Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Brief Essay on Theology and Grammar (With Pretty Pictures!)

Today I write in defense of the word, “He.” The usage I have in mind is generally upper-case, and somewhere in the surrounding sentences words commonly to be found are, “Almighty,” “Lord,” and “God.”

If you think I should back up for heaven’s sake and defend the word, “God”, well, that’s implicated too, but because it’s my blog and I get to say so, I am starting from the assumption that a divine being who created the universe as we experience it and loves us silly humans all to pieces does, in fact, exist.

To further draw a ring around what I am attempting to do and what I’m not attempting to do, I’ll stipulate further: I write in defense of the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to the Creator-God of Catholicism. I defend this use in theory, not in practice, because in practice it can all too easily become just as misogynistic as the theory is accused of being. And, perhaps, I don’t defend so much as attempt to explain, because I won’t consider my attempt a failure if at the end of this document you still think using “He” and “Him” always is stupid.
The Old Testament expression of this Creator-God has always been ‘Father.’ Why not ‘Mother’: the simplest explanation is that these records were translated at a time when the idea of a woman in any position of authority was about as acceptable as having a frog in a position of authority. It’s not only that simple, though. If you read the Old Testament, you’ll notice that this God behaves as a father-figure toward his Chosen People. He chooses them, rescues them as necessary, gives them laws to follow, and when they don’t follow them, he reprimands them pretty harshly, leaving them to the very painful consequences of their hubris time and time again. Is this a stereotypical view of fatherhood? Yes. It’s a stereotypical view of motherhood then to assume that mothers are always nurturing, comforting, and forgiving first and foremost.
God as “He” is further cemented when the Old Testament profits use the analogy of a married couple to express the relationship between God and ‘His’ people. Guess who the bride and who the groom is. Yep! God chooses his bride, the people of Israel, but they turn from Him and are unfaithful, breaking his heart. And yet, He will never forsake them, always ready to take them back when they repent.
So we have a Father, and we have a Groom, and we are the children and the bride in that equation…isn’t something missing? In the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke, the Angel Gabriel appears to a young woman and says, “Do not be afraid, Holy Mary. The Lord is with thee!” I imagine she was pretty afraid just the same, particularly when the angel announced to this roughly 13-year-old Virgin that the Holy Spirit was going to conceive God’s child in her womb, and she would give birth to the Son of God! Holy Shit!
Mary is not only the mother of the second person of the Trinity; 34 years later or so, at the foot of the cross, her son gives her to all of us as our Mother, completing a metaphor began thousands of years ago.
In fact, with this amazing Divine intervention in human history, we can dispense with all the Old Testament evidence, because just having Mary as the mother of the Son of God requires that God be the Father of the Son of God. If you’d like to dispute the legitimacy of this whole story because why would our Creator do something that so clearly depicted him in a Masculine way when women were already so disadvantaged, consider this: If instead an angel had appeared to a young man and explained he had found favor with God and was therefor to ejaculate into this Holy Dixie Cup…alright, I’m being facetious, but you get the point. It would have been a good deal more complicated. How would this Heaven-side birth ever end in a human child on Earth?
Obviously our Father-God is only one facet of the Divine, Loving Creative Force, but it feels like a slight against our Mother Mary to take her job and hand it over to someone who already has so much going for Him. Mary was assumed into Heave and crowned Queen of Heaven, deified to some degree, although according to Catholic theology she is not a Goddess, and we do not worship her. We can always pray to her with our concerns.
She has appeared on Earth to offer comfort and guidance to her children many times throughout the ages, which by the way God only did once and He had his Spirit impregnate a teen so His Son could do it (again I’m being facetious), and Mary has promised to intercede for us, helping us to find eternal salvation in spite of our faults and sinful tendencies, samskaras, if you prefer. She’s a great Mother. Do we need a Mother-God as well, or can we let God fill in the blanks? He acts as the sterner influence; the one that says, ‘Yes, this is the more difficult path but it is the better one and it is the one I’m demanding of you if you want to call me your God and Father.’ Tough, man, but would we change our lives at all if God was more prone to hug us and make it all better when we messed up? Which is not to say God doesn't do his fair share of hugging and making it better.
To sum up and clarify, God is not limited to masculine attributes. He is not actually a He anymore than He is a She. He is unlimited and beyond our dualistic world with two genders, and various other opposites. Many Christian mystics connected strongly to the feminine and maternal aspects of God, and if those facets of God are more helpful in your quest to connect to Him, they are accessible to you. Call Him Her; it’s alright with me. Because God gave us a mother in Mary however, we can accept that God offers Himself to us primarily through the vehicle of masculine traits and fatherhood in general, without letting that be sullied by our human knowledge of human failings that caused, and allowed, men to place themselves over women for thousands of years, and without falling into the trap of believing this narrow facet of God is all the God there is.

Yes? Yes. Or maybe not. Just give it some thought. Perhaps you’ll feel a bit more empathetic to the Catholic understanding of God afterward.

Live Omily,
~em

Besides, it's such a grammatical mess to keep God completely gender-neutral in our writing and speech! We're only human, right?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eating Omily: Pesto, or, Other Reasons Canning Could Save Your Life

The blog got put on hold a bit, what with hurricane preparations and all...right now, before things get exciting and the lights go out, is probably a good time to drop some pearls of wisdom before ye...what have I been eating this week?

I had tomatoes left over after the Round 2 of Whole Tomato-canning, so fresh salsa every day! So awesome...had another frittata with chopped tomatoes and fresh corn on the cob the other day. The tomatoes made the frittata really juicy, which was nice.

This heart-shaped tomato was blowing my mind.

We made a massive batch of pesto with all the basil we've been saving in jars of water, enough to freeze two jars full, and have another in the fridge to savor slowly. We smeared it on our pizza on Monday. As long as you've got a food proccessor, pesto is basically the quickest, easiest, most accessible home-preservation project there is. Toast your pinenuts, then get them crumbly in the processor along with the garlic and Parmesan cheese. Add the basil, chop it a bit, then run the processor while drizzling in really good olive oil till it reaches the consistency of your liking. I prefer to keep it really thick and pasty. You can always add more olive oil to it if you want it runnier to toss with pasta more effectively, for example. There's nothing in the world like home-made gnocchi and home-made pesto...but I'll save that recipe for the wintertime. Spoon your pesto into smallish jars, and freeze it. Pesto won't freeze solid because of the quantity of fat in it. It'll thaw to edible in just a few minutes in a bowl of warm water, which makes it an exceedingly decadent, and nutritious if portion sizes are within reason, convenience food!

But now, we're holed up with six bottles of wine, food that can be eaten as is or cooked deliciously on our (gas, thank God) stove, and a case of quart-jars washed out and filled with water for drinking, along with the 21.5-quart canner, and the bathtub, just in case. Battery operated radio-check. Candles-check. Rum-check. The husband is running out for more chips and a couple of avocados. If Irene's bringing the tropical storm, I say it's time for a taste of the forbidden-tropical fruit!
I laugh at anyone who went out and spent money on water in containers. Canners are prepared for anything!

The cats, interestingly enough, have already taken refuge under large pieces of furniture, but seem otherwise calm. If only I had made a last-minute library run...I just finished my last book! I know there's stuff on these shelves I haven't gotten to yet, though. And once we're operating by candlelight, there will be mandatory readings of Poe while we drink the sherry-bonus points if you know why the sherry is important.

Perhaps I'll have a terribly exciting report of our hurricane-adventures early next week, or what creative dishes we whipped up in the absence of an oven, or last-minute ingredient additions. I see wild rice salad in our future...except that the husband ate all the raisins...hmmm...we'll see.

Batten down the hatches!!

~em

Monday, August 22, 2011

Beguine(ing to look) a lot like Medeival Feminism

I have a confession to make. It may not be all that surprising. When I'm not obsessing over food, swinging from the rafters, engaging in asana, cleaning our apartment, or running errands, I'm delving through various texts, working my way inch by inch through the heavy-lifting part of writing a book: research. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes ludicrous, and just often enough, inspiring. For reasons that are unclear to me but I'm pretty sure are closely related to superstition, I'm going to keep any and all details under my hat for now, but for the sake of sharing some fascinating history with you I will divulge that at the moment I'm researching pre-schism Christian mystics. A working definition of a mystic is one who seeks union with God, literal and direct revelation of the Divine. Many mystics experience visions, ecstasies, and revelations, but these are generally considered beside the point. These are the people not content with tradition, not content with faith, which is not to say they lack faith. On the contrary, their faith is so strong, it awakens in them a hunger for more; the real deal! You may have heard of Hildegard of Bingen, or perhaps Thomas Merton. Even if you have no ties to Catholicism, I'll bet you know who St. Francis of Assisi is! These are all mystics.

Obviously it's beautiful to read about the lives and teachings of people so passionate about seeking the Divine in the midst of their earthly lives, but having worked my way from the Apostle Paul up to Meister Eckhart, I'm beginning to feel a little blase about the endless litany of 'turning inward, away from creation, suffering with Christ, cultivating virtue being only the beginning...' When that feeling sets in, I turn back a few chapters to the Beguines.

The who?

I told my husband to google it. He promptly typed, 'bagwynes.' My only point being, no one has heard of these people!
The Beguines were women belonging to a rather nebulous school of Christian orders set up on the outskirts of towns in the Rhineland. They weren't nuns: they took no vows, maintained ownership of their property, accepted no alms, and had the freedom to leave and return to the world at will. If they didn't have financial resources, they worked to support themselves as teachers, seamstresses, and manual laborers (perhaps most interesting for the time period). The Beguines were celibate, but a widow or a woman abandoned by her spouse could join the Beguines, and any woman was free to leave to marry if she wished, or free to take orders at a more tradition convent, or just return to her family.

When I first read about the Beguines I was so moved to imagine these beautiful, free, self-supporting communities of self-possessed women living their lives as they saw fit. I am, perhaps romanticizing this scenario a bit. The Beguines flourished around the same time that the Crusades were monopolizing all the men: getting married was a less available option, and staying to be a burden on their families must have seemed like even less of one to these women. Even so, imagine, the 1200's, women living alone in communities, working for their living! How much sooner could we have made the strides in equality we have made if those communities had continued to flourish? What have we lost ourselves and our daughters in allowing that piece of history to pass out of common knowledge, even among Catholics?

The Beguines had the misfortune of being associated through geography, and gender, with the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The Brethren of the Free Spirit was a lay (not ordained) Christian movement with some radical beliefs for Christianity: pantheism, and the idea that once the soul had reached a certain level of closeness with God, it was best to let the body indulge all of its base urges in an effort to keep it sort of satisfied and out of the way. You can imagine how well free love went over in medieval Christendom. Followers of the Brethren of the Free Spirit were condemned to heresy, and the Beguines, though they didn't subscribe to these beliefs, were swept up in the zeal to bring the heretics to justice. Of course, it's clear that it would have taken very little for a group of self-supporting women living without benefit of men to fall far enough out of favor to provoke an attack. It is perhaps inevitable they couldn't be allowed to live in peace, numbers ever growing, in that time and place. Worse though, is how they have been wiped from our cultural memory completely, unable to regrow when better conditions presented themselves.

I found this article about modern Beguines in Germany, and this out-of-date blog about the American Beguines. The former is A.) in Germany, and B.) though I think a more secular order of Beguines would be right up many people's alley, I know for me I would want something more along the lines of the original. The latter, well, I e-mailed them, but as of yet I have no evidence that they're still an active group.

I am all for reinstating orders of Beguines. I was heart-broken to not find out about them soon enough to start a Beguine order at my Catholic University. I was married for nearly two years before I knew they existed. Of course, we don't need the shelter of a religious community for women to live alone and make their own way anymore, but a religious community without the austerity or the permanence that are the norm in women's religious orders is, I think, something Christendom does need. What better scenario to give women a true choice, removed from constant demands of the world, to make choices about their beliefs and their actions? I can't help but wonder how many women, living in a supportive community of this type, would elect not to be sexually active, perhaps for a time, perhaps until marriage. How many women would find themselves more comfortable deciding not to marry till they were older, or at all, or pursuing career choices still less common for women to get into. Removed from the onslaught of institutionalized sexism, how many women would start to question the way they live their lives? They way they value themselves and others of their gender? The behavior they expect from other people of both genders?

And again, maybe I'm romanticizing this just a bit. Who's to say that a Vatican-sanctioned Beguine order would actually be far enough outside the reach of Patriarchal society to question it? A historically accurate Beguine order would require celibacy, which would limit those joining to a majority of women already deeply involved in their Catholic faith. It may be safe to say that such a population is, at least statistically speaking, less likely to question the status quo either within or without the religion they follow (I say this as a member of this population that feels very abnormal in questioning the status quo both within and without her religion; perhaps this is only my impression and is quite mistaken). Maybe a non-Vatican-sanctioned order of Beguines is necessary for this to work, but I can't help it: I'm still holding out for celibacy! If you can't handle it for more than a couple of weeks at a time, then go back into the world and do what you feel like you need to do, but come to this community without that baggage.

Who's with me? Anyone..?

Live Omily,
~em

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eating Omily: It's an Ant's World

Woo, just thinking about all the tasty Summer-rific meals and preserving projects that have gone down this week makes me feel as rich and fortunate as the locavore-haters would have you believe I am! But that is so not true. Eating locally and seasonally is about as far from elitism or snobby foodie-ism as you can get. Remember, this is how everyone ate until our food system became huge enough to support sufficient corruption to allow all of us to eat whatever we want whenever we want on the cheap. We in America spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than nearly every other developed nation. The stuff you put into your body every few hours in order to stay alive should be something safe and delicious and healthful, not the cheapest shit they can put in front of you!

Enough extra income to buy more food than you need half the year so as to buy less food than you need the other half is a requirement for realistically putting by a Winter supply of warm weather favourites, but absolutely everyone can afford to buy delicious, local seasonal food from their farmers' market! Start by going once a week and scanning for bargains, using those veggies to supplement what you get at your grocer's. Even if that's all you feel comfortable doing, you're still making a difference, and odds are, you'll be hooked and spending more and more of your food dollar at the Farmer's Market in no time!

But enough of the 60 second lecture. I want to tell you all about canning whole tomatoes! Such delightfully squishy work...It's a messy process, but so rewarding, and pretty simple, too! First you have to blanch your tomatoes in boiling water for thirty seconds to a minute, long enough for the skins to loosen. The tomatoes have to go from the boiling water to an ice-water bath, so you need a ton of ice to do a decent-sized batch: 12 pounds or so of tomatoes at a time will give you enough quarts for it to seem worthwhile, but not so many they can't all fit in the canner at once. A big cooler is perfect for ice-water, since it will keep it icy longer than your sink will, but I use my sink and it gets the job done if I add the ice in stages. Once they've cooled in the ice-water, you use a paring knife to core the tomatoes, and then peel the skins off. Put the prepped tomatoes in a big bowl as you go, or in the sink if you aren't using it for your ice-water bath.
Guesstimate how many quart jars you'll fill (it's roughly 3 pounds of tomatoes per jar, but in my experience, you should round up from there; I had 12 pounds of tomatoes and could barely fit them all in 5 jars). Put two tablespoons of bottled, not fresh, lemon juice in the bottom of each jar, and half a teaspoon of salt if you like. Put the tomatoes into the jars one at a time, squishing them gently with your hand to compress the hollow core, and start to release their juices. The juices should be above the level of the tomatoes as you go. Leave a half-inch of empty space above the juice level, and the juice should be a half-inch above the tomatoes.
Release trapped air, wipe down the rims, screw on the lids fingertip-tight, and place the jars in a simmering canner. When the water in the caner gets to a rapid boil, start the timer for 1 hour and 25 minutes. Put the lid on, turn the head down to medium so the canner stays at a boil, but doesn't boil over, and go do something else. When the timer goes off, take off the lid, turn off the heat, and let the jars sit in the water for five or ten minutes to come off of the boil so they don't spurt at you when you remove them. Let them sit, undisturbed, for 12 hours, to assure the seal has formed properly, check the seal, and put in a cool, dark place for up to a year.
There are my lovely jars! And that's my canner to the right...I'm cooking wild rice for the dinner I mention later on the left burner...

These directions are not specific enough to be followed safely by someone without canning experience. If you've never canned food before, find a book, some youtube tutorials, ask your Grandma, anything to familiarize yourself with the process, and why and how canning the foods renders them safely shelf-stable. Once you have a grasp on the process you should be able to easily fill in the details as you follow this recipe.

On Thursday we had such a nice dinner; I was so impressed with myself I served it in two courses on my fine china! Eggplant puree with organic tortilla chips to start, and then a chilled wild rice salad with diced cucumber and bell pepper, toasted nuts, raisins, and chopped candied ginger. Wild rice salad served cold or at room temperature is perfect picnic food! You can easily fit in all your food groups, and I don't know anybody who doesn't love it. As you pick your (seasonal) ingredients, consider a fruit or veggie with a nice crunch, a sweet ingredient, and something for protein. So in November, I would likely do apples for crunch, cubed roasted winter squash for sweetness, and toasted nuts for protein. Fennel would be lovely, too...I dress spring/summer wild rice salads with lemon juice and olive oil, and I use balsamic vinegar and olive oil on fall and winter salads (This is, sadly, a bit backward since citrus is in season in the Winter and not the Summer; I may need to seriously look into bottling my own lemon juice). The eggplant puree is perfect, easy, cheap party dip! Roast one or two eggplants, cut in half, cut side down, with salt and olive oil, then stir the flesh vigorously into a puree with olive oil, salt, garlic, and herbs. Lemon juice and parsley are nice as they cut through some of the richness of the eggplant.

Breakfast today was fresh home-made salsa on our eggs with whole-wheat mixed-berry pancakes from my frozen berry stash! Mmmmmmm...I know you want in on that...it's not too late; there are still lovely berries at the farmer's market! Don't eat them all!! Freeze half for later laid out in a single layer on baking sheets, then transfer to a freezer container.

Yesterday I had plans for dinner on the upper west side with a friend, so I had to speed through some preserving tasks, all while debating gay marriage and the electability of Ron Paul with my dad on the phone! I chopped chilli peppers into pickling-size pieces and put them in the freezer; I'll pickle those this week I think, and blanched, chilled, and hung up to dry a pound and a quarter of green beans to be thrown into soups and casseroles all Winter long...These were called 'leather britches' in the days when every house was festooned with them this time of year. How charming is that?? (I can't be sure, but I may have just directly quoted inadvertently from Put 'em Up: A Creative Cook's Guide to Home Preservation by, Sherri Brooks Vinton. This is the book I scour religiously in my quest to eat locally in northern Winters; it's definitely a good one to check out.
If they seem shrively and odd, don't worry, that's the point; they are drying.

I had three ears of corn in our CSA share this week, so I put all three into boil, cut the third off the cob, and put it on a sheet pan in a 170-degree oven for several hours to dry; start it when you know you'll be around all day, and prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon handle to let steam escape. Dried corn will keep in an air-tight container at room-temperature for six months to a year, and it looks so quaint on your counter.

I am fortunate to have eaten so well; I am doubtlessly blessed with such proximity to a huge Farmer's Market, and enough money to buy food I want, instead of just what I need. To be fair though, I devote hours of my time to preparing these delicious foods so that I'll have them when I need them. It's very much an 'ant vs. grasshopper' mentality, and one that anyone can adopt: I'm spending more on food now, but in the Winter, when I'm leaning heavily on my stash, I'll be spending significantly less, and I'll be working much less, too. Thawing pesto, turning canned tomatoes into salsa or marinara, simmering a pot of soup based on my dried veggies, sauteing pre-blanched asparagus, stirring frozen berries into oatmeal...eating will be a breeze! Instead of outsourcing the cost of that convenience to the planet and ill-paid immigrant workers, I'm paying it myself now in hours in the kitchen. For that very reason, I'll feel even more blessed when I crack open a jar of brandied peaches, or taste hot, sweet corn chowder when the snow flies...Now that's living Omily!

~em

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eating Omily: Summer Soup and Gourmet Sandwiches

Whew, what a week! I've got tomato gunk stuck in my wedding ring from the Great Tomato Canning Escapades this morning...but that deserves its own post after I recuperate! I've got pictures!!

Last week I noticed a whole lot of awesome veggies looking a little pouty in the crisper: not one but two onions half chopped and relegated to tupperware, a bell pepper the same way, and another with a big squishy spot, and a rather flaccid carrot. And of course, plenty of squash, looking simply ageless. Only one thing to do with a situation like that: Minestrone! 'Minestrone' (which I pronounced 'mina-strone' for years before realizing that's a long 'e' on the end) roughly means, 'big soup.' Any soup with a variety of veggies can be called a minestrone, although a 'Summer' minestrone with beans or pasta is what you commonly get when you order this delicious nutrition-powerhouse in restaurants.

Seeing as it's Summer, that's approximately what I made: sturdy soup pot with plenty of olive oil on the bottom, heated until it ripples a little when the pan is tilted, and then all my onions chopped up added, along with a lone, rather sad carrot. Everyone knows how great onions are when allowed to cook in plenty of fat for a while, but there are other aromatics out there, and they all respond beautifully to this treatment: garlic, carrots, sweet peppers, celery, and fennel are the main ones. I added the garlic after the onion and carrots had gotten soft and sweet, and started to gain a little color, since garlic doesn't take nearly as long to cook, and tastes bitter when browned. I also added lots of salt (way more than the veggies currently in the pan needed, but still not quite enough to season the whole finished soup) and some dried herbs. I added some chopped new potatoes next, along with the squash, more of that than anything else, and tossed it in the hot pan, letting it get a head start.

Meanwhile, I pulled a handful of string beans out of the freezer and chopped those, leaving them in a bowl to thaw, and chopped up some of the tomatoes out of a can I had opened for emergency sauce the day before (I'll get back to that recipe, too; it's dynamite!). I added the tomatoes and juice to the pan, and then just enough water to cover everybody. Since the green beans had been blanched before I froze them, and I like my bell pepper to keep a little crunch, I held back on those until the squash was all but perfectly tender. I stirred in the string beans and bell peppers, and some left-over beans in their cooking liquid that had been on their last legs. In just a few more minutes, the soup was done, and yum!! With crackers or whole-grain bread, this is an amazingly delicious and satisfying meal, not to mention totally vegan, if you're into that kind of thing!
And just like fritattas, minestrone is not just a summer meal. In the cooler months winter squash adds a silky texture, and hearty kale adds a shot of fresh green flavor! Beans or pasta are lovely in the soup, but should be cooked separately and then added. Potatoes, especially the starchy storage sort, add a lovely velvety texture when cooked long enough to start falling apart, along with protein and more potassium than a banana! Onions and garlic store well and are available at most Farmer's Markets as long as they're open. Carrots are easy to find in the Fall, too, usually.

My husband insisted I blog about lunch too, although I thought it was less impressive. I took two of the multi-grain frozen croissants I caved and bought at Trader Joe's, baked them most of the way, pulled them out, split them, and layered them with some sauteed squash, onions, and peppers I found in the fridge, and some fresh mozzarella cheese. Skip did just mozarella. We put the croissants back into the oven for five more minutes to crisp up, heat the toppings, and melt the cheese, and when they came out, we added fresh sliced cherry tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinegar. Ok, so maybe they were pretty impressive.

Sometimes I think I will miss Summer, the almost surreal constant over-the-top bounty of so many veggies, coming in by the truckload...but then I think about the cool snap in the air, the leaves changing, the concord grapes popping up by the two-quart box, popping the seal on a jar of tomatoes I canned myself, and pumpkin soup of course...nope, I won't miss it.

Enjoy it while it's here, kids!

~em

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dining: Because You're Worth It

A while back I read an article in a kind of loopy free magazine about the yogic lifestyle, supposedly written for the NYC area. I say 'supposedly' for many reasons, but mainly because the article expressed the view that if one couldn't sit down to eat a vegetarian meal prepared from whole ingredients with love with the proper attitude of reference to the act, one should simply not eat until that opportunity presented itself. I, and I imagine several million other New Yorkers, objected strongly to the injunction to eat once a day, if that. If I don't scarf down leftovers on the train, I don't eat lunch.

That said, I am absolutely a firm believer in the power of a home-made hot meal. In college when I was hundreds of miles away from anyone deeply invested in my welfare, I kept on an even keel by investing in my own welfare: choosing quality ingredients, experimenting with new recipes and spices, identifying my favourite and comforting foods, and cooking a hot dinner with a protein and a veggie or two every single night.

One day during, I think, my sophomore year, I went to a stress assessment workshop, where I discovered that my peers and I were literally off the charts in terms of the quantity of stresses in our lives: divorced or fighting parents, slipping grades, peer pressure, homesickness, deaths of close family members, it seemed like I could check every box on the form. I think, with anything over 300 being very stressed, I measured over 450. The woman leading the workshop had her hands full maintaining professionalism. She didn't know how in the world we were still in a more or less mentally healthy and functional state! She then led us through an assessment of our ability to cope with stress. This test asked if we smoked, how much we drank, exercised, talked to friends, and notably, how often we sat down to a hot meal. I scored very highly on that one, and how I was managing to do so well in spite of a seemingly impossible bombardment of anxiety-inducing conditions began to fall into place.

I learned, somewhat inadvertently, the invaluable lesson of how important it is to love and care for yourself. Waiting around for someone to come along and do it for you is a recipe to be waiting a long time: you'll be a quasi-functional nervous-wreck at best, not likely to attract the most promising members of your favourite gender.

So, that experience predated my irritation with that pushy article by about three years. In between the two, at the point six months or so post-college graduation, I was doing yoga teacher training Friday nights, and all day Saturdays and Sundays, and working 9-4 Monday through Thursday at a coffee shop/cafe called Bread-Stuy (it's a nice place if you're in the area, by the library branch on Lewis in Bed-Stuy) and taking three yoga classes a week, while my husband was on an opposite late-night schedule that meant the whole weekend could pass without us having any more contact than the time it took for me to scarf down breakfast before rushing out the door for Teacher Training in the morning, and several weekdays as well. It's much more clear looking back than it was when I was in it: this was an unhealthy time. I was overwhelmed by my schedule, and was really struggling to cope in the absence of my husband, since I felt alone with my anxiety and exhaustion. During this time I was eating well at work: hot meals of paninis, or soup, or a delicious curried chicken salad, or house-made granola with milk. My coworkers, for the most part, would dish out something, and stand in the back stuffing in bites between dealing with customers. My manager made fun of me (or maybe pointed out frequently in frustrated consternation would be more apt) for insisting on getting a proper lunch break: twenty minutes to sit down and eat. If the weather was nice I sat on the patio, under the grape vines. If it wasn't, I grabbed a seat and an old magazine inside. With my schedule as insane as it was, any moment I could have to myself, to decompress, was vital, and no amount of employee pressure was going to make me give it up. I actually quit that job when the owner refused to give me time off to go home for Christmas. I had a new one that paid better within a week and a half of quitting.

Long story aside, what I'm getting at is, I was getting food made by people I knew who were invested in the cooking process, and I was insisting on taking the time to eat it in the proper fashion in response to a sharp increase in the stress in my life.

Nowadays, when my life is undoubtedly very busy, with a lot of different pursuits vying for attention, but far more manageable and pleasant: my husband and I have the whole weekend and more or less every evening to enjoy each other's company and relax, etc., I'm much more likely to find myself scarfing a Luna bar in the perceived absence of time or resources for a proper lunch.

And as I think and write about local, seasonal eating, and the concepts of 'Healthy at Any Size' and compare that to my habits of cold mac and cheese (albeit homemade with whole-wheat pasta and squash) on the G train on the way somewhere else always, that concept of standing up for the human pleasures of eating is taking on a new shine.

What I'm managing to put into words after years of living it, is that there's a difference between food and a meal, and there's a difference between eating and dining. Any animal can experience the pleasure of eating something delicious. The animals have this over us, actually: for the most part what they perceive as delicious are foods they are engineered to run on: nutritious ones. We humans are equally able to take simple pleasure in tasting something good, but if you think about it, you know the vastly more complex and deep pleasure of sitting down to a meal prepared with love with other people. The pleasant conversation, and knowledge of where this food comes from expands the pleasure of eating it many times over. It's worth remembering, and it's worth prioritizing.
Unfortunately you can't make pizza with your friends everyday (pics provided by the arist behind Mythfits: justinnw on twitter! That's me stretchin' dough and sprinklin' cheese, and yes, we made our pizza shaped like America, and then ate our birth states!), but there are many other delicious meals that aren't any harder to make than something out of your freezer. Frittatas spring to mind; quesadillas are another good example. That said, every now and then I really encourage you to get adventurous: start with a recipe, follow it to the letter if it's well outside of your comfort zone, and if it comes out well, next time, improvise! Don't get caught in the trap of thinking it's a waste to cook a beautiful meal for only one person. I'm convinced that dining alone can have its own charm, whereas eating alone can be a bit degrading, and besides, leftovers are your friends! Pull out the table cloth and light some candles!

To be fair, if I want to keep on writing two books-in-progress and a blog, and take lots of yoga in addition to teaching it, and take aerial dance classes, and keep the house clean, I'm pretty much going to have to keep eating lunch on the G train some days. But then, there is after all, a difference between scarfing and eating, and maybe it isn't such an impossible proposition, to dine on a train.

Love yourself; cook for yourself!
~em

Friday, August 12, 2011

Eating Omily: Squashing Summer

June flew by, July was a hot mess of the unexpected (which is not to say that it wasn't pleasant), with August I'm taking no prisoners: squeezing every drop of summer the season has to offer. To that end, it's time to talk squash.
Squash may not have the glamour of an heirloom tomato, or a beautiful bell pepper, or even the out and out sizzle of a chili, but lets face it: there's a lot of it. If you're a member of a CSA, you've been seeing a lot of squash for weeks now: crooknecks, pattypans, zucchini of course, and lots of others besides. The thing is...well, I'm not truly objective. Summer squash isn't my favourite; they all taste the same: a bit...predictable. That's not to say that squash can't be worthwhile all on its own, chopped fine and sauteed with onions, carefully seasoned with salt and pepper, but when it keeps right on rolling in, you need some additional ways of dealing with it.

The other night my husband and I combined squash with a few of it's more shall we say, chatty, friends: peppers, and carrots in a dish that anybody who wants to cook dinner more often than not but gets crunched in the time, money, or idea departments needs to have in his or her arsenal: a frittata.

The trickiest thing about a frittata is having a pan that's capable of moving from stove top to oven. If the only issue is the handle, I've heard that double-wrapping it in aluminum foil will provide sufficient insulation, but you may want to do some independent research on that before testing it. Stainless steel is your best bet, although cast iron is awesome too, if you have it. We use an eight-inch saute pan for the two of us, and I fill it with chopped veggies, salt liberally, and let them sweat to a tender sweetness. In the meantime, beat enough eggs to fill the pan up a bit more than halfway in a bowl with milk or cream (I imagine milk substitutes would work too here, if you're inclined that way). For our eight-inch skillet, I use five eggs and a liberal splash of milk. When the veggies are thoroughly cooked, I add a bit more oil, to be sure the pan is well-lubed for the eggs, and then pour the eggs in. You can stir a bit right away, to ensure the filling is thoroughly mixed in, but it's fine if you don't, too. Let the frittata set about half-way on the stove, and then move the pan to a pre-heated 400 degree oven. It takes, oh, maybe twenty minutes in the oven. When it's puffed all the way to the center, and starting to get a little golden (or a lot golden if you like it that way) pull it out. Don't forget that your pan was in the oven and the handle will be HOT for some time afterward!

Slice it up as you would a pizza and prepare to be surprised. Part omelette, part quiche, part something else...summer sublimated into a light, delicious meal.

It doesn't have to be Summer, though! Frittatas do great all year 'round: leafy greens and goat cheese perhaps in Spring, the squash that will persist into the Fall with carmelized onions and some of Summer's tomatoes dried and chopped, winter squash or potatoes with garlic and dried herbs in the Winter...any of the cooler seasons will likely avail you of dark leafy greens, which are fabulous. Meat and cheese are good fillings, too. Just toss in what you've got around!

And, you can also grate squash into chocolate chip cookies. Not kidding. It disappears. Hows that for mind-squashing? The recipe I use calls for two cups of flour to one cup of squash. I won't give you that recipe though, because I feel it yields a somewhat disappointing cookie. Sure you'd never guess there's squash in it, but the texture is dry and cakey, instead of moist and chewy. I'm thinking we need to start with a good, chewy cookie recipe, replace some of the flour with grated squash, and add more flour back to the dough if it seems too wet. Omily-philes, experiment and get back to me!

~em

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Eating Omily: Ratatouille

Please, I beg of you, before this summer is over, make ratatouille. In case you missed out on the (so, so charming) Disney movie of the same name, it's pronounced, 'rat-tat-oo-ee'.

Aside from the incomprehensible deliciousness and obvious nutritious profile, ratatouille is an example, is a tutoring session, in local and seasonal eating. It's also a major favourite in my family; we just ate it for dinner yesterday! And this is what it looked like!
Nom.

As you gather the ingredients at the Farmer's Market (Please!), and then lay them out on your counter before you, you'll hear in your mind's eye, or ear rather, someone with a French accent rejoicing over the summer bumper crop of produce...and then in the same breath lamenting the unlikelyhood of all of it being enjoyed before it starts to go downhill. Summer squash and eggplant don't make the best pickles...not quite enough tomatoes to can...what to do?? And then, in a stroke of appreciable genius, this enterprising Frenchwoman (well, you know, most likely it was a woman doing the cooking in the long forgotten day when the dish was invented), chopped up eggplant, onion, garlic, bell pepper, summer squash, and tomatoes, added basil, salt, and chilli pepper, and cooked it all down to a hearty ragout. She finished it with chopped basil, and a splash of fruity olive oil, and a dish that is a symbol of the Summer Bounty was born.

If you are charmed by my whimsical tale, yet doubt it's historical accuracy, I present to you the etymology of the word: "French, from blend of ratouiller to disturb: [or] shake, and tatouiller: to stir" (as taken from the Merriam Webster online dictionary). Obviously ratatouille is the product of taking the surplus of a beautiful summer garden, and stirring and shaking it all together into a dish even greater than the sum of its parts!

I'm sure you need no more convincing to put this beautiful dish together. Please press your right hand...no, both hands for good measure, to the computer screen and repeat,

I, (state your name), hereby solemnly swear to obtain all ingredients, save salt and olive oil, for ratatouille, from a farmer's market, road side stand, CSA, or other direct farm-to-customer method. I understand that the purpose of this is to enter into a culinary experience that transcends reading a cookbook, and instead connects me to the planet, and to the people who coaxed the biomass that will nourish and become a part of me out of the earth. I will remain present to the purpose of this dish, and it's firm roots in a time (Summer) and a place (my home). I will let this understanding nourish my spirit, even as the delectable blend of veggies nourishes my body. And in so doing, I will experience what it means to eat in consort with the earth, rather than in spite of it.

Now, here is the recipe for ratatouille that I follow, as adapted from Alice Water's wonderful book, The Art of Simple Food

Cut 1 medium eggplant into half-inch cubes. Toss with salt, and set the eggplant in a collander to drain for 20 minutes. (Don't worry; it'll take all 20 minutes and then some to get through the rest of the chopping!) All of the chopping instructions follow in the order that the ingredients are added to the dish. Wherever you are when the 20 minutes are up, stop chopping for the moment, and add the eggplant cubes to a LARGE, pre-heated, oiled saute pan. If you've never cooked with eggplant be prepared to be amazed at it's olive oil eating capacity. When the eggplant is golden, remove it from the pan and set aside.

Chop 2 medium onions into half-inch dice, chop 4-6 cloves of garlic, and tie together a bouquet of basil leaves.

Chop two sweet peppers, 3 medium summer squash, and 3 ripe medium tomatoes into a half-inch dice.

Once the eggplant is out of the pan, add more oil to the pan, then add the chopped onion, and cook for about 7 minutes (you can chop during those 7 minutes as well). Add the garlic, the basil bouquet, the salt, and optionally, some dried chili pepper flakes, or a slice or two of hot pepper. Cook for 2-3 more minutes,

then add the sweet peppers. Cook for a few minutes, then add the summer squash. Cook for a few more minutes, then add the tomatoes (scrape all the juice off the cutting board into the pan!)

Cook for ten minutes longer, then add the eggplant back into the pan, and cook for 10-15 minutes more, until all the veggies are tender, and it's all coming together into a thick, saucy dish.

Remove the basil bouquet, doing your best to squeeze out the flavors, add 6 leaves of basil chopped, and a generous drizzle of really delicious, high-quality olive oil.

You can make this dish way ahead; it's equally good hot or cold, and it only tastes better subsequent days as the flavors marry. My favourite way to eat it is with hearty wholegrain garlic bread and slices of fresh mozzarella.

Bon appetit!
~em

Monday, August 8, 2011

Living

It has been floating around the Omilyverse, but not specifically mentioned thus far because I am simultaneously not good at keeping secrets and prone to keeping my own council when I doubt my ability to react appropriately. Every time I tell someone of something tragic that has recently befallen me I am overcome with the urge to laugh. My Uncle Doug died when the cab of the mini excavater he was working on inexplicably collapsed on him last Sunday morning. I don't want to take up a whole post attempting to express what a worthy man he was, and the sheer injustice of losing him at forty-eight. I'll trust that you know it to be true.

Rather, such an incident has made me reflective on any number of seemingly unrelated topics, from food (always a favourite of mine), to my asana practice (only two classes last week...), to family (I've forgotten how to feel good about getting out of bed in an empty house).

We had just gone home for a visit for the weekend of the 23rd of July, and I had just adjusted to my New York schedule, getting the house clean, writing, teaching, running errands. We were getting our lunch together to take to the beach rather late for attempting that venture on Sunday when I got the call, and because I can only handle grief the way that I handle the rest of life, I finished making the iced tea and we went to the beach. I lay in the sun, letting the sea and sky remind me of eternity, inhabiting someplace in between knowing Uncle Doug to be somewhere, probably with grease under his nails, in Ohio, and knowing that the closest thing to Uncle Doug on this planet was in a morgue scheduled for autopsy, which to make it clear just how surreal and confusing this place was, was in fact in Ohio, and he did in fact have grease under his nails. And yet...yes, I could take my time about it but I had to incorporate into my understanding of the universe that Uncle Doug's soul was wherever it is that souls go when they abandon their clunky earth vehicles.

On Monday we booked the cat-sitter and bought the plane tickets, and we arrived in Ohio late Wednesday night, in time for calling hours Thursday, and the funeral on Friday. It was good to spend time with my cousins; I felt closer to them than I have in years. I was forced to confront the fact that as much as I deify the act of leaving where one's from and all the family in that place, there are indeed downsides to the arrangement. I didn't get to see my grandma one more time before the ventilator was removed, back in October of '09, for example.

I didn't have it in me to give my Mom hell about the lack of wholesome foods in her house. My choice was: eat bananas or suffer malnourishment. We drank vodka gimlets on her back porch, crafting stories we'll tell later, giving ourselves the gift of something to smile about surrounding those days of transition, of letting Doug go.

The funeral service was a long one because everyone had something to say, a memory to share, a need to establish an eternal and witnessed connection with the memory of Doug. In my contribution I managed to both swear and make a Catholic reference. We wrote messages on balloons and released them at the cemetery, ate a big lunch of shredded chicken sandwiches and fruit salad with way too many dessert options, and that was that. Bridge crossed. Transition made. We live in a world that Doug doesn't.

I don't have much of a reason for sharing the inane details of the process of burying the dead in my family. Perhaps it will at least serve the good of making it real to you. Here's the point:

My Uncle Doug was survived by a large extended family, and his wife Connie, and daughter Cora. On Saturday, shortly before my husband and I flew back home, we stopped by my Uncle Shawn and Aunt Trisha's house, where Connie was staying. We stood in their living room and traded some last bits of family gossip to nourish our airborne conversation later on. Connie came into the room with her keys, on her way out the door to pick up dog food for Turner, she and Doug's sausage-shaped black lab currently having a sleep-over with my Grandpa and his yellow lab. I don't remember what was said, but Connie laughed. And there it was.

We may want very much to think that losing someone so close to us as a husband means the world stops, at least for us, that we can step off the ride, and give up. I have tried in vain to imagine a way of surviving without my husband. We are as bound together as Siamese twins as far as I'm concerned, and I have no doubt that Connie felt the same way. And yet, less than a week after that loss, that brutal separation, she picked up her car keys and ran an errand. She laughed.

Halleluiah. There is hope for all of us.

Live Omily, there is little choice about the former, so choose the latter.
~em

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eating Omily: Bovines and Nightshades

There wasn't much to write about concerning local/organic/sustainable food when staying with my family...other than complaints though, there is news from Saturday!

Mooooooo...

When I moved to New York, many natives of that area wanted to hear all about my childhood on the farm. They were sorely disappointed to hear of my suburban experience, but I'm now being redeemed by my father, who upon his divorce bought a charming little house sitting on a couple acres surrounded by legitimate farms. Case in point: the acres that back up to his own are the home of a heard of pastured beef cows owned by just the sort of salt-of-the-earth old man I was presumed to be related to. We had a wonderful time visiting with him and tramping over the acres in question, raising the alert posted by the bull on duty from amber to orange, I am sure, in the process. This was hardly a theoretical exploration: my dad is organizing a buying club to purchase one of these handsome, omega-3-rich specimens, and my husband and I are already on the list for approximately one-quarter of a cow! If you think seeing the cows in their natural habitat, happily living their lives, gave me any qualms about being the reason one of them will meet an early grave, you underestimate my moral comfort with my omnivorous diet.
Other than that adventure in mooing beef, we came home Sunday and enjoyed summer squash, sweet peppers, and onions over quinao for lunch. I used to be unsure of the combination of summer squash and sweet peppers, but it's a dependable mantra: "What grows together goes together!" The peppers brighten up the rather predictable taste and texture of the squash in a delightful way.

Still more interesting, the mystery plant I've been watering in the pot that held my now-dead peas has finally showed enough characteristics for me to track down its identity via internet database and some basic knowledge of botany terms: It's a black nightshade! This is not to be confused with this plant's cousin the deadly nightshade. Rather, confuse it with it's other relative, the husk cherry. The dark little berries ripening on my windowsill are edible, delicious, and happy to cook up into jam, although I don't think I'm going to get that kind of a harvest. There is a persistent myth that the black nightshade is dangerous, but it's widely eaten, ripe berries, leaves, etc., raw and cooked, in India, Africa, and rural parts of America, with no reported poisonings in hundreds of years. In fact, you can still find the seeds of this plant for sale in catalogs under the prosaic name, "wondercherry." This myth is based on the fact that in many circles, deadly nightshade is known alternately as black nightshade.

Eat Omily today, and tomorrow (or maybe Tuesday) I'll have the weekly update up.
~em

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eating Omily: Putting up the Harvest in a Hurry

Expect to see these mini-posts on a close-to daily basis. Think of it as an explanation for how one goes about eating locally and sustainably, or, to give it a snappy title, Eating Omily!

So many last-minute tasks before running out the door for an emergency trip home. Food related ones:

1. Blanch and freeze a pound of string beans from this week's farm share.

The blanching process: boiling for one minute, then submerging in ice-water to immediately drop the temperature, shuts down enzymes in the veggies that would contribute to their deteriorating even at freezing temperatures. Don't fear that watery submersion: by keeping it to a minute and chilling immediately afterward, the only nutrients you're losing are active enzymes, which you would have lost with any cooking process, or just via time, anyway.

2. Slice and freeze those chili peppers making their last gasp in the crisper. I want very much to pickle them once I have two pounds worth, but if I expect them to last long enough to accumulate that many, they need put in the deep chill.

I've never worked with chili peppers before; I can't handle the heat, but my husband is a fan, and pickling the chilies tames most of the heat while preserving the multifaceted flavors of these intriguing fruits. I must confess, that jalapeno smelled delicious while I was slicing it. I wasn't foolish enough to taste it; even after a thorough hand-washing, the finger I used to dig out the ribs and seeds from the peppers is still tingling, and the apricot I just ate was rather spicy as apricots go.

May I add, in honor of Shark Week, that sharks are invulnerable to capsaicin, the compound that makes chilies burn. True story: the brave men of Myth Busters pureed raw habaneros, those peppers that make jalapenos look like baby food, filled balloons with the puree, and attempted to repel sharks with them. The sharks ate the balloons, biting them so they exploded in their mouths, and did not react.

3. Throw the apricots in the fridge.

I've heard that refrigeration does not appreciably extend the life of droops, or stone fruits, such as peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries, mangos, etc, but it does seem to help the cherries, and I don't have time at the moment to blanch, peel, halve, pit, and oven-dry the apricots. Maybe I will when I get home if they look a little sad, but I love them fresh and loathe them dried, so hopefully it will not come to that. On the other hand, I may do a batch anyway, since the husband is fond of them dried.

We've already eaten the big tomatoes, and dried the small ones, and I think the zuke, the cuke, the summer squash, the beets, the bell pepper, and the onions will do alright till we get home. I may fridge-pickle the zuke, cuke, and squash, so don't tear through my dilly bean supply so fast...

Nom!
~em