Category Archives: gardening

I don’t regret a bite

I was talking with a work colleague last week at lunch and at some point it came up that I’d been a lot heavier (225 lbs) than I am now (currently 180 lbs and 5’7”, so, more or less a US size 12).  They expressed the usual amazement that I had lost all that weight, etc., and stated the usual platitudes about how I must feel better to be “healthier” now.

I didn’t get in to all the gory details of it with them except to say that what mattered more to me than the weight loss was the other changes I made that have made it possible to stay in a weight range that lets me do all the things I want to do— snow shoe, garden, give my niece piggy-back rides, hike, yoga, and otherwise shoulder the weight of taking care of a house and an aging parent who would prefer to avoid carrying laundry up and down cellar stairs.  I don’t care so much about fashion beyond a basic level of vanity in fitting in to a range of size 10-12 clothes where I don’t feel ashamed of my body; I am lumpy and I have the start of a wattle.  That is ok.

What I also didn’t get into was that for me, weight has always been NOT about food (which I love), it has been and always been about love, whether my life is feeling manageable, and whether I am practicing decent self-care.  It’s taken me 40 years, more or less, to figure it out.  I will never look like a supermodel. So what? I didn’t get into the details, because they were male, it was lunch, and I didn’t want to get heavy (hah).  But I’ve been thinking about it (again).

I love food.  I love eating.  I love the act of cooking and feeding myself and others. I love creating something from scratch.  I love growing food and coaxing things out of warm dirt and onto the plate.  I love the meditation of chopping.  I love the alchemy of how butter, eggs, and onion become an amazing perfume. And even though I have been both far heavier than I would choose, as well as skinnier than I would like between bulimia and other illnesses and medication reactions, I don’t ever regret any weight fluctuation that happened as a result of any food that I ate.  I don’t regret a bite of it, ever.

Weight, however, is not about food.  Weight is about weight— it’s about the world crushing you down, and no one around you doing anything to lift it off you.  Weight is about you being Atlas, and you not being told, either at all or effectively, so you can hear it from people who are supposed to care about you, that you don’t have to carry it all.  In my case, between being bipolar and being an Adult Child of two bipolar parents who tried but had their own stuff and just often were not successful, it took me a long time to figure out that I was eating to feel full in the middle and push out against the weight and anxiousness and chill pressing in from outside, and all the people who weren’t doing anything to lift the world off of me.  It took me a long time to push back and say I was not going to carry it all, and that I was also not going to finish everything on my plate just to make others happy.

It took me a long time to realize that in maintaining my weight, in finding my metaphorical and literal center and in feeding myself, that meant I should only eat what I wanted, and that this was both an enormous privilege (in having money and choice, both of which I have gone without) and a burden in that I’d have to speak up for myself and do the work.  I would eat— or not eat, if I wasn’t hungry— what I had prepared for myself, but I’d have to make it.  I would not have feel grateful for food I hadn’t asked for, or eat things I expressly disliked, or have to put up with something that someone plopped down on my plate and told me to finish or it would mean I didn’t love them. Because really, if they’d been paying attention, why would they shove that weighty glop on me in the first place?  But first I’d have to say– no thanks.  I’m full.

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The rose trellis

It takes time to rebuild what one tempest brings down.  (Tempest in literal hours or metaphor as months or years, pick your perspective.)  First, you’ve got to cut back the wreckage of roses, years’ worth of beautiful growth, heirlooms and hybrids, all tangled and thorny and a veritable reminder of what you’ve left lying dormant too long, then let it lie until the blooms have died back and you’ve filled all the vases all over the house with the beauty that still (still) is there, no matter the mess of it all.

And then, when it’s all been cut back, runners and canes gone to ground and all of the pruned bits are bundled and bagged and then (inspiration!) why don’t you have stackable trashcans for this (the old dog has tricks in her yet, because you may be a bitch but that term doesn’t mean anything here in the yard) it’s all set aside and you’ve even remembered the date for yard waste pickup (it feels good to be organized, like a real adult, yes it does) you’ve got to pull down the wreck of the wood you put up with some kind of “help” decades ago.  Now, power and hand tools and pry bars and sledgehammers at hand, your shoulders and arms ache in different ways than they did when the trellis went up the first time, when much shouting and swearing about levels and measures and the “right” way occurred, when really, roses don’t care as long as there’s some kind of solid support. Eight-five degrees versus ninety won’t kill a wild thing as long as the inches and feet all add up and the ends meet, more or less.  (Now your eyes sting with sweat and sawdust and your arms shake with effort, but you shoulder the support beams yourself as you pry them away where the masonry anchors are rusted fast to the wall, and that rip-crack feels good, in a way, saying something final the tempest did not.  Destruction can be good for the soul.)

And then it’s time to rebuild.  There’s the handheld masonry bit, your grandpa’s whom you never knew except through his tools and this house with its ancient wiring that holds, that and the set of your father’s chin, just like his dad’s in the photographs on top of the silent piano.  The chink of old iron against stone is satisfaction itself, the reverberation through your body from the bit/hammer/swing of your arm placing new anchors (ones that you bought without interference from dudes who may well have wanted to help, but you’ve got Storey’s Wisdom and the internet, too, not to mention a basement full of a dead master contractor’s bits, bolts and bobs and why not put history to your own use, this time?).  There’s a feel not just of power but of placement, creation, in the whir-grind-hot burr of the old (as old as you) Skil power drill, extended from the garage thanks to the trench you dug through the yard two years ago and the line you had laid out from the house (sometimes it’s okay to accept you have your limits) as the special concrete bits dig in and bite, take anchor and pull you forward as you push, cast your anchors in stone and then set your planks, two by four by eight hardwood cut to fit the wonky dimensions of mortar and stone.

Vertical struts go on first, drilled and anchored and screwed as the sun crosses the sky and hits your neck and shoulders around the crabapple tree (and today you don’t look up for Icarus, no, today you’re not flying too close or falling, not trying and failing, glorious in momentary success, today you’re just a gardener, because catching a fish feeds you one day, but fixing your garden feeds you for months in more than just the physical way), and then once they’re done, the horizontal slatwork, easy, compared, but un-anchored and needing more verticals to hold the whole rigging in place.  It’s a sailboat of sorts, though it’s a ship that sails with the seasons and sun, and not with the wind– at least, you hope not for a while, not like the last blow that brought the last bout of hard work cracking down.

And then last but not least, the oil stain, rubbed on by hand as the ladder teeters a bit underfoot– but it’s not far to the ground, and you’re not wearing wax wings, nor will you be hurt by more than some thorns (would that thorns were all that could hurt us), because you’ve been careful in your construction to pick up the nails, screws and bolts as you go, to be tidy and not leave too much scrap because as you’ve worked, the roses have already budded green, inches and feet gained back from the retraining you gave them at the start of this all.   There’s a moment of silence for the dragonfly who flew too close and was wing-splattered with stain.  He is still, stiff by the time you see him, resting on top of a thatch of Lillian Gibson’s regrowth, a fingernail’s worth of driftwood-colored weatherproofing forever stilling his flight.  It’s an unworthy thought, to think that some flies must die so that things bigger than them can live, but still, there’s something else, if not worthy, than worthwhile of acceptance:  even when you’re rebuilding a rose trellis with as much care as you can, you can’t look everywhere all the time, and there are bound to be splits in the wood, spots that you’ve missed, and tempests that you cannot predict, somewhere, off, outside the yard.

Too, it’s a comfort to know (grounding, it is) that just you, Storey’s Wisdom, a well-planned trip to Lowe’s, and the contents of your dad’s and grandfather’s basement built you something your roses, crabapples, and other things to be fruitful and counted-upon in the future, built this all by yourself, give or take five degrees.  You’ve taken a measure, and somehow, it fits.

Buonanotte, Marcella

If you’re at all an aficionado of cooking, you know that the grand doyenne of Italian cooking passed away this week.  I will admit, freely, that I don’t page through Marcella Hazan for inspiration the way that I flip through Julia Child; I find her (husband’s) translation too authoritative & cranky, and while I appreciate clear direction in a cookbook, there was always something about the tone of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that seemed to promise that what befell the denizens of Dante’s Inferno would only be the start if I dared deviate from the steps laid out, so painstaking, therein.  If I want some inspiration for something Italian-ish to cook for supper, I’ve been far more likely to pull out Elizabeth David, whose firm but friendly writing and combinations of flavors always appeal.  Plus, I can never disagree with a woman who tells you to serve prosciutto with the very best butter.

Still– back to Marcella (though I think she would prefer me to call her Signora Hazan).  The fact still remains; crank though she might have been, and absolute snob for nothing but the best imported Italian what-have-you (and yes, I understand, the insistence was valid, whereas the book was written back in the day before concepts like locavore, heirloom seeds/breeds, and CSA meat/vegetable/aquaculture share were ever a glint in any hipster foodie wordsmith’s eye), Marcella’s books still were and are the Bible when I was looking for the recipe to rule them all or to tell me which amalgam of flavors was most likely truest & best.  I look at Barbara Lynch, at Susan Hermann Loomis, at Elizabeth David, at Patricia Wells and a half dozen more, but Marcella’s recipes distill the essentials, just like she says on the cover.  And for all that the recipes can sometimes be time-consuming, they’re always worth it.

Her pork loin braised in milk (Essentials, 417-418) should never be attempted when the mercury hovers over 80F, but any other time, please– set aside the 6-8 hours and make it.  It ain’t just stunt cooking, that stuff is worth it.  And her tomato sauce with onion and butter (Essentials, 152) will make you wonder– why bother with anything else? Vodka sauce? Who needs it? Take a stick blender to this.)  Her spinach soup with rice (Essentials, 89, 90-2) can be varied with sausage or baby kale or lacinato kale or not and will freeze like nobody’s business, just the thing to warm you.

So tonight, I cooked a dinner to bid Marcella mille grazie, and buonanotte.   Even if she was cranky.  I guess I’d be cranky if people were screwing up good food, as well.

Backyard beefsteak tomato salad.  Salt.  Pepper.  Real balsamic.  Real Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. And back porch chopped italian parsley and basil.  It’s not a recipe, but it is fresh.  I think Marcella would have approved.

Veal scallopini, dredged in toasted hazelnut flour, salt and pepper, browned in butter and olive oil and set aside, then the brown nutty juices reduced with a balsamic vinegar and chicken stock/juice of 1 lemon substitute for the wine called for in this Molly O’Neill adaptation of a Marcella recipe from “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen.”

Broccolini, cooked until tender all the way through, then sauteed quickly in its saucepan with the rest of the fresh-chopped parsley, basil, olives, red pepper flakes and garlic called for in this adaptation of a sauce for oriecchette , which is a souped-up version of the Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce (Essentials, 173) that Marcella recommends for oriecchette.  I skipped the grated cheese, as well as the anchovies, and let the olives speak for themselves.

And finally, last but not least, maybe Marcella’s most famous dessert, and a cake that deserves to be up there with Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba.

Behold, the Walnut Cake (Essentials, 588-9).

This needs a springform, and I futzed the 8-inch requirement and used a 9-inch, cooking the recipe 10 minutes less.  I also used Bob’s Gluten-Free flour blend in place of the 1 cup of regular flour the recipe calls for.  Some day, I’ll use all walnuts instead to make up the volume.

It’s a light, fragile cake, musky and fragrant with rum and lemon zest, tender and nutty.  (She has you toast the raw walnuts.  Do it.  It makes a difference versus buying pre-roasted nuts.)

It’s awesome, warm, still a little soft in the middle, with some creme fraiche stirred into whipped cream.  (Somehow, I don’t think Marcella would have minded the creme fraiche all that much.)

(And also, for those playing at home, with the exception of the tomatoes and the fresh herbs, I did buy all the ingredients, especially the perfect, tender, excellent and humanely-raised veal, at my lovely employer, whose name rhymes with Shmole Foods.)

Sometimes the kale life chooses you.

It’s some sign of something (adulthood? hippiedom? DIY-freakshowness?) that I have come to a point in my life where not only are kale chips a thing that I eat, on the regular, even, but I have opinions about store-bought (dehydrated, raw) versus homemade (oven-baked, salt & vinegar or lemon juice, other seasonings too).

For the record: homemade, from lacinato, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, massaged & let to rest for 10 minutes, then roasted at 475 for 10 minutes on parchment, tossed halfway through.   (Cider vinegar will also do.)

That dehydrated curly kale stuff is fine, in a pinch, but nutritional yeast and miso and sesame seeds & all that other seasoning stuff is not really ranch flavor– not now, not ever.

What I can’t tell is what it means that I’m digging a whole other bed in the garden because I didn’t get enough of my own homegrown (lacinato, picked small and large) kale this summer & fall.

Maybe I should dig a well so people just think I’m a survivalist nut, and not simply crazy for mineral-rich greens.

You have to chip away at the seeds, little hard pebbles– flick off a bit with the edge of a knife, bleed a bit when the knife-tip skites off the hard seed and bites you instead.  You have to prepare, not just shake the packet out into the ground.  The seeds have to soak, soften, sprout, then warm in the ground, and then there’s the wait before twine their way up, up and around.  But then they greet you, blue blazing, gold and white hearted, trumpeting all they are wide to the world, and it’s hard to tell in full sun, what’s the bluest thing?  The sky, or the glory blooming beneath?

The best use & reuse of accidentally-purchased shell-on shrimp

The use of the word “best” here comes with a caveat, namely, what I could think of without resorting to looking up a recipe, and just sorting through memories of dishes eaten and cookbooks and magazine read in the past.  The “accidentally-purchased” part comes from the fact that I was dead-tired, and snagged the wrong bag of frozen shrimp out of the freezer at work– I bought the jumbo shell-on, instead of the large shelled shrimp.

Still, I had a whole tub of pre-peeled garlic at home, and bless the inventor of that nifty device, not because I care about the smell of garlic but because peeling garlic is fussy and I always end up nicking myself.

Garlic + shrimp + a pantry like mine (here, Aggi shrimp bouillon, fino sherry, olive oil, generous amounts of fresh-ground black pepper, plus a big sprig of the rosemary growing out in the garden) equals Spanish-style shrimp in garlic sauce.   I used the fino sherry (this recipe uses an equalish amount of brandy) because I had it, but I could have used lemon, like this recipe.

Messy to peel?  Yes.  Delicious to lick off your fingers?  You bet.

To go with/alongside, because I don’t think the Spaniards go much in for corn, but when in New England in summer, it’s corn, corn, corn, corn, I did a simple saute of corn sliced off the cob, whole cherry tomatoes, sliced onion, lots of butter, a little bit of salt and pepper, and a large sprig of windowbox thyme, sauteed until warm and the tomatoes a little bit collapsed.

I had shrimp leftover.  (They were a pain to peel.  I won’t make the mistake of not reading the bag ever again.)  And for some recipe I’d made in some variation before, I had a half-bottle of mild(er) kimchi, which I dumped into a big bowl and chopped roughly with my mezzaluna. I’d bought a small red cabbage, so I chopped that into half and then into thin slices, peeled and chopped up the shrimp, beat three eggs, chopped a huge handful of chives from the garden (are we detecting a theme here?  my herbs are in luxurious growth, super-abundant, and I use them as such) and spooned in enough Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour mix to make it bind together but still be a little bit wet.

And then I fried the hell out of it in one big cake in my 12″ nonstick skillet, slid it onto a sheet pan, then, taking my life into my hands, used potholders to flip the whole thing over and fried the whole other side until it was brown.  I chopped purple basil from the garden and cut up some limes to squeeze over the top, and did add some sriracha and fish sauce to my serving, though it was plenty seasoned already.  (You could have added lime zest or ginger or sriracha to the pancake batter if you were so inclined.)  It was beautiful.

I had the kimchi around from a white cabbage/kimchi/scallion pancake not unlike this basic recipe and which I think I also used shrimp to proteinize… that I fried into small fritters, and if you’re afraid of burning yourself flipping el grando shrimp pancake, the little fritters are equally tasty, just keep the heat up to get that good brown crust, and use a spatter screen.

For a vegetable (what, two cups of cabbage isn’t enough?) I had garden-fresh green beans.  I steamed and cooled them, then dressed them while they were still warm with sesame oil and a sauce called Bone Suckin’ Mustard, sriracha, and a bit of soy sauce.  A strong yellow mustard (not dijon-style) with a bit of cider vinegar, some hot sauce, and a little sweetener (I’d use agave, probably) would stand in for the Bone Suckin’ Mustard– you want it to be on the zippy/sour side of sweet & sour & tangy, but you still want a little sweet to balance the chili sauce.  And then I dressed them with toasted sesame seeds.

Good thing I wasn’t paying attention when I bought those shrimp.