Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mood Swings and Midnight Fajitas

I was watching a Joan Didion interview while stalling on making dinner tonight. She is aged now and witty without trying. Unequivocal...a dream of a writer. The kind of essayist one yearns to know. There's just something godlike about her. Maybe it's all of the tragedy, but no, she was like this before the magical thinking. Or was it all magical thinking? Is it all magical thinking?

I find everything of my own unbearably nauseating and cringed today while reading over old blog posts. Like full body quiver. Too saccharine, silly girl. Maybe I should start looking up starchy art history programs instead of loosey-goosey MFAs to sober up a bit. All this creative nonfiction is getting a bit dreamy.

Put off making the bed, folding laundry, and making important appointments. In an effort to become a better doggy mommy I did, however, finally set a date with the country vet to get George neutered on May 12th, a task I've been putting off for five and a half years but all of a sudden started having panic attacks about George suddenly falling ill with testicular cancer, so I am considering today a slightly productive win.

Raced out of work at 5:05 intent on going to yoga at an actual yoga studio instead of pretend yoga where I sit in my bedroom on the blue, tree-decaled yoga mat simultaneously drinking red wine and scanning vegan recipes on Pinterest.

[Necessary aside: There is no way I am ever becoming vegan. I just ate an entire package of Port Salut. Orange crinkly paper and all. Followed by pâté de campagne. I had a large chocolate milkshake for lunch. But there are no rules in pinning.]

Typically when I flap out my yoga mat George comes running over excitedly and clacks his bone against a prominent body part, like an ankle or kneecap. Not to worry, just need those for walking. No big. Please, toss your rawhide with full force against my shin now! Just to cover the whole leg. Then he starts stretching it out.

Turns out my dog does more yoga than I do.

Went to Trader Joe's instead of real yoga, on the hunt for large artichokes. TJ's artichokes seem a better quality than Harris Teeter's and Kroger's (read: they are actually green and not wilting), but after ogling the produce section four to five times with no luck I decided to segue over to the poultry section and call it a night.

But that damn sample counter always gets me. You know the one, with a million little dentist-rinse cups of whatever sultry beverage is being featured that day. Today, pomegranate lemonade. I might have partook of more than one complimentary sample. (Apparently so did the checkout guy, who went into great detail regarding how much he loves the juice samples and how he may have had 9 or 10, to which I responded, "Or eleven...or twelve, but who's counting," in an honest effort to get out of there faster, but alas, I must be chatty only when starving and in a mad dash to get home and the conversation went on and on. Why do I have to engage? I just want my chicken-thanks-bye!)

Also, don't you just love how you're holding one item, like a packet of chicken, say, and the guy in front of you with spilling-over cart who gets to counter at the exact same time as you, ok, maybe one millisecond faster, turns and smiles

BUT DOESN'T LET YOU GO IN FRONT OF HIM?! Really?

I am a 30 year old single woman here to prove by my mere existence that chivalry is, in fact, dead.

Not just dead. Chivalry got taken out back and had the shit kicked out of Her.

Wow. I digress. I'm sorry. This is why I will need therapy and charcuterie for the rest of my life.

Took a roundabout way home reminiscing about Monday night's glorious sunset whereby I had to stop in the church parking lot before bells practice with my hand deep into a canvas bag searching for my camera just to grab as many shots as possible. Of course two turned out. Yep, I'm the girl who has 476 sunset photos on her laptop and won't organize or delete any.



And then yesterday's Spring day was inspiration enough to plan a picnic for the weekend. The key is to stay busy. Keep occupied. Don't let your hands idle.

Blah blah blah blah BLAH. I'm so over people telling me to stay busy. Ya know what? I'm not good at life sometimes, and that is OKAY. It's ok to NOT stay busy. It's OK to binge-watch 12 episodes of House of Cards on a Saturday morning/afternoon/evening/ all day Saturday, all day LONG, while stuffing your face with GMO popcorn and non-organic butter. (Hashtag Season two, hashtag ermagerd) It's OK to be going on the 8th consecutive month of reading the same food memoir that you already read last year and the year before. It's ok to just BE. You don't have to have ALL your ducks in a row. Ducks flying in V shapes are more interesting. It's OK to eat an entire raw/vegan/non-GMO/all natural/cacao nib/organic/fair trade six dollar boutique chocolate bar and tell yourself you are doing it for the Belizean rainforests. It is ok to listen to Katy Perry's "Roar" on repeat and then switch to Cat Power's Ramblin Woman and then back to Katy. It's all OK. To figure out who you are, one recipe at a time, one criminally overplayed pop song at a time, one continuously savored book at a time, giving up one vice at a time (FB and alcohol for Lent, more on that little topic later), one new outfit at a time. You can wear stilettos one day and Toms the next. You can look like a hippie with long, unbrushed, scraggly hair, glasses, no makeup, flowy skirts and purple feather drop down earrings one day and pearls and cashmere and nude pumps and too much mascara (that melts down your face in the rain) the next. IT IS ALL OK. Have some flavor. The world needs more spice. We're all human here.

I want everything now, have little patience and even smaller self-control, am moody and self-deprecating, which comes off as charming in some people's writing, like Anne Lamott's, but in mine it's just vomit-inducing. There is no other word for it. But that is OKAY. I just read some stuff I'd written in the late fall. Gag me. I sound like a princess whose crown was just knocked off and now she's demanding the peasants summon it for her. Let them eat cake. Obnoxious nine year old regressions are still obnoxious. And that is OKAY, too. When I started therapy I was regressing to age 5. That was one year ago this month. Progress. Or as my therapist says, "You are catching up with yourself."

There might be one good sentence in two entire notebooks full of blah blah blah blah BLAH. Which is, what again?

OKAY. It is ok not to be perfect, to still be a dreamer making slow and steady positive changes. I have held down a part-time job for seven months now. If you know me, you know that that is the definition of slow but steady progress. I started Googling eco-friendly cars, a necessary evil in this great town. I've located my birth certificate to change my name but still hunger for the courage to actually walk into the clerk's office downtown. It will feel so final. I have had many anxiety attacks on this. Baby steps. Looked at two apartments this week and changed George's dog food back to California Naturals lamb meal. Had to write that on a sticky note and keep it tacked to the rear view mirror to not forget, but guess who's eating natural dog food now instead of his own feces?

The universe is shifting and we shift with it. Don't resist!




Elena may or may not have caught me drinking wine, dancing in the kitchen, making lumpia one night last month. In the kitchen there will be dancing. In the kitchen you locate your sanity.

Which is why I made fajitas at midnight. I'd promised my brother fajitas tonight if he did the dishes. To my shock he did them. If only I'd learned the art of the bribe sooner. Last month would have been less of a disaster with two kids to try not to boss around but at the same time gain the respect of while their father was suffering a heart attack. In the Philippines. And their mother had to get an expedited passport and fly over. To Manila. By way of South Korea. My little blonde mom flying solo across the globe to get to her husband as he's just opening his eyes from an emergency double bypass. Their cinematic love story continues.

These fajitas are either a labor of love or a quick fix for a hankering for Mexican food.

You can make them as simple or as complex as you prefer.

Turns out I like complexity.

Feel free to doctor the list of ingredients to your liking. I like it spicy so I use jalapenos sometimes. Not for my brother's fajitas.

You must use fresh cilantro. That's a rule. Homemade guacamole is another must. After that you're on your own. Be creative.

Keep in mind after making these that you have to walk into your brother's room dramatically turning "The fajitas are ready" to "The VUH-JIE-TAHZ are ready" while he is gaming, so that all gaming teens on the network laugh and then ask if he is a pimp. True story.
#goodinfluence


Chicken VUH-JIE-TAHZ For Zach, Upon Doing The Dishes


Ingredients:

1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts (Thighs will not work; I tried), cut into thin strips
4 T oil (I use coconut and olive, but canola, grapeseed or safflower works. Something with a high smoke point.)
1 large onion, sliced into thin strips
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 orange bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
salt and pepper, to taste
chili powder, to taste (I like Hatch green chile pepper from New Mexico.)
1 whole lime
1 bunch fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, finely grated
1 cup homemade guacamole, OR the flesh of 1 avocado, thinly sliced
12 corn tortillas (although this is not authentic; flour tortillas are)

In a cast iron pan melt 2 T coconut oil on med-high heat until slightly sizzling. Generously season chicken with salt, pepper and chili powder. Sear chicken on both sides, turning until nicely browned. Remove chicken to platter. Sear onion and peppers on both sides until nicely charred; add chicken back to sizzle. Squeeze juice of 1/2 lime into sizzling pan, turning chicken and vegetables with wooden spoon. I find that microwaving 1/2 lime for 20 seconds draws out the juice. Yum. Turn heat down to low, cover. Let flavors meld together perfectly.


In a small skillet heat 2 T oil (I use olive oil for this part.) Using tongs, carefully place corn tortillas one by one into hot oil, browning on both sides. Tortillas should bend and not crunch. Liberally salt both sides of tortilla; place on paper towels/linens on plate to cool. Stack tortillas then get ready to serve.

I always let each person make their own fajita to their individual tastes. My brother hates onions and peppers, so he built his fajita with chicken, cilantro and extra cheddar. I layer mine with guacamole on the bottom, then one or two pieces of chicken with extra peppers and onions, then tomatoes, cheddar, and sprinkles of fresh cilantro, and lastly a fresh squeeze of lime.

The only complaint is our mouths are too small. Ideally one would fit an entire fajita inside and just lapse into a food coma.

Enjoy. xx








Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kombucha Brewing: A Lesson in Trial and Error

I seem to be in a season of trial and error in my life. And that's ok. I've accepted it. It's taken me a while, but I think I've finally come to a certain peace with trying, failing, scrapping one plan to form another. The past 6 months have demonstrated to me the concept of a clean slate, and just what it means to wipe it completely.

So it should have come as no surprise to me that I would try and fail (but still give it my all!) as I ventured into the art (craft?) of brewing kombucha, from scratch, at home, instead of in some scientific lab.

I have to admit, I am not a person of science. I majored in English because I loved reading books like Mrs. Dalloway and got my kicks at Penn State not from sorority parties, but spending long nights in the stacks at Paterno Library, perusing ancient compilations of Yeats and dissecting Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" on the hunt for every food reference possible. Save for a school science fair victory once, long ago, science and I are just not besties. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Scientific American and watching PBS programs and going on nature walks. Just don't hand me a beaker and expect me to know what to do with it. It might explode.

So even now, 21 days later, I'm kind of shocked that I took a foray into brewing kombucha. But not that shocked.

You see, kombucha is the shit. For lack of a better word. It really is. I'm not going to try to censor myself here. It's definitely an acquired taste, but once you get over the fact that a tea is fermented, bursting with fizz and tasty like a soda, except HEALTHY, you come to a place of obsession. Or at least I did. Kombucha is chock FULL of probiotics. I first started drinking kombucha some time last year in a desperate attempt to counterract all of the crazy antibiotics I was taking, determined that I could get just as many probiotics from food/drink that I could in a very expensive daily probiotic capsule. Through tons of research and hippie friends regaling me with kombucha stories, I realized I just needed to try it ASAP. One afternoon I ambled to my local neighborhood Safeway in DC and grabbed a few bottles of GTs Raw Kombucha. It was organic. It had tons of probiotics; the same amount if not MORE than those nasty pills. Win. It was delicious. And I got a little tipsy off of it, though sadly I haven't had that reaction to another bottle since.

I started drinking kombucha daily, then realized, at $3 a bottle, this might become an issue. I couldn't get enough of it though. I'd try different brands, every flavor of each new brand. My favorite is still to this day GT's grape chia, a delicious grape-flavored kombucha with not as much of a vinegar taste as the Original or Ginger flavors, loaded with chia seeds (another huge health bonus) that look odd floating all around, suspended in the kombucha bottle, but have an earthy taste.

Which is why, for my 30th birthday last month, all I wanted was a scoby. A scoby is a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, and before you think I've lost my mind, know this. It's like the starter in sourdough bread. (Which if you haven't made before, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?) My sister is the type to oblige my weird birthday wishes and ordered a scoby for me on etsy, and when it arrived I was both intrigued and scared. It looked like a certain flattened body part. It was slippery and slimy and I couldn't possibly fathom handling it enough to slip it into a jar. Everything started to feel creepy, like maybe I shouldn't really be making this at home. That maybe I had no business trying something so new and scientific, and how the HELL was the green tea I poured into a gallon jar supposed to sit with a scoby for 21 days and voila, healthy drink-omatic. I became hesitant, so I let the scoby rest in her juices for a few days while reading up on some kombucha blogs.

And then I became obsessed. I suddenly wanted to care for this scoby that would produce a baby scoby in due time. No pun intended. At first I scoffed at those bleeding heart beatniks who named their scobies like they were some kind of pet. And then one day I named mine Joni Mitchell. So who's laughing now.

Joni became my brew. I attended to her every day, painstakingly making sure to read and re-read and dissect each instruction so I couldn't, wouldn't mess up. I scrubbed and sanitized a huge multi-gallon glass jar. I bought cheesecloth. I made sure to use the right kind of green tea, only organic sugar, and stayed up until 5 am one night checking the starter tea, making sure it was cooled down to room temperature before releasing the scoby into the jar. I kept the jar in a cool dark place but not too cool. Warm enough so as to ferment and made a lid cover of cheesecloth, two layers so as to keep out fruit flies.

The first few days were a little boring, with no real scientific action to write home about. Stuff was FOR SURE bubbling under the surface, but nothing quite visible yet. I was looking forward to the part where a new scoby forms. The romantic in me just can appreciate new life, and if I can create it in a jar, well that's kinda cool. Days went by and I forgot about my pet. That's the great thing about kombucha brewing (or so the bloggers say)...you can just dump everything together, cover and walk away and this whole, complex, scientific process occurs without constant attention. That's something I can get down with.

At about the 7th day I could visibly see a new scoby forming as a top layer over the brew, covering the tea underneath. I taste-tested the brew at this point, which was WAY on the sweet yet still vinegary side, so kept letting it ferment. Eventually 2 weeks went by. The new scoby at this point was so thick that I started to dream up just bottling the brew already, however I really don't stick with things and wanted this to be a breakthrough. I let it keep fermenting. I read a lot. Wrote far too little. Started a new job.

Then, magically at day 21, it was ready. Except.

Fruit flies. Hopping around.

Everywhere.

At first I saw one jump from one side of the jar to another. Then realized I had created a breeding ground for insects, and that in fact there were probably millions of baby fruit flies that were about to come to life. I'd read enough about fruit flies to know how they plant their eggs, and I'll be damned if I drink a gallon of fruit fly eggs. I've got enough stuff going on with my bod.

Chagrin isn't the word. I was devastated. I just stared numbly, then stubbornly started straining out fruit flies and bottling my brew. Then of course, once neatly bottled in Mason jars, dumped it all down the sink. But first I made it pretty. In April I would have thrown all of the jars across the room until they shattered, screaming obscenities about the unfairness of life. Things have changed. I can still pull the utmost of juvenile tantrums if you put me on a highway during rush hour, but I like to think the days of unnecessary outbursts are gone.

Which is a breakthrough. In some regard, it was never about the kombucha directly. It was about creating something organically, start to finish. About process and routine. Sticking to a task until carried out. Despite the fruit flies, kombucha WAS created. New life was formed. It might've been a trial by fire, but sometimes that's the point.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chicken Stock Failures

You might be asking yourself, "How can anyone possibly fail in making chicken stock? It's water and bones. AmIright?"

Well, you would be wrong.

There is a distinct art to crafting an authentic chicken stock, according to my lovely chefy.

There is procedure. There are logistics. There are time limits. And other myriad constraints.

But mostly, there is preparation. More than I realized. As in, an authentic chicken stock is supposed to be dark? So the way I've been making it for five years is completely wrong? Everything I've ever made has been sub-par. There will be roasting...

Whaa...?

Yep.

Listen and learn, friends. Listen and learn.

Chefy dictates to me, mid-stock-boil, "Where are the roasted bones? They don't look roasted at all."

AT ALL. That redundant duo which always make me want to commit nefarious acts.

As I paw him away in my penguin stance over the aromatic simmering bone water stock, my memory refreshes and I remember that, in this house, YOU HAVE TO ROAST BONES before you ever dream of fashioning up a good stock. Any kind of carnivorous stock requires proper bone-roasting technique. Which, for me, usually means throwing a bunch of rib bones or chicken bones or steak bones onto a charred cookie sheet. Even though they're technically supposed to be cleaned. And placed gingerly onto a schmancy roasting pan. You're probably supposed to bow your head in reverence to the bone gods and say a charm and Karma and Kismet each involve their ethereal personae, and BOOM! A stock is born.

Stock's some fancy ish. And you thought it was basic. (It's ok, I'm with ya.)

I feel like a bit of a witch when I make chicken stock. Sometimes I think to myself, sampling my magic brew, I could totally bottle this stuff up and sell it. This would fly off the shelves at Eastern Market. All kinds of creative names (or not) (read: Shannon's Stock, Cecere's Chicken Brew) fly through my head. I could even market it for Etsy, I fantasize, and invest in the local dry-ice business (???) and ship it off to exotic places where they've never even heard of homemade chicken stock. Like the UK. Or Altoona, PA. Market me fast, baby. I'm the next Rachael Ray.

My ADHD culinary Good Samaritan reverie is interrupted by the next-door neighbors' random outburst of go-go music, which I can appreciate, but not necessarily at 2 am, and definitely not while creating nectar of the gods, aka roasted chicken stock.

Chefy ambles outside to harangue the neighbors, and this is my perfect opportunity to suddenly spring to the freezer, remembering the two quart containers of chicken wing tips I saved the last few times we made chicken wings. (Preparation.) Chicken stock for all! We'll bottle it in Mason jars and gift it to both sets of parents for Easter, arriving into town bearing homemade presents! We'll ship it to friends for birthdays and bat mitzvahs. It'll be a mainstay in the pantries of everyone we know. Right next to the gourmet mustards and artisinal preserves. We can give it as wedding favors!

I salt the water because one time I heard the Barefoot Contessa say on her show that if you don't salt the water, the stock that you worked so hard on will taste like dirty dish water.

Ain't nobody got time for that.

So I salt the water. And toss in some peppercorns, like I've seen chefy do. Except a cup of peppercorns come flying out of the spice container since I always forget little tricks like opening the tiny opening side versus the huge side. I handle that emergency, grabbing up peppercorns with both hands from the boiling stock. The chicken tips (and my hands) have thawed and are neatly placed across a cookie sheet, the oven is preheating to 500, carrots are roughly chopped, onions are halved and thrown in, a stalk of celery goes in, doesn't have to look pretty, it'll all get strained out anyway. I roast the tips, throw them in. Chefy tells me you never salt the water. Excellent. I taste test. It tastes like bouillon. All salty and vegetabley and chickeny and peppery. And very concentrated, having reduced for way too long while I got side-tracked and read recipes for all the dishes I was going to make with the stock. So I add more water. It's a better consistency. Thank you, Karma and Kismet. You showed up. A little late the party, but you showed nonetheless.

It's nearing 4 am and my back is aching. A cloth freezer pack covered in monkeys is icing my neck. My throat is sore. My right eye starts itching all of a sudden. Woe isn't me, though. Cause the stock looks beautiful. Chefy's long been asleep, snoring from the bedroom. It's time. It is finished. I turn off the stove and have to let the stock cool before straining and pouring into quart containers and then tomorrow, Mason jars, tied with burlap and twine for that homespun look. I go into the bedroom to rest my eyes while the stock cools.

And then fall asleep for 8 hours.

#fml #chickenstockfailure #itwouldvebeensodelicious #storingitanyway

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Lessons in Bread Rising

Do you ever have the urge to make something delicious and fresh, but lack the patience to WAIT for the end result? Earlier this week my fiancé and I were craving bruschetta. We'd had it at Famous Luigi's in downtown DC a few weeks back, and I was itching to try making it on my own. It's one of my FAVORITE things ever, and every time I watch that scene in Julie and Julia I salivate over the whole experience. How hard could it be to pile tomatoes on top of grilled bread?

I scoured Pinterest for recipes, naturally. The saying must be true that you eat with your eyes first. I'm telling you, 5 different photos of scrumptious-looking bruschetta prompted us both to get up off the couch on fiancé's day off and hit up our local markets for bread flour, the freshest-looking cherry tomatoes we could find, and organic basil. We already had garlic, a house staple. I'm obsessed with food and he's a cook. Garlic plays a large role at our dinner table.

But what kind of bread to use? And of course it has to be homemade. After debating the merits of ciabatta vs. focaccia, I decided on Italian bread. Fiancé lugs out his huge baking and pastry book from culinary school, a tome we're sure houses a perfect bruschetta bread recipe, and proceeds to read me EVERY. SINGLE. BREAD. TITLE. Until we both realize there is no goldmine bread for bruschetta. You just have to wing it. Back to the drawing board (Read: Google). Finally I just decide the heck with it and go with a standard French Bread. We debate the merits of using a baguette or just a loaf of what Google brings up as "French bread" and at this point I don't care that much. I just want bread, grilled, oiled, garlicked, and loaded with tomatoes, olive oil dripping from the corners of each of our satiated mouths.

I finally find a suitable recipe, any one will do, and get home readying my mise en place. That's what you do to prep yourself. When you live with a chef.

For a day my mise en place was ready. I lugged out the Kitchen Aid mixer from underneath the sink (city living for ya), dusted it off and scrubbed it down, a feat in and of itself. Do you know how much those things weigh? And because I'm basically falling apart physically, I rubbed shea butter all over my neck and iced my shoulders. The things we do for authenticity.

Just when I felt ready enough, cracked my fingers and toes, and washed up, I realized something fateful.

No yeast.

Damn.

You cannot make bruschetta bread (what I started calling our project) without YEAST. It's just...there just...

There is no way that I forgot to buy yeast. I have yeast, oh yes, but it could be 4 years old for all I know, since everywhere we move, the contents of our fridge gets packed up with us. I have one packet of yeast. You need two. Awesome.

So now it's been roughly 3 days since the drooling-for-bruschetta began, and I remind fiancé to bring home yeast if he has a chance.

He says sure. Then forgets it.

No biggie. The basil is now wilted and sad looking, the tomatoes have been over-ripened on the window sill since I forgot about them for 3 days, and you know what? You don't even NEED bread flour for bruschetta bread, because sometimes the universe slaps you across the face like that. Next time in a blue moon when you decide you have 7 spare hours on a lazy day to make homemade pizza dough, bread flour will be standing at attention like a soldier from the kitchen cupboard, but today it's just giving you the middle finger. Kinda like life.

Soooooooo. You put aside plans for bruschetta, and instead make a huge salad, which is healthier anyways. But the desire never leaves (and fiancé brings home yeast the next night!).

So TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT. Your kidneys are sore and you can barely walk, but you heave yourself over to the kitchen and do 2 toe-touches before lunging for the Kitchen Aid mixer, patiently awaiting you from her shadowed perch. You say a quick prayer to the bread gods and re-scan the recipe, and you're good to go.

Alas, fresh bruschetta in our bellies tonight. After a long, hard day, you, fiancée extraordinaire, will have freshly baked, grilled, olive-oiled-and-tomatoey bread waiting for your hard-working man, which you'll hand off to tired fiancé ambling through the door with his bike.

And then you read it. 2 hour rising time. What the WHAT.

This cannot be. Tongue now hanging out with illusions of Italian zest and saliva almost dripping from your mouth in anticipation, your eyes read over the depressing words again. Allow time for rising.

To which you just sit back, crawl onto your yoga mat, and assume the fetal position.

You question why bread has to rise and what the point of yeast is anyways (fiancé says it's a bacteria, ew, as if you need more of THAT in your dilapidated bod), and curse the bread gods for lying to you and curse the universe for shunning your every recent culinary move, and curse America for needless biowarfare, of which you could literally write the book, and you curse your Pinterest habit for getting you in the mood. And you plan to throw that Italian food memoir you've been reading in the trash for making you want to be all authentic all the time. And you give famous Luigi the bird for getting you wishing and hoping and salivating in the first place. Dumbass.

The fetal position eventually gets boring and your dog has now splayed himself across the yoga mat, which he always does when you're trying to breathe and meditate and not focus so much on your potential long-lasting kidney damage and how much cooler you thought you'd be approaching 30. You curse yourself a few more times for good measure, curse the dog and the fiancé for no good reason, and curse your tiny apartment for being so loaded down with sprouting plants, none of which have grown into vegetables for you to eat. And then your belly growls. The dramatically loud groan reminds you that you MUST hoist yourself back into your hallway-kitchen.

Mise en place ready, facing rising time head-on, you measure and mix and pour and finally track down the two dough hooks you have, one of which you've been meaning to return to your old landlord.

You knead for the 8-10 minutes Devil Bread requires. You go lay down for the first little round of rising time, resting your aching joints, deliberating if you should just go to the store now and buy a loaf of bread. Fiancé will SEE all the dirty, doughy dishes, then he'll eat the perfect fluffy bread. From Safeway.

You almost convince yourself of this brilliant new plan, and then realize where you live and that you can't just run out for a loaf of bread in this neighborhood at 10 pm without a black belt and/or a pint of pepper spray. Your ADHD mind goes into overdrive dreaming up floor plans and blueprints of suburban sprawls nowhere near DC.

Then your phone alarm goes off. You have to check the dough. Little bitch better have doubled in size or you're done.

She has!!!

You jump around your living room praising the bread gods for their good karma and apologize for calling your miraculous and holy dough the she-devil and punch her down and cover and rise and roll and seal and taper and finally, BAKE.

And 40 blessed minutes later, the smell of Italian kitchens wafting through your perfect little happy home, you meet the prettiest two things you've ever seen on a cookie sheet.

You're dog-tired and even your dog is tired of watching you wait for bread to rise all night. Who cares about bruschetta? Seize the day. Let's slice into this perfectly baguettey-looking, misshapen (but who gives?), not-completely-risen, blessed little perfect, precious bundle of goodness and crunch into it. There will be other nights for tomatoey garlicky bruschetta-ey goodness. You just mastered the art of French bread-making. And that deserves some butter, so slather up.




Saturday, February 2, 2013

Comfort Food

Any time I'm going through a season of challenge I tend to obsessively cook a bunch of comfort food. I might have touched on this in other posts, but cooking takes me through the tough times and allows my senses an overload so my heart can take a little break.

The beginning of this year has been met with many challenges. Let me just say that during the toughest times my soul wants to cling to Scripture. This week I clutch the Psalms. They seem to be the only place to go for solace lately.

I originally started And Be Merry during the long college winters in Pennsylvania, far away from the comforts of home and the conveniences of family life and desiring to become devout in my religion and more developed as a home cook. I think I missed the faith boat back then, but 8 years later I am realizing that it didn't miss me.

These brutal first days of 2013 have demonstrated that life is short and and meant to be simply lived and constantly savored. That social networking doesn't fill any kind of void, as fun and convenient as Facebook's constant status updates are and Twitter's steady stream of the happenings in the lives of strangers is. That family--both blood and chosen-- is everything and to hold them close. That my fiance is my rock and most sharpening iron. And that fostering a Relationship far exceeds following a religion.

Here is an old standby that never fails to warm the hungry belly and a verse to soothe the hurting soul.

I started making meatloaf about 5 years ago and it was the first meal my then-boyfriend Jeremy and I made together.

I had always despised everything meatloaf stood for but had never actually tasted it. I thought it was the lazy man's meal, up there with crock pot dinners and frozen pizzas (shudder). In the fall of 2007 I was reading the paper (thank you, Penn State Readership Program) and a New York Times recipe made me realize that there was a better, more gourmet version than cafeteria slop, affectionately termed "mystery meat" during my childhood. My mom never made it. My grandmother did but I didn't dare touch it. But the New York Times changed me (and earned me a steady boyfriend).

I've been making this version for about 2 years and sometimes change it up slightly but mostly stick to the same adapted version from an old country cookbook I bought used in a train station long ago. It's an old recipe, covered in tears and stains and my various notes but I love it even more each time I make a loaf. I made it most recently during Hurricane Sandy while watching the wind howl by, safe in our new apartment, eating piece by piece while holding onto my pup. It's been in constant rotation since the holidays and never fails to comfort no matter life's circumstances.

Yankee Meatloaf
(recipe adapted from "Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking", 1968)

Prep time: 5 minutes
Baking time: 45 minutes
Cooling time: 15 minutes
Total time from start to finish: 65 minutes

Ingredients:

1 pound ground beef
1 cup organic whole milk
1 cup homemade seasoned bread crumbs
2 eggs
dash of Worcestershire sauce (I use Lea & Perrins.)
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Heinz ketchup (has to be Heinz!)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (My oven underheats...Your oven may need to be turned down to 325 as the original recipe suggests.)

2. Combine the ground beef, milk, bread crumbs, eggs, Worcestershire and ground pepper and mix with hands. Shape into a loaf and place in a greased baking pan. Spread Heinz ketchup over top.

3. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Serves 4 (Or in our case, serves 2 in about one hour flat.)

Like I said, I make this differently each time but this is my favorite version. The cookbook recipe is much different, adding in onion and green pepper, lots of herbs and seasonings, tabasco sauce... so I guess you can say mine is just a very basic meatloaf, but it's the recipe I base it off of.

This version is deliciously moist. Sometimes I add a pat of butter as the cookbook suggests, and instead of Heinz cover with sliced tomatoes then bake...but the ketchup to me really kicks the "comfort" part of comfort food up a few notches. I'm eating a slice right now. Yum. Enjoy.

Shannon


"My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Psalm 73:26

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"I Know When You're Cooking, You're Feeling OK!"

It has come to my attention that I have not blogged in a very long time. Too much has happened this year, far more than any other year combined, with too many life changes to even count. I neglected the food blog because I didn't honestly think I'd LIVE long enough to cook and blog about it. Not being dramatic. This year was intense. A diagnosis, a move home, a marriage proposal (!!!), a tree collapsing my family's house, dividing it in two, moving my entire family and myself into my fiancé's family's spare apartment (divine intervention and human generosity of its utmost nature), a vacation of solace in Maine, turning the last year of my 20s and still feeling 20, moving back to DC, this time with a fiancé, and then another move in October.

This year was the year of change.

Not to mention major life lessons learned along the way, and fears realized and confronted. My faith grew by leaps and bounds this year, as did my skepticism. I became a cynic. A doubting Thomas and a trusting devotee all in one. I'm grateful it's the end of 2012, truly, and ready to bury this year and wipe it clear off the calendar. Being diagnosed with a chronic disease and hearing the words "no cure, but manageable" and "late stage" and then getting a second and third opinion was a frustrating challenge...but it's December now and finally things are starting to fall into place. Really starting to feel like I'm finally turning a corner, as the toxins are exiting my body and the symptoms are dropping like flies with each new medicine. Progress.

However, you can read all about that subject on my Lyme blog. I intended on writing it about embracing a holistic manner of treating Lyme, but the first and only two posts deal mostly with the emotional processing of the worst point of my life. I over-share a few early days of dealing with the emotions of a diagnosis, and hope to give more updates at my individual progress (not only physical, but mostly mental and emotional progress in the understanding, acceptance and management of chronic pain) since March. Thanks to the support of my fiancé, family and friends and cheerleaders along the way, and of course, God's hand of healing and provision, my Lyme journey has turned a corner and my body continues on this path to full wellness of body and mind.

I guess it was in Maine this summer with my entire immediate family, which doesn't get together often with a sister and brother in law in Georgia, and my fiancé, where I realized what life is ALL about. It took a while to get there...and it's a continual journey. It's about health, yes, but when you're not healthy, or on the road back to wellness, it's about surrounding yourself with whatever brings you acute joy. For me, this undoubtedly means two things: family and food. In that order, but combined equals pure joy. When I am with my family, fiancé, and fiancé's family, I'm truly happiest. It is the reason that the happiest day of my life thus far was on June 19th when my then-boyfriend visited sick me living at home with my family, brought our two families together for dinner at his parent's new home, which I thought was a house-warming party, and PROPOSED! I have never been so shocked nor so ecstatic, and pure joy exuded that night. Sickness didn't matter and melted away as we started dialing our family (my sister had been waiting by the phone and was the first call I made) and friends, and I shed some tears of pure joy. We had a lovely dinner of grilled kabobs and blueberry cheesecake for dessert, followed by a champagne toast. In that moment, sitting next to my new fiancé, surrounded by those I cherish most in this life, and having spoken to my sister, I realized, this was all I needed in life, and could then die the happiest woman (I was sick, and still taken to histrionic thinking).

In Maine there was more time of culinary therapy and familial togetherness. The accessibility of fresh lobster didn't hurt. I can direct you to the best lobster shanty in southern Maine, and arguably the best lobster roll in all of Maine. In many moments sailing on that lake which honestly earlier in the year, I never thought I'd see again, much less sail across, there was a sort of emotional release which happened. The release of endorphins, for sure, but something greater, something on a deeper spiritual level. The presence of God and Health and Life and Healing. When those you love are all around you, you're regularly eating crustaceans fresh out of the sea that day and onto a grilled and buttered bun, glistening in lemon juice, and swimming in a lake with your mouth open and free, drinking in the pure water, the fears of life drift away.

One special memory I'll write about soon was of an engagement celebration dinner with my sister and brother in law. They generously had offered to take us out to a nice dinner when the four of us were able to meet up in Maine. It was the first time we four had mingled alone, and the first time we'd all seen each other since their recent nuptials. Unsure of where to go, having not really had the freedom of cars in Maine before, I was at a loss as to which restaurant to choose...we ended up on this sort of spiritual quest (lobster is a form of spirituality for we Maine lovers), navigating our way through shacks and seafood joints along southern Maine's main drag, making our way down to the coast and the great city of Portland. We decided upon the Old Port district and found an authentic seafood restaurant right along the water, surrounded by shops and taverns and little cafes. Foodie heaven, as my sister termed it. Jeremy and I were thankful to be in the midst of such great company, as our visits are few and far between, and delicious seafood like scallops, flounder, and oysters (of which my sister actually tried for the first time!) combined with some pretty stellar cocktails, and of course exciting conversation of wedding advice (we most definitely needed) and wedding planning details, and what the first year of marriage is like. That night will live on in my memory, even though some of the details have been misplaced in my brain. The wine might have had something to do with that. A walk along Portland's pier and glimpses of shop windows and cobblestone pathways lead us back to the car for our journey "home" to camp...but it was a night to remember.

Food has this unique way of curing any ailments when I'm alone, and I can groove to the healing properties of good ingredients slowly prepared, in a sort of epicurean prayer. For a lot of this year, especially the days and months since August and moving back to Washington, food has been my zen, my meditation, and the way I most see the reflection of God and experience the magnitude of Grace. Sometimes when the pain is too great I waltz (more like, limp) into the kitchen to sauté sliced garlic in olive oil, wafting the scent to my nose as I go and praising Grace and God and Benevolence for still allowing me my senses, of which are continuously affected, perhaps even more powerfully than before. With this new chapter of life comes a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity, and, thankfully, this period of sensual stimulation greatly affects taste and smell. When I am in the kitchen I'm slowly feeling cured by each aromatic dish and when I'm sick and sad, the place I long for most is anywhere food is. Over a hot stove (our new place has a gas stove...my first, and I'm forever falling in love with this method of cooking. I feel like a cooking virgin. Hot hot hot!), choosing delectable fresh vegetables and fruits at the market, discovering new drinks I can actually enjoy (kombucha!) without my body wigging out for days, and the pleasure of slowness. The kitchen is the perfect, most opportune place for slowness. Food isn't meant to be rushed, not in the selection of ingredients, nor in the preparation of procedure, nor in the enjoyment of flavor. It's meant to be savored, and in turn, wholeness follows.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law has become accustomed to sending me encouraging texts should I send her photos of what I've made "in the kitchen", if I so get in there that day. She says, "I know when you're feeling well. When I get photos, I know you're cooking, and I know when you're cooking, you're feeling OK!" This is a beautiful sentiment, and one in which brings me more relief than I can explain. In all honesty, it's when I'm feeling the very worst that my body craves the feel of heat, my skin needs the texture of a raw onion, finely sliced, sautéed in olive oil, and then the aroma of garlic. Intoxicating. It is when I cannot cope with the pain any longer that I desire to become drunk on the senses of the kitchen. It is in the acknowledgment and embrace of pain that it can become diminished. A supernatural force drives my fatigued and aching body into the kitchen because the physical body knows therein lies the answer to wellness of mind and wholeness of spirit.

In the beautiful documentary, Bill Cunningham's New York, New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham emotionally utters the breathtaking truth, "When you search for beauty, you will find it."

In the kitchen, my search is over.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Oyster teaser!

Here is a little teaser to my upcoming Maine blog post, highlighting some of what we ate on our 2 week Maine vacation... A quote by one of my favorite food writers and philosophers, MFK Fisher, from her collection of essays entitled "Consider the Oyster". This block quote comes from the beginning of the chapter called, "The Well-Dressed Oyster". Enjoy! "There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other. The first group may perhaps have the most fun, although there is a white fire about the others' bigotry that can never warm the broad-minded. There is a great deal to be said in favor of the second group, for almost every oyster-eater who does not belong whole-heartedly to the third and last division, would die before denying that a perfect oyster, healthy, of fine flavor, plucked from its chill bed and brought to the plate unwatered and unseasoned, is more delicious than any of its modifications. On the other hand, a flaccid, moping, debauched mollusc, tired from too much love and loose-nerves from general world conditions, can be a shameful thing served raw upon its shell."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Did you see about Nora?"

June 26, 2012, 9:13 pm:

A text comes through from my best friend. "Did you see about Nora? Are you so upset? I'm so sorry."

Bewildered, I immediately dial Shirah, thinking, oh no, did Nora get fired? Is her new play gonna be a flop? No, not Nora! She'd never be a flop. The line rings, once, twice. "Hmm, maybe Shirah ran into her in Manhattan and she was terribly mean to her because she'd just been dumped. Maybe her husband left her! Oh no, what happened to Nora, my beloved writer, favorite filmmaker, most treasured essayist, dearest hero? Third ring. "Heyy......" Shirah's voice is sullen.

"Hey, I just saw your text...what's up about Nora? What did I miss?" my voice is casual and a tad indifferent. If Nora was fired, screw them. She'll be better off somewhere else. Omygod, what if she had a stroke? Is this why the text said, "I'm so sorry"??? She won't be able to write anymore, or make another film because the side of her face is sagging and her neurological disorder prevents her. Is this why my best friend, a New Yorker now, like Nora, immediately wrote me, her most dedicated devotée? Who already has her future baby named Nora, after the great Nora Ephron. I think back to Spring when Shi texted that she was in a café and saw Nora in a corner reading a paper. I wanted to book a flight to that café then and there. I've always dreamed of one day meeting her.

"She passed away....." Shirah's voice is crackly and breaks off. My world goes silent. My body is numb. I don't breathe or think. My face feels like it's falling. Salty liquid drags at my tear ducts, but I'm still silent and numb. "What?" is all I can muster up, thinking I heard her wrong. "Shannon she passed, I'm soooo sorry. I thought you knew?"

Numbness turns into immediate devastation. I can feel my face now. I can feel the liquid salt bursting to break free. I lose it. My bed is near, thankfully, and I fall into a million pieces. My body is heaving, I'm weeping and gasping and begging that this isn't true. I feel like my grandmother has just passed, not a stranger I only "know" through words. I start hyperventilating, but realize I'm also still on the phone and I stop hearing my best friend's voice, as I run to my iPad for confirmation. Maybe there was an error. In a brief memory flash I think back to Joe Paterno, and how CBS announced his death erroneously.

My fingers dance across the screen's Google bar. "Nora ephron"

Search.

"Nora Ephron dead"

I cannot exactly process what this death means for me. I have never met this woman. I always thought I would, and yet now that time has passed. I remember all of my favorite movie lines from "You've Got Mail", my all time favorite of hers and in general, and keep crying. Now I'm convulsing, which brings my poodle George walking cautiously into the room. He jumps up on the bed, licking my tear-stained shirt, licks up my arm to my drenched cheeks and licks the snot bubbles at my nose before I push him away. I don't even care that my face is destroyed. My heart is, at this moment, broken.

Shirah and I hang up, because I need to tell my mom, who is saddened but not in a crushing way that I am. I'm devastated. How many laughs and tears has dearest Nora brought into my world? From a young age, how many times did I doodle "Harry and Sally" in the margins of middle school looseleaf paper? How many times did I put the You've Got Mail VHS into our VCR, growing up in Florida? Or cry during Sleepless in Seattle, in that end scene when they FINALLY meet? I know every line of her films, yet in this moment of shock, can remember none. All I see in my mind is her characters, and her laughter in my heart as I grew up. Nora raised me. Through her charming and magical films, she reared an insecure doodler into a confident diarist. When grappling with a difficult situation and a conflicted heart, she gave me and countless other women the summons, "Write about it."

So write I shall. And my dear, precious writer, filmmaker, essayist and wishful friend, may you be forever writing your screenplays for all of heaven to witness and love.

Rest in peace, dearest Nora.

Friday, June 22, 2012

So many changes...

Two nights ago, my life (and my relationship status) changed. I'm engaged! The most wonderful, generous, caring and compassionate of all men got down on one knee and asked me to marry him!!!

With this gorgeous ring...

A Burmese ruby in floating bezel in hammered 14 k gold. My dream ring.

Nearly 3 days later, everything's still surreal. I've pinched myself 100 times to be sure it's not a dream. I've cried a million happy tears. I can't believe such a wonderful man has chosen ME for his forever....

I feel so blessed, and such gratitude for this life.

So grateful for this journey, that both of our families were present, that his parents hosted the proposal (which was probably news to them up until the day of, knowing my fiancé) and our families were joined together in that moment.

My dad gave a beautiful dinner prayer and his dad gave a beautiful champagne toast. His mom provided a lovely dinner of many appetisers and delicious grilled kabobs and my mom brought over a blueberry cheesecake. Food plays a great role in our lives and family is the top priority in my life. We had both passions right there with us for our happiest of occasions...

Who, truly, could ever ask for more?

Over the moon.....

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mood Swings and Midnight Fajitas

I was watching a Joan Didion interview while stalling on making dinner tonight. She is aged now and witty without trying. Unequivocal...a dream of a writer. The kind of essayist one yearns to know. There's just something godlike about her. Maybe it's all of the tragedy, but no, she was like this before the magical thinking. Or was it all magical thinking? Is it all magical thinking?

I find everything of my own unbearably nauseating and cringed today while reading over old blog posts. Like full body quiver. Too saccharine, silly girl. Maybe I should start looking up starchy art history programs instead of loosey-goosey MFAs to sober up a bit. All this creative nonfiction is getting a bit dreamy.

Put off making the bed, folding laundry, and making important appointments. In an effort to become a better doggy mommy I did, however, finally set a date with the country vet to get George neutered on May 12th, a task I've been putting off for five and a half years but all of a sudden started having panic attacks about George suddenly falling ill with testicular cancer, so I am considering today a slightly productive win.

Raced out of work at 5:05 intent on going to yoga at an actual yoga studio instead of pretend yoga where I sit in my bedroom on the blue, tree-decaled yoga mat simultaneously drinking red wine and scanning vegan recipes on Pinterest.

[Necessary aside: There is no way I am ever becoming vegan. I just ate an entire package of Port Salut. Orange crinkly paper and all. Followed by pâté de campagne. I had a large chocolate milkshake for lunch. But there are no rules in pinning.]

Typically when I flap out my yoga mat George comes running over excitedly and clacks his bone against a prominent body part, like an ankle or kneecap. Not to worry, just need those for walking. No big. Please, toss your rawhide with full force against my shin now! Just to cover the whole leg. Then he starts stretching it out.

Turns out my dog does more yoga than I do.

Went to Trader Joe's instead of real yoga, on the hunt for large artichokes. TJ's artichokes seem a better quality than Harris Teeter's and Kroger's (read: they are actually green and not wilting), but after ogling the produce section four to five times with no luck I decided to segue over to the poultry section and call it a night.

But that damn sample counter always gets me. You know the one, with a million little dentist-rinse cups of whatever sultry beverage is being featured that day. Today, pomegranate lemonade. I might have partook of more than one complimentary sample. (Apparently so did the checkout guy, who went into great detail regarding how much he loves the juice samples and how he may have had 9 or 10, to which I responded, "Or eleven...or twelve, but who's counting," in an honest effort to get out of there faster, but alas, I must be chatty only when starving and in a mad dash to get home and the conversation went on and on. Why do I have to engage? I just want my chicken-thanks-bye!)

Also, don't you just love how you're holding one item, like a packet of chicken, say, and the guy in front of you with spilling-over cart who gets to counter at the exact same time as you, ok, maybe one millisecond faster, turns and smiles

BUT DOESN'T LET YOU GO IN FRONT OF HIM?! Really?

I am a 30 year old single woman here to prove by my mere existence that chivalry is, in fact, dead.

Not just dead. Chivalry got taken out back and had the shit kicked out of Her.

Wow. I digress. I'm sorry. This is why I will need therapy and charcuterie for the rest of my life.

Took a roundabout way home reminiscing about Monday night's glorious sunset whereby I had to stop in the church parking lot before bells practice with my hand deep into a canvas bag searching for my camera just to grab as many shots as possible. Of course two turned out. Yep, I'm the girl who has 476 sunset photos on her laptop and won't organize or delete any.



And then yesterday's Spring day was inspiration enough to plan a picnic for the weekend. The key is to stay busy. Keep occupied. Don't let your hands idle.

Blah blah blah blah BLAH. I'm so over people telling me to stay busy. Ya know what? I'm not good at life sometimes, and that is OKAY. It's ok to NOT stay busy. It's OK to binge-watch 12 episodes of House of Cards on a Saturday morning/afternoon/evening/ all day Saturday, all day LONG, while stuffing your face with GMO popcorn and non-organic butter. (Hashtag Season two, hashtag ermagerd) It's OK to be going on the 8th consecutive month of reading the same food memoir that you already read last year and the year before. It's ok to just BE. You don't have to have ALL your ducks in a row. Ducks flying in V shapes are more interesting. It's OK to eat an entire raw/vegan/non-GMO/all natural/cacao nib/organic/fair trade six dollar boutique chocolate bar and tell yourself you are doing it for the Belizean rainforests. It is ok to listen to Katy Perry's "Roar" on repeat and then switch to Cat Power's Ramblin Woman and then back to Katy. It's all OK. To figure out who you are, one recipe at a time, one criminally overplayed pop song at a time, one continuously savored book at a time, giving up one vice at a time (FB and alcohol for Lent, more on that little topic later), one new outfit at a time. You can wear stilettos one day and Toms the next. You can look like a hippie with long, unbrushed, scraggly hair, glasses, no makeup, flowy skirts and purple feather drop down earrings one day and pearls and cashmere and nude pumps and too much mascara (that melts down your face in the rain) the next. IT IS ALL OK. Have some flavor. The world needs more spice. We're all human here.

I want everything now, have little patience and even smaller self-control, am moody and self-deprecating, which comes off as charming in some people's writing, like Anne Lamott's, but in mine it's just vomit-inducing. There is no other word for it. But that is OKAY. I just read some stuff I'd written in the late fall. Gag me. I sound like a princess whose crown was just knocked off and now she's demanding the peasants summon it for her. Let them eat cake. Obnoxious nine year old regressions are still obnoxious. And that is OKAY, too. When I started therapy I was regressing to age 5. That was one year ago this month. Progress. Or as my therapist says, "You are catching up with yourself."

There might be one good sentence in two entire notebooks full of blah blah blah blah BLAH. Which is, what again?

OKAY. It is ok not to be perfect, to still be a dreamer making slow and steady positive changes. I have held down a part-time job for seven months now. If you know me, you know that that is the definition of slow but steady progress. I started Googling eco-friendly cars, a necessary evil in this great town. I've located my birth certificate to change my name but still hunger for the courage to actually walk into the clerk's office downtown. It will feel so final. I have had many anxiety attacks on this. Baby steps. Looked at two apartments this week and changed George's dog food back to California Naturals lamb meal. Had to write that on a sticky note and keep it tacked to the rear view mirror to not forget, but guess who's eating natural dog food now instead of his own feces?

The universe is shifting and we shift with it. Don't resist!




Elena may or may not have caught me drinking wine, dancing in the kitchen, making lumpia one night last month. In the kitchen there will be dancing. In the kitchen you locate your sanity.

Which is why I made fajitas at midnight. I'd promised my brother fajitas tonight if he did the dishes. To my shock he did them. If only I'd learned the art of the bribe sooner. Last month would have been less of a disaster with two kids to try not to boss around but at the same time gain the respect of while their father was suffering a heart attack. In the Philippines. And their mother had to get an expedited passport and fly over. To Manila. By way of South Korea. My little blonde mom flying solo across the globe to get to her husband as he's just opening his eyes from an emergency double bypass. Their cinematic love story continues.

These fajitas are either a labor of love or a quick fix for a hankering for Mexican food.

You can make them as simple or as complex as you prefer.

Turns out I like complexity.

Feel free to doctor the list of ingredients to your liking. I like it spicy so I use jalapenos sometimes. Not for my brother's fajitas.

You must use fresh cilantro. That's a rule. Homemade guacamole is another must. After that you're on your own. Be creative.

Keep in mind after making these that you have to walk into your brother's room dramatically turning "The fajitas are ready" to "The VUH-JIE-TAHZ are ready" while he is gaming, so that all gaming teens on the network laugh and then ask if he is a pimp. True story.
#goodinfluence


Chicken VUH-JIE-TAHZ For Zach, Upon Doing The Dishes


Ingredients:

1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts (Thighs will not work; I tried), cut into thin strips
4 T oil (I use coconut and olive, but canola, grapeseed or safflower works. Something with a high smoke point.)
1 large onion, sliced into thin strips
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 orange bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
salt and pepper, to taste
chili powder, to taste (I like Hatch green chile pepper from New Mexico.)
1 whole lime
1 bunch fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, finely grated
1 cup homemade guacamole, OR the flesh of 1 avocado, thinly sliced
12 corn tortillas (although this is not authentic; flour tortillas are)

In a cast iron pan melt 2 T coconut oil on med-high heat until slightly sizzling. Generously season chicken with salt, pepper and chili powder. Sear chicken on both sides, turning until nicely browned. Remove chicken to platter. Sear onion and peppers on both sides until nicely charred; add chicken back to sizzle. Squeeze juice of 1/2 lime into sizzling pan, turning chicken and vegetables with wooden spoon. I find that microwaving 1/2 lime for 20 seconds draws out the juice. Yum. Turn heat down to low, cover. Let flavors meld together perfectly.


In a small skillet heat 2 T oil (I use olive oil for this part.) Using tongs, carefully place corn tortillas one by one into hot oil, browning on both sides. Tortillas should bend and not crunch. Liberally salt both sides of tortilla; place on paper towels/linens on plate to cool. Stack tortillas then get ready to serve.

I always let each person make their own fajita to their individual tastes. My brother hates onions and peppers, so he built his fajita with chicken, cilantro and extra cheddar. I layer mine with guacamole on the bottom, then one or two pieces of chicken with extra peppers and onions, then tomatoes, cheddar, and sprinkles of fresh cilantro, and lastly a fresh squeeze of lime.

The only complaint is our mouths are too small. Ideally one would fit an entire fajita inside and just lapse into a food coma.

Enjoy. xx








Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kombucha Brewing: A Lesson in Trial and Error

I seem to be in a season of trial and error in my life. And that's ok. I've accepted it. It's taken me a while, but I think I've finally come to a certain peace with trying, failing, scrapping one plan to form another. The past 6 months have demonstrated to me the concept of a clean slate, and just what it means to wipe it completely.

So it should have come as no surprise to me that I would try and fail (but still give it my all!) as I ventured into the art (craft?) of brewing kombucha, from scratch, at home, instead of in some scientific lab.

I have to admit, I am not a person of science. I majored in English because I loved reading books like Mrs. Dalloway and got my kicks at Penn State not from sorority parties, but spending long nights in the stacks at Paterno Library, perusing ancient compilations of Yeats and dissecting Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" on the hunt for every food reference possible. Save for a school science fair victory once, long ago, science and I are just not besties. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Scientific American and watching PBS programs and going on nature walks. Just don't hand me a beaker and expect me to know what to do with it. It might explode.

So even now, 21 days later, I'm kind of shocked that I took a foray into brewing kombucha. But not that shocked.

You see, kombucha is the shit. For lack of a better word. It really is. I'm not going to try to censor myself here. It's definitely an acquired taste, but once you get over the fact that a tea is fermented, bursting with fizz and tasty like a soda, except HEALTHY, you come to a place of obsession. Or at least I did. Kombucha is chock FULL of probiotics. I first started drinking kombucha some time last year in a desperate attempt to counterract all of the crazy antibiotics I was taking, determined that I could get just as many probiotics from food/drink that I could in a very expensive daily probiotic capsule. Through tons of research and hippie friends regaling me with kombucha stories, I realized I just needed to try it ASAP. One afternoon I ambled to my local neighborhood Safeway in DC and grabbed a few bottles of GTs Raw Kombucha. It was organic. It had tons of probiotics; the same amount if not MORE than those nasty pills. Win. It was delicious. And I got a little tipsy off of it, though sadly I haven't had that reaction to another bottle since.

I started drinking kombucha daily, then realized, at $3 a bottle, this might become an issue. I couldn't get enough of it though. I'd try different brands, every flavor of each new brand. My favorite is still to this day GT's grape chia, a delicious grape-flavored kombucha with not as much of a vinegar taste as the Original or Ginger flavors, loaded with chia seeds (another huge health bonus) that look odd floating all around, suspended in the kombucha bottle, but have an earthy taste.

Which is why, for my 30th birthday last month, all I wanted was a scoby. A scoby is a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, and before you think I've lost my mind, know this. It's like the starter in sourdough bread. (Which if you haven't made before, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?) My sister is the type to oblige my weird birthday wishes and ordered a scoby for me on etsy, and when it arrived I was both intrigued and scared. It looked like a certain flattened body part. It was slippery and slimy and I couldn't possibly fathom handling it enough to slip it into a jar. Everything started to feel creepy, like maybe I shouldn't really be making this at home. That maybe I had no business trying something so new and scientific, and how the HELL was the green tea I poured into a gallon jar supposed to sit with a scoby for 21 days and voila, healthy drink-omatic. I became hesitant, so I let the scoby rest in her juices for a few days while reading up on some kombucha blogs.

And then I became obsessed. I suddenly wanted to care for this scoby that would produce a baby scoby in due time. No pun intended. At first I scoffed at those bleeding heart beatniks who named their scobies like they were some kind of pet. And then one day I named mine Joni Mitchell. So who's laughing now.

Joni became my brew. I attended to her every day, painstakingly making sure to read and re-read and dissect each instruction so I couldn't, wouldn't mess up. I scrubbed and sanitized a huge multi-gallon glass jar. I bought cheesecloth. I made sure to use the right kind of green tea, only organic sugar, and stayed up until 5 am one night checking the starter tea, making sure it was cooled down to room temperature before releasing the scoby into the jar. I kept the jar in a cool dark place but not too cool. Warm enough so as to ferment and made a lid cover of cheesecloth, two layers so as to keep out fruit flies.

The first few days were a little boring, with no real scientific action to write home about. Stuff was FOR SURE bubbling under the surface, but nothing quite visible yet. I was looking forward to the part where a new scoby forms. The romantic in me just can appreciate new life, and if I can create it in a jar, well that's kinda cool. Days went by and I forgot about my pet. That's the great thing about kombucha brewing (or so the bloggers say)...you can just dump everything together, cover and walk away and this whole, complex, scientific process occurs without constant attention. That's something I can get down with.

At about the 7th day I could visibly see a new scoby forming as a top layer over the brew, covering the tea underneath. I taste-tested the brew at this point, which was WAY on the sweet yet still vinegary side, so kept letting it ferment. Eventually 2 weeks went by. The new scoby at this point was so thick that I started to dream up just bottling the brew already, however I really don't stick with things and wanted this to be a breakthrough. I let it keep fermenting. I read a lot. Wrote far too little. Started a new job.

Then, magically at day 21, it was ready. Except.

Fruit flies. Hopping around.

Everywhere.

At first I saw one jump from one side of the jar to another. Then realized I had created a breeding ground for insects, and that in fact there were probably millions of baby fruit flies that were about to come to life. I'd read enough about fruit flies to know how they plant their eggs, and I'll be damned if I drink a gallon of fruit fly eggs. I've got enough stuff going on with my bod.

Chagrin isn't the word. I was devastated. I just stared numbly, then stubbornly started straining out fruit flies and bottling my brew. Then of course, once neatly bottled in Mason jars, dumped it all down the sink. But first I made it pretty. In April I would have thrown all of the jars across the room until they shattered, screaming obscenities about the unfairness of life. Things have changed. I can still pull the utmost of juvenile tantrums if you put me on a highway during rush hour, but I like to think the days of unnecessary outbursts are gone.

Which is a breakthrough. In some regard, it was never about the kombucha directly. It was about creating something organically, start to finish. About process and routine. Sticking to a task until carried out. Despite the fruit flies, kombucha WAS created. New life was formed. It might've been a trial by fire, but sometimes that's the point.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chicken Stock Failures

You might be asking yourself, "How can anyone possibly fail in making chicken stock? It's water and bones. AmIright?"

Well, you would be wrong.

There is a distinct art to crafting an authentic chicken stock, according to my lovely chefy.

There is procedure. There are logistics. There are time limits. And other myriad constraints.

But mostly, there is preparation. More than I realized. As in, an authentic chicken stock is supposed to be dark? So the way I've been making it for five years is completely wrong? Everything I've ever made has been sub-par. There will be roasting...

Whaa...?

Yep.

Listen and learn, friends. Listen and learn.

Chefy dictates to me, mid-stock-boil, "Where are the roasted bones? They don't look roasted at all."

AT ALL. That redundant duo which always make me want to commit nefarious acts.

As I paw him away in my penguin stance over the aromatic simmering bone water stock, my memory refreshes and I remember that, in this house, YOU HAVE TO ROAST BONES before you ever dream of fashioning up a good stock. Any kind of carnivorous stock requires proper bone-roasting technique. Which, for me, usually means throwing a bunch of rib bones or chicken bones or steak bones onto a charred cookie sheet. Even though they're technically supposed to be cleaned. And placed gingerly onto a schmancy roasting pan. You're probably supposed to bow your head in reverence to the bone gods and say a charm and Karma and Kismet each involve their ethereal personae, and BOOM! A stock is born.

Stock's some fancy ish. And you thought it was basic. (It's ok, I'm with ya.)

I feel like a bit of a witch when I make chicken stock. Sometimes I think to myself, sampling my magic brew, I could totally bottle this stuff up and sell it. This would fly off the shelves at Eastern Market. All kinds of creative names (or not) (read: Shannon's Stock, Cecere's Chicken Brew) fly through my head. I could even market it for Etsy, I fantasize, and invest in the local dry-ice business (???) and ship it off to exotic places where they've never even heard of homemade chicken stock. Like the UK. Or Altoona, PA. Market me fast, baby. I'm the next Rachael Ray.

My ADHD culinary Good Samaritan reverie is interrupted by the next-door neighbors' random outburst of go-go music, which I can appreciate, but not necessarily at 2 am, and definitely not while creating nectar of the gods, aka roasted chicken stock.

Chefy ambles outside to harangue the neighbors, and this is my perfect opportunity to suddenly spring to the freezer, remembering the two quart containers of chicken wing tips I saved the last few times we made chicken wings. (Preparation.) Chicken stock for all! We'll bottle it in Mason jars and gift it to both sets of parents for Easter, arriving into town bearing homemade presents! We'll ship it to friends for birthdays and bat mitzvahs. It'll be a mainstay in the pantries of everyone we know. Right next to the gourmet mustards and artisinal preserves. We can give it as wedding favors!

I salt the water because one time I heard the Barefoot Contessa say on her show that if you don't salt the water, the stock that you worked so hard on will taste like dirty dish water.

Ain't nobody got time for that.

So I salt the water. And toss in some peppercorns, like I've seen chefy do. Except a cup of peppercorns come flying out of the spice container since I always forget little tricks like opening the tiny opening side versus the huge side. I handle that emergency, grabbing up peppercorns with both hands from the boiling stock. The chicken tips (and my hands) have thawed and are neatly placed across a cookie sheet, the oven is preheating to 500, carrots are roughly chopped, onions are halved and thrown in, a stalk of celery goes in, doesn't have to look pretty, it'll all get strained out anyway. I roast the tips, throw them in. Chefy tells me you never salt the water. Excellent. I taste test. It tastes like bouillon. All salty and vegetabley and chickeny and peppery. And very concentrated, having reduced for way too long while I got side-tracked and read recipes for all the dishes I was going to make with the stock. So I add more water. It's a better consistency. Thank you, Karma and Kismet. You showed up. A little late the party, but you showed nonetheless.

It's nearing 4 am and my back is aching. A cloth freezer pack covered in monkeys is icing my neck. My throat is sore. My right eye starts itching all of a sudden. Woe isn't me, though. Cause the stock looks beautiful. Chefy's long been asleep, snoring from the bedroom. It's time. It is finished. I turn off the stove and have to let the stock cool before straining and pouring into quart containers and then tomorrow, Mason jars, tied with burlap and twine for that homespun look. I go into the bedroom to rest my eyes while the stock cools.

And then fall asleep for 8 hours.

#fml #chickenstockfailure #itwouldvebeensodelicious #storingitanyway

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Lessons in Bread Rising

Do you ever have the urge to make something delicious and fresh, but lack the patience to WAIT for the end result? Earlier this week my fiancé and I were craving bruschetta. We'd had it at Famous Luigi's in downtown DC a few weeks back, and I was itching to try making it on my own. It's one of my FAVORITE things ever, and every time I watch that scene in Julie and Julia I salivate over the whole experience. How hard could it be to pile tomatoes on top of grilled bread?

I scoured Pinterest for recipes, naturally. The saying must be true that you eat with your eyes first. I'm telling you, 5 different photos of scrumptious-looking bruschetta prompted us both to get up off the couch on fiancé's day off and hit up our local markets for bread flour, the freshest-looking cherry tomatoes we could find, and organic basil. We already had garlic, a house staple. I'm obsessed with food and he's a cook. Garlic plays a large role at our dinner table.

But what kind of bread to use? And of course it has to be homemade. After debating the merits of ciabatta vs. focaccia, I decided on Italian bread. Fiancé lugs out his huge baking and pastry book from culinary school, a tome we're sure houses a perfect bruschetta bread recipe, and proceeds to read me EVERY. SINGLE. BREAD. TITLE. Until we both realize there is no goldmine bread for bruschetta. You just have to wing it. Back to the drawing board (Read: Google). Finally I just decide the heck with it and go with a standard French Bread. We debate the merits of using a baguette or just a loaf of what Google brings up as "French bread" and at this point I don't care that much. I just want bread, grilled, oiled, garlicked, and loaded with tomatoes, olive oil dripping from the corners of each of our satiated mouths.

I finally find a suitable recipe, any one will do, and get home readying my mise en place. That's what you do to prep yourself. When you live with a chef.

For a day my mise en place was ready. I lugged out the Kitchen Aid mixer from underneath the sink (city living for ya), dusted it off and scrubbed it down, a feat in and of itself. Do you know how much those things weigh? And because I'm basically falling apart physically, I rubbed shea butter all over my neck and iced my shoulders. The things we do for authenticity.

Just when I felt ready enough, cracked my fingers and toes, and washed up, I realized something fateful.

No yeast.

Damn.

You cannot make bruschetta bread (what I started calling our project) without YEAST. It's just...there just...

There is no way that I forgot to buy yeast. I have yeast, oh yes, but it could be 4 years old for all I know, since everywhere we move, the contents of our fridge gets packed up with us. I have one packet of yeast. You need two. Awesome.

So now it's been roughly 3 days since the drooling-for-bruschetta began, and I remind fiancé to bring home yeast if he has a chance.

He says sure. Then forgets it.

No biggie. The basil is now wilted and sad looking, the tomatoes have been over-ripened on the window sill since I forgot about them for 3 days, and you know what? You don't even NEED bread flour for bruschetta bread, because sometimes the universe slaps you across the face like that. Next time in a blue moon when you decide you have 7 spare hours on a lazy day to make homemade pizza dough, bread flour will be standing at attention like a soldier from the kitchen cupboard, but today it's just giving you the middle finger. Kinda like life.

Soooooooo. You put aside plans for bruschetta, and instead make a huge salad, which is healthier anyways. But the desire never leaves (and fiancé brings home yeast the next night!).

So TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT. Your kidneys are sore and you can barely walk, but you heave yourself over to the kitchen and do 2 toe-touches before lunging for the Kitchen Aid mixer, patiently awaiting you from her shadowed perch. You say a quick prayer to the bread gods and re-scan the recipe, and you're good to go.

Alas, fresh bruschetta in our bellies tonight. After a long, hard day, you, fiancée extraordinaire, will have freshly baked, grilled, olive-oiled-and-tomatoey bread waiting for your hard-working man, which you'll hand off to tired fiancé ambling through the door with his bike.

And then you read it. 2 hour rising time. What the WHAT.

This cannot be. Tongue now hanging out with illusions of Italian zest and saliva almost dripping from your mouth in anticipation, your eyes read over the depressing words again. Allow time for rising.

To which you just sit back, crawl onto your yoga mat, and assume the fetal position.

You question why bread has to rise and what the point of yeast is anyways (fiancé says it's a bacteria, ew, as if you need more of THAT in your dilapidated bod), and curse the bread gods for lying to you and curse the universe for shunning your every recent culinary move, and curse America for needless biowarfare, of which you could literally write the book, and you curse your Pinterest habit for getting you in the mood. And you plan to throw that Italian food memoir you've been reading in the trash for making you want to be all authentic all the time. And you give famous Luigi the bird for getting you wishing and hoping and salivating in the first place. Dumbass.

The fetal position eventually gets boring and your dog has now splayed himself across the yoga mat, which he always does when you're trying to breathe and meditate and not focus so much on your potential long-lasting kidney damage and how much cooler you thought you'd be approaching 30. You curse yourself a few more times for good measure, curse the dog and the fiancé for no good reason, and curse your tiny apartment for being so loaded down with sprouting plants, none of which have grown into vegetables for you to eat. And then your belly growls. The dramatically loud groan reminds you that you MUST hoist yourself back into your hallway-kitchen.

Mise en place ready, facing rising time head-on, you measure and mix and pour and finally track down the two dough hooks you have, one of which you've been meaning to return to your old landlord.

You knead for the 8-10 minutes Devil Bread requires. You go lay down for the first little round of rising time, resting your aching joints, deliberating if you should just go to the store now and buy a loaf of bread. Fiancé will SEE all the dirty, doughy dishes, then he'll eat the perfect fluffy bread. From Safeway.

You almost convince yourself of this brilliant new plan, and then realize where you live and that you can't just run out for a loaf of bread in this neighborhood at 10 pm without a black belt and/or a pint of pepper spray. Your ADHD mind goes into overdrive dreaming up floor plans and blueprints of suburban sprawls nowhere near DC.

Then your phone alarm goes off. You have to check the dough. Little bitch better have doubled in size or you're done.

She has!!!

You jump around your living room praising the bread gods for their good karma and apologize for calling your miraculous and holy dough the she-devil and punch her down and cover and rise and roll and seal and taper and finally, BAKE.

And 40 blessed minutes later, the smell of Italian kitchens wafting through your perfect little happy home, you meet the prettiest two things you've ever seen on a cookie sheet.

You're dog-tired and even your dog is tired of watching you wait for bread to rise all night. Who cares about bruschetta? Seize the day. Let's slice into this perfectly baguettey-looking, misshapen (but who gives?), not-completely-risen, blessed little perfect, precious bundle of goodness and crunch into it. There will be other nights for tomatoey garlicky bruschetta-ey goodness. You just mastered the art of French bread-making. And that deserves some butter, so slather up.




Saturday, February 2, 2013

Comfort Food

Any time I'm going through a season of challenge I tend to obsessively cook a bunch of comfort food. I might have touched on this in other posts, but cooking takes me through the tough times and allows my senses an overload so my heart can take a little break.

The beginning of this year has been met with many challenges. Let me just say that during the toughest times my soul wants to cling to Scripture. This week I clutch the Psalms. They seem to be the only place to go for solace lately.

I originally started And Be Merry during the long college winters in Pennsylvania, far away from the comforts of home and the conveniences of family life and desiring to become devout in my religion and more developed as a home cook. I think I missed the faith boat back then, but 8 years later I am realizing that it didn't miss me.

These brutal first days of 2013 have demonstrated that life is short and and meant to be simply lived and constantly savored. That social networking doesn't fill any kind of void, as fun and convenient as Facebook's constant status updates are and Twitter's steady stream of the happenings in the lives of strangers is. That family--both blood and chosen-- is everything and to hold them close. That my fiance is my rock and most sharpening iron. And that fostering a Relationship far exceeds following a religion.

Here is an old standby that never fails to warm the hungry belly and a verse to soothe the hurting soul.

I started making meatloaf about 5 years ago and it was the first meal my then-boyfriend Jeremy and I made together.

I had always despised everything meatloaf stood for but had never actually tasted it. I thought it was the lazy man's meal, up there with crock pot dinners and frozen pizzas (shudder). In the fall of 2007 I was reading the paper (thank you, Penn State Readership Program) and a New York Times recipe made me realize that there was a better, more gourmet version than cafeteria slop, affectionately termed "mystery meat" during my childhood. My mom never made it. My grandmother did but I didn't dare touch it. But the New York Times changed me (and earned me a steady boyfriend).

I've been making this version for about 2 years and sometimes change it up slightly but mostly stick to the same adapted version from an old country cookbook I bought used in a train station long ago. It's an old recipe, covered in tears and stains and my various notes but I love it even more each time I make a loaf. I made it most recently during Hurricane Sandy while watching the wind howl by, safe in our new apartment, eating piece by piece while holding onto my pup. It's been in constant rotation since the holidays and never fails to comfort no matter life's circumstances.

Yankee Meatloaf
(recipe adapted from "Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking", 1968)

Prep time: 5 minutes
Baking time: 45 minutes
Cooling time: 15 minutes
Total time from start to finish: 65 minutes

Ingredients:

1 pound ground beef
1 cup organic whole milk
1 cup homemade seasoned bread crumbs
2 eggs
dash of Worcestershire sauce (I use Lea & Perrins.)
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Heinz ketchup (has to be Heinz!)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (My oven underheats...Your oven may need to be turned down to 325 as the original recipe suggests.)

2. Combine the ground beef, milk, bread crumbs, eggs, Worcestershire and ground pepper and mix with hands. Shape into a loaf and place in a greased baking pan. Spread Heinz ketchup over top.

3. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Serves 4 (Or in our case, serves 2 in about one hour flat.)

Like I said, I make this differently each time but this is my favorite version. The cookbook recipe is much different, adding in onion and green pepper, lots of herbs and seasonings, tabasco sauce... so I guess you can say mine is just a very basic meatloaf, but it's the recipe I base it off of.

This version is deliciously moist. Sometimes I add a pat of butter as the cookbook suggests, and instead of Heinz cover with sliced tomatoes then bake...but the ketchup to me really kicks the "comfort" part of comfort food up a few notches. I'm eating a slice right now. Yum. Enjoy.

Shannon


"My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Psalm 73:26

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"I Know When You're Cooking, You're Feeling OK!"

It has come to my attention that I have not blogged in a very long time. Too much has happened this year, far more than any other year combined, with too many life changes to even count. I neglected the food blog because I didn't honestly think I'd LIVE long enough to cook and blog about it. Not being dramatic. This year was intense. A diagnosis, a move home, a marriage proposal (!!!), a tree collapsing my family's house, dividing it in two, moving my entire family and myself into my fiancé's family's spare apartment (divine intervention and human generosity of its utmost nature), a vacation of solace in Maine, turning the last year of my 20s and still feeling 20, moving back to DC, this time with a fiancé, and then another move in October.

This year was the year of change.

Not to mention major life lessons learned along the way, and fears realized and confronted. My faith grew by leaps and bounds this year, as did my skepticism. I became a cynic. A doubting Thomas and a trusting devotee all in one. I'm grateful it's the end of 2012, truly, and ready to bury this year and wipe it clear off the calendar. Being diagnosed with a chronic disease and hearing the words "no cure, but manageable" and "late stage" and then getting a second and third opinion was a frustrating challenge...but it's December now and finally things are starting to fall into place. Really starting to feel like I'm finally turning a corner, as the toxins are exiting my body and the symptoms are dropping like flies with each new medicine. Progress.

However, you can read all about that subject on my Lyme blog. I intended on writing it about embracing a holistic manner of treating Lyme, but the first and only two posts deal mostly with the emotional processing of the worst point of my life. I over-share a few early days of dealing with the emotions of a diagnosis, and hope to give more updates at my individual progress (not only physical, but mostly mental and emotional progress in the understanding, acceptance and management of chronic pain) since March. Thanks to the support of my fiancé, family and friends and cheerleaders along the way, and of course, God's hand of healing and provision, my Lyme journey has turned a corner and my body continues on this path to full wellness of body and mind.

I guess it was in Maine this summer with my entire immediate family, which doesn't get together often with a sister and brother in law in Georgia, and my fiancé, where I realized what life is ALL about. It took a while to get there...and it's a continual journey. It's about health, yes, but when you're not healthy, or on the road back to wellness, it's about surrounding yourself with whatever brings you acute joy. For me, this undoubtedly means two things: family and food. In that order, but combined equals pure joy. When I am with my family, fiancé, and fiancé's family, I'm truly happiest. It is the reason that the happiest day of my life thus far was on June 19th when my then-boyfriend visited sick me living at home with my family, brought our two families together for dinner at his parent's new home, which I thought was a house-warming party, and PROPOSED! I have never been so shocked nor so ecstatic, and pure joy exuded that night. Sickness didn't matter and melted away as we started dialing our family (my sister had been waiting by the phone and was the first call I made) and friends, and I shed some tears of pure joy. We had a lovely dinner of grilled kabobs and blueberry cheesecake for dessert, followed by a champagne toast. In that moment, sitting next to my new fiancé, surrounded by those I cherish most in this life, and having spoken to my sister, I realized, this was all I needed in life, and could then die the happiest woman (I was sick, and still taken to histrionic thinking).

In Maine there was more time of culinary therapy and familial togetherness. The accessibility of fresh lobster didn't hurt. I can direct you to the best lobster shanty in southern Maine, and arguably the best lobster roll in all of Maine. In many moments sailing on that lake which honestly earlier in the year, I never thought I'd see again, much less sail across, there was a sort of emotional release which happened. The release of endorphins, for sure, but something greater, something on a deeper spiritual level. The presence of God and Health and Life and Healing. When those you love are all around you, you're regularly eating crustaceans fresh out of the sea that day and onto a grilled and buttered bun, glistening in lemon juice, and swimming in a lake with your mouth open and free, drinking in the pure water, the fears of life drift away.

One special memory I'll write about soon was of an engagement celebration dinner with my sister and brother in law. They generously had offered to take us out to a nice dinner when the four of us were able to meet up in Maine. It was the first time we four had mingled alone, and the first time we'd all seen each other since their recent nuptials. Unsure of where to go, having not really had the freedom of cars in Maine before, I was at a loss as to which restaurant to choose...we ended up on this sort of spiritual quest (lobster is a form of spirituality for we Maine lovers), navigating our way through shacks and seafood joints along southern Maine's main drag, making our way down to the coast and the great city of Portland. We decided upon the Old Port district and found an authentic seafood restaurant right along the water, surrounded by shops and taverns and little cafes. Foodie heaven, as my sister termed it. Jeremy and I were thankful to be in the midst of such great company, as our visits are few and far between, and delicious seafood like scallops, flounder, and oysters (of which my sister actually tried for the first time!) combined with some pretty stellar cocktails, and of course exciting conversation of wedding advice (we most definitely needed) and wedding planning details, and what the first year of marriage is like. That night will live on in my memory, even though some of the details have been misplaced in my brain. The wine might have had something to do with that. A walk along Portland's pier and glimpses of shop windows and cobblestone pathways lead us back to the car for our journey "home" to camp...but it was a night to remember.

Food has this unique way of curing any ailments when I'm alone, and I can groove to the healing properties of good ingredients slowly prepared, in a sort of epicurean prayer. For a lot of this year, especially the days and months since August and moving back to Washington, food has been my zen, my meditation, and the way I most see the reflection of God and experience the magnitude of Grace. Sometimes when the pain is too great I waltz (more like, limp) into the kitchen to sauté sliced garlic in olive oil, wafting the scent to my nose as I go and praising Grace and God and Benevolence for still allowing me my senses, of which are continuously affected, perhaps even more powerfully than before. With this new chapter of life comes a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity, and, thankfully, this period of sensual stimulation greatly affects taste and smell. When I am in the kitchen I'm slowly feeling cured by each aromatic dish and when I'm sick and sad, the place I long for most is anywhere food is. Over a hot stove (our new place has a gas stove...my first, and I'm forever falling in love with this method of cooking. I feel like a cooking virgin. Hot hot hot!), choosing delectable fresh vegetables and fruits at the market, discovering new drinks I can actually enjoy (kombucha!) without my body wigging out for days, and the pleasure of slowness. The kitchen is the perfect, most opportune place for slowness. Food isn't meant to be rushed, not in the selection of ingredients, nor in the preparation of procedure, nor in the enjoyment of flavor. It's meant to be savored, and in turn, wholeness follows.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law has become accustomed to sending me encouraging texts should I send her photos of what I've made "in the kitchen", if I so get in there that day. She says, "I know when you're feeling well. When I get photos, I know you're cooking, and I know when you're cooking, you're feeling OK!" This is a beautiful sentiment, and one in which brings me more relief than I can explain. In all honesty, it's when I'm feeling the very worst that my body craves the feel of heat, my skin needs the texture of a raw onion, finely sliced, sautéed in olive oil, and then the aroma of garlic. Intoxicating. It is when I cannot cope with the pain any longer that I desire to become drunk on the senses of the kitchen. It is in the acknowledgment and embrace of pain that it can become diminished. A supernatural force drives my fatigued and aching body into the kitchen because the physical body knows therein lies the answer to wellness of mind and wholeness of spirit.

In the beautiful documentary, Bill Cunningham's New York, New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham emotionally utters the breathtaking truth, "When you search for beauty, you will find it."

In the kitchen, my search is over.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Oyster teaser!

Here is a little teaser to my upcoming Maine blog post, highlighting some of what we ate on our 2 week Maine vacation... A quote by one of my favorite food writers and philosophers, MFK Fisher, from her collection of essays entitled "Consider the Oyster". This block quote comes from the beginning of the chapter called, "The Well-Dressed Oyster". Enjoy! "There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other. The first group may perhaps have the most fun, although there is a white fire about the others' bigotry that can never warm the broad-minded. There is a great deal to be said in favor of the second group, for almost every oyster-eater who does not belong whole-heartedly to the third and last division, would die before denying that a perfect oyster, healthy, of fine flavor, plucked from its chill bed and brought to the plate unwatered and unseasoned, is more delicious than any of its modifications. On the other hand, a flaccid, moping, debauched mollusc, tired from too much love and loose-nerves from general world conditions, can be a shameful thing served raw upon its shell."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Did you see about Nora?"

June 26, 2012, 9:13 pm:

A text comes through from my best friend. "Did you see about Nora? Are you so upset? I'm so sorry."

Bewildered, I immediately dial Shirah, thinking, oh no, did Nora get fired? Is her new play gonna be a flop? No, not Nora! She'd never be a flop. The line rings, once, twice. "Hmm, maybe Shirah ran into her in Manhattan and she was terribly mean to her because she'd just been dumped. Maybe her husband left her! Oh no, what happened to Nora, my beloved writer, favorite filmmaker, most treasured essayist, dearest hero? Third ring. "Heyy......" Shirah's voice is sullen.

"Hey, I just saw your text...what's up about Nora? What did I miss?" my voice is casual and a tad indifferent. If Nora was fired, screw them. She'll be better off somewhere else. Omygod, what if she had a stroke? Is this why the text said, "I'm so sorry"??? She won't be able to write anymore, or make another film because the side of her face is sagging and her neurological disorder prevents her. Is this why my best friend, a New Yorker now, like Nora, immediately wrote me, her most dedicated devotée? Who already has her future baby named Nora, after the great Nora Ephron. I think back to Spring when Shi texted that she was in a café and saw Nora in a corner reading a paper. I wanted to book a flight to that café then and there. I've always dreamed of one day meeting her.

"She passed away....." Shirah's voice is crackly and breaks off. My world goes silent. My body is numb. I don't breathe or think. My face feels like it's falling. Salty liquid drags at my tear ducts, but I'm still silent and numb. "What?" is all I can muster up, thinking I heard her wrong. "Shannon she passed, I'm soooo sorry. I thought you knew?"

Numbness turns into immediate devastation. I can feel my face now. I can feel the liquid salt bursting to break free. I lose it. My bed is near, thankfully, and I fall into a million pieces. My body is heaving, I'm weeping and gasping and begging that this isn't true. I feel like my grandmother has just passed, not a stranger I only "know" through words. I start hyperventilating, but realize I'm also still on the phone and I stop hearing my best friend's voice, as I run to my iPad for confirmation. Maybe there was an error. In a brief memory flash I think back to Joe Paterno, and how CBS announced his death erroneously.

My fingers dance across the screen's Google bar. "Nora ephron"

Search.

"Nora Ephron dead"

I cannot exactly process what this death means for me. I have never met this woman. I always thought I would, and yet now that time has passed. I remember all of my favorite movie lines from "You've Got Mail", my all time favorite of hers and in general, and keep crying. Now I'm convulsing, which brings my poodle George walking cautiously into the room. He jumps up on the bed, licking my tear-stained shirt, licks up my arm to my drenched cheeks and licks the snot bubbles at my nose before I push him away. I don't even care that my face is destroyed. My heart is, at this moment, broken.

Shirah and I hang up, because I need to tell my mom, who is saddened but not in a crushing way that I am. I'm devastated. How many laughs and tears has dearest Nora brought into my world? From a young age, how many times did I doodle "Harry and Sally" in the margins of middle school looseleaf paper? How many times did I put the You've Got Mail VHS into our VCR, growing up in Florida? Or cry during Sleepless in Seattle, in that end scene when they FINALLY meet? I know every line of her films, yet in this moment of shock, can remember none. All I see in my mind is her characters, and her laughter in my heart as I grew up. Nora raised me. Through her charming and magical films, she reared an insecure doodler into a confident diarist. When grappling with a difficult situation and a conflicted heart, she gave me and countless other women the summons, "Write about it."

So write I shall. And my dear, precious writer, filmmaker, essayist and wishful friend, may you be forever writing your screenplays for all of heaven to witness and love.

Rest in peace, dearest Nora.

Friday, June 22, 2012

So many changes...

Two nights ago, my life (and my relationship status) changed. I'm engaged! The most wonderful, generous, caring and compassionate of all men got down on one knee and asked me to marry him!!!

With this gorgeous ring...

A Burmese ruby in floating bezel in hammered 14 k gold. My dream ring.

Nearly 3 days later, everything's still surreal. I've pinched myself 100 times to be sure it's not a dream. I've cried a million happy tears. I can't believe such a wonderful man has chosen ME for his forever....

I feel so blessed, and such gratitude for this life.

So grateful for this journey, that both of our families were present, that his parents hosted the proposal (which was probably news to them up until the day of, knowing my fiancé) and our families were joined together in that moment.

My dad gave a beautiful dinner prayer and his dad gave a beautiful champagne toast. His mom provided a lovely dinner of many appetisers and delicious grilled kabobs and my mom brought over a blueberry cheesecake. Food plays a great role in our lives and family is the top priority in my life. We had both passions right there with us for our happiest of occasions...

Who, truly, could ever ask for more?

Over the moon.....