to the original is here; my adaptations are on the Recipes tab.) I had enough left over that I was able to share it at another potluck on Wednesday night, and I even have another meal or two left—not a bad yield for a pound of hamburger, a can of black beans, and a can of tomatoes. I served the chili over brown rice on the first night; for the second dinner, I mixed the leftover rice into the chili and cooked it down to the consistency of a casserole. The special ingredient here is chipotle in adobo sauce, which adds a lovely smokiness (along with a bit of a kick) to the dish.

In the interest of full disclosure, here’s what went into it and the cost: a 28-ounce can of organic crushed tomatoes (Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted; $3), a 16-ounce can of black beans (not organic, Western Family brand, I think; it was a gift, but I’m guessing they retail for less than $1), a one-pound package of Painted Hills ground beef (grass-fed, Northwest regional product; just under $4), two cloves of garlic (I bought a head of Northwest-grown garlic at Huckleberry’s for $0.72), about half of a large yellow onion (organic, Northwest-grown, $0.89 per pound), one small zucchini (organic, from either Mexico or California, given the season; $0.40), about a cup of red wine (a cab-merlot blend, about $8 per 750-ml bottle, meaning one cup would run $2.67), two tablespoons of chipotle in adobo sauce (about $2.25 for a 7-ounce can; I used what I needed and froze four more two-tablespoon portions), a few sprigs of cilantro ($1.49 per bunch at Huckleberry’s), and the rice (organic basmati, maybe $0.50) plus olive oil, lime juice, salt, pepper, cumin seed and chili powder from my cupboard. Total cost was roughly $17, and I got about 10 servings out of the deal, along with a few leftover ingredients (garlic, onion, chipotles in adobo, about a half-cup of the tomatoes) for later use.

Inspiration for more black-bean chili

While this may seem like a fairly steep price for a single dish, it delivered benefits that are less quantifiable but no less real. I shared this meal with friends two nights in a row; in return, I received the pleasure of their company, a few good laughs, some thoughtful and poignant moments, a couple of glasses of wine, and a serving of each of their dishes, including dessert, on both nights. I enjoyed improvising in the kitchen—I worked from a recipe but tweaked it to suit my needs. And now, as I’m finishing up the leftovers, I have some great memories to dwell upon.

When I talk about “relationship food,” this is what I mean.

8 Apr 2011

Food and Health

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

I am increasingly convinced that our food choices—and the public policies that support and encourage those choices—are the basis for our health, or the lack thereof, both as individuals and as a society. Simple casual observation of the people around me, here in my community, provides overwhelming proof of the American obesity epidemic, especially among low- and moderate-income families and among the young. In decades past, poverty-driven malnutrition meant lack of food, lack of calories; today, the least-healthful foods are the least expensive (and the most abundant), meaning that a person can be both overweight and malnourished. Making healthful food choices is not simple, convenient or cheap.

Yet again, food writer (and farmer) Tom Philpott wades right into the discussion with his post on Grist.org, “The American Diet in One Chart.” Working with data provided by the Civil Eats website (another good source of mindful food-related information), Philpott analyzes the numbers and finds an astonishing 23 percent increase in per-capita calorie production by the American food system since 1970—calories that have landed on our well-padded hips. He points the finger at inexpensive corn and soy, a legacy of Nixon-era ag policy. These two commodities get turned into sugar (high-fructose corn syrup) and fat (soybean oil), two staples of modern American industrial food. Adding sugar and fat to processed food products helps to retard spoilage and makes the products taste better.

Eliminating even half of those extra sugar-and-fat calories from processed foods would bring total caloric intake back down to 1970 levels, he says. And while that’s desirable, I can’t see our nation’s food manufacturers voluntarily reducing their reliance on cheap corn and soy. And that leads to the second part of Philpott’s post, about the irony of the Mediterranean diet—a healthful way of eating, centered on whole (not processed) foods, that evolved out of poverty and scarcity and yet now is priced at a premium.

After noting this irony, he doesn’t take the thought further, but this is something I’ve been wrestling with of late: Why are good-quality vegetables and fruits, grown without chemicals in a way that’s healthful for both the environment and the people doing the growing and harvesting, so bloomin’ expensive? (Relatively speaking, that is; Americans still spend a lower percentage of our income on food than just about any nation in the world.) Same goes for meat that’s not filled with extra hormones and God-only-knows what else. I would love to buy meat only from local producers whose practices are ethical and sustainable—and while that would be an ethically pure choice on my part, it would not be personally sustainable, given my current income level. And so I compromise: I buy the high-quality local stuff when I can (Olsen Farm, Rocky Ridge; Emtman); I fill in with more affordable regional products (like Painted Hills beef and Draper Valley’s Ranger free-range chicken) for the bulk of my purchases; and every once in a while I grab a bargain that is, shall we say, lacking in provenance.

The irony, as Philpott noted, is that locally produced whole food used to be the less-expensive choice. Our grandparents (or perhaps great-grandparents, for you young-’uns) grew some of their own food, or they bought most of their groceries from nearby sources. Only a few of their food items came in a box or a can—and those that did were special treats, not foods for mass daily consumption. Cooking meals from scratch using seasonally available meat and produce was the norm, not because it was a cool, artisanal thing to do, but because it was the only really affordable choice for most people.

But then our lives changed, becoming more hurried and harried. Food manufacturers stepped up and filled the demand for quick and easy food products. Fast-food culture boomed. The small family farms that served earlier generations largely disappeared. Public policy encouraged a glut of cheap corn and soy—which the manufacturers and fast-food purveyors used to make cheap, quick meals. And now we live in a land where fresh produce and quality meats are considered somehow elite and un-American.

(Back to Grist.org for moment: Pig farmer Bob Comis addressed some of these issues, both historical and contemporary, in a post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Forget farmers markets—I want to sell my pastured meat at Price Chopper.” It’s well worth a read. He also talks about the premium prices on pastured meats, in “The omnivore’s other dilemma: expanding access to non-industrial food.” I will be following his future posts with interest.)

For me, it all comes down to food justice. People with fewer financial resources than average should have access to healthful foods at a reasonable cost; so should your average middle-class grocery shopper. As a civilized society, we should make that our aim. Anything else, to my mind, is shameful.

Next: Enough pontificating; back to the kitchen.

PS: Civil Eats also posted a piece about a recent study linking ADHD to dietary choices—more food for thought, if you will.

21 Feb 2011

I Heart Tiny Treats

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

Ah, I love it when a provocateur stirs up the fooderati. This week’s tweaker is B.R. Myers, adamant and opinionated vegan*, whose article “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies” in The Atlantic browbeats everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Michael Pollan to Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. (All of his targets are meat eaters, incidentally, although Pollan is the writer behind the mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”)

Myers lumps these varied writers together under the heading of gluttony, which he defines as a preoccupation with food. His article contains some valid critiques of the food-fetishism on display in some circles, along with the pop-culture adulation of celebrity chefs and “reality” cooking shows. Mostly, though, it’s an articulate rant against those who he seems to have decided are not as pure as he is.

Plenty of readers have commented on the article at the Atlantic website, and some writers (like Robert Sietsema at the Village Voice’s “Fork in the Road” blog, and rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman, back in The Atlantic) have written their own pieces, critiquing the critique. Those articles have prompted their own comments, and on and on it goes among the virtual chattering classes. (Yes, yes, I know, I’m part of it, too.)

But neither Myers nor his critics talk about the connections among people that happen over food. Myers argues that, for “foodies,” the quality or authenticity or daring nature of the food is the most important factor in a meal—and certainly for many that is the case. A whole subgroup of food enthusiasts thrives on the hedonistic individual enjoyment of exquisite or rare foods. (Bourdain is certainly in this class, as are those who flit from private dining events to the newest cutting-edge restaurants, gushing about their experiences online.)

While the hedonists get lots of attention, most of the people I know who would consider themselves part of the “food movement” do so out of concern for the environment, for health, or for social justice reasons—in addition to savoring the joys of tasty food. Enjoyment is part of the mix, obviously, but it’s enjoyment of the whole experience, not just a single-minded focus on the culinary skill needed to produce the dish or the rarity of the ingredients.

I have disliked the term “foodie” for a long time. I find it both dismissive and overly broad, and while I’m sure I’ve employed it in the past I don’t use it often. (In fact, I haven’t used it in any other post here, until this one.) A foodie is a stereotype—like all stereotypes, it has some basis in fact, but it’s really just a convenient label with little nuance that can be slapped on a group of people. And by slapping a label on people, we rule out the possibility of actually knowing them and understanding their quirky, often contradictory, motivations.

Enough of that. In other news, this past week also held Valentine’s Day (or, as my buddy Ed Clark posted on Facebook, “Single Awareness Day”). While most people think of the day as a celebration of romantic love, I’m thinking that we need to expand the party to include all forms of affection between people: the love of friendship, the bonds of siblings and families of choice (i.e., those who aren’t related but should be), the sweetness between parent and child. Along with that, we need to not glorify the grand romantic gesture—the dozen long-stemmed roses, the candlelit dinner, the pricy and glittery adornments—at the expense of small but genuine expressions of love and caring. Not that there’s anything wrong with grand romantic gestures. They can bring delight. But relationships are not built in a day. It’s the daily considerations that pay off in the long run, those small choices that help the ones you love to grow and be joyful.

My date for Valentine's Day

So today, I’m going to think about all the people in my life who bring me joy, and I’ll try to come up with some little token or action that will express my affection for them. And then I’ll try to do the same for myself. Like having a little snack of almonds and dates: a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of substance. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

* DISCLAIMER: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a vegan, opinionated or otherwise. Or vegetarian, or pescatarian, or an adherent of Meatless Monday. All are lifestyle choices, and people who make those choices have to think long and hard about where their food comes from and how to find food that supports their values. They make mindful decisions about food. So do I. We have that in common.

There is, however, nothing admirable or mindful about being a humorless scold. :-)

2 Feb 2011

Larrupin’

Posted by annmcolford. 6 Comments

On Saturday I cooked a dish that I’ve never prepared before: Texas-style chicken-fried steak. This culinary adventure was a tribute to my uncle Gordon Pinkston, a native of North Carolina who flew planes in World War II, spent a year or so building houses in Spokane in the late 1940s, then lived most of the rest of his adult life in Texas. Gordon died on January 22, after a couple of years of declining health. The last time I saw him (and my aunt Jean, my dad’s youngest sibling) was right here at my dining room table, sharing a meal during a visit a few years ago. Since I wasn’t going to be at his memorial service on Saturday in Texas, I decided to cook his favorite meal and share it with friends, along with some vintage photos and, of course, stories.

A toast to good company -- a very young me and Uncle Gordon, more than 30 years ago. Yikes.

I used to have a cookbook of traditional Southern-style recipes, but it disappeared in one move or another in my past. So, I turned to the trusty Interwebs and found a recipe right away at the Texas Cooking website. I found neither cube steak nor round steak (the options mentioned in the recipe) when I hit the Huckleberry’s meat counter, but they did have slabs of top sirloin at a decent price, so I went with that. I cut the steak into serving-sized pieces then tenderized them myself with the back of my chef’s knife. (A mallet would have been better, but that’s yet one more kitchen gadget that I don’t own. And the back of the knife got the job done.) After sautéing some greens (lacinato kale and red chard) with onions for the side dish, I assembled my mise en place (egg and milk, whisked together, in one bowl, and rye flour in another). When friends Dan and Linda arrived, I set to work cooking the steaks. It was a really quick process. Then I drained off most of the oil and made a quick batch of cream gravy (using mostly water with just a touch of cream as the liquid). And then we had a feast.

Dan grew up eating the dish because his mother was from Texas, and he says I did a right fine job with it (for a Yankee). I was pleased with the results—the breading wasn’t too heavy, the steak was tender with lots of flavor, and the gravy added a nice touch of decadence. So we ate our steaks and raised a glass to the memory of Uncle Gordon.

Linda and I have had a lot of discussions lately about the knowledge of the body—that is, the knowledge that can be gained only through a lived physical experience. Here’s an example: I can describe, in my most eloquent words, the experience of driving across the minimalist’s landscape of central and eastern Washington; I can even take photos to share with people who’ve never been there. But nothing will express adequately the physical sensation of sitting under that huge sky and letting my eyes circle the endless horizon in all directions, the instant realization of my own smallness, the animal instinct of being separated from my herd, and my simultaneous wonderment at the subtle shifts of light and shadow on the low rolling sage-strewn hills.

As someone who has lived the life of the mind and one who loves clever wordplay, I’m learning a new kind of awareness. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of years of gentle yoga practice, or all that time spent as a pedestrian rather than a driver, but I now understand that there are ways of knowing that only the body can accomplish. I can know something intellectually, but until I put my body into its midst, I do not truly “get” it.

I love walking to do errands when I can, because I am then grounded, literally—my feet touch the earth. I am surrounded by the wild, uncontrollable natural world, and I experience the elemental common experience of being a human animal. I can smell the mud and the pines; in the summer, I catch the scent of sage on a southwest breeze. In my bones and my skin, I have instant knowledge of the temperature, the humidity level, the wind chill, even the barometric pressure, all without consulting the Weather Channel. My experience of the world is not mediated through a human-constructed shell.

Granted, walking in my urban neighborhood isn’t exactly a wilderness experience; most often, I’m walking on asphalt, following right-angle roads past homes and cars and other aspects of the built environment. But, still, I see no ceiling above my head, no walls to constrain me. I feel more open and vulnerable to the whims of the world.

The same thing can be said about face-to-face interactions with other people, as compared to the virtual contacts that are now far more common. At its best, communication is a full-bodied experience. Gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and even the set of one’s shoulders while listening all reveal messages that can’t be found in simple text.

There’s a connection here to food, I think, especially to the sharing of food around a table. Eating food in the company of others is part of that body knowledge. Arguably, so is eating alone, but being with others adds another dimension to the experience: the dimension of memory. I seldom remember meals I’ve eaten alone, no matter how delicious the food. But having a meal with someone else opens the possibility of linking my memory of the food with the memory of my companion. Like Uncle Gordon and the chicken-fried steak. I remember going out to breakfast with Gordon in Dallas, on more than one occasion, and having a fabulous down-home breakfast of chicken-fried steak, cream gravy, beer biscuits and probably grits, too. My recollection of the quality of the food may well be generous, but it’s colored by my memory of the good company, so for me that meal will always be—as Gordon would say—larrupin’.

28 Jan 2011

Bobotie-O-Doh

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

I’ve been taking a respite from any big cooking projects, although I did reprise the grilled salmon recipe (out of the Fishes and Dishes cookbook) while visiting friends in Seattle, and I pulled out a couple of old favorites for some entertaining last weekend. For brunch on Sunday, I made a version of the South African meatloaf dish, bobotie (boh-BOE-tee), adapted from a recipe in the Extending the Table cookbook (a well-loved and well-marked go-to source for recipes from across the globe). I’ve made this dish several times before, for occasions both simple and fancy. There are many recipes for bobotie online, so I’ve tweaked the cookbook recipe accordingly to find my own version that seems to work consistently well.

I’ve always made my bobotie with lean ground beef, although I’ve seen recipes calling for lamb or pork. The meat is spiced with onions, garlic and curry powder then topped with an egg mixture and baked until set. Since I was serving it in the morning, I increased the number of eggs in the topping, giving it an almost quiche-like quality. (Look under the “Recipes” tab for details.) With a dollop of hot mango chutney (from the Souk in Seattle) on the side, it made a savory and satisfying main dish for our potluck brunch.

In the afternoon, I threw together a small batch of the Mexican-influenced chicken-rice soup, following the formula outlined in my post of December 14. I had made chicken stock before heading to Seattle, and so both stock and leftover cooked chicken were in my freezer, just waiting to go. Assembly went quickly, and I even had time for a late-afternoon nap before my two dinner guests (friends Doug and Missy) arrived. They brought cornbread with honey butter to complement the soup—I snuck a little piece, and it was yummy—and I made another new favorite for dessert: gluten-free fruit crisp. That’s another dish where the recipe is more of a suggestion than a fixed formula. I’ve made it with apples, pears and a frozen three-berry blend (you know, the one from Costco), and every time it’s a little bit different but always tasty (especially when still warm from the oven). It’s also a dessert that is wheat-free and gluten-free, yet guests who aren’t following those restrictions will still feel like they’re having a treat.

Gluten-free fruit crisp, made with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

Here’s the general idea: Melt ¼ cup of butter in an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Meanwhile, combine about ½ cup brown rice flour (maybe a little less), ½ cup oat flour (or oatmeal, or a combination), ¼ cup sugar, either brown or turbinado, plus about ¼ teaspoon each of salt and baking soda. Pour the melted butter over the dry ingredients, mixing well until blended and crumbly. Fill the bottom of the buttered pan with chopped apples or pears, or with berries—maybe about 2 cups? Sprinkle the fruit with just a little bit of sugar, then top with the butter-flour-sugar mixture. Toss some chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, what have you) on top, if you’re so inclined. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes.

I think the pear crisp is still my favorite, but this triple-berry variety was great for a cold, damp midwinter night. The purple of the berries (raspberries, blackberries and blueberries) seeped into the crumb topping, darkening its color somewhat, but the taste was marvelous.

13 Jan 2011

Don’t Skip the Squash

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

Sauteed butternut squash with a hint of ginger

I just realized that despite posting nearly 1,500 words the other day, I forgot to mention anything about my new favorite vegetable: sautéed butternut squash. Here’s the photo and a quick rundown.

Peel, remove seeds, and slice the squash into thin (1/4-inch) wedges or slices. Over medium heat, toss the squash slices in a blend of olive oil and butter in a sauté pan. Add about a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger root. Add strips of onion, too, if you’d like. Sprinkle with a little bit of salt and coarsely ground pepper and let it all cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is nicely browned. Transfer squash to a platter or a bowl and sprinkle with a touch of turbinado sugar. Garnish with parsley or cilantro if you’d like some color contrast.

I’ve also used this same method with sweet potatoes, and it is equally delicious.

11 Jan 2011

In Praise of Braises

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

What a busy week it’s been—the first of the year has brought some extra work in the ol’ accounting realm, leaving me little time to work on my, um, income-free projects. But at least I’ve had time to cook. The post-rent cash is rather scarce this week, so I’ve drawn from my freezer inventory. With a little invention, lots of delicious things landed on my plate, including a couple of braises and a new way to prepare butternut squash.

But first, the most recent dish: grilled salmon with cilantro-lime sauce, following the recipe from The Fishes & Dishes Cookbook, published this summer by Epicenter Press. (The authors, women who own and operate a fishing boat out of Alaska, also have a blog, available here. They visited Spokane over Labor Day weekend 2010, and I was lucky enough to attend a backyard dinner party for them, where they prepared this recipe.)

I had purchased a vacuum-sealed frozen fillet of wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon (just shy of two pounds) a while back and was waiting for an opportunity to share it with friends. So I took it out of the freezer a couple of days ahead to defrost slowly in the fridge then put the call out to a couple of friends for dinner. Sadly, they didn’t respond. That happens sometimes. But I had a thawed salmon, so I poured myself a wee glass of pinot noir and went ahead with my plans.

Grilled salmon with cilatro-lime sauce

First I prepped the sauce. The cookbook’s directions call for using a food processor, but since I don’t have one I chopped, minced and stirred everything by hand instead of relying on technology. Here’s the deal: Mince four cloves of garlic, then mince the leaves from a bunch of cilantro. Add olive oil (2 to 4 tablespoons), the juice of one lime, and sea salt to taste. Stir it all up and let everything mingle nicely while you grill up the salmon according to your preferred method. (My preferred method is in a ridged grill pan on top of the stove, because that’s what I have.) Cook the salmon about 4 minutes per side (starting flesh side down) on a well-oiled grill or grill pan; top each cooked salmon portion with a generous dollop of the cilantro-lime sauce. Make mildly provocative noises of delight as you eat. (This won’t be difficult.)

This dish was also popular with the feline members of the household—other than during those few scary moments when I set off the smoke alarm while preheating the grill pan. In fact, Henry attempted Grand Theft Salmon while I was preoccupied with the aforementioned noises of pleasure. Luckily, he (and one chunk of salmon) landed on the floor with a thud, thus alerting the Authority (a.k.a., me). I rescued the salmon (mostly unharmed), invoking the famous (and sensible) five-second rule, and Henry ended up with a Kitty Time-Out as punishment.

Earlier in the week I had a chance to practice my braising skills, first with beef (a pound or so of round steak) and then with lamb (about a half-pound cut). Braising is one technique that I’ve seldom attempted, and I confessed my insecurity to a couple of chef friends last year. They both assured me that braising was simple but then rattled off several steps of instructions that left me dubious.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but within a few weeks each one offered a cooking class demonstrating several recipes—including a braise. I was thrilled and signed up for both classes. Once I actually witnessed the process, I realized that, yes, braising really is easy. It’s kind of like a cross between a browned stew (with less water) and a pot roast. I came away from those cooking classes last spring with copies of all the recipes demonstrated, so I decided to revisit two of them with some minor variations.

For the round steak, I modeled my dish on Chef Anna Vogel’s oxtail stew recipe—same seasonings, less water. And, of course, using my round steak instead of oxtails. (Not that I’m opposed to oxtails; I just had round steak in the freezer.) First, I sprinkled salt and pepper over my round steak and seared it in olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet. When it was browned on both sides, I removed the beef from the pan and tossed in a handful each of chopped onion, celery and carrot, stirring everything around and cooking it until the onions became translucent. After returning the seared beef to the pan, I poured in some turkey stock (just because that’s what I had handy; you could use any meat or veggie stock, or even water) and red wine. Total liquid measured about 1 cup and did NOT cover the meat. I also added a clove of garlic, chopped, plus a bay leaf and a tiny pinch of thyme. After bringing the liquid to a simmer, I reduced the heat, covered the skillet and let it all cook together for an hour or so, until the meat was fall-apart tender.

Chef Anna’s stew recipe actually has several more steps—that’s what separates chef-artists from us mere mortals in the kitchen; well, that, plus way flashier knife skills—but at this point the beef and veggies were ready, by my reckoning. I served it with brown rice that night and had leftovers for two or three more meals (meaning that about a pound of beef would easily serve four, if that’s closer to your family size).

The next night, I took a smaller chunk of lamb (just a bit more than a half-pound) and set myself to braising again. This time I followed instructions from Chef Nicholas St. Clair, formerly of Café Marron and now in Atlanta. His recipe called for braising three lamb shanks, so I had to size things down considerably, but, again, I basically just took the recipe as a guidance plan and adapted accordingly.

Once again, I salted and peppered the meat, then seared it in olive oil. I pulled the meat from the pan then sautéed some diced onion; I added a clove of garlic, minced, and about a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger root. Next came some wine, less than a ¼ cup (I used red; Chef Nick called for white), 3 or 4 saffron threads, about a teaspoon of honey, part of a bay leaf, part of a cinnamon stick and maybe a tablespoon of raisins (the recipe called for dates, but I didn’t have any), all brought to a simmer. I returned the meat to the pan, making sure that the liquid didn’t cover it, then put a couple of sprigs of cilantro on top. At this point, Chef Nick’s recipe called for five hours, covered, in a 250-degree oven (which makes for incredibly tender and lip-smackin’-good lamb shanks), then reducing the sauce and finishing it with butter. But I wanted dinner sooner than that, so I chose to just cover the pan, turn the heat to low and let it simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. At that point, I took the cover off the pan and turned the heat up a notch, to reduce the liquid ever so slightly before serving. (Sorry, no photos of the braises–next time.)

The wonderful thing about braising, whether done in the oven or on top of the stove, is that you can turn an inexpensive cut of meat into a meal that’s full of flavor and richness. The characteristics that make a cut less desirable—bones, fat, connective tissues—become assets in the low moist heat of braising. There’s a lesson here, I think, about recognizing and developing the gifts that are presented to us—whether we’re talking about a cut of meat, or ourselves. If you take a round steak (or a blade steak or a chuck roast) and try to turn it into a rib-eye, you’ll be disappointed. But if you work with it, appreciate it for what it is, and cook it in a way that enhances its qualities, then you turn it into the best-possible round steak that it can be.

Using cuts of meat that some may consider substandard is also a way to eat sustainably. After all, I’ve never met a cow that’s all prime rib and tenderloin; somebody’s gotta eat the tougher, bony bits, and if I can braise ’em into tenderness while saving some money, I’ll gladly do it.

Braising takes time, plus knowledge that’s been lost (or at least misplaced) in the decades since our grandmothers’ time. And yet the rewards are great. Perhaps we need a renaissance of braising—along with canning and stewing and all those other lost food arts—not just as an exercise in artisanal foodways, but as a way to really make a difference in the lives of our neighbors who struggle to eat healthfully within ever-tightening budgets.

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