Kindness Soup

With so much bad news out there, sometimes the holidays felt like an exercise in cognitive dissonance to me. Gun violence, climate change deniers, the ever-present din of misogyny and racism (Jesus, the Tamir Rice grand jury), the unbelievable waste we generate as American consumers, infuriating corporate recklessness (fracking and DuPont are contributors to the landscape we revisited), and yes, the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants—all these broke through my attempts at Holly Jollyness and made it seem . . . not hollow. Just dissonant instead of harmonic. Disconnected instead of joined. Did this happen to you, too?

I still had plenty of moments where that menacing soundtrack receded and the joy shone through, and I’m extra grateful for those. Watching Sophia lay her head in her grandmother’s lap as they chatted on the sofa. Overhearing cackles from the kids table. Cousins giving rollerskatinIMG_5247g lessons in my parents’ basement. Stella’s giggles of delight with the dog. Chatting and laughing with J and my folks by candlelight after the power went out and turned off the TV for us. Those were all worth driving many miles for, and we’re so glad we did. I still somehow ended the holidays needing an injection of hope, something more to cling to than my resolutions to organize my pantry and drink more smoothies.

Many miles later, still stuffed with Christmas cookies and breakfast sausage, tired and laden with gifts, we pulled into a driveway covered with two inches of ice that even our neighbors couldn’t tackle for us. The next morning I set out with the girls to fill the empty fridge and chip away at the driveway, while poor J took to bed, the latest victim of the stomach bug that always seems to find us on this trip. In the midst of this harsh re-entry, our smiling neighbor Cinzia showed up. Her little boy was pulling a red wagon, delivering lentil soup. IMG_5330.JPGThey just figured we had come home to an empty fridge and could use some.

How beautiful and perfectly unexpected! This, to me, is the truest expression of kindness: filling a need that you had to look carefully to even find. The soup was amazing, so I pressed her for the recipe, then promptly made and delivered a batch for a family dealing with an illness. (We made oatcakes, too, of course.) I’m presenting it to you here with this instruction: find someone who needs it and share it with them.

It’s so small, this gesture. I’m not saying it’s enough, and I’m not saying it’s all we have, but I am saying it’s a step worth taking in a long and perpetual journey to healing the world. If you’re looking for hope, it’s possible to manufacture some in your own kitchen, in your own heart.

The kids, of course, are hope machines. They overflow with hope and joy and possibility, and they’re the reason for not giving up on any of it, and they’re the hope for fixing what’s gotten so twisted and inhumane.IMG_5254 I found a much-needed dose of January hopefulness when I brought Sophia and her friend Sophie to their Local Chorus rehearsal. I choked back tears listening to 40 little kids singing “this little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine” and “when I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me” and then laugh with joy at they way they belt out: “It’s the hammer of justice! It’s the bell of freeeeee-edom! It’s a song about love! between! my brothers and my sisters! Aaaallll over this LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND!”

You know, the word Amen can be translated as “let it be” or “so be it.” Well, Amen to all that.

People of January, let’s find some kids to listen to. And let’s make some soup for people. Keep your spark alive in this gray time, and look, look, look for ways to fan the flame.


Kindness Soup

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miracle of mirepoix

You have your marching orders. Make and share. Cinzia’s a marvelous, intuitive cook, so she gave me this recipe as just a list of ingredients; I’ve adapted the quantities and such, but it’s a very flexible recipe and could handle plenty of variations. As written, it serves at least 8.

1/3 cup olive oil (I probably should’ve gone for the 1/2 cup, since Cinzia wrote “lots of olive oil” and she is Italian)

2 cups chopped onion

2 cups chopped carrots

1.5 cups chopped celery

6 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

3 cups lentils (I used french green lentils, but brown work too)

15-ounce can diced tomatoes (Cinzia used chopped cherry tomatoes, which I think would be sweeter and fresher!)

2 tsp sea salt

2 quarts water (or 1 quart vegetable broth and 1 quart water)

5 sprigs of fresh thyme tied with string (optional)

Saute the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until your house smells heavenly, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 3 more minutes or so. Add the lentils, tomatoes, salt, water/broth, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, partially covered, for an hour (or if you are using a dutch oven with a nice heavy lid, you can put that lid on and transfer your pot to a 350 degree oven). Share.

 

 

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The Tyranny of Dinner

How (and why) to plan meals for the week

It’s 5:30 pm. You’ve just gotten home and dropped everyone’s backpacks on the floor. The kids are pawing you for snacks, and you’re staring into the fridge thinking, I could make a frittata. Oh wait, just two eggs. Well, what about chicken? Not defrosted. What’s in here? I think that used to be a cucumber.

This is the biggest reason I plan meals—to avoid the soul- and belly-knawing dinner crisis as much as possible. As a mom and a person who genuinely likes to cook, it seems extra crushing to my self-esteem when I can’t feed my family well. It punches me right in the raison d’etre. I can give myself plenty of feminist pep talks and frozen meals to lean on, but the best cure I have found for the tyranny of dinner is meal planning.

I used to do all the no-nos: shop for groceries when hungry or tired, shop without a list, buy whatever you bought last week and whatever else looks tempting. Which also meant cleaning out the mushy produce I’d bought the week before in order to make room for the soon-to-be mushy produce I’d bought for the aspirational meals I thought I might make that week. Then I got into cooking, so I added to the shopping list all 16 ingredients for an elaborate recipe from Epicurious. (I did draw the line at Martha Stewart, though; my mom got me a book of her appetizer recipes. The first instruction for the first recipe called for you to place a bundle of herbs in a bottle of Riesling and keep it in the fridge for a month. A recipe with a one-month lead time? I was never going to do that, so I closed the book. The End.)

When my kids came along, so did more awareness of local and organic food, and we bought a CSA share (what I call a farmshare), providing us with tons of local produce each week. The rotting produce guilt grew to a roar just as my time to cook shrank to an all-time low. It was also high time to rein in the food budget. That’s when—and why I started planning meals.

Six years later, it’s made a huge difference:

Why plan?

  • We waste less food.
  • We eat the seasonal local produce from our farmshare.
  • I always know what I’m going to make for dinner and the ingredients are there waiting for me.
  • I’ve learned to simplify my cooking and become a more intuitive cook, more flexible with recipes.
  • I spend less time shopping.
  • Our family eats better food and eats out less frequently.
  • We save money.

Also, it’s just not that frickin’ hard, really. Probably because I’m used to it, a lot of the mental processes involved kind of happen automatically. It is definitely more time-consuming when you first start out, and it’s an evolving discipline. I love hearing how other people do it, since I’ve never met two people (or read two articles) with the same process.

Here’s how my current thinking goes:

Create a routine. I always shop on Monday, so that means meal planning for the week happens Sunday night, if not before. I only plan dinners, and I try to give myself at least 2 quickie meals, 2 long-prep/cook for the future meals, 1 day of “I give up, let’s eat out,” and 1 day of eating something from the freezer.

I recommend only shopping once a week; every time I enter a grocery store I know I’m going to wind up with something that was not on the list, so just minimizing those trips saves me money.

Your first time, make three columns on a piece of paper: FRIDGE. FREEZER. PANTRY. Ransack these places and write down everything you already have in its corresponding column.

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mysterious enshrouded produce

Look at the list, especially FRIDGE. What can you make this week that will use what you already have? Sometimes I will search two particularly stubborn perishables to see if I can find an interesting recipe including both. This is how I discovered a cauliflower and tomato casserole we liked. See what supplemental elements you can include from the freezer and pantry. Challenge: what can you make with the fewest additional ingredients?

Jot down your meal ideas. Think about the “how” of the meals to fit with your schedule. When’s a good day to cook a double batch of something in a crock pot and freeze the other half? When’s a good day to whip something together in 15 minutes because of swimming lessons? If there’s a new recipe I really want to try, I throw that in there. Write the days of the week next to the meals you think fit best. Extra points for using up your most perishable items earlier in the week. Put this list on your fridge in a prominent place. It is the ultimate panacea for what’s-for-dinner panic attacks.

Now list the additional ingredients you’ll need to make those meals. Put them in the order you’ll run into them in the grocery store. This is the start of your shopping list. If you are cleaning out an overstuffed pantry, it might be pretty short. If you have a weird competitive/frugal streak like me, you might delight in how short you can make it.

Add breakfast and lunch items to your list. I don’t really plan these too explicitly since they are fairly routine. I buy lots of fruit for mornings and packing lunches, eggs, peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, and cereal. And since the cheapest way I’ve found to be a person who eats granola is to make the granola, I list the ingredients I need from the bulk bins at the co-op to make that happen. Add snacks or desserts as modestly or wildly as you wish. What else are you out of? It’s really helpful to keep a list on the fridge and add to it as you run out of pantry items. And ask your partner to write things on it too, since you’re not a mind-reader. Ahem.

Shop judiciously. For me, this means two stops on shopping day. One of my stops is always the big giant supermarket, but the other varies. It might be Costco, Trader Joe’s, or my local food co-op (where the bulk foods and organic produce can’t be beat). I keep running lists for the “other” stores since I’m only going to get to them about once a month.

Prep the night before when you need to. I work from home, so it’s really easy for me to pop down to the kitchen, warm up some leftovers for my lunch, and start defrosting or chopping something for dinner. But when I’m going to be out all day, I usually need to look at my meals list the evening before, do some prep, maybe drag the crock pot out onto the counter.

Cook! I sometimes dream of becoming that person who washes her lettuce and roasts her beets as soon as she gets home from the farmers market and bakes no-knead bread every Sunday. I’m so not there, and: Meh. There’s only so much time that even I want to spend on food. I also sometimes steal from one of the easy nights and find myself with a long-prep dinner on a short-prep day. Boxed mac and cheese to the rescue! This still happens sometimes. Just not as often. Most of the time, I know what the dinner plan is before I walk back in the door trailing kids, empty snack containers, and smelly gym bags. And that makes a stressful time of day less so.

Noodles and Eggs

Well, you guys, it’s taken me all week to get this post finished. It was one of those weeks—the kids passed a fever back and forth which has now landed squarely on me (waaah), and all plans, best-laid or otherwise, toppled like dominoes.

Oddly enough though, I already knew I was going to write about things gone awry. Mostly we get derailed and frustrated by small things, and I find myself thinking, “as soon as X crisis is over and we get Y under control, I can really start to Z.” It’s taken me years to realize that the variables X and Y are just that, variables with an infinite number of possible substitutions, and that if we are waiting for the black hole of quietude to emerge from the chaos, we are not only never going to get to Z, we’re going to miss the whole beautiful chaotic universe. If we focus only on the fact that the kid is drawing on the wall, we miss that this is the first time she’s ever drawn a face. And that said drawing comes complete with a scribble she points to and says, “that’s his throw-up!” You know—this is the good stuff.

That said, I am all about finding comfort, soothing our rumpled egos when our plans get trampled yet again.

One of my favorite meals as a kid was Noodles and Eggs. This is not, as Google might suggest to you, a pasta frittata with some parmesan, or stir-fried ramen with eggs and soy sauce (though those sound pretty good), but rather cooked egg noodles tossed into a buttered skillet, a few eggs hastily cracked in, sprinkled with garlic salt, and plunked in front of happy kids, usually with a jar of applesauce on the side. There’s a passing resemblance to lazy pierogi, but only if you could call it “extra lazy extra simple lazy pierogi.” I clearly remember happy shouts going up the times my sisters and I asked about dinner and were told it was Noodles and Eggs.

Flash forward to my thirties, when I got interested in making things like red wine mushroom sauce or balsamic strawberries (ah, the late ’90s!), and I asked my mom how to make Noodles and Eggs. She burst out laughing. “What do you want to make Noodles and Eggs for?” She explained that Noodles and Eggs was “Depression food,” what you made when there was no time or energy for anything else, or you were eking out another day or so before the next paycheck and grocery run.

“Really?” I asked, and explained to her how much I loved Noodles and Eggs, that it was a comfort food to me, and I’d never seen anyone else make it. I haven’t thought of them for a long time since then.

Then Monday happened. Poor Stella was nearly impossible to extract from her nap so we could drive across town and pick up second grader Sophia. I carried her downstairs, still shoeless and sleepy, and strapped her protesting frame into the car seat, already running behind. While trying to parallel park at our (beautiful old) downtown school building with no parking lot, I promptly got blasted by road rage. The driver behind me yelled, revved her engine, and promptly pulled left around me, up over the sidewalk, roaring across the grass over to the street corner, causing another mom to yank her kids out of the way. Shaken, I reported the incident to the police, in disbelief that adults could behave that way in a schoolyard.

Finally, ten minutes after the bell, I put Stella’s shoes on and pulled her across the playground to find Sophia. There she was, running toward us, crying. Oh no, I thought. She was worried because we were so late. “I have the chills!” she sobbed. It was her turn to have the fever. We all limped back home, feeling bruised.

And I thought of Noodles and Eggs, which I’d forgotten how to make. They just popped into my mind again, and I understood them from the other side for the first time, the perspective of the exhausted parent. Pulling dinner together while monitoring the supply of children’s Tylenol and brokering deals between the kids about who picks the PBS Kids show they get to watch. Straining noodles in a colander over a sink still full of dishes from breakfast.

The thought went up then, like a prayer, that maybe, if I was lucky, my kids would remember the warmth and comfort, the lavender headache pillow and just-in-case-of-barfing tupperware and the extra blanket, securely tucked. Maybe they could taste Noodles and Eggs as I did when I was a kid—the taste of comfort and security, of home, untainted by worry. Maybe what looked like refuge to me, a port in a storm, could be plain, simple comfort to my kids.

Let’s hope so.

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I interviewed my mom to give you the lowdown on Noodles and Eggs. Apparently they come from my grandmother Martha Shine, her mother-in-law. “I think she just told it to me,” Mom says. “I’ve heard other people make it where you let the noodles get really hard and crunchy, and then flip it like a pancake. But I like our way better.” Sometimes you do get some crunchy noodles in there, from their time in the hot butter.

“Unless I’m in a really big hurry, I rinse the noodles in cold water,” she added. Because you want them soft, but not falling apart. “Warm them in the butter, salt tIMG_5027hem with the garlic salt, taste them, and then the eggs on top and more garlic salt and pepper, and then mix the eggs in.” Also, “make sure you taste for garlic salt because that makes it.”

Oh, and these were always the side dish with boiled kielbasa. I’d forgotten that part, probably because I wasn’t a big kielbasa fan as a kid. (I would totally endorse this idea now!) Mom remembers the kielbasa, I remember the applesauce.

I really like my mom’s advice here too, which I would wholeheartedly apply to my kitchen and my week: “You slip that butter in there and a little bit of garlic salt and you can just about improve anything.”

Hear, hear.


Noodles and Eggs

1 pound medium or wide egg noodlesIMG_5015 (check out the package: Classic American Comfort—are we there yet?)

4 to 6 T butter

garlic salt

pepper

3 to 5 eggs

Boil noodles according to package directions. You want to get past al dente, but not all the way to soup. Drain and rinse under cold water.

Melt butter in a large skillet. (Next time I am going to save a pot and just melt the butter in the dutch oven where I cooked the noodles.) Add the noodles and stir over medium heat, warming them and sprinkling them with garlic salt.

IMG_5019Crack eggs atop the noodles in the pan. Sprinkle the eggs with more garlic salt and a generous amount of pepper, then mix them in with the noodles, stirring occasionally until the eggs are just set. (My pictures are off here because I whisked the eggs separately in a bowl before adding them to the noodles. They should look patchier, white and yellow still in places. My mom set me straight about the right way, so I am giving you the goods here.)

Serve immediately with applesauce on the side, and boiled kielbasa if you have it.

Serves 4.

Oatcakes

Beginnings are slippery things. We hold our just-born babies close to us, sniffing them (I wanted to lick mine, like a mama lion). We gaze deeply into their dark puffy newborn eyes, looking for clues about the person they will become. As I write this, I have no idea how this blog may propel and companion my thinking, but hope is always a good reason to begin.

I have to start with oatcakes for a few reasons: First, my eldest daughter Sophia (she’s 7) and I have made them together so many times, I’m no longer permitted to make them without her assistance. She loves to cook with me, and I’m always looking for recipes where she can have a role. It’s a great bonding time for us, and a huge source of pride for her to eat, and give to others, food that she has made. She never gets tired of it. Oatcakes, she says, are “our specialty.” And they are.

Oatcakes also make me think of Boston, and chemo. We put this recipe into especially heavy rotation when my husband J was making his daily journey to Boston for radiation treatments, and simultaneously taking chemo pills. The schedule for his meds meant there was a very small window in which he could—and definitely needed to—eat before being strapped into the amazing contraption which would shoot protons at his brain, hopefully eradicating any rogue tumor cells that his amazing surgeon had not been able to excise. These nubby, yummy oatcakes fit the bill, completely portable, delicious enough to tempt even a chemo-wobbly stomach, full of healthy sustaining goodness–with plenty of sweet stuff. You know, for luck.

We are happily on the other side of those treatment days, and hope to be for good. Every six months we cross our fingers and receive the “all clear” again from J’s doctors, and let out a breath we didn’t know we were holding, and plunge back into daily life, which now includes another daughter, Stella, born just before J finished his chemo regimen. I’m hoping that another thing you’ll find here is honest coping, celebrating, and meeting the day’s uncertainties in good company.

We’re on equal footing here, my friends. None of us knows what lies ahead, but we do know we need each other on this journey, and we know that no matter what the day brings, we still gotta eat.

IMG_0350Make yourself some of these fantastic oatcakes, and you will always have breakfast in your hand. Freeze them, individually wrapped in plastic, and throw them in your bag on a rushed morning. You can hand them to carseated people, though maybe not while you are also searching for the requested Mister G CD at the morning’s first stoplight. I guarantee this will make you feel like one of those always-lipglossed supermoms. Nevermind the spit-up on your yoga pants! The false glow of perfection can be yours for just one morning! Then bask in a heroic aura when you give these by the dozen to a new mom who needs dense one-handed food (the oats are good for her milk supply!). Although I confess, they are hard to part with, even when you’ve made a double batch.

Sophia loves to mix the dry ingredients (when she was a little younger, she loved to luxuriate in the dry ingredients all the way up to her elbows) while I melt the butter and sugar portion of things together and toast the nuts. We always make a double batch, since they freeze so well and disappear so fast. Use a large ice-cream scoop, the kind you squeeze to make the little sweeping thing cross the scoop—it kicks the sticky dough out into a beautiful round lump. If you run out of room in your muffin tins, you can quite successfully deposit your scoops right on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet; just be extra vigilant so they don’t burn on the bottom.


Oatcakes

adapted from Heidi Swanson, from her book Super Natural Every Day

Makes about 15 oatcakes

I reduce the amount of maple syrup called for, mainly just to economize, but I don’t miss the extra sweetness. These are a bit expensive to make, but you can substitute what you have hanging around (see variations below), and I often buy just the amount of fixins I need from the bulk bins at the co-op.

3 cups rolled oats

2 cups flour (I prefer whole wheat here, Heidi recommends spelt, but even plain old white flour works in a pinch)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/3 cup flax seeds (I like the golden ones)

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted in a dry pan and chopped

1 cup dried cherries, chopped

1/3 cup extra virgin coconut oil

1/3 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup maple syrup (Heidi uses 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat your oven to 350 (325 if you are using baking sheets instead of muffin tins), and spray or butter a muffin tin.

Combine the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, flax seeds, walnuts, and dried cherries in a very large bowl—a great job for small hands.

Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil and butter in a saucepan with the maple syrup and sugar, whisking occasionally, until melted. Pour the hot mess over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the eggs and mix through—the whole thing will be very sticky and heavy. Pack firmly into ice cream scoops (or olive-oil your hands and make firm balls), and deposit each in a muffin spot. Bake approximately 25 minutes.

Cool in the pan on a rack about 30 minutes, then use a paring knife to help you remove them from the pans (they come out really nicely!) and dig in. Cool leftovers completely and store, individually wrapped in plastic, on the counter for up to a week, or freeze for about six weeks.

VARIATIONS:

Instead of using flax seeds, walnuts, and dried cherries, try:

toasted almonds and coconut chips, and chopped dried apricots, or

toasted pecans and dried cranberries or raisins, or

toasted pepitas, brazil nuts, and coconut

These are flexible enough to accommodate most granola-inspired variations. Just make sure your mixture is sticky, without any dry patches, and they’ll turn out great. If you need to add a drizzle of maple syrup or an extra egg to make it work, go for it.

Hot Days, Cold Noodles

I adore roasted vegetables. My kids like them raw. I love a good one-dish meal and have been known to deposit my eggs over medium directly atop an order of biscuits and gravy just to cut to the yolky chase. My girls? They like things separated out so they can regard each morsel with proper suspicion. More control that way. (Where did they get this control thing? Oh.) It’s August, which means they want to keep slacklining and pouring endless tea parties in the backyard until the moment hunger pangs morph them into hangry zombies and hurl them toward me. By which time the humidity has likely made me drippy and grumpy as well. But this dish—thank heaven!—works for us.

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As an experiment, I made sure to show it to the girls in this form, before we tossed everything together. The crisp and colorful (and easily separated) ingredients overcame their predilection for separateness, and besides, I brought out their chopsticks, so they can still ferret out one favorite bite at a time. And slurp up the tiny rice vermicelli noodles. Permission to slurp! Always a winner.

I love the flexibility, too–almost anything from the week’s farmshare can make its way into this Vietnamese-inspired cold noodle salad, dressed with herbs from the kitchen garden and yesterday’s leftover grilled chicken.


Summer Salad with Rice Vermicelli

Adapted from this recipe for Bun Chay at The Kitchn

8 ounces rice vermicelli

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (2 limes)

1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce

2 cloves minced garlic

2 T sugar

1/4 cup water

1 T toasted sesame oil (optional)

1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced (3/4 cup)

6 cups chopped greens and julienned vegetables: romaine, carrots, cucumbers, daikon or other radishes, hakurei turnips, sugar snap peas, zucchini, celery. Choose a variety of whatever you have on hand, looking for contrasts in texture and flavor.

2-3 cups cooked chicken, shredded or sliced into strips, OR

1 pound extra firm tofu

1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh herbs: mint, basil, cilantro, torn and/or chopped

1/2 cup salted peanuts, chopped

Cook noodles according to package directions (boil 3-5 minutes) and cool thoroughly under running water. Drain well and fluff with tongs to separate.Transfer to a large serving bowl. Whisk lime juice, tamari, garlic, sugar, water, and sesame oil (if using) together and pour over noodles, tossing to combine. Mix in the scallions.

If using tofu, slice into bite-sized strips and press with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Fry in 1/4 cup canola oil in a skillet until golden. Drain on paper towels. I like to drizzle these with a little soy sauce or Memmi.

Pile greens, vegetables, herbs, tofu and/or chicken, and peanuts atop dressed noodles. Toss before serving, with sriracha or gojuchang on the side.

Serves 4-6.