Friday, August 13, 2010

Potato-Peeling as Meditative Trance! - Feasting, Friendship & Healing

My friend arrived for dinner last night around 6:30pm and we didn't stop eating and talking 'til 1:30am, at which point I offered the couch to her. Then we hung out today 'til 11am. So let me share some highlights from last night.

This is the menu that happened:
Bogle sauvignon blanc (her gift)

Caramelized Onions:  I'd made these a few days before (using The Joy Of Cooking) to go with an omelet -- not realizing they'd take an hour and a half to cook. Didn't eat my omelet 'til 3pm! I'd been waiting for a chance like last night to try them out as a side dish/appetitzer the way the book suggested. Warm them up, then sprinkle some freshly grated parmesan on top. So I did, and served the onions along with a warmed-up loaf of Pain Rustique from Trader Joe's. Here it is:
Caramelized onions topped w/fresh grated parmesan
And here is the way my friend prepared the bites -- piling the onions onto the bread.
Caramelized onion on bread devotional
Then I decided to make cherry sauce and goat cheese for our second appetizer. Earlier I'd stopped at Whole Foods to pick up more halloumi cheese (craving that salad -- here's how it came out today for lunch)...
Halloumi Cheese w/Lentil & Cucumber salad redux
...and couldn't resist the shiny cherries. This appetizer was the first thing Chef Maili made at our initial cooking lesson on June 10th. Marilee and I almost fainted from pleasure. Maili uses squares of walnut raisin rye bread (wherever that comes from!). I substituted those with the irresistible olive and fig crisps I mentioned in another post (thank you for turning me on to them, Janet Graham!) You can get them at Whole Foods. The combination of all the ingredients is luscious and lethal.

For the first time, I didn't burn the almonds. (Set the oven to 350, toasted the nuts for only 8 minutes and also checked for when I could smell them...a sign to pull them out fast). While you're sauteeing cherries (something so satisfyingly perverse and unexpected about sauteeing bright red fruit -- at least to me!), you're toasting almonds. These small touches -- warming the sauce, toasting the nuts -- are the kinds of things Maili taught me that can elevate your food -- just like choosing a surprising word or phrase in a story can elevate the language.
Stupid kitchen mistakes:  Grating Parmesan Cheese. You think this is easy. And it is. What's not easy (for me) is directing where the cheese goes. When I grate cheese over pasta, most of it flies onto the floor. Last night, Eureka! The solution came to me -- grate the cheese into a bowl first! I know I know -- you're thinking nobody could be that lame in the kitchen. But I am. And I'm still cooking. So you can cook too.
Sauteeing cherries -- first in butter, then adding a simple syrup
I did not have chervil -- had forgotten to buy some -- so I just left it out. Chervil is a tiny, delicate herb. It, too, adds a certain something to the goat cheese mixture. But I'd forgotten it another time and added mint instead -- which somehow wrecked the whole appetizer. It was too strong and suffocated the other flavors, I think. I'm learning about what I like, what I respond to -- and then trying to figure out why. When Maili talks about foods "liking" certain spices, or herbs, e.g. fruit loves lemon -- it helps, er, humanize the cooking process. Maybe goat cheese hates mint, thinks it stole his girlfriend, I don't know. But it didn't work, so I skipped that part and just mixed the goat cheese with toasted chopped almonds. When I put it all together, it didn't look as pretty as Maili's. You can see hers on her blog (I couldn't figure out how to copy the pic).

Here are mine:
But, my guest devoured them so there's the testament.
Friend gets all reverential on the warm cherries and goat cheese
Finally I could prepare the shrimp. I love zesting fruit. (I use a Microplane, suggested by Maili. It's brilliant!) Somehow it feels like you're playing a zither with food. I scraped a whole lemon, orange and lime into a bowl. Set it aside. (The first couple times I made the zest I'd added a tablespoon of salt!!! mistakenly thinking because these ingredients were in one spot on the recipe it meant they all belonged together. I hadn't read carefully enough to understand that the salt was to be sprinkled on the shrimp along with the zest as you quickly pan-fried them. Not mixed with the zest! The first two times I made this dish -- for myself, practicing -- I couldn't figure out why it was so mouth-puckeringly salty. Despite the swallowing-sea-water effect, I ate the whole plate. This is something I'm working on -- being willing to toss failed dishes, expired foods, items. I plan to explore my resistance to throwing things out, dig beneath my emotional relationship to clutter. More on that another post when I talk the magnificent orzo-arugula salad...)
The only Blanche I know...swoon...
In another pan, I sauteed spinach. Just heated the pan to medium high, glugged some olive oil, sprinkled salt on top of the leaves, stirred them, and voila. However, my friend suggested another way to do it was first blanch the spinach. (I don't know what "blanching" is...) Then saute and drizzle w/olive oil upon serving. (She said she couldn't taste the olive oil -- which was weird to me since I'd used a lot to saute them. Maybe too much, she said gently. Because the spinach was heavy with oil and yet didn't have the taste. Always more to learn!)
By this point, we were so hungry and primed for the main meal, we scarfed the whole plate of shrimp before I remembered to document. My friend had no comments on this dish. She was too busy inhaling them all! Here's a shot from apres-feast. Even my friend's hand looks relaxed and sated, don't you think?
We finished the evening with warmed plum and ginger sauce spooned over a few scoops of Haagen Dazs plain vanilla ice cream. Downed the last of the Bogle sauvignon blanc. Drank up conversation for our aperitif. Then we fell silent, rubbed our happy bellies and patted our overly-analytical heads. Kidding. But there is such a simple pleasure in this cooking and feeding and sharing that it seems to bring out the child in you. When small things made you smile with contentment.
You'll notice there was no Proscuitto & Tuscan Melon w/Fresh Mint on the final menu. When I drove to the Valley yesterday to shop, I lost my cojones to face Costco. Costco's amazing, but it's like a city. You have to be brave to enter, and endure the warehouse overwhelmingness, the aisles like backstreet industrial alleys, the towering shelves jampacked with stuff.
Instead I stopped for a $25 hour massage. You heard me right. $25 for an hour. Lucky Feet, right on Topanga Canyon Boulevard near Dumetz. Check it out. If you recall, I'd only slept four hours and was wasted. I was also stiff and sore from working out.

I haven't mentioned yet that along with my cooking odyssey, I signed up for a five-week three day/week group physical bootcamp with Sonki Fitness. Getting in better shape while learning to cook made sense. I wanted to explore new foods without worrying (at first) about what was fattening, or unhealthy -- and focus instead on taste. Just have fun.
We meet every other evening on the breath-taking Santa Monica Bluffs. Interestingly, the trainer has a background in the military; so does Maili. Sonki Hong's an army guy whose job I believe was training recruits who'd failed the physical training. Maili's married to a West Point graduate, and her father cooked in the military. They're not messing around.
 I love the rigor, and feel these are the right people to entrust with Beginner's Mind.
Speaking of Beginner's Mind, my friend and I spoke of a thousand things last night -- but the topic of healing fits this blog.
When I gushed about the joys of living on the edge of the wilderness and the tonic effect of staring at green all day, my friend mentioned some places where she found healing in times of distress. One was the Santa Monica rose garden on the bluffs. What rose garden? I worked out there several times a week and had never seen one. Was this yet another reminder of my love junkie tendency toward tunnel vision? I was beginning to see my addictive hyper-focus could be turned to positive use, but it still could be myopic. Then I remembered finding the red rose on the street right where I parked the beat-up cherry red metallic pickup this past Wednesday.
Santa Monica bluffs public rose garden

And today, what do you know. On the walk back to the truck, after bootcamp, I spied that very rose garden to my left. I'd parked right next to it. So I wandered through the garden -- stooping to smell the roses. (Not stopping, stooping. That extra "o" is the only thing preventing me from truly become a walking cliche). Laugh all you like. It was a lesson I clearly needed, and keep needing. One tied closely to cooking.
Close-up of roses at Santa Monica bluffs public rose garden
You can't stoop to smell the roses if you don't even see them. You also can't sniff these blossoms if you're sprinting past like a speed-demon, hellbent on passing the guy in front of you. Addicts sure do love the speed, the immediate gratification, the grand experience. So it makes sense that even in my cooking odyssey, I'm ramping it up. One friend who came to dine remarked that if I did want to write a memoir about this journey, I wouldn't have any arc because I'd already gone from 0 to 60 in the first few weeks. Exactly! I said. Because that's a love junkie for you! Only in this case, it's a positive focus of energy. Instead of penning insane love letters to destructive and/or unavailable lovers, I was cooking up food, feeding myself, and feeding others. Going full throttle was part of the tale. So was finding a balance in the slowing down.

My friend mentioned another favorite place, the Santa Monica Farmer's Market where I'd also never been. When she urged me to go, I knew it was time to plan a trip. I imagined her walking through the market, past bundles of fresh asparagus, piles of dusty red tomatoes, basketsful of zucchini, boxes of gently layered parsleys and thyme. She would move through the fragrance of sliced oranges, and peaches, crushed mint, fresh plums, and her senses would awaken. I wanted that experience. I wanted that rebirth. Wasn't it a natural extension of living at the edge of a state park, in a rural area? Why had I resisted this whole foodie world for so long?
I thought about the girl on Twitter who admonished me when I complained about the worms I found on the corn I bought from the local Topanga farmer's market. Get over it, she Tweet-teased. Worms shworms. Then she explained in another tweet that she was a farmer's daughter, so that stuff didn't bother her. Would I prefer my corn hydroponic and chemically clean of bugs? She gave me pause. I thought about how pleasurable shucking the measly corn was, how gathering the silken greenish threads and pulling them away from the cob calmed me. It was as if time strolled, was filled with color and sensation. At dinner last night, my friend and I talked about how any kind of emotional healing seemed to require slowing down of time.
"When I saw the photo of you peeling potatoes, Rachel, I knew. It was exactly right. This cooking journey is meant to be. I could see peeling potatoes put you in a physically meditative place." She paused. "I know you needed that." What she left unsaid filled the quiet space around us on the deck. She knew me well.
 "Once a psychic told me I should be throwing pots. Same idea."
Balinese dancer
When I took pictures of our dinner, I photographed only my friend's hands. They were so expressive. This was out of respect for her request for anonymity, but also a way of commemorating our shared meal. I wanted to celebrate our reconnection, our conversation about food and healing, about memory and the mysteries of the body And I wanted to capture the artistry, articulateness and compassion that extends to my friend's very fingers.
M.F.K. Fisher in her kitchen
When my friend left, I was reminded of this quotation:

"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk."
-- M.F.K. Fisher

If I can cook, anyone can. Eat well!



  1. Such an amazingly beautiful post. I love the story about your friend getting strength from the roses and vegetables. I've done that too - it helps. So glad you two had such a wonderful evening. xo

  2. Thank you Rachel. I'm hungry and enthralled by the food and could almost taste it! In Love Junkie you also highlight foods and exotic tastes among many other things ofcourse. But it is a strong theme of yours as food is also very sexual and healing. But I most appreciate the miracle of healing the body with energy from food and healing through spirit. As someone who is living with HIV for over 25 years in good health that has been my path. So I deeply resonate with your blog and your dear friend who has been victorious in celebrating life over cancer. A beautiful thing.
    Peace, love and healing,
    Sherri Lewis

  3. you crack me up! the part about the food hating each other. never thought of it that way. and yes goat cheese hates mint. I always think about what foods like each other instead of which foods hate each other but since you wrote it you made me realize the reverse does work.

    my husband went to West Point, not me. But we did meet on a blind date there. We were set up by the woman teaching the Cadet Cooking Class he was taking. my father was in the Air Force as a lawyer because at that point you had to be in the military during Viet Nam. He lucked out and was stationed in England and spent his military career golfing and touring around England.

    meanwhile, don't blanch the spinach! remember my hot pan tip? so get the pan really hot. then just crush to garlic (remove skin) and leave it whole. then just a tiny bit of olive oil, maybe a tablespoon and then put the spinach in. there is enough water in the spinach leaves.

    love your comment about "the state of healing seemed to require a slowing down of time."

    met a man in Trader Joe's today who owns three restaurants. he is also a musician and said when he teaches cooking classes he talks about spices in bass clef or tremble. interesting since you and I have discussed so many musical analogies to cooking. this guy was also heavily involved in legalizing raw milk.

    i may need to rewrite the cherry appetizer. looks like too much simple syrup. also, the error comes from overcooking. even my sous-chef did it once. just a quick saute to get them warm is best.

    GORGEOUS picture of the Halloumi. i'll have to tell Jewels!

  4. I LOVE the connection of spices to music and bass or treble clef, or the use of a surprising word to elevate the language or the food.

    "Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation." Wallace Stevens

    The pictures in this post are stunning - love the devotional with the carmelized onions and bread, and all else.

    Mailli what do you think of legalizing raw milk? Having grown up in a farming community and shared a cow where we actually did pastuerization, and seeing how dirty the barn could be (no fault of the cows there), and the whole milking process could be, it kind of gives me the willies. But I definitely know about the movement.

    There's a big underground raw milk thing going on in Houston (pretty easy since we still have tons of cows within the city limits)