Food for the Transition

Deconstructed Kashk-e Bademjan

Sauteed eggplant
On a Saturday afternoon just a few weeks ago, I left the gym and retreated to one of many neighborhood parks to sit on a bench under the sun with a good book. We have a lot of these little parks in my town. They’re just fenced-in grassy islands in the middle of residential streets. It was a hot, subliminally sunny day. I was already warm and dewy from my workout, but the light, and the knowledge that I had little time left with it, beckoned me to sit and absorb even more heat, for strength and nourishment. Once I did, I wanted to sit and sweat forever.

When I walked into the park, a radio played late 90s/early 2000s pop/rock songs from bands like 3 Doors Down, but the music was drowned out by laughter. There were folks in a small gathering with food on a table cloth–cloaked card table and beer and balloons.

“I say I’m turning 30 and people lift their eyebrows and sheepishly turn away—as if I’m just repulsively old,” a girl says.

“But see, you know, when you’re 40 now you’re 30 and so on; science keeps us younger now,” a woman in her 50s replies.

“I’m not so sure. If that’s true I should look 20. I do not look 20.”

We all fear transition, I thought

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Solo Sojourn

Scallop Ceviche with ALL the Veg

Vegetable Ceviche
Seven months ago, I lived in a town of white. I left my white house, shoveled white off my stairs so I could get down them, and navigated treacherous white streets, surrounded by tall white walls. Within those white walls, I felt about 3 inches tall, and the weight of that winter was heavier than a 3-inch-tall person could carry; I couldn’t breathe. I was cold and I was tired and I was sick, always sick. The only green in this world of white was knowing that I wasn’t alone. I had 650,000 people with whom I could commiserate. But that small patch of green wasn’t enough to nourish me and on a cold February day, as I cursed at my immune system, I craved warmth so badly that I did something pretty out of character: I booked a trip. Just like that. The trip was for April, when it would still be frigid and when the white would still be present.

It would be my first vacation in years. I had kept a list of places I would go. My top 5 international locations: 1. Peru/Chile 2. Istanbul/Greek Islands, 3. Morocco, 4. Back to France, 5. Mexico. Plus, there’s still a lot of this expansive country I want to see.

But I did not go anywhere on my list. I did not go anywhere I ever intended to go. I needed to go where the heat was inescapable, where the white wasn’t cold, and, most importantly, where I could do absolutely nothing. I went to Turks and Caicos, alone, with my books, music, and podcasts. And, for three short days, I did what I desired: nothing.

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Dairy Queen

Labneh Tart with Blackberries and Walnut-Cardamom Crust

labneh blackberry
My father uttered some unintelligible word to the waiter and in minutes the young man returned with a tall, skinny glass of white liquid flecked with green. The beverage was thick but not so much so that it held the straw in place. “Have a sip,” my dad encouraged, as he pushed the glass next to my Coke. “What is it?,” I asked. “Yogurt.”

Yogurt? I hesitated before pursing my lips around the straw to drink. Sour, herbaceous, intensely savory yet very lean-tasting. The excessive saltiness surprised me and I did what I could to keep from spitting out the bubbly brew. “ICK. How can you drink that?”

I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten that first time I tried doogh, the Persian yogurt-and–carbonated water drink. It was at Mirage, a restaurant in Framingham, MA that was owned by dad’s friend. Though not hurting for Lebanese or Greek, Worcester County, where I grew up, lacked Persian restaurants. So on weekend nights when my mom was working, the two of us would travel, mostly silent, to Framingham for big platters of steaming rice adorned with crunchy browned tahdig and sumac-dusted kebabs, accompanied by charred whole plum tomatoes. I avoided doogh for many years; it tasted like watery mast-o-khiar (a Persian cucumber dip similar to tzatziki but made from a much thicker kind of Iranian yogurt). Every time my father ordered it, I recalled the unpleasant way it coated my mouth.

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Why Pancakes Matter

Cornmeal Griddle Cakes with Wild Blueberry Sauce

Blueberry Pancakes
My journals are all filled with intelligible-to-only-me scribbles; I need new ones. All I have left are a couple of pocket-size notebooks with kitschy donuts on the front because who doesn’t need pocket-size notebooks with kitschy donuts on the front? The headspace between lines is cramped. The notebooks are good depositories for tested then retested then axed then recovered recipes, but they lack the wide open spaces needed for my overworked mind and my overactive pen. I’ve delayed buying new ones. I haven’t written. I haven’t written when I might need to write most. It’s okay; I’m not a writer. I make a living bitching about other folks’ writing. Writing and editing use two different sides of the brain, I think. My craft won’t suffer. Why should I write when I have a to-do list that never ends? Why write when I can read and temporarily obscure my story by burrowing myself in the stories of others.

This morning—just like the last, and the one before that, and almost every morning for the past 5 weeks—I awoke to bright artificial light shining from behind swollen eyelids. The lids don’t lift; the heat of that light glues them shut and I have to make my brain move my forehead to force them open. My thick-framed glasses, folded fortunately, are wedged between the mattress and the small of my back. My comforter is on the ground, my bottle of prescription eye drops on my belly, held in place by a heavy, lifeless hand. In fact, neither of my hands, or arms or legs, can move for a good minute. My brain sends the signal; I concentrate hard, imagining the creaky bending of a robot’s joints. But the arms can’t keep up with these mental efforts. My cell phone is my sorry bedmate, sharing the pillow with me and threatening to die. “Low battery. 10% of battery remaining,” it passive-aggressively announces. The alarms on it are not set. I’m lucky I wake up without its buzzer.
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This Right Now

Cucumber and Gooseberry Salad with Feta and Mint

toss salad

You can only eat this dish right now. Well, you can most likely eat it a week from now, and you could have eaten it a week or two ago. But this salad will taste good for only a short amount of time. That’s a lot of pressure.

Summer dishes have an urgency to them. If you mark the passing of time by the produce calendar, they can incite anxiety. But that’s what makes them special. That they are fleeting makes them worthwhile. A winter supermarket tomato may look like a tomato but it doesn’t eat like one; it’s not a tomato. An in-season one is sweet as a ripe peach and its walls are just as tasty as its guts. Winter storebought herbs are brittle and musty. Summer herbs are tender and supple and so fragrant you can’t quite get their smell out of your kitchen, even if they’re stashed in the fridge. The allure of these short-lived flavors provides me with the energy to make a balanced meal at the end of exhausting, sun-soaked days. If I don’t eat all the things now, I won’t get my fill. It will turn cold and I will stare at mountains of just kale and beets for months.

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Pistachio Ice Cream with Roasted Strawberry Swirl

pistachio ice cream strawberry swirl
Maggie’s Ice Cream is a quaint-looking but always-hopping ice cream shop on the main strip in downtown Hyannis, Cape Cod. Well, it was. It was briefly named Laura’s and has been called Katie’s since 2002. But it will always be Maggie’s to me; no after-dinner stroll on a Cape weekend was complete without a scoop or cone from the house-like shop, with its white tables and expansive front porch. Maggie’s probably didn’t have the best ice cream, but it was homemade and satisfying after a day full of sand and sun. [ed note: Massachusetts, and specifically Boston and The Cape, is known as the unofficial ice cream capital of the US. How lucky am I?] The young teens, who at the time, seemed like adults, were always kind and patient, even though I rarely made a decision by the time it was my turn to order.

My dad was easy, and he’d rarely step foot into the shop: He always got pistachio, a departure from the coffee or mocha flavors he ordered everywhere else. It was “real” pistachio—dubbed that only because it wasn’t radioactive green, but, instead, a milky beige. I thought pistachio seemed so adult and sophisticated, European even, so I happily stole bites from my dad’s cup. I was a mini elitist: I knew never to touch green pistachio ice cream. My parents taught me the important stuff.

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Feeling It

Lentil and Rhubarb Salad with Fried Halloumi

lentil, rhubarb, halloumi

Feeling completely myself, I am not. But I’m working hard to fix that (overdoing it, probably), and I’ve unearthed a little bit of the old me. I’ve missed it.

You may have noticed that I’ve been absent from this space. Or maybe you haven’t. I mean, I’m not Smitten Kitchen here. But I had checked out. I haven’t read your blogs either.

It bothers me when blog authors (well, the ones who don’t make money from their blogs) apologize for being absent. It bothers me not because I find it arrogant, but because no one should have to apologize for something that’s not his/her job. I guess I’m good at looking after others’ mental health; my own is a different story. So I’m not apologizing, but I’m being honest about the absence because, yeah, I’ve not been feeling well; yeah, I’ve been dealing with “stuff”; yeah, I’ve been a little stressed. But, really, most weekends went by without me developing and testing new recipes and documenting it, because I just didn’t feel like it. I don’t ever want to come to this space if I’m not feeling it.

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Chickpea Crêpes with Peppery Dijon Crème Fraîche, Mushrooms, and Egg

mushroom galette When I was 16, I went to France for 10 days, living, speaking, and breathing the language and culture with a family of strangers in the Loire Valley for the first five days. I celebrated Easter with the family and enjoyed escargots. I ate aligot. My toes touched the sea at both Île de Rhé and La Baule. I bought a treasured tin of salted butter caramels in Brittany. I snuck into the discothèque without an ID (though I was old enough), stayed up until 5am and slept in until 1pm. I rode the bus and went to Nantes with my “sister” and her sophisticated, older Blonde, anorexic-skinny, multiple-pack-a-day-smoking, herb-taking, porcelain-skinned, ripped-jeaned cousin. I was now cultured. Right.

My love of all things French endured, and I studied the language and culture (and la gastronomie, bien sûr!) through college. Now, I’ll occasionally listen to French music. I’ll read Le Monde every once in a while. I’ll flip through a French cookbook a couple times a year. I can help with French culinary terms at work. But a francophile? Well, I’m posing. I am many years removed from my time in France, when I was confident about my language skills and up on current events. I am a phony. But I have my memories. And by recalling them, I might have the motivation to reconnect.

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This Might Help

Roasted Pears and Chardonnay Ice Cream with Olive Oil and Pine Nuts

olive oil pine nuts
How can a world so white seem so dark? This isn’t the first time I’ve asked this kind of question in this space. But walking through endless walls of winter white so tall I can’t see beyond them has gotten old and contempt, depression, and illness is brewing in our apocalyptic (no longer hyperbole) city. Weak. Tired. Done.

We have limited means of transportation. We’ve suffered through arctic blasts of ice-cold air. There’s nowhere left to move the white. We just continue to pile, hoping the sky is as far away as it seems.

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Roasted Persimmon Yogurt Parfaits with
Burnt Lemon Honey and Pistachios

burnt honey
I avoid writing about the subject of a new year with each passing one because it just seems so big. I lack the hearty optimism of those who can expound on the year that passed and the one to come. But the number five holds a lot of weight. A number with a five in it automatically seems more important than others. So for some reason, in 2015, I’m attracted to the idea of embracing a “clean slate” mentality, which I’ve typically ignored since I measure my time not by years but by accomplishments. I’m looking at the new year with a slight sense of urgency. Urgency to do what? I don’t know. But there’s a little spark and, at the very least, it’s kept me from hitting the snooze button in the morning, even though I had no intention of stopping that.

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