Leaping In

We are back in Brooklyn, and our little boy is entering fourth grade. It’s the moment we’ve been dreading since his brother Lucian was killed by a car, when he was also in fourth grade and at the same school, almost four years ago. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a reenactment; like sleepwalkers going ahead without being able to stop or speak, just walking numbly into things. To me the first week of school felt threatening, a looming terror- but in fact so much of the reality is mundane and rote: the school letters and lists, the daily routines we need to apply, the new sneakers to buy.

All this past spring and summer it was the anticipation of Theo’s move to his brother’s level, from Lower to Upper, that had me, us- and definitely him- in knots; we were worried, he was angry. Or we were angry, he was sad; only he was unable to say it so he acted out in every possible way. I had lost my faith in the future. Now that I am here in the unavoidable moment I see the smiles of the excited kids and optimistic parents, and I feel like a ghost of myself. I have memories, clear as today, of his brother standing at those same lockers, talking with his friends, on fire with the excitement of learning, wanting to come into school early to rewrite a paper, because he was full of fresh ideas.

Here we sit at our kitchen table, after a preliminary half day of school, a warm-up, and I know we are all completely exhausted. I’m putting my best foot forward though, for Theo; now gearing up for dinner before the school year truly begins. I’ve cooked something up for us, something unplanned, at Greg’s suggestion: pasta. We have some excellent sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in the freezer, which will defrost quickly. There are greens too, waiting to be used, also from the Kinderhook farmers’ market…these things are feeding me a connection to summer peace, to a village in the Hudson valley. We are doing our best to feed our little/big son, the angry/sad one- and do it early so he can get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’ll wake up on the right side of the bed tomorrow morning if we get this night off to a good start. I can lead with purpose when I’m in the kitchen; the rest of the time I feel pretty lost. We set the table, three at one end together with our bowls so close they are almost touching, and eat until we are full.

Pasta with Pork Sausage and Broccoli Rapini

Serves 4

Extra virgin olive oil

Four plump pork sausages from Lovers Leap Farms, in 1 inch slices

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 large bunch broccoli rapini, in 4 inch lengths

1 pound short pasta such as shells, gemelli, fusilli

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of finely grated pecorino Romano

I use my largest large cast iron skillet to brown sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in olive oil while the pasta water comes to a boil. I salt the pasta water generously and wait; nobody is near enough that I can trust they will appear in the kitchen once the pasta is cooked. I pull garlic from the basket on the counter. The purple, papery skin on the cloves is tight and so juicy because it’s that time of year.  I smash the cloves lightly to open them, then give the garlic a coarse chopping before I throw them in the skillet with the mostly cooked sausage. In go the greens- I’ve washed them, and the water still on their leaves speeds up their cooking- wilting them down quickly over a medium high flame.

Once the pasta has been cooked and scooped into the skillet with a strainer, I stir over low heat and pour in almost a cup of starchy pasta water from the bottom of the pasta pot to thicken and bring it all together. This, and a healthy pour of olive oil with a handful of grated cheese hold the ingredients to the pasta and turn one panful of disparate things into a warming bowl of pasta. Pass the cheese please.

 

Summer Cooking Is…

Summer cooking is… Standing barefoot in the kitchen next to the screen door, stirring pieces of day-old bread and garlic cloves in a cast iron skillet, until the garlic cloves soften enough that you can smash them with the back of the wooden spoon. They let out a sweet, roasted smell and infuse the olive oil that slicks the bottom of the pan.

Slow and steady, just don’t break a sweat. That’s the extent of any cooking I’m doing on this day in July, when the air is so full of humidity that it has got to spill any minute now- burst from air into water.  I don’t have any ideas, and there’s not much in the fridge. Theo’s home from camp for lunch.

Lentils, thankfully cooked two nights ago, can be the substance of our meal. I lift them, ever so inefficiently, one spoonful at a time, from their cool cooking liquid with a slotted spoon because I am much too lazy to search the kitchen for the strainer. In a small bowl, I toss the lentils with a splash of vinegar, some salt and a bit of pungent vinaigrette from the whole grain mustard jar… lentils absorb- they can take on extra acid, extra salt, a little more olive oil. And a tip: always make dressing in your mustard jar, even if it’s just a way to eke out the dregs.

On the counter I unwrap a wheel of goat cheese from its paper.  I brought it back from a recent trip up north;  I admired its blue ash coating at a stall in the marché Jean Talon, Montreal. It is tender to touch and soft on the palate. The crunchy, garlicky croutons, still slightly warm, are ready and waiting to be tossed with a mixture of peppery salad greens in a bowl. Lunch can just be this.

Crisp and Cool, Quiet

img_7511The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.

I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.

I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.

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Buckwheat, Apples and Ghosts

img_5857Working from home has many perks (as well as some downsides). It’s hard for me to stay out of the kitchen when I’m supposed to be at my desk. Yesterday I decided to give myself something special for elevenses, as they say in England. I had made buckwheat pancake batter earlier in the morning for Theo, but then he was late for school and in the rush we didn’t cook them.  So later on I decided to make some pancakes. They were brown and warm and slightly crisp on the outside, but inside each pancake a slice of caramelized apple added soft sweetness. I drizzled dark Vermont maple syrup over them and sat with a cup of coffee. I warmed the milk and foamed it just the way I like it, and indulged in my mid morning treat, recognizing the goodness of it all.

Moments of peace come and go- for me they usually arrive courtesy of food, flavors, and treasured objects. My coffee cup, for example, was made in Orvieto. It’s wide at the top, and not too deep- perfectly scaled so my coffee doesn’t cool down before I can drink it all up. The pottery is painted in the traditional hues that many ceramicists of Orvieto have used for centuries: greenish-blue and accents of dark brown (is this the classic burnt umber of a Crayola box)? Its patterns and stripes are simple, repetitive. This cup feels good in my hands, and each time I pick it up I think of the day I bought it.

It was Lucian’s birthday- it would have been his 11th, and we were still freshly in mourning. Orvieto was a perfect place for this occasion. It’s a dramatic but quiet town built on a huge rocky outcropping, and it’s an easy day trip from Rome. Earlier that day we’d walked the trail around the old city walls, and picked wildflowers. Orvieto’s sloping streets are filled with pretty shops. There is plenty of traditional, good, Umbrian hill town food there, like umbrichelli pasta dusted with fluffy grated cheese and truffles, braised cinghiale, and roasted pigeon, and we rested with a hearty lunch.  At the center of the town is the stunning cathedral. Its black and pink bricks create narrow stripes, so uplifting and gloriously different from all the whites and greys of Rome- while gruesomely detailed biblical scenes carved into the facade signal a warning: know these ancient stories and be fearful.

I bought this cup I now hold in my hands from another Anna, whose small pottery studio was tucked just behind the main piazza. A few steps up a stone alley, her gate was canopied by draping vines of honeysuckle. I was so enchanted by them that I paused with Theo so Greg could take a photo of us. When a woman called out from the shadows of a doorway: Buon Giorno! we realized we were actually standing in the entrance to her shop, not on a lane, as we had presumed… and though we weren’t looking to buy any ceramics, we entered her space, respectful and quiet. I came away with a cup, though I wish I’d bought six, and a simple jar for decanting olive oil. It has a slender body with a narrow top for pouring, and is made from the warmly pigmented Umbrian clay.  Anna and her little studio were engaging and humble. When we left, we walked back towards the piazza, where I stopped to look at the photos I’d taken- and I realized that instead of a lovely, honeysuckle covered archway, the photo I had taken was just one frame, and it was completely black. A little ghost had been there and is with me still.img_9043

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Buddhist Chicken and the Star Man

buddhist chickenAccording to the label, the chicken was dressed in the Buddhist style- in the sense that its head and feet were still attached to its body. To me, having no knowledge of Buddhist death rituals, this conjured up a peaceful ceremony- one in which the chicken’s neck was twisted in some humane yet final way, while compassionate farmers took time out from their chores to stand in a circle. They quietly blessed its life while poems were read and chants were hummed.

But once out of its bag and splayed on my cutting board, this chicken was less mystical and more cartoon-like, in a rubber chicken kind of way, its funny feet in particular.  Rather than finding it gruesome, I found it riveting. I took snapshot after snapshot of it, turning it this way and that- first nude, and then sprinkled with a dark salt and spice mixture for greater, shadowy effect. Life cycle. Death is the theme this week; we all talk about David Bowie, a timeless, indefinable spirit; an artist in every sense, a man of many modes. He seemed to know all along that he was part of a greater star system, while some of us have our eyes on the ground for years, and we keep on going, earth-bound, until a shock wakes us up.

All week I felt the weight of death and childhood, and the years of life in between.

A friend’s Instagram post broke my heart Monday morning and made me cry. It was the photo of her son as a boy- a boy I only ever knew as a young man. Looking at the image, I sensed his soul immediately.  And I thought of my Lucian, the boy who I will never know as a young man. This fact slayed me. And the Bowie lyrics she quoted were from one of my favorite songs, Kooks, from the album Hunky Dory. Kooks is an ode to childhood, and parenting; a song of irreverence and familial love. The priority is joy. My heart is breaking today. For my young son, the living one, who is already the young man he will be: I wish I could catch the time in between then and now and preserve you as you are.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt

This mixture is dark grey thanks to the exotic, obscure and puckery Persian Lime powder. I buy it at the wonderful Kalustyan’s market in New York. It suited my mood to use it for this chicken rub, but if you omitted it entirely, the chicken would still be delicious. In fact, if you only used salt and pepper the chicken would be delicious, as this recipe is based upon the excellent Zuni Café roasted chicken method, developed by another shooting star, the late Judy Rodgers.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon ground Omani Lime (Persian Lime)

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 small chicken, buddhist or secular

Crush cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or the bottom of a skillet, and mix with the salt, Omani lime, black pepper, and ground cinnamon.

Use a cleaver to chop the head from the chicken, as close to the breast as possible, and chop off the wing tips. Rotate bird and chop off its feet at the bottom leg joint. Save all parts for stock. Rinse bird inside and out, and pat dry.

Rub with salt and spice mixture and leave to sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before roasting (or, preferably, refrigerate overnight, loosely covered, and bring to room temperature before roasting).

Preheat oven to 475º. Place a heavy pan just large enough to hold the chicken, or a sheet pan if you will add vegetables, in the oven to preheat for about 5 minutes; remove from oven, lightly drizzle pan with olive oil and place chicken on the hot pan. Roast until chicken is cooked through- you can tell this if the legs wiggle easily and the juice runs clear when the back of the thighs is pierced. For a small chicken (about 3 pounds or less) roast for 40-45 minutes. Rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Judy’s recipe calls for roasting this way for 30 minutes, and then flipping the chicken to finish it upside down for another 15 minutes.  I am sure this method ensures the breast is very moist… but I’m inclined to put my chicken in the oven and forget it while it’s cooking, so I can do other things, and therefore I roast it breast-side up all the way through. It comes out crisp-skinned, tender and moist, even so.

To roast with vegetables, such as butternut squash: spread peeled, cubed squash on pan first, leaving a space in center for chicken. Season with salt and toss in the oil. The sweet, roasted squash plays nicely with the middle Eastern flavors of this spice mix.

With our chicken we ate the world’s longest grain basmati, according to Kalustyan’s: Golden Sella Basmati…Cook according to package instructions- requires triple washing, and a long steaming time after cooking to absorb moisture.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt is pretty good on hard-boiled eggs too:

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Golden Blur

cropped-IMG_7773.jpgNow the golden haze of leaves is shading darker and deeper, and the clocks have been set back an hour. We’ve passed through the ring of fire- November 2nd, a day I wish I could erase. It’s time for me to turn my attention to what lies ahead. I made myself a large calendar, with boxes dated through December; we’ve been caught unprepared for winter holidays, as usual.  I feel a sense of panic. But then I remember- it doesn’t matter to me any more whether or not we make the perfect plan. I guess I’ve gained perspective. The pressure’s off; I don’t feel like celebrating. Lucian’s spirit hangs over me while I rush through the familiar battles of city living and try to find my balance- on the streets, and in my days. I still don’t understand that he’s gone. He became so much a part of my being while he was alive, that I will never lose him. Somehow that’s a comfort.

Another comfort has been the responses to my article in the October issue of Vogue magazine, A Glimmer of Life. I have received so many words of support, love, encouragement and genuine empathy, that I’m bowled over. I am still absorbing the idea that it’s a public piece; this story that is so very personal. It felt good to write it, though, and in some way the process of doing it has helped me. And now, you are helping me too. I have not yet been able to reply to all of the friends, family and- amazingly- strangers who have reached out to me to say: I care. But if you’re reading this now, please know that I am so grateful for your words.