Wednesday, June 28, 2006

andalusian gazpacho: summer comfort food III

I hosted a dozen high school students from Madrid one summer, ostensibly to teach them conversational English. They were surly, spoiled, and had less desire to learn than to be on vacation. Instead of enjoying life by the sea, they felt cheated not to live in New York City. Sammy, the group’s college-age chaperone, particularly disliked working with a woman. But he loved U2, and the students would liven up when I offered to parse Bono’s lyrics with them, at the end of a morning of classwork. We chipped away at one song per morning.

The students took away great experiences with their host families and an understanding of the lyrics of U2. I took away a firm conviction never to try that again, and a recipe for Andalusian Gazpacho.

I thought I loved gazpacho, before. I’d tasted a dozen different recipes. Sammy, determined to make an authentic Spanish gazpacho in quantity for an end-of-summer party, went shopping with me at the vegetable market.

“How many cucumbers, Sammy? How many onions?” I asked. The horror on his face!

“What are you talking about? Gazpacho has no onions, no cucumbers! You are talking about Mexican gazpacho. I will show you how to make real gazpacho.”

“Then what do you put in it?” I asked.

“Tomatoes. Garlic. Perhaps one quarter of a pepper, but probably not. Bread. Olive oil, vinegar, sugar. Salt and pepper. You have a blender, right?”

Personally, I love it when people get righteously indignant about food preparation. First, it means I don’t have to cook. Second, it means I will likely learn something. Third, whatever I learn will be authentic, and I’m unlikely to forget it.

At home, Sammy threw all the tomatoes into the blender with one clove of garlic and several ice cubes. He tore an entire loaf of French bread into small pieces and dropped them, one at a time, into the whirling mixture, stopping when the tomato soup had enough body to “stand” a little, on the spoon. He “finished” the cold soup with a splash of cider vinegar, a generous spoonful of sugar and a tablespoon of good virgin olive oil. A pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.

Sammy held out a large spoonful to me. This gazpacho didn’t look like any I’d ever tasted—a puree, it had no chunks of vegetables, no smell of spice, little color. I put the spoon in my mouth and closed my eyes, a connoisseur in an instant.

“Tomato,” I said. “It tastes exactly like the coldest, most delicious tomato I’ve ever eaten. Where does the bread go?”

“It gives itself up for the tomato,” Sammy said. “This is how we make it in Spain. We live on this soup.” We spoke of Pedro Amaldovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, laughing together that the heroine had been drugged by lacing her pitcher of gazpacho with a sedative. After five weeks of raised hackles, all it took to laugh was a recipe and a memory of a funny Spanish movie.

U2 gave Sammy a little respect for me, and gazpacho gave me a little respect for Sammy. I only wish we had begun the summer with soup instead of ending it that way.

Later I saw a nearly identical recipe titled Andalusian Gazpacho, made from roasted tomatoes instead of fresh, but it described the part of Spain where Gazpacho originated, and the simple tomato and bread soup served there. Make it by the pitcher, and serve it ice cold.

Monday, June 26, 2006

mint infusion: summer comfort food II

Crush a large sprig or two of mint with a rolling pen, just enough to “bruise” the leaves, as the cookbooks say. Toss it in a jar of drinking water. Add a pretty slice of lemon, if you have one, and some ice, or don’t—it’s fine with no frills. The longer it “brews,” the more minty it tastes. Drink up and refill the water—the next batch will taste delicious, too. Your sprigs are good for a whole day’s worth of water. Your big Nalgene water bottle may never be the same.

I didn’t grow up with herbs. The running joke about “how you know you are a Hoosier” includes the list of spices in an Indiana kitchen: salt, pepper, and ketchup. When I lived in Erie, I raved about tabouli from a new restaurant, and Keith Sundberg walked me out to a Biblical Herb Garden, surrounding my house—a garden filled with any herb mentioned in the Bible that would also grow in North America. Beneath the water spigot in my own back yard was green, green spearmint.

“How will I know if I’m picking the right plant?” I asked.

“Pick a stem, right now. Smell it.” My eyes flew open, a revelation. “That’s what was in the tabouli!” He showed me the parsley for tabouli, also, and the rosemary and thyme for chicken soup. And a dozen others. “All of these herbs have been growing right here around my house, all along?”

“Yep. You should look in the library for a tabouli recipe—any Middle Eastern herbs should be right here, if you need them.” I didn’t need to go to the library—I found the best tabouli recipe in my own Moosewood Cookbook, right in my kitchen.

Tabouli is pretty easy, though there is much chopping involved. But an infusion of mint in drinking water? A no-frills, no calorie treat. My mind traces a line right back to that water spigot in the Biblical Herb Garden, a treasure beneath my own nose and deliciously free. And my mind traces a beeline to my backyard, where I grow spearmint and chocolate mint. It spreads like the dickens. I like that in a plant.

Stay hydrated!

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Late for church, I grab my umbrella from the passenger seat and run up the steps to the sanctuary, and just as I suspected, Dan is ushering. He comes to church only when it is too rainy to sail.

“My girl!” he tries to maintain a whisper, but I haven’t seen him in a month of sunny Sundays. The congregation is in the middle of the first hymn, eyes to the front, so Dan throws his arms open for an embrace. When I whisper, “I miss you!” he lifts me up off my feet and shakes me. I worry when he picks me up off the ground—Dan is eighty this year, and I may actually weigh more than him. I step back and scruff up his beard, then mosey on over to the very back pew.

I haven’t sat in the back since last summer—I’m normally in the second pew on the right, where my children can see the organist and I can enjoy the breeze from the little window, where Scott is usually waiting for me. But summer is different. With no children’s programs, Scott and I each attend a worship service solo: he takes the eight a.m. and I take the ten a.m. The children enjoy the break, and they’ll be begging for church by September.

My priest told me once that my face looks different when I come to worship alone, and this doesn’t surprise me. “Reverie” is the word that comes to mind: my spirit ranges far and wide, and I can sing happily, unencumbered. It’s not like I don’t pay attention: I pay attention to what I need. I listen carefully to the sermon, while knitting a new pair of socks for my son. I listen better with my hands engaged, ears and heart flying. I curl up in the pew and lose myself.

I first attended Episcopal worship in a cathedral, and one day a friend visited with me. The place was big enough that one wrong turn after communion sent her wandering all over the building, trying to find her way back. When the dean of the cathedral asked her what she thought of the service, shaking hands at the door, she replied, sheepishly, “I got lost!”

“That’s the beauty of worship with the prayer book,” he said. “When you come back, you’ll know where to find us.” He was speaking profoundly. She nodded and didn’t have the heart to tell him she was not speaking metaphorically, but was actually physically lost. Nonetheless, the most refreshing way for me to approach worship, these days, is to lose myself. When I come back, I know where to find myself, it’s just as true as he said.

I realize, these summer Sundays, how much I anticipate and fill my family’s needs, how I am always fending off the next disaster with an activity, a hankie, a snack, a stick of gum—any preventative measure that might allow me quiet in my pew. Worship in summer, in contrast, is like breathing, like yoga, like a good walk, clearing all the clutter for one hour of listening, singing, prayer.

With the next hymn, I stand up and walk over to sing with Dan—his eyesight is dwindling. He can no longer read the hymnal, and it frustrates him. I know I remember words better with someone singing next to me. It's not mere generosity: he has a beautiful baritone, and he sings harmony. He chuckles at my dancing lilt—I can hardly stand still singing my favorites.

“Can you help me?” he asks.

“Just name it.” I say.

“Usher with me? It’s a two person job.”

Now, I teach church school, and I occasionally read scriptures in the service. I have sung solos, played guitar in worship. I have made truly obnoxious announcements. One day ten years ago, I arrived to serve as a reader and chalice bearer, and ended up carrying the processional cross, too—I joked that I would not give the sermon without prior notice, though I have done that, too. But I have never, ever been a church usher.

I think briefly of the huge Presbyterian church I once attended, with its phalanx of ushers in matching suits and ties, a precision drill team of ushers, and I swallow nervously. But this is just our little Episcopal church in a sleepy tourist town, on a rainy day. “Okay,” I answer. “You got it. Just tell me what to do.”

I see my mistake accepting this role when Dan tugs on my sleeve to pass the offering plates—wait, where is my mind? If I’m going to be an usher, I will have to switch on that sense of what-comes-next, that need-o-meter. Minutes later, we walk up the aisle with the bread and wine, and I slow when he slows—then I realize he is slowing to allow me to pass through the handrails first, rather than to squeeze us both awkwardly through. So I have to start up again. Do I reverence the altar, or not? I am watching, watching. This is no fun.

And then comes the next blow: I realize that the usher’s job is to be unobtrusive, to allow others to remain quietly attentive to God’s voice. But wait! Obtrusive affection is practically my job at this church! Unobtrusive means I can’t wink at the teenagers from my Sunday school class, or thread my arm through the arm of my octogenarian friends. I can’t reach over and mess up Lourdes’ choir music, as I’ve probably done every Sunday for a year. “Watch for trippers,” says Dan as I stand at the bottom of the steps, and I’m watching. Olive smiles at me when I climb up and help her, but everyone else avoids eye contact as if I might label them as “tottering.” Decorum, phooey!

I survive until the end of the service and then go douse my frustration in two cups of coffee and one three-month-old baby, borrowed from a young woman who needs to give her arms a break. The baby boy’s head is tucked under my chin, where I can’t see him, and everyone tells me he is smiling. I walk him around to show my octogenarians, one by one, to kiss them on the cheeks lest they think I’ve turned cold. I go flirt with Dan and harass my teenagers, and introduce a two-year-old named Noah to every adult in the room, merely so he will stop removing all the bibles from the bookshelves. I stay for an hour to talk with Althea—she came back from brunch just to catch up with me. My priest reminds me that we all speak very loudly after a conversation with Althea, whose hearing is a challenge. I confess to her, quietly this time, that I will never be an usher again. She just smiles and nods, “I was a little surprised to see you back there. I guess that means I don’t have to scold you and tell you and Dan to be a little quieter next time.”

I guess I’m not so good at being unobtrusive, which is fine with me: who wants unobtrusive? There are so many good ways to be involved in the church, but for me, ushering is definitely off the list. I make a plan for next Sunday: I will come early, sit in a place where no one expects or needs me, and be a different kind of unobtrusive, a disappearing kind of unobtrusive, until all the volunteer roles are filled. Then I'm going to get really, really lost.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

grapefruit sorbet: summer comfort food I

Elizabeth came by yesterday to make a recipe of Grapefruit Sorbet. Elizabeth is just about the most amazing cook in the world, but I own a Fabulous Blender. She loves me for my blender?

In a favorite, deeply troubled movie, Time Bandits, several characters find themselves in a quest for The Ultimate Object in the World, and the Ultimate Object turns out to be a game show kitchen equipped lavishly. I’m certain my blender is in that kitchen.

I purchased this Fabulous Blender years ago when my daughter needed a dairy-free diet—I hoped to make our own soy or rice milk, but I never stumbled upon the right recipe for that. Or I ran out of patience for it, or the dairy products no longer seemed the culprit of her stomach upset. Meanwhile, I made loads of baby food, smoothies, soups, and ice cream.

And Grapefruit Sorbet. Grapefruit juice, ice, and a simple syrup.

My children were scheduled to go out to the beach, but they adore Elizabeth and insisted on staying to cook with her.

“Can he stir?” she asked of Brendan.

“Yep. He’s good at the stove.”

“Okay, he can stay then.”

If you find good Ruby Red grapefruit juice (Elizabeth brought fresh Odwalla juice, really top of the line) at the grocery and two nice grapefruit, bring them home with some crushed ice. (I don’t need crushed ice because my blender crushes anything.) Now you have two choices, depending on your time frame: you can either pour grapefruit juice into ice cube trays and freeze it for a few hours, then blend, which will give the most potent flavor to your sorbet, or mix juice and crushed ice for a faster, lighter sorbet. We used the lighter, faster method..

Wash the grapefruit and use a vegetable peeler to remove only the colorful zest of the peel, in long strips if you can-- leave the white part. Save the partially-peeled grapefruit in the refrigerator for another day. Cut the strips into matchstick-width strips with the tip of a knife. Boil one cup of sugar with one cup of water, and toss the peel into the pan when the sugar melts—boil for a minute or so until the peel is translucent. You have made a “Simple Syrup” infused with grapefruit— the scent is irresistible! Let it cool in the pan for a moment.

Pour the grapefruit juice into the blender with ice—less ice than juice to begin with—and blend. Scoop a half cup of simple syrup with peel into the blender, and add more ice. Blend again. Stop and taste, and check for texture. (It should stand up a little or look exactly like sorbet, if you have a fabulous blender.) If it needs more sweetness, add more syrup, but this time pour it through a metal sieve, then park the sorbet in the freezer to solidify a bit more. Pour sugar into a shallow bowl and place the remaining Candied Grapefruit Peel into the sugar, one or two pieces at a time. Serve the sorbet topped with three or four strips of candied peel. (Or more.)

You now have four delicacies: Grapefruit Sorbet, Candied Grapefruit Peel, Grapefruit Simple Syrup, and Fruited Sugar. Freeze the peel on a cookie sheet or plate, then scoop it into a Ziploc bag to store in the freezer. Put the fruited sugar in a jar with a tight lid and keep it near your tea, or in humid weather, store in the refrigerator. Might you like a hint of citrus when you sweeten strawberries? Or atop muffins? Maybe a sprinkle with cinnamon, on toast— anyplace you’d use sugar, anyway. If you haven’t included all the simple syrup in your sorbet, refrigerate it in a jar with a tight lid—add it to iced tea, or make another batch of sorbet, later!

If you are not serving the Sorbet immediately, you will need to thaw it twenty minutes or so before attempting to scoop, as it will get very hard. Even if it’s a lot of work to scoop it, you will not be sorry for the effort. It’s a pretty dessert in glass bowls. Enjoy!

Elizabeth had some good laughs with my adoring children-- it's great to see someone else boss them around playfully for awhile (cooking at a stove requires a little bossing, just for safety.) She loves me for more than my blender, certainly, but if it's a blender that brings her to my house on a hot summer afternoon, then maybe it really is The Ultimate Object in the World, especially when filled with a light, refreshing dessert I will serve after my dinner, too.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

the personal organizer

Kay is sleeping when I arrive, as she often is. When I call her name she doesn’t wake, but her snoring tells me she is fine. I peek in her door: her legs are folded Indian-style, or “criss-cross apple-sauce” as my daughter says these days. She is collapsed back onto a pile of pillows, looking both like a child and like someone on the threshold of the next world. She is so comfortable that she still doesn’t wake, so I haul out the box of files, set up my mug of coffee, and I dig into the stack of papers on her desk.

For a few hours a week, I am a personal organizer for Kay. It’s an excuse for us to spend time together, an excuse for her to pay me. Even recovering from a stroke, she is more organized than me, but she needs my eyesight and dexterity to sort through this mountain of mail. Her stroke occurred three years ago, and this stack measures the pace of her life since then, the halts and starts of medical procedures to keep her alive. In some ways, it is a record of her fight for independence, her fight to live on her own again, despite disabilities. There are bills and medical records from 2003 and from this year, and several of the years in-between. This is a first pass on these papers: I simply open envelopes and arrange all the Medicare files by month and stick them in the file folder. We will talk through these files later, deciding what to keep and what not to keep.

Postcards and photos and poems intermingle among these official papers, and I file them  in a small accordion file for “dear things.” Kay wakes, after another round of door-knocking and greeting on my part. She has an appointment in an hour, and waking is hard work for her. I read her a thank you note from a friend, and she softly brushes the thank you note against her face.

Kay is so fierce—these little glimpses of dearness slay me. If I falter at my task, fall into this sorrow, she may miss a necessary bill. If I slow down much, this pile will still greet me next week, too. How to be moved and not too moved, at the same time? If I were any more vulnerable at this work, I’m afraid I would cry all the time and be just useless. Compassion and work, side by side. She heads off to wash her face and swallow the medications she needs, the fresh thank you note tucked into her pocket.

Leaf by leaf, I sort. April 2003, twelve pages into this pile, June 2003, six pages into that file. Tucked in-between is a small stack of grid paper, torn out of a book. There are phone numbers and a name on the first page, in neat writing. This must be Kay’s handwriting before the stroke! I turn the page over to see where I ought to file this, and the page reads, “Today I will meet my daughter. She is twenty-three years old. I have not seen her for twenty-two and a half years. Her parents kept their promise and retained the name I gave her when she was born.” Four or five pages continue, but I have read something not mine, and it burns my eyes, my heart, my soul. Dear God, what else has this woman endured? I take off my glasses and cover my eyes.

“Are your eyes bothering you, dear?” she asks. She can see a little. I’m certain she cannot tell that I am holding pages from her diary. I quickly place the handwritten pages in the back of the file of dear things. From the first time I created this accordion file, I’ve not been certain she will ever really see these photos, postcards and notes again, whether she would recognize them if she did see them. They are kept “just in case.” In case she can see them. In case someone will read them to her, should she go completely blind. It’s clear that all the items in this folder are intimate—only a relative or close friend would be bold enough to read them for her. That person will know what to do, I surmise, whether to read these pages or not.

“My eyes are okay enough, Kay. I just need to refresh my coffee. I’ll finish this stack in a moment and then I’m ready to go.”

It’s a lie. My eyes are not okay. Kay’s daughter’s name was written clearly on that page and already my memory has blotted it out: not mine, not for me to know. It is one thing to read a story like that in a book. It is another to read it in handwriting, across the room from the writer of such a private truth. If it were my right to know such a story, I would talk with Kay about it, but it is clearly not my right. It’s likely I will never know how the story ends.

My eyes are waiting to rinse clear. My eyes know too much. She doesn’t need to know what I’ve seen.

I look Kay in the eye. “Ready?”

“I’m ready,” she answers. “Let’s go.”

Sunday, June 04, 2006


A year ago, for my birthday, my friend Valerie treated me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant, and her family made cards for me. Two of her children, Rachel and Josh, are in my Sunday school class, and they passed along “gift certificates”—Josh’s was for “an hour of guitar-playing.” Somehow I never took him up on it, which was a shame. He’s an awfully, awfully good kid, and he lights up when my family appears at his basketball or football games. From time to time, he gets surly with his parents about attending Sunday school, because no other kid he knows is “forced” to attend church, let alone an extra hour of teaching. But he always talks about this openly, apologetically. “No offence to you, Denise. You are great. Really great. I just shouldn’t have to, you know?”

I just look at him and smile, and remind him he has great parents. One day he was offered a chance to get out of church, to provide child care for the service, instead, and he refused. “Why are you refusing? I thought you liked to get out of church?” I asked.

“Not today,” he said. “Today I get to sit with my dad. There is nothing better than sitting with my dad in church.” Other days, Josh has been training his younger brother John to be an acolyte, and the two of them look so proud to be standing together. Josh treats John as though they are in on this grand joke together, and their affection for each other shows. I am not speaking too much about Rachel, here, but she enjoys the sermons and is very much like an adult. We hear she has surly teenage moments, but none of those is apparent in our class or in church—in fact, those reports are just hard to believe.

So yesterday, Valerie and I ate our annual Denise’s Birthday Dinner, always belated enough that I’ve long forgotten I had a birthday. We drank good wine and dined at a little Italian bistro, on a cold rainy night. After a quick dessert at Valerie’s house (homemade fudge sauce on ice cream, yum!), I thought we were winding down, when Josh came through the door.

“Hey, that’s Denise’s fish bag purse! Denise, you here?”

I nodded, and Valerie asked him to bring down the guitars. He shook his head, insisted he was hungry. I talked a little while longer with Valerie and her husband when Josh walked in grinning sheepishly, with two guitars. Eric picked up the acoustic, and Josh the electric, and after a teenage-boy-sized fudgy sundae, the two started noodling their way through their catalog: Chicago tunes, Green Day, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, and some of their own songs, as well. Josh’s ears turned red when his mom asked him to please sing, but he just couldn’t go that far. Still, an impromptu post-birthday guitar jam is a good enough present for anyone, really. My heart was almost too full to be in a room with a boy whose ears are blushing for him, so I didn’t stare too much at my performers, hoping I wouldn’t get teary.

About eleven-thirty, Josh apologized that he wouldn’t be in Sunday school today—he’d be at his new job at the chowder house. He’s saving money for a new guitar, and he was smart enough to find a job before all the good ones were taken for the summer. I tell him that’s okay, and thanks for telling me. And I tell him I will miss him tomorrow. The next time we talk, I will no longer be his Sunday school teacher, just a friend, and his mom’s friend, though I don’t think he’ll consider it much until fall, when the summer ends. I’ve considered it for months now. I manage well until I get to the car and settle in for the ride home, when no one else will be made to blush, and then just as I suspect, it hits me when I turn on the radio, some nice guitar music, and how I will miss this particular role in this particular boy’s life. There will be another role. But it won’t be this one.