A Magical Mystery Tour, Moroccan Chermoula Sauce and Lasting Impressions


St. Benedict's Lodge
Jay and I just got back from a nine-day silent retreat at St. Benedicts Lodge on the McKenzie River in central Oregon. I come home bearing an amusing little story and a recipe I thought I’d share. But first, a bit about going on retreat—fair warning, it’s longer than most of my posts . . .

Why do it? You might ask. Why voluntarily give up all distractions—no talking (except during teachings or tasks), no reading, no cell phone, no email—to sit around for nine days twiddling your thumbs and contemplating your navel?

Well, against all thoughts to the contrary, it’s remarkably enlivening to experience even glimpses of an undistracted mind—where clarity and inspiration, fearlessness and loving compassion live and roam freely, where life is goodness through and through regardless if it feels like bliss or grief. Stripped of our habitual conditioning, those glimpses are life affirming and rejuvenating. Love jumps front and center, senses come alive and play happens naturally. Anne Lamott says it well: “Almost everything will work again, if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

This retreat was called the Mysteries of Surrender. Egos everywhere recoil in horror at the notion of surrender, falling back on the more popular teaching: “Never give up! Never surrender!”

But on this retreat, for this time, we are invited to step into surrender—a surrender that is not about defeat, but rather about acceptance and giving up control from a place of devotion. It is surrender that is like the relaxing of a clenched fist, the opening of a heart, dew dropping from a leaf. It is offering our most vulnerable self in humble reverence; open to receive all.

The retreat, put on by The Center for Sacred Sciences, has a daily rhythm, a structure around which we dive into the Mystery of Surrender. We rise at 6 am and have our first formal meditation session at 6:30 am. Throughout the day there are scheduled teaching sessions, which include formal meditation sittings, each 30 minutes long and cumulatively adding up to about 4 – 5 hours per day. Mealtimes are at 7 am, noon and 6 pm. There are breaks after meals and before teaching sessions for our own quiet time to reflect, to go for a walk, to nap. Each of us has a daily chore. Mine, this time, is rinsing the breakfast dishes and loading and unloading the commercial dishwasher.

The week has a structure too, taking us deeper and deeper into the unknown and unknowable. We started with the basics: concentration practice—recalling again how to train the mind to come back to the object of concentration (breath or a mantra); it’s akin to training a new puppy to come back to the training pad again and again, gently with love and patience. We learn to relax effort when thoughts increase during meditation and increase effort when we start falling asleep. We are earnest at the start of the week, anxious to get it “right.”

Gradually we move on to conscious awareness—a meditation practice that focuses on one sense at a time, but instructs us to strip away the labels. We might feel a prickling in our elbow, and notice the mind wants to say “tendonitis,” but instead we call it only “body sensation.” A bird singing is just “sound”; leaves fluttering are “sight” and so on. This gives us the opportunity to simply experience phenomenon arising and passing away instead of getting caught up in discriminating labels and their accompanying stories.

Further on in the week we focus on our experience of our self. Who am I? What am I? We investigate on our own. Can I find where my body ends and the chair begins? Can I separate the actions I seem to control and those that happen without my control? In what way am I like a tree? Slowly our conditioning is stripped away.

I think about our teacher’s book, called “Naked Through the Gate,” and I think how this retreat peels off our habitual layers, leaving us, perhaps, half naked and freer to respond spontaneously. I have a moment where I see Buddhahood or God everywhere—in the trees, river, rays of sunshine—everywhere it seems, except in me. How can that be, I wonder? What keeps me separate?

We practice letting thoughts go by surrendering them back to emptiness from where they came. I’ve always found thoughts to be somewhat sticky; it seems hard to “let them go.” How do I do that? But in this practice I am instructed to offer my thoughts up in devotion and for some reason this appeals to me and I find it easy. During this meditation, I have so many thoughts, more than any other meditation thus far, as if I have become a thought magnet. This time, I don’t mind because I envision myself as a willing conduit through which they pass innocently through. I think of the show the “Ghost Whisperer,” where the main character can see lost ghosts and takes it upon herself to help them find their way back into the Light. During this meditation, I become the “Thought Whisperer” lovingly ushering all thoughts back to the source.

Eventually, we listen to the highest teachings of all: how to simply be a human without effort or expectation. We embrace the paradox of striving to let go of striving, of doing non-doing. For this practice, I appreciate my dishwashing job—it’s become one of my favorite parts of the day—for the very reason that it is close to effortless effort. I am relaxed and content to be in service, contributing without expectation, doing without thinking about doing.

On retreat, we are expected to practice constantly both day and night. Our pee breaks are called “pee meditations.” We learn practices of the night too, such as techniques to enhance the chance of lucid dreaming (dreams where the dreamer is fully awake within the dream and can control it.) We learn of different triggers for waking up in a dream, like finding oneself naked, for instance, or talking to someone deceased. We are instructed to pay attention to our dreams or recurring persistent thoughts or songs and write them down. I have to chuckle. One of my triggers for having a lucid dream has been flying. On the first night of the retreat I have a blissful dream in which I am flying/floating naked. There is no shame in my nakedness because everyone in the dream is naked. I am trying to get their attention calling out “Look, we can fly! Come on, it’s so fun!” Before I can wake up in the dream, I wake up for real swathed in warmth and smiling from the echo of the dream. My teacher says it’s a dream about liberation. Later, during one of the group meditations, the line “A magical mystery tour is going to take you away” repeats endlessly inside my head—a silent mantra that arises unbidden but welcome.

Mealtimes are particularly rich times for practice. The whole group—42 of us—eat together . . . in silence. Outwardly, the lack of chatter seems to add a note of seriousness to the event and an outsider might interpret the faces as somber. But during sharing time we hear of the bliss fellow participants have experienced while practicing conscious awareness while eating—paying close attention to each flavor as it arises and passes away, and noticing conditioned thoughts that may be unconsciously driving behavior or experience. “I don’t like flavors mixed together,” one participant described noting. Then wondered if that was true and discovered that she loved the melding of flavors, but had so long told herself she didn’t that she forgot to try.

Eating is never dull. The organic beautiful food lovingly prepared by our cook enlivens our palate and our practice and we are grateful. I find myself eating with reverence, often discovering tears streaming down my face. One day—Moroccan Chermoula Sauce day—I am swept away on a magic carpet ride by the combination of flavors in the simple sauce. I dare to break my silence to ask Linda, the cook, “May I please have the recipe?”

As the week moves on, the group loosens up and starts laughing more. Ease and light-heartedness begin to appear. Tension lines etching people’s faces melt away. We stop trying so hard. Jay reports that he went for a walk alone in the woods and remembered how to play. He spent two hours playing with the world he said. He is glowing. He notes that normally in his life as an adult everything trumps play.

Midway through the retreat a tiny kitten shows up. It is adorable—all small fistful of fluffy white with black ear tips looking like it will grow up into a Siamese cat. One of the participants suggests we try to catch it and bring it to the caretakers, as it looks too young to survive on its own. He turns to the teacher and says, “I hope it won’t be a distraction for us, but it’s so small . . .” The teacher says, “true compassion is never a distraction to practice.”

The rest of the week meetings are peppered with kitty sighting reports—in the laundry room, by the Building B bathroom, under the deck. And, during our alone time, many of us find our way to the laundry room, the bathroom and under the deck hoping to see and maybe even catch the precious little kitty.

Although we participants are all on retreat there is still worldly activity happening at the retreat center itself. Workers have some areas blocked off while they tear up concrete and install a French drain, and then re-cement the area. We appreciate the seamless way one of the seasoned workers does his job—his body making the long practiced motions without effort or thought. His younger apprentice struggles, practicing the new skill with much effort and thought. I think how everything gets easier with practice—even surrendering the self. I think, too, how I lose myself in certain activities, like dancing, or painting, or washing dishes, where the activity seems to do itself without my commentary and control.

Near the end of the retreat, I can’t sleep one night. After a while I decide to get up and venture outside. It’s cold but clear out. I bundle up and head into the three-quarters full moonlit night. I sit by the river enjoying the beauty of the night. An idea drops in that I could go for a walk in the woods to the labyrinth. The retreat center butts up to the national forest on the other side of the street. There are all kinds of forest trails. One of them leads to a clearing and a labyrinth that the monks made. The idea is at once terrifying and compelling. Walk in the woods at night, alone? That’s crazy talk. But it feels enlivening and I want to do it. I cross the road searching for the trailhead. I have a flashlight with me, which reveals to me the opening. My heart is pounding as I look into the dark trail. I begin to walk in and note that there is a faint disperse light ahead. I turn off the flashlight and discover that the moonlight has lit up a wide-open area some ways down the trail. It is easier to head for that light in the dark than to use the flashlight.

path at retreat

I walk into the dark heading for the light. My body is pulsing. Voices in my head tell scary stories and tell me to turn back. I keep walking anyway, noticing I do not feel protected, per se, but rather intensely alive, buzzing with energy, riveted, and mesmerized. I am propelled forward—my leading edge is an arrowhead of fearlessness. Fear trails behind me. I fully expect that any sudden sound will cause my body to react and run, but still I walk on. I stop at times when the fear catches up and I can’t move, but each time after a bit I move forward again. I make it to the labyrinth and slowly walk the entire thing. In the center I pause and give thanks for my journey thus far. I consider cheating and crossing through the maze to the start, but that feels sacrilegious and I can’t do it, so I slowly unwind myself back through the maze to the start. All told, I am out in the dark, barely moonlit woods for an hour and a half. It is a full experience—a ritual ceremony—and I love it.

On the last night of the retreat, we are advised that the next morning session will be a sharing event and that anyone and everyone is invited to share a highlight or summary of their experience. I go to bed wondering what I am going to say. Again I have trouble falling asleep; my throat is scratchy. I decide that I’ll go to the kitchen and prepare some hot honey infused ginger tea. This night it is cold and rainy outside but I don’t want to take the trouble to bundle up. Everyone else is already asleep, so I sneak out, half naked, in nothing but gauzy pajama shorts and a button up shirt pulled quickly on. I tiptoe down the stairs making a beeline for the kitchen, which is directly below my room. All of sudden out of the corner of my eye I see a streak of white at the far end of the building.

The kitty! I cry silently and a rush of desire and joy flow through me.

I’m going to catch the kitty! I think running in its direction. I imagine myself snuggling up all night with that sweet ball of fluffiness.

Up ahead I see the white bundle of fur cross my path heading toward the building and before I even appreciate what is happening, I leap over the yellow caution tape and land smack dab in the middle of . . . wet cement.

Oh no! I stand there on one leg, gauzy shorts flapping in the cool night air, shirt flying open. Kitty gone. “Crap.”

I wonder what to do. I have leapt too far to go back the way I came and it looks like I can’t make it further along without stepping in more cement. I leap as far as I can, stepping once more in wet cement before finding firm ground. I look back at the two footprints now indelibly etched into the fresh cement, probably forever.

Jay’s going to notice that, I think to myself.

Then in a flash, I know what I’m going to say tomorrow.

“Coming on this retreat,” I say the next morning “might be succinctly summarized by the events which transpired last night.” I explain the scene above to which everyone gasps and Jay says, “I saw those footprints and judged harshly whoever stepped in that wet cement!” We all laugh. Me too.


I finish up: “I come on retreat because by and by I find myself half-naked catching a glimpse of something so precious that I can’t help but go after it. And once seeing it, I can’t go back. It proves to be elusive—just out of my grasp—but the process is amusing and leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.”

Photo Credit - Jason CurtisIn some sense we’re all on a Magical Mystery Tour that’s going to take us away, eventually. In honoring that inescapable truth and the compelling glimpses of the divine along the way, I offer this Magic Carpet Ride Chermoula sauce to help make the journey intoxicatingly flavorful and fun.  Thank you for sharing, Linda!

Moroccan Chermoula Sauce


  • cup cilantro
  • 2 cups flat-leafed Italian parsley
  • 3 - 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes (or 1/2 jalapeño)
  • Large pinch saffron (optional)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice ((1 large lemon))


1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse to desired texture. I use my Nutri-bullet, which makes it a bit smoother than I prefer, but it's so fast!

Linda served this with butternut squash patties and it was exquisite. It can easily be used as a simple sauce for any vegetables, fish or meat or even rice. Traditionally, it is often served with couscous and Moroccan Tagine—a slowly cooked savory stew.


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Painting My Day, a Paleo Palette, and Sweet Potato Bread

“My body is a canvas on which to paint the day,” I used to say while scouring thrift stores to create outfits to match whatever role I felt like playing: corporate girl, PTA mom, Dakini. These days I tend to reach for my “going to the computer clothes”—ultra comfortable versions of jammies/workout clothes. I do, however, still think in terms of “painting my day.” But now I do so in planning the perfect healthy meal to match the mood and dietary restrictions of the day.

Recently, Jay and I have been embarking on a challenging new physical routine of jogging every other day, climbing two to three days and week and doing yoga twice a week. And, since we are not spring chickens any longer we’ve also decided to add the delightfully extreme measure of eating grain free as well—it helps keep the inevitable joint pain down. I am no stranger to working with dietary restrictions, so as soon as the decision was made, I began researching how to legitimately cheat—that is how to eat grain-free nutritious food that tasted . . . well, like comfort food. Not so easy. Still I persevered.

So here I was the other day painting my day from an essentially Paleo palette—not that I am a perfect Paleo princess, more of a would-be grain-free girl–but you get the gist. Anyway, Jay was about to head out on a business trip later that evening and I wanted to send with him a treat—but what?

That’s when I discovered it on  wholefoodsimply.com: Sweet Potato Bread—made with actual cooked sweet potatoes and very little else. It is moist and yummy and a new staple in our house.

The rest of that day got busy as I was not only “painting my day” with the new Sweet Potato Bread recipe, but also planning to actually paint various parts of the house while he was away: the stairwell, a bedroom, the kitchen ceiling. Plus we hoped to get some exercise in prior to his flight.

I ran through the day in my head. Let’s see an hour to bake the sweet potatoes, ten minutes to mix the ingredients, another hour to bake the bread, an hour to decide on colors, take stock of our painting supplies, and make a list of what was needed. Check. We’d still have time to rock climb before he had to leave for his 5 pm flight. I could run into El Cajon to pick up the paint supplies after he left. I should be home in time for dinner, a show and a long hot bath—the perfect cap to a busy day.

I arrived back home after dark, hungry and tired, anticipating a piece of that Sweet Potato Bread. I hurried out of the van grabbing all my supplies at once, so to avoid having to go back. I grunted carrying my awkward heavy load made up of several cans of paint, rollers, brushes, other painting supplies, milk and eggs, a new shirt. I managed to open the courtyard gate door with one hand.

Gypsy ran up to greet me circling my feet, smiling, and wagging like crazy as I fumbled for my keys to open the front door. I couldn’t find the keys and set my parcels on the bistro table next to the front door for a moment. Gypsy came around in front of me angling to get in the house first and then it happened. With one particularly robust and happy wag of her tail she knocked the leg of the wrought iron bistro table and everything went flying. As if in slow motion I turned and watched in disbelief as the can of white paint fell, bounced off the little step and exploded open, spraying paint all over the porous cement courtyard like a Pollack painting but with enough left over to leave a eighth inch deep puddle right in the middle.

“Ah, Ah, AAAAHHHHH,” I cried, shaking my hands and hopping up and down, panting frantically, but otherwise paralyzed and unable to think. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” my little girl brain screamed eyes opened wide.

“Think think think!” my adult brain screamed.

Gypsy looked at me head cocked and started to head away from the front door and TOWARD THE PUDDLE.

“No! Gypsy, No!” I snapped, new neurons firing.

Then, in the midst of the chaos and frenetic worry, a calm centered voice took over: “No time to think, just do” and the next steps presented themselves:

1) Get Gypsy out of here

2) Put packages inside

3) Take off clothes/shoes

4) Start cleaning

Inside my head a little clock began ticking. How long does it take paint to soak into concrete? Tick tick tick.

I opened the front door and shoved Gypsy inside, threw the packages in behind her, then stepped through myself, tore off my clothes and raced to the kitchen, grabbing a metal spatula, a bowl, a bucket of water and a scrub brush. Small voices inside me competed for attention. Are you sure you should use the kitchen spatula? Hey that’s a bowl we eat out of! But a louder voice said “No time to worry!” tick tick tick.

Like a mad woman, naked and mumbling to myself, I began scooping the paint into the bowl. Every so often I’d race back into the kitchen and dump the bowl out down the drain, where another voice would point out “Hey you can’t put that stuff down the drain.” The commanding voice would counter “No time!” tick tick tick.

Gypsy tried to follow me back out the door, sensing my upset.

“No Gypsy!” I yelled panicking, imaging white footprints throughout the house. I summoned an act of faith and added pointing to the far side of the living room “Go sit over there!” And a part of me watched in amazement when she trotted over to the far corner of the living room and lay down, not moving further. For, despite her sweet nature Gypsy has never once listened to any of my commands before.

For the next twenty minutes or so, I madly scooped and dumped, scooped and dumped. Finally, the bulk of the puddle was gone. I sat back on my heels surveying the disaster.

The only thing that came to mind was “Crap!” (Followed very closely by “sure glad Jay’s not here . . . “)

The paint splatters which had spread in a 10-foot circle from what I thought of as the “epicenter” had begun to dry.

“Oh my god, oh my god—this is disastrous. You’ll never be able to clean this up! You are doomed.” My brain shrieked.

But another voice came in too, saying calmly, “Just get water–lots of water.”

I began running out the courtyard for the hose. “Wait!” brain screamed. “You are naked.”

I paused momentarily; brushed paint splattered hair out of my mouth and quickly weighed the odds. It’s dark, I reasoned and ran bouncing out the gate toward the back of the house to grab the hose.

The hose wasn’t there.

“Crap. Crap. Crap. Now you are really toast. This is taking too much time. The paint is setting in. May as well just give up,” the adult brain muttered nastily. “What are we going to do?” the little girl fussed.

“Stop panicking,” my inner Zen coach advised. “Just keep cleaning.”

Then, I remembered I’d dragged the hose down to the Manzanita by the street. Yep.  I was still naked.

Tick tick tick.

I ran back in the house, Gypsy perked up. I gave her a fierce look and she dropped her chin again. I grabbed my jacket and headed out to the street huffing and puffing, bare legs pumping, but breasts and butt covered at least. I dragged the hose up to the house and attached the spray nozzle.

Tick tick tick

“Here goes nothing,” I muttered throwing my jacket back in the house and closing the door. I turned on the sprayer aiming it at the epicenter. Immediately the paint began spreading everywhere and even though I knew it was coming, I gasped as half my courtyard turned white and the river of white paint flooded the entryway. Then as if things couldn’t get worse it pooled up against a cement lip blocking the flow from one section of the courtyard to another and keeping it from leaving the courtyard.

I had reached now what I think of as the “pea soup” phase of a project (as in pea soup fog)—a stage where everything has suddenly gotten worse and you can’t conceive of how to move forward.

“Nothing is wrong. Everything’s okay,” inner Zen coach soothed.

“Are you kidding? No it’s not!” brain screamed. “You’ve just ruined our courtyard—probably ruined our house. It’s going to cost thousands to re-paint the whole courtyard. You’ll probably have to take out all the plants.”

I whimpered a little wondering, “how am I going to tell Jay?”

“Just keep cleaning. Just keep cleaning,” Zen coach said brightly in a little singsong voice like Dory in Nemo. Then added, “and grab a broom.”

I raced downstairs to get the street broom to sweep the paint river over the cement lip and into the palm tree planters.

“Crap. Crap. Crap. Now you’ve killed the plants too,” brain screamed.

“You are doing great,” coach encouraged.  “Use lots of water. Plants will be fine.”

I proceeded to spray, sweep and scrub vigorously. When at last the river dissipated and all the spots that could be scrubbed and sprayed clean were gone, I stopped to survey the remaining mess. The bulk of the paint was gone, but there were still splatters everywhere and these had soaked in deep enough that no amount of water pressure could get them up. My beautiful hacienda courtyard looked like it had chicken pox. Despite all the hard work, it was still a veritable disaster.

“You are such a Klutz! You really have destroyed the courtyard. What were you thinking?’ Self hate screamed, followed by a whiny little “and I’m exhausted! I can’t go on.”

“Don’t even go there,” Zen coach urged. “You are doing great! Now go get the stainless steel wire toothbrush. We will tackle this one paint splatter at a time.”

The unexpected kind words and “we” voice encouraged me. I found the steel toothbrush and knelt on my hands and knees to begin scrubbing the 10-foot paint splatter circle with a 1½-inch steel wire brush. A calm one-pointed focus prevailed. There was suddenly no waffling. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t quitting. I wasn’t panicking. My mind went blank. I tackled the next spot and the next. Some came up easily others were stubborn. My back was sore, my knees were bruised, my arms ached, and I was getting cold, but it didn’t matter anymore, instead, strangely I began to enjoy the task. As each little splatter disintegrated under my pointed attention, I relaxed more. And eventually the scales tipped and I realized I’d made it through the daunting “pea soup phase.”

As I scrubbed the vestiges of the last splatter away more than two hours after the disaster began, a quick self inventory told me I was physically exhausted, hungry, still naked, alone and covered in paint splatters, but I was also . . . happy.

I walked back in the house, grabbed a piece of the Sweet Potato Bread baked earlier that day, caught sight of myself in a reflection, sat down, and found myself chuckling, for it reminded me of another childhood memory involving peas–but that’s another story.  Suffice it to say,  it seems disaster and chaos not only make the best life lessons but also the best stories.

I offer you now, the recipe that painted my day that day: Sweet Potato Bread.

Sweet Potato Bread (*wholefoodsimply.com)


  • 600g cooked sweet potato (skins removed) (If you don't have a scale, this is about one extra large, 2-3 medium or 3-4 small sweet potatoes)
  • 1 cup coconut flour
  • 6 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 lemon (juice of)
  • 1 pinch salt


1. Bake sweet potato until flesh is soft (about 1 hour at 350 degrees.)
2. Peel and discard the skins
3. Mash/mix the sweet potato flesh with other ingredients
4. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper and fill with mix
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes uncovered, then 20 minutes covered


As I tucked myself into bed that night, I thought about a daily precept we like to say about how every moment really is an opportunity for spiritual practice . . . and, I mused, more than likely fodder for a good chuckle down the road.

The phone rang. It was Jay calling to say goodnight. He told me a little about his day. I paused, and then made up my mind.

“You’ll never guess what happened to me!” I said coyly.

“What? You spilled paint all over?” he said without missing a beat.

“Hey! What do you mean by that?”

“It was inevitable.” He responded.

Apparently, I am just a story waiting to happen.


Its only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” ~ Jackson Pollack

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Papadzules for my Punkins . . . instead of the Texas chainsaw massacre

      I love fall.  Even here in Alpine where the season is not marked with a gorgeous changing of color, but where the lack of color is compensated for by a lack, also, of the impending doom at an approaching long cold winter.  Maybe my love of fall plays a role in my tendency to use the nickname Punkin’ with my loved ones, husband and daughters alike.
     My oldest daughter, Jaime Punkin’, is visiting us this week, the week before Halloween. Because she and her boyfriend, Jason, are here, I have had the glorious opportunity to cook gluten free vegetarian dishes for an audience. Invigorated by the season, I have turned my attention to all things fall: pumpkin pie, roasted pumpkin seeds, butternut squash soup, spaghetti squash casserole . . .
Me and my “Punkins”
     Punkin’ is a somewhat diminutive nickname, which when used on my oldest daughter belies the fact that she is now 24 years old and visiting because of the chance to take a highly intensive First Responder’s Wilderness course aimed at people who may eventually become part of Search and Rescue teams.  My Jaime Punkin’, these days, is not a child being tucked into bed, but an avid mountaineer. In reality, I am the diminutive one, responding to her itinerary notifications about where she is going on the next snow covered alpine rock climbing adventure, with a plaintive “Okay, Punkin’. Have fun. Be safe.”
     Anyway, while they are here, everyday I anticipate the joy of thinking up and making dinner for them. One day, Jay says “Hey, why don’t you make Papadzules!” Papadzules? I think scanning my memory. Why, that’s perfect! Papadzules are a traditional Mayan dish from the Yucatan. They are essentially vegetarian enchiladas made with corn tortillas, hardboiled eggs and a pumpkin seed and tomato sauce—which easily fill all my requirements for the week:  a food honoring the season and the restricted diets of my Punkins.  Plus—they can’t help but remind me of some of my favorite memories and stories, for we first discovered these on our honeymoon.
     So settle in and let me regale you with a tale from my past. I’ll start by cluing you in: the only “Punkin’” in my life at this time, was my newlywed husband, Jay. I was 23 years old and we were on our honeymoon. We had planned two weeks away: one week scuba diving off Cozumel and one week driving around visiting the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan.  We were in the midst of driving around the bottom of Mexico near the Belize border where this story takes place.
     It was a dark and stormy night . . .
     No, really, it was.
     The wind was howling, and a tropical rain, common in that part of the world, was pelting us. Contrary to popular common sense, we were driving at night. More time to play and explore during the day, we reasoned. Still, I wasn’t sure it was such a great idea as I sat perched on my seat peering into the darkness waiting for whatever might suddenly appear:  a stray cow, a notorious “topes” (speed bump) found in the middle of nowhere along the highways of the Yucatan, or perhaps, even, an angry spirit from Xibalba.
     “Jay,” I said “Maybe we should stop somewhere.”
     “Where would we stop?” he said. “There’s nothing here! We are in the middle of nowhere! I don’t know how long it is back to civilization. No, we have to keep going.”
     He paused, then offered, “How about I tell you a story to keep you entertained?”
     “Yes!” I said brightening.
     “You up for a scary story?” he asked with more than a small amount of mischief in his voice.
     “Um, okay.” I said jerking involuntarily as a bit of foliage swept past our rain- splattered windshield, startling me.
“How about I tell you the story of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Have you ever seen that movie or read that book?”
     “No,” I said gulping. “I don’t know anything about it. Sounds scary.”
     “Oh it is,” he said teasing me. “Based on a true story too, or at least on a real guy.”
     He went on before I could object too much.
     “So there are these five young people who are driving on a back country somewhere off the beaten track.”
     I chuckle, “Kind of like us, huh?”
     He smiles. “Yep.”
     “So anyway, along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be super creepy and starts slashing at them with a large knife before they manage to throw him out of the vehicle, ” Jay starts.
     “Creepy,” I say as I remember the old Mexican guy we offered a ride to the other day . . . we pick up hitchhikers sometimes, I think.
     “Well, shortly afterwards, they realize they are running out of gas and . . . “
     “Hey, how much gas do we have?” I interrupt.
     Jay smiles, “Oh we’ve got a quarter tank or so. Should be enough to get us to the next gas station . . . “
     Should be?
     “Anyway, it turns out the gas station is out of gas but they can make it to an old homestead. There are two couples in the group and one guy in a wheelchair. The two couples in the group think it’s pretty cool to explore the abandoned house and nearby woods; One couple takes off to look for a swimming hole.”
     I think of my own love of exploring abandoned ruins and think—yep, that’d probably be me.
     “On the way to the swimming hole, the guy hears a noise like a generator and thinks maybe he can barter for some gas. They go up to a house and find a tooth on the porch.  He scares his girlfriend with it.”
     “Yeah, just like you would do,” I say.
     “They hear some weird noises inside and the guy decides to go inside to check but he tells his girlfriend to wait outside,”
     “Seriously?” I cry “Don’t ever do that to me, okay?”
     “Well the guy goes in and is attacked by a crazy guy wearing a mask made of human skins who smashes his head in with a sledgehammer.”
      I am still mentally the girl on the porch waiting for her boyfriend to come out. “What? He dies? Already?”
     “Yeah, and his girlfriend starts to get nervous waiting for him, so she goes into the house to look for him.”
     “No way—too creepy,” I say, but I wonder what I would have done if Jay didn’t come out.
     The road curves and winds now and there is still no sign of anyone else. No other cars, no other signs of life. My god I hope we don’t get stuck out here I think.
     “So the girl goes in and stumbles into a room filled with human and animal bones . . skulls hang from the ceiling and the floor is covered with bones and feathers.”
     My heart starts beating as wildly as the rain as I imagine myself to be the girl going into the house.
     “She backs up hurriedly and starts to throw up . . . when suddenly Leatherface—the guy in the human skin mask—comes out of nowhere and grabs her, kicking and screaming back into the house.”
     “Oh my god,” I cry.
     “She gets away, and for a second you think she is going to be okay but . . . ”
     Jay pauses, checking my reaction.
     “So, I prompt, what happens next?”
     “Well, he catches up to her and picks her up kicking and screaming again.”
     “Does she escape?” I ask still picturing myself as the protagonist girl.
     “Well, it’s pretty gross and scary, actually.”
     “Okay . . . go on . . . “I say tentatively trying to mentally prepare myself for the next scene.
     “Well he takes her into this room that is actually a frozen meat locker”
     My mind travels to my storehouse of memories and I think to myself that’s where they hang cow carcasses, right?
     “So . . .” he says, “he picks her up and hangs her on a meat hook right through her back , but it doesn’t kill her . . . as she is hanging there he takes up a chainsaw and dismembers the dead body of her boyfriend.”
     “Jay! Stop, stop! Oh my god, that is so gross. Now I am totally freaked out.”
     “Awww,” he says. “It’s only a story.”
     “I’m scared!” I cry.
     He says the universal magic words: “It’s okay. Come here, snuggle up with me.”
     I move to the left and he wraps his right arm around me and I try to relax keeping one eye on the road unwilling to leave his arm, but wondering if he can drive okay with only one hand on the wheel.
     “There,” he says. “Look! A sign to the next town.  Look it up in our guidebook. Maybe there is a hotel we can stay at.”
     I breathe a sigh of relief.  “Hey,” I offer. “How about instead of some creepy story about Chainsaw massacring serial killers, I read you from the guide book about this area?”
     “Sure,” he allows.  “That’d be great.”
     I open up our trusted Lonely Planet guidebook and dive into a safer subject:  Food.
     I read about how the peninsula’s unique cuisine derived its own character because of the Yucatan’s long-time isolation from the rest of Mexico. I read that the food is divine, and that sinking your teeth into Yucatecan favorites is one of the highlights of traveling the peninsula.  Take that stupid Chainsaw massacre story . . .
     I decide we have to try one of the classics, Papdzules, which I learn are diced hard-boiled eggs wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with pumpkin seed and tomato sauces. The guidebook recommended a restaurant specializing in them. The name of the restaurant and town are long gone, but the memory of that incredible meal remains.
     The next day, having found a place to stay that night and having recovered from my new husband’s tale telling, we set out to try Papadzules. Sitting in a dark tiny little restaurant in the middle of nowhere at a table with a plastic red gingham tablecloth and on simple metal chairs—no crazy chainsaw serial killers in site—we dove into this unique and delightful traditional Mayan specialty. What an unexpected treat!
     So, in honor of Halloween week, when it is okay to talk of ghoulish things, but more importantly in honor of two of my Punkins, I offer to you all a recipe fit for fall: hard-boiled egg enchiladas in a pumpkin seed sauce.
     I understand from Wikipedia that the word “Papadzules” either derives from a phrase meaning “food of the lords” or “drenched”.  Here is my recipe, then, which I think is both fit for lords and drenched . . . in love:


Egg enchiladas smothered in pumpkin seed sauce


  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or use water)
  • 2 cups raw green hulled pumpkin seeds
  • 1 bunch epazote (when I don't have this, I leave it out)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion (I always use sweet onions)
  • 1 garlic clove (minced)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • splash cooking oil
  • 8 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 - 2 serrano chilies (use as many as you like)
  • 1 1/2lb tomatoes, quartered
  • 3 tablespoons oil (I use olive oil or coconut oil)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar


Tomato Sauce
1. Toss tomatoes with 1 Tablespoon oil and broil for 15 to 20 minutes
2. Blend tomatoes, water, onion, garlic, vinegar, chiles and salt in blender
3. Heat remaining oil in saucepan and cook sauce for about 10 minutes
Pumpkin Seed Sauce
4. Toast pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until seeds have expanded but not browned; cool
5. Coarsely chop 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds and set aside. Bring water, epazote, onion, garlic and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt to a boil
6. Blend this mixture with remaining 1 3/4 cups pumpkin seeds in 2 batches until smooth
7. Transfer to a saucepan. Season with salt.
8. Saute onions
9. Mix onions with hard-boiled eggs and hot peppers
Fry and Fill Tortillas
10. Heat oil in skillet and soften tortillas on both sides
11. Dip in pumpkin seed sauce (as if it was enchilada sauce)
12. Fill tortillas with egg mixture; roll up and place in a casserole baking dish. (Note: I usually add some sauce to the casserole pan under each as well.
13. Cover wrapped tortillas in any remaining sauce and then add tomato sauce on top (Note: alternatively you can serve the tomato sauce on the side)
14. Bake for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees
The Punkin who started it all

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Herbs for the Immune System, Hot Lipped Dilettante, and Cilantro Chicken Soup

secret books of my fancy

     I know how to wear a suit and manage a business meeting.  I am at home in the high technology world of telecommunications and can find my way through a brief full of legal jargon, but in my heart of hearts, I hanker to be a witch.  Not a Wiccan, per se, but rather a tarot-card-reading, crystals-in-the-corner, mortar-and-pestle-in-the-kitchen, herbs-and-tissue-salts, type of gypsy-shaman-witch.  My pantry holds the secret books of my fancy: Rainforest Home Remedies, Alternative Healing, The Yoga of Herbs, The Kitchen Witch Companion, New Holistic Herbal, Herbal Love Potions, and more.
     So, when someone gets sick in our household, the first thing that goes on the stove is homemade chicken soup, followed by a rash of supplements, homeopathic offerings, and lots of hot tea. This winter Jay got the crud bad, maybe the worst ever.  He was laid up for three weeks, re-discovering how bad movies and TV shows can get. This time, while I worked on revitalizing my knowledge of immune boosting supplements and folk cures, I also researched online for new chicken soup recipes. (Thank God my hankering to be a witch has coincided with the era of the internet!) Along with some of the other witchy and effective cold and flu fighting lore I have picked up over the years, I discovered one recipe recently I’d like to share with you all:  Immune Boosting Chicken Soup.  I found this pearl online at healthychefs.com It is a simple soup, with a bit of chicken, and lots of ginger, garlic, turmeric and cilantro, and beaten egg swirled in.  It is “mommy, I don’t feel good, but this tastes yummy” good.
     Now, about herbs for the immune system, I have some familiarity with that as well.  Almost twenty years ago, I took a class called—wait for it—“Herbs for the Immune System”.  It was offered at the Herbfarm in Issaquah, WA, which has some notoriety for its nine course dinners made by award winning chef, Jerry Traunfeld.  I never have dined at the Herbfarm (there tends to be a six to twelve month waiting list) but I did attend classes or visit from time to time, making me . . . dangerous.
     I wrote an article about the experience that I originally called “Just Call Me a Hot Lipped Dilettante”.  This was published and renamed “Home Remedy Makes One Hot Mama” in the Feb/March 2008 online issue of humorpress.com.   I offer it here as fair warning for any advice I am about to dispense.
Home Remedy Makes One Hot Mama
     By my own admission, I am a dabbler in life, filled with pseudo expertise, while totally lacking common sense. In college, I changed my major eleven times, until it dawned on me that honor grades alone would not produce a diploma. Now, as a married woman, raising kids and operating my own business, I still dilly-dally, vacillating from meditation to mediation to legal research to alternative health. The result is, I often know a little about a lot, which sometimes gets me into trouble.
     On the fated day, I talked to gynecologists, herb specialists, even Harborview Burn Center, all of whom admitted they had never faced such a problem. “You did what?” “Oh you poor thing,” they all whispered under their breath, while trying desperately not to say “how could you do something so stupid!” But there I was in excruciating, yes, worse than childbearing, pain. What had I done? It was simple enough. I tried to treat a vaginal yeast infection, by a rather non-traditional method.
     I had taken a class a few years back, you see, called “Herbs for the Immune System.” The teacher, I recalled, had espoused the marvelous benefits of a product called grapefruit seed extract. “Would kill anything,” he said, including, you guessed it, yeast infections. We happened to have some of this marvelous product in the house. (It really does tame a sore throat if you gargle with a few drops diluted in water—tastes like soap and makes you gag, but it works.)
     Anyway, I failed to read over my notes, which would have reminded me to use the product in a suppository form. I also failed to read the warning label on the bottle: “Avoid contact with eyes or skin at 100% full strength. Use sparingly due to extreme potency. Do not exceed three drops per usage.” Instead, I relied on my own expertise and inserted two droppers of the stuff. That ought to kill it, I thought.
     After a while, I felt some tingling down below. Great, I thought, it’s working. But it wasn’t long afterwards, the tingling increased in intensity. Soon I was in screaming agony. Nothing I did stopped the burning. It started to blister. I bathed in baking soda, douched with Acidophilus, applied ice. My husband and I huddled on the couch trying not to think of our future nights together.
     After all known home remedies to stop the burning failed, my husband took me to Virginia Mason Emergency.
     “What’s the problem, honey?” the receptionist asked sweetly as my husband wheeled me to the front desk.
     “I think I burned myself.”
     “Okay. What happened?”
     “Well, it was, um, from an herbal product,” I flushed, trying to avoid telling her the whole truth.
     “An herbal product? And, where is the burn?” she asked peering over the counter curiously.
     I gave up and told her the whole story. She listened intently, trying not to react, but I noticed she crossed her legs and wouldn’t look me in the eye after that.
     Several other hospital staff members somehow found reason to come check on me. I figured I was the latest coffee break story and they were all trying to get the facts straight. I remember one no nonsense nurse who came in to jot down a host of miscellaneous information. She hadn’t been briefed yet.
     “Have you had any medication today, deary,” she asked taking notes.
     “I’ve had two Percocets and a Tylenol with codeine,” I slurred.
     “Now, why have you had so much pain medication?” she challenged, mistaking me for a druggy.
     “Because I burned my vagina,” I said, by now enjoying the shock value and her momentary lack of composure.
     She gave a little “oh-my-poor-dear” gasp and hurried out of the room.
     Eventually, a female doctor examined me and deduced in hushed tones and a sympathetic voice that I had suffered second degree burns. She prescribed a soothing ointment and more pain pills, but explained the best help would be time.
     Whether this incident has curbed my dabbling streak, I can’t be sure. I am happy to report, however, that vaginal tissue has a remarkable ability to heal itself. My only remaining scar is a bruised ego and my mother’s words haunting me: “How can you be so smart and so dumb . . ?” which reminds me of the time when I was seven and tried to see if electric scissors, famed for being able to cut anything, would cut my tongue . . . but that’s another story . . .
     Still—despite my error in judgment the first time I used grapefruit seed extract, I still highly recommend this product for it really will tame a sore throat, if used diluted and sparingly. 
     Here is my gypsy/shaman/witch list of supplements and folk cure remedies that make my “remember to do or take when you get a cold or flu” list: 
·      Grapefruit Seed Extract
o   dilute and gargle for a sore throat
·      Andrographis Paniculate
o   not as well known as Echinacea and Astragalus, but Jay swears by it—and he is not nearly as gullible as I
·      Astragalus
o   associated with a significant age-reversal effect in the immune system, have seen it work for Jay
·      Oscillococcinum
o   (European homeopathic flu remedy) – Ever since I literally watched my fever begin to plunge and suddenly recover in the course of an hour after diligently taking this, I am a believer.  I always have it on hand. 
·      Vitamin D
o   enhances innate immunity and inhibits the development of autoimmunity, plus many of us are deficient
·      Drink lots of liquids, especially hot tea with honey
o   “Breathe Easy” for sinus congestion
o   “Herba Tussin” for colds and cough (my new favorite)
o   Coconut Water – I swear drinking a coconut a day in India kept me from getting sick from the very polluted air
·      Antronex
o   natural antihistamine for allergies
·      Vitamin C
o   especially EmergenC packets that you dissolve in hot or cold water
·      Rinse Sinuses with neti pot and sterilized water
o   this is hands down the most effective remedy for preventing sinus infections
·      Consider getting a chiropractic adjustment
o   it’s amazing how being a little out of alignment will keep you from getting better
·      Call Dr. Manlove or your favorite nutritional healing person
o   http://www.drmanlove.com/ – our secret health fighting weapon
·      Chicken Soup!
     The witch inside me says, whether you or sick or not, get those stovetop cauldrons boiling with a good fresh pot of Immune Boosting Chicken Soup.  It’s that time of year, after all.
Immune Boosting Chicken Soup (courtesy of The Healthy Chef): http://www.thehealthychef.com/2012/05/immune-boosting-chicken-soup/
Healthy Chef Version            :                                         My adaptations:                       
10 cloves garlic
2 Tbls finely grated ginger
1 Tbls freshly grated turmeric
 I didn’t know about fresh turmeric and am excited to look for it; I used ground turmeric
1 liter (35 ¼ fl oz) chicken or vegetable stock
I used two boxes of free range organic chicken broth instead of adding any water;  (sometimes I make my own chicken broth by boiling a whole organic chicken with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper)
Vegetarians can substitute vegetarian broth
1 liter (35 ¼ oz) water
(see above)
500 g (17 ½ oz) free range/organic chicken breast, cut into chunks
Vegetarians can substitute tofu
2 bunches coriander, chopped
This is what we call “cilantro”
¼ cup mirin or rice wine
(note:  not rice vinegar)
3 Tbls tamari soy sauce
2 eggs beaten
 3 beaten eggs
Cooked white rice (to make it a bit more filling); I use short grain sushi rice often
Optional:  additional vegetables:  mushrooms, spinach, kale
I added green beans on the second day
o   Combine the garlic, turmeric, ginger, stock, water and chicken into a large pot. (I have also sautéed the garlic and ginger for a couple minutes first.)
o   Simmer for 5 – 10 minutes over low heat until chicken is cooked through and flavors have infused into the stock.
o   Pour beaten eggs in a thin stream over the simmering stock
o   (Add rice)
o   Add mirin, tamari, and coriander just before serving
     Here’s to adding a dash of magic, a silent prayer, and a whole lotta love to your pots when caring for those you love this cold and flu season.

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Silver and Gold Friends, Backpacking Through Europe, and Moussaka

     I was an avid Girl Scout when I was younger and I used to love to sing the camp songs that went along with scouting.  One of the popular tunes was called “Make New Friends.”  The lyrics tell you to make new friends, but keep the old because one is silver and the other gold. 

In the last couple weeks, I have had the opportunity to appreciate that refrain.  We moved to Alpine almost two years ago now and have begun to make new friends.  (It’s always harder when you don’t have kids to break the ice.)  Last week we invited some new friends/neighbors, Jacki and Wendell, over for dinner.  We met them at our yoga class down the street – our main social outlet.  We appreciated them immediately because they loved the outdoors and were always out hiking in the mountains nearby or running on the trails near our neighborhood.  To honor the occasion, we broke out one of our oldest recipes ever:  Greek Moussaka.  We only make this dish about every five to ten years because it is a little labor intensive and wonderfully (devastatingly) rich.  When we make it, we make lots of it – several casserole dishes worth.  I say “we” because this is a dish that Jay traditionally makes, with me playing sous-chef.  Anyway, we were happy we made lots because a week or so after our delightful evening with our new neighbors, one of my oldest friends, Wendela, whom I knew from high school and who was my first college roommate, came to visit.  Wendela too, is an outdoor kind of girl.  It had been ten years since we’d seen each other. She and I talked and caught up while we climbed Bell Bluff together.  It’s a good long hike and we were pooped when we got back home.  It was the perfect time to unfreeze some of our leftover Moussaka and enjoy it again with an old friend.

Jay (aka “Adam”)  in a fig tree on Crete, 1982
     I can’t even say the word “Moussaka” without immediately being transported back to the summer of 1982.  That’s the summer, a year after I met Jay, that we spent backpacking through Europe. Our travels took us to different countries in Europe from England to Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, Holland, and Germany.  In Greece, Jay fell in love with Moussaka and tried it at every restaurant we went to, noting the subtle differences, paying attention to what he liked and didn’t like about various recipes.  When we got home, he set out to find a recipe that matched the ones he liked best.  The result is the recipe attached here.
     While cooking up Moussaka and memories from our backpacking trip through Europe recently, I turned to the journal that I kept on that trip more than 30 years ago.  I came upon following entry, written after 3 days on a train from Turkey to Switzerland. My journal says: 
     Spending many hours on a train leads to much soul-searching and thinking (if there’s anything left unsettled in your mind.)  Between reading my new book and watching the beautiful East Italian coastline, I did a lot of thinking about my own future.  Which way was right?  The unanswerable questions circled my mind and tortured me endlessly.  Should I go for Optometry?  6 years of hard study, challenge, a good income, but . . .then what??  Will I be content to look in peoples eye day after day.  I kept thinking it’s not fair I can’t do what I want to do:  write and teach.  Then I started thinking maybe I can, despite the education budget cuts, teacher cutbacks, low pay.  Maybe if I went for it and met some of the right people I could become a professor. On and on. Should I do this or this?
     Funny how some refrains, like the old Girl Scout song, keep turning up in one’s life!  30 years later, I am still musing about what to do with my life and wondering why I can’t just write and teach!  And in the next breath, thinking maybe I can . . .
     Backpacking through Europe served as a microcosm for what the next 30 years of my life would be: adventure and travel with my best friend, sprinkled with making new friends, sprinkled with mystical experiences, interspersed with experiencing peaks (profound love) and valleys (fights) with Jay, all recorded in a journal.  Even as I wonder what to do with my life, I find have been doing it all along – traveling and writing, appreciating friendships, searching for more, loving and struggling.  One of the last entries from my 1982 backpacking through Europe diary says this:
     Somehow I had grown accustomed to the haphazard lifestyle we’d been living:  being surrounded by castles, ancient monuments, impressive buildings, ruins, endless churches, cobblestone streets, trains, the underground system and people from all walks of the earth speaking foreign languages.  We’d been from the charming British countryside to the rugged incredible Swiss Alps, from sun bleaching dark tanning Greek isles to wild wet Holland. All along the way we were continuously amazed at how easily we adapted.  At each moment we barely seem fazed to be walking under the Eiffel Tower, climbing the Shilthorn, or exploring old ruins.  Throughout it all, we were just ourselves, feeling basic things:  I’m tired, let’s eat, where are we sleeping? . . .
     Looking back on it all, it seems fantastic — fabulous.  But, our adventures were ordinary for where we were at the time.  Everything felt natural.  Still, it seems obvious once back in America our stories will sound most exciting, and enviable.  Our pictures will look so interesting.  We will continuously recall the experiences of our summer in Europe.  Yet throughout it all, no matter where we were, the times that were best were those when we felt close to each other, had fun with each other regardless of (though taking advantage of) our surroundings. 
     “No matter where you go, No matter what you do or see or have, what matters most is who you have beside you.” 
     What I learned so long ago is that friends, old and new, but particularly best friends are so important, for these are people you can be close to and have fun with, regardless of your surroundings, regardless of the peaks and valleys of life.
     I offer you our oldest recipe, our Moussaka recipe, which you might note is written in Jay’s handwriting. May it enrich your life, too.
Original Recipe                                                            Alternatives
3 medium eggplants
3 large onions diced
We usually use sweet onions
2 lbs ground lamb or beef
We usually do half and half; omit to make this vegetarian
3 Tbs tomato paste
½ cup red wine
½ cup chopped parsley
¼ tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
6 Tbs flour
We use potato flour
1 quart milk
4 eggs, beaten until frothy
2 cups ricotta cheese
Cottage cheese can be substituted (but I prefer ricotta)
1 cup fine bread crumbs
We get gluten free bread cubes like for stuffing and then pulse grind them in the blender
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
Olive oil (lots)
Potatoes – cooked and diced
·      Preheat oven to 375 degrees
·      Peel eggplants and slice ½” thick
·      Pour generous olive oil in skillet and brown the eggplant on both sides
·      Heat 4 Tbs butter in same skillet and brown onions
·      Add meat for 10 minutes
·      Combine paste with wine, parsley, cinnamon, salt & pepper, and add to meat
·      Simmer and stir
·      Prepare white sauce in separate pan by melting 8 Tbs butter and whisking in flour
·      Boil milk and add slowly to butter and flour mixture
·      Stir constantly
·      Cool mixture slightly then add in beaten egg, nutmeg and ricotta cheese
·      Add salt & pepper to taste
·      Grease a large pan (11 x 16) – or use multiple pans
·      Sprinkle bottom with bread crumbs
·      In our alternate and preferred version we add a layer of sliced potatoes on top of the bread crumbs
·      Arrange alternate layers of eggplant, meat with parmesan
·      Add white sauce on top
·      Bake for one hour until golden
·      This gets better each day!


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Peanut Butter Cookies and Sailing in Belize

     Earlier this year Jay’s sister, Jennifer, introduced us to a simple absolutely yummy recipe for Gluten Free Peanut Butter cookies.  These cookies are “to-die-for” delicious even though they are comprised of only 5 ingredients, and are so easy to make that I successfully whipped a batch up in the tiny galley and unpredictable oven of a 39 ft Beneteau during rolling seas and a torrential downpour with wind gusts up to 35 knots while sailing in Belize this summer. 
     It was our first day out on the boat and we were headed into new territory.  The briefing had left us somewhat terrified, noting there seemed to be a significant number of red Xs on the hand drawn chart they provided, indicating hidden reefs, pirates, or dangerous anchorage.  We duly noted where the 3 “hurricane anchorage spots” were in case we needed to hole up for a bit.  It was somewhat disturbing that one of the safe hurricane harbors was also the location of crocodiles and while it was safe to anchor, it was not safe to get in the water . . .
     The weather was moody and unpredictable as we left the Moorings base — it was the heart of hurricane season after all, and to be expected, I guess.  We made our way out the shallow passageway,  being careful to stay exactly on top of the way markers because straying meant going aground . . .  Within short order it began to rain.  It didn’t seem much like the tropical vacation we had all envisioned, but it was a change of scenery, and having to keep our wits about us added some excitement to the trip. 
     After sitting out on deck for an hour or so in the rain, I decided I would try to make us a treat that we could enjoy rain or not.  Luckily, while gluten free goods were virtually non-existent in Belize, all five ingredients needed to make our new favorite gluten free peanut butter cookies (namely, peanut butter, sugar, baking soda, vanilla and eggs) were readily available at the small Chinese/Latin American grocery store in Placencia.  (Funny thing that: Chinese people operate almost all the grocery stores in Belize! Kind of strange . . .)
     Going down below on a sailboat in bad weather is always something of an adventure unto itself.  I started mixing batter, and unlocked the gimbal on the oven, allowing it to swing wildly with the waves but still stay relatively level.  I heard scuffling above and glanced out into the cockpit.  Mom had just put on a life jacket (!) and was muttering something about 35 knot gusts . . . I went ahead with the cookies.
     We managed to tie up to a mooring ball at Wipari Cay and headed to shore, where we had high hopes that the restaurant would be open – but no such luck; instead within moments of stepping ashore, we got eaten alive by no seeums that came out with the rain, and received news from the proprietor that his restaurant had closed indefinitely.  No worries, back to the boat we went for tea and freshly baked cookies instead. 
     The weather calmed down enough to encourage us to hop  out for a quick snorkel.  Despite the stormy weather the water was warm – I called it “no hesitation” warm, warm enough, in fact, that we decided we’d be brave and go night diving later. 
     Night diving is just about the creepiest thing ever.  We had last gone night diving about 25 years ago.  During that trip we chanced upon a five foot lemon shark!  My response? I dropped the flashlight – not good!  With that memory swirling, I was more than a little scared as we slipped into the inky black water from the stern of the sailboat, but put up a brave front because Mom was considering trying it the next time we went out.  The shore seemed far away and the water where we were moored was so deep that our flashlights were only small tubes of light that never reached the bottom.  I held Jay’s hand as we crossed the distance to shallower waters.  Soon the nightlife started to appear in our flashlight beams.  We peaked around at beautiful coral formations and gasped when larger fish crossed into our vision.  Lobsters tend to come out of their hidey-holes at night and we chanced upon a big one.  We’d already caught one for the day, though, so we let it go. 
     The sea at night is even more mysterious and quiet than during the day.  You have very little peripheral vision.  So long as you stay engaged with examining all the beauty right in front of you, it all works out okay, but let your thoughts wander outside the periphery of your light to wonder what might be swimming just out of your vision . . . in the dark . . . and panic can set in quickly.  You have to stay relaxed and in awe–not thinking.  If you are lucky, you might be surprised by something rare, like the blue octopus we saw. I am sure night diving is a meditation technique itself.  Focus on what is in front of you, don’t let your thoughts run wild about what you can’t see or feel.  Relax, enjoy the beautiful mystery of life as it unfolds one beam at a time.
Screen Saver Land
     Our sailing trip had a few more rolling windy and rainy days but eventually the sun came out and stayed out.  This was  a good thing because we really needed the sunlight to maneuver between the coral reefs of some of the outer islands, like Pompion, Ranguana and Nicholas Cay.   There were reefs above and below the surface everywhere and while this was somewhat unnerving while we were underway, once we had tied up to a mooring ball or anchored it was like living in an aquarium, or as I thought of it,  “screen saver land.”  The water was clear and there was an abundance of different kinds of beautiful coral:  Brain coral, Pillar Coral, Staghorn Coral, Gorgonians, Sea Fans, Plume Worms, and many shades of sponges.  We also saw all kinds of beautiful reef fish most with fun names: Squirrelfish, Damselfish, Hawkfish, Porkfish, Parrotfish, Angelfish, Grunts, and the infamous Lionfish.  We went out of our way to look for the ugly but good to eat ones, like Grouper, Yellowtail Snapper and Barracuda. All in all, we snorkeled and spear fished 3–4 hours a day in the warm water with Jay providing one fish or lobster per day to supplement our meals.  For my contribution, I kept the peanut butter cookies coming for dessert and as soon as one batch was gone, I’d make another.  Every part of ourselves was nourished and nurtured.  At last, we relaxed. 
     Jay said this trip was like hitting a reset button on the computer once it has hung, where you have to actually hold the button down for some time to successfully reboot the system, just as we had  to actually get away for long enough in a completely different setting so that no everyday thoughts lingered, in order to reset our life.
     There is now a cozy memory corner I tuck myself into when I make Jennifer’s Peanut Butter cookies,  recalling fondly this recent sailing trip that we somehow successfully sandwiched in between a whole lot of work. 
     Mmmmmm peanut butter cookies. 
     Mmmmmm sailing in Belize. 
     Mmmmmmm what beautiful mystery will show up in my beam of life next?
Jennifer’s Peanut Butter (Chocolate Chip) Cookies
Original Recipe                                                            My variations
1 Cup extra crunchy peanut butter
(you can also just add chopped peanuts to creamy peanut butter)
1 Cup brown sugar
1 Cup Sucanat or Coconut Palm Sugar (which both have a lower glycemic index and taste perfect)
1 egg
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips (optional)
I use Hershey’s sugar-free chocolate chips for me
On the boat I just crunched up a chocolate bar and added it
·      Preheat oven to 350 degrees
·      In a large mixing bowl, cream together peanut butter, sugar, egg, baking soda and vanilla
·      Fold in chocolate chips
·      Spoon by the tablespoon onto parchment paper-lined (or greased) cookie sheet
·      Bake for 10-12 minutes or longer for crispier cookies

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From the Mayan Underworld of Xibalba to an Indonesian Salad called Gado Gado

     With the final quarter of 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar before us, I find my thoughts wandering to Xibalba – the Mayan door to the underworld, and with those musings comes a desire to share one of my favorite salad recipes:  Gado Gado.
     In most people’s reality, Gado Gado is about as far from the Mayan Underworld as you can get.  It is a thoroughly Indonesian dish that I have read means “mix mix”.  But for me, this summer, Gado Gado became inextricably linked with my oldest daughter Jaime and thoughts about Xibalba — a “mix mix” of memories, I guess.
     It all started about 6 years ago when our family took one of our favorite vacations ever to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.  We visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tikal, and stayed in a little cottage right on the Mexican Riviera and also at the Maya Mountain Lodge, deep in the rainforests of Belize not too far from the Guatemalan border.  But the highlight of our trip – we all agreed—was our trip to Xibalba. This was a caving adventure extraordinaire.  The kind of adventure that lawyers in America rub their hands over – fraught with danger and fool hardiness– the kind of authentic adventure that does not avail itself too often.   
     Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), known locally as “Xibalba,” is essentially a Mayan archeological site, complete with skeletons, ceramics and stoneware.  It is located deep in the jungle and you have to have a guide to go see it, but trust me that’s a good thing!  Just to get to the cave you have to drive 45 minutes from San Ignacio – which in our case included having to forge a river in our rental car.  Then you continue on foot for a 45-minute jungle hike, steaming with lush flora and wild fauna — and yes the fauna includes extremely poisonous snakes, namely the Fer de Lance, known to be the most aggressive, venomous and feared snake in the tropics!   In fact, the part that scared our seasoned guide the most was the hike back when he spotted a Fer De Lance crossing our paths.  After that he was on a hurried mission to get back to the car – oh and it had started to rain and that river we forged wasn’t getting any lower. . .  
     But back to Xibalba . . . in Mayan lore, a soul’s journey to Xibalba, which mean “place of fear,” is where the soul goes to be reborn and inherit eternal life.  The journey involves entering a cave, crossing or traversing the length of a river and passing into the spirit world; there is said to be a crossroads where travelers have to choose from between four roads that spoke in an attempt to confuse and beguile; ultimately the journey winds up at or near the “underworld” counterpart located at the bifurcation or dark rift of the Milky Way – the very one that is supposed to be involved in a cosmic alignment this December. 
Photo taken from deep within Xibalba
     True to the legend, we found the entrance to the Actun Tunichil Muknal filled with water.  After a moment’s pause and few wild vine swings into the river, we continued on our journey by swimming bravely into the dark looming cave entrance and then followed the stream deep into the cave.  As we were holding hands together in rushing water up to our neck, while squeezing through a narrow passageway mindful of mini waterfalls up ahead . . . it struck me . . . this was no ordinary adventure.  And it went on.  We clambered over rocks and through tunnels and climbed handmade ladders to rock shelves twenty feet above the water, and ultimately found ourselves face to face with skeletons.  It was amazing . . . and decently scary . . . kind of life itself
     You see, I see the road to Xibalba as a metaphor for our own journey in life.  I believe that, as humans, we all want to experience more peace, more love, more equanimity.  We want to feel a connection with our Beloved, or the universe, or whatever it is we feel separate from when we are suffering . . . I have come to appreciate that along the way, our life’s journey will likely include some dark caves fraught with dangers and confusing options—some places or times in our lives when fear rules. 
     I also appreciate that on my own life journey adventure, I forget sometimes to see the travails as exciting and stimulating.  I forget to be brave as I swim into the next cave’s dark entrance and to feel curious and alive in the scary “water up to my neck passageway” phase, instead of paralyzed with fear or indecision.  Maybe that’s why I like adventure so much. It reminds me that I can be full of life and engaged amidst all kinds of terror.  So a journey to Xibalba is a good thing – adventure is a good thing – physical challenges afford us the opportunity to believe in ourselves.
     Which brings me back to the connection with Gado Gado, which as I mentioned is linked to my daughter Jaime. 
     Jaime and her boyfriend Jason went on a series of their own adventures this summer, which included sea kayaking in the wilds off British Columbia (without a guide) and bumming around Belize and Guatemala for a month, including visiting Xibalba, before visiting us back in San Diego.  Let me just say, it’s one thing to be off on my own adventure or a family adventure, but quite another to have my kids off on a crazy adventure on their own with only limited contact . . . Hello Fear!
     With limited contact, my part in their summer adventure was minimal—namely, receive sporadic texts from them and feed them when they got back to San Diego.  
     Since the texts tended to be brief and terrifying such as this one:
·                 Explored caves that make Actun Tunichil look like Disneyland
     (Yikes!   How much more intense could it get?  Later, I learned they went under water holding their breath and clutching a rope in the pitch black for about ten feet to a hidden cave – creepy!)
     I distracted myself from worrying by focusing on what to feed them upon their homecoming.  Being as they are vegetarians, and it was still hot summer in SoCal,  I decided on Gado Gado–an Indonesian salad that features all kinds of vegetables, tofu and egg and is smothered in a delicious spicy peanut sauce.  It is fantastic and pretty easy to make.  Thus, did Gado Gado become inextricably entwined in my memories with journeys to Xibalba.
     So, whether you have just been to Xibalba and back, or just feel like you’ve been to Xibalba and back, or perhaps, like me, you feel rather like you are still on the road to  Xibalba—stuck at the crossroads where all choices seem to confuse and beguile—it could be time for a some Indonesian Gado Gado.
     Below is my preferred recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Whole Chili Pepper Cookbook. 
     Time to let the “mix mix” of memories go and to indulge in a simpler sensory “mix mix” for the palette:
Gado Gado:
Whole Chili Pepper Cookbook:                                    My variations:
The Dressing:
2 Tbl dried crushed red chili such as Piquin seeds included
1 Tbl Red pepper flakes
¼ cup finely chopped onion
I use sweet onions
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbl peanut oil
I use coconut oil or olive oil
1 ¼ cup unsweetened coconut milk
I use 1 can
½ cup crunchy peanut butter
I use peanut butter with no sugar
2 Tbl soy sauce
I use tamari
2 Tbl brown sugar
I use coconut crystals or sucanat
1 Tbl lemon juice
I sometimes use lime juice
The Salad:
2 fresh bean-curd cakes
I use the tofu that come in plastic containers – firm or extra firm
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 large new (red) potatoes, boiled and cut into ¼” slices
I often use many small red potatoes
¼ pound cooked green beans, cut into 3” pieces
2 cups bean sprouts
1 medium carrot, cut into 2 by ¼” julienne strips, cooked
1 large cucumber, sliced
2 hard cooked eggs
Or more
2 scallions, thinly sliced including the greens
I use regular green onions
1 cup roasted peanuts
To Make the Dressing:
·      Sauté the onions, ginger, and garlic in the oil until softened. 
·      Stir in the remainder of the ingredients. 
·      Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. 
·      Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
To Make the Salad:
·      Poach the bean curd in simmering water for 10 minutes.  (I don’t do this part with the tofu that comes in the plastic containers.) 
·      Cut bean curd (tofu) into 1” cubes.  
·      Arrange the vegetables in layers, starting with the cabbage, then cucumbers, potatoes, green beans, bean sprouts, carrots, and tofu.
·      Place egg slices around the side. 
·      Top with the scallion onions and chopped peanuts.
·      Warm the dressing and either pour over the salad or serve in a bowl on the side.

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Hot and Wholesome: Green Curry Paste

     The other day we were out with friends at a Thai restaurant in Los Gatos and as per usual we ordered the Green Curry – we explained to our friends that it’s our way of testing out a new Thai Restaurant.  If the Green Curry passes muster then we will surely return.  Well, the Green Curry at Thai Spice of Los Gatos was delicious, and it served a greater purpose.  It reminded me how much joy I used to get from making my own.  I have gotten out of the habit lately, falling prey to the super cheater method of getting a jar of pre-made green curry paste . . . don’t get me wrong, it always tastes good – I mean how bad can anything be after adding a can of coconut milk – but still, it is definitely not the same experience . . .
     So as soon as I got home, I pulled out my old truly favorite cookbook called The Whole Chile Pepper Book, by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach.  I first picked it up when the kids were very young. At that time we had become obsessed with spicy dishes. We were curious about all the different chiles available and wanted to know how they compared to each other. The Whole Chile Pepper Book has a section at the front with photographs of the world’s best chiles and descriptions about their flavor and level of spiciness.  Each chapter starts with a little historical perspective on a particular region’s spicy cuisine.  As such it is a wonderful resource to learn more – and the recipes from around the world are the best!  Many times I have given this cookbook as a gift. 
     Let’s just say, this cookbook opened doors for us and led us to enjoy spicier cuisines and encounters.  We knew we loved cayenne, Anaheim, jalapeno, serrano, chipotle and poblano, but we wanted to try more.  What were mirasol, pasilla and piquins like? We became obsessed.  Our inquiries eventually led us to the habanero.  These, we learned, were the hottest chiles available.  Habaneros are small squarish, orangish yellow chiles and have a particular kind of smoky taste to them.  They are quite distinguishable from other peppers.  They rank a 10/10 on the Capsaicin heat scale. 
     On my 30th birthday, my father-in-law, Howard, (a certified lover of the spiciest dishes) challenged me to a habanero-eating contest.  He pretty much popped one in his mouth and without batting an eye, ate it.  Not to be outdone, I quickly did the same.  Holy Guacamole!  Within seconds, tears were streaming down my face. I jumped up and began hopping up and down hysterically and running around in little circles.   Habaneros are really really hot . . .!  
     But what can I say? It was an era of drinking too much, and believing our physical and emotional bodies could handle anything . . . in short, we had become addicted to a hot and spicy life – tears and hysteria were part of the journey.
Hand Painted Spanish Dancers
Salsa Cupboard and Painted Chiles
     During this time we had parties with our friends every weekend.  Our house was the largest, so we nearly always hosted the parties.  We built a dancing deck and painted giant wall murals directly on the walls of our kitchen:  Spanish dancers, bougainvillea, grape vines and, of course . . . chile peppers.   One night we got seriously rambunctious and declared that a salsa cupboard was a mandatory new addition to the kitchen.  All cupboards were spoken for so we grabbed a Sawzall and sawed a large opening in the wall between our kitchen and living room.  This became our new built-in salsa shelf.  Above it, we hammered in dowels to hold our random collection of wine glasses.  We initiated the protocol that every adult attendee had to bring one jar of salsa and one wine glass to each party. 
     Mind you, there were usually 6 kids under 5 running around, and . . . well, I guess now that my kids are grown and seem to be doing quite well, I can share this . . . we relied on a sort of “benign neglect” concept of parenting at these parties.  The kids had their room and we had ours.  We provided toys, snacks, movies and playmates.  Everyone brought jammies and a blankie with them . . . they could stay up or lie down to sleep as pleased them.
     I am not entirely sure I can recommend our technique, for certainly there were downsides . . . such as the following morning, which came awfully soon after the night had ended, when one of the children would pitter patter across the floor and pull open the blinds, announcing in the most precious innocent little Cindy Lou Who voice “Look Mommy – it’s morning time!”  (. . . aarrgghh . . . snarfle snarfle . . . really?)
     Over indulgence aside, it was also during this era that I began to appreciate the joy of making things from scratch. Some of it stemmed from having fun with the kids. These were our homeschooling days, so while our nights were hot and spicy, intoxicating, and adult driven, our days were filled with looking at the world from the perspective of a child full of curiosity.  Everything was an opportunity to integrate learning in a wholesome way and the kitchen figured prominently:  for instance, we started a garden and intentionally grew all our own ingredients so that we could  “grow vegetable soup” from seed!  It was also during this era that my Aunt Marjan (the real gourmet cook of the family) encouraged me to buy an old-fashioned pasta maker at a garage sale.  The kids and I learned how to make our own pasta dough and spent many an hour cutting the homemade dough into strips that we draped around the kitchen to dry.  Of course, we grew rows of our own basil so that we could make our own pesto to go on our hand-cut noodles . . . everything was fresh and delicious and fun to make! 
     But truly one of the greatest “cooking from scratch” discoveries of this chapter in my life was making green curry paste.  I think it was at this time that I began to evolve into a kind of peasant kitchen witch (with a “w” . . . I hoped) There’s something about standing in the kitchen before a mortar and pestle grinding seeds for this paste that is purely magical . . . and the aroma?  Well, it is simply intoxicating (and thankfully, while it is certainly addicting, does not contribute to a hangover!)
My well loved page from
The Whole Chile Pepper Book
     So, as I was saying, I recently was flooded with memories of this time, including the joy of making my own green curry paste, and as soon as I got home I pulled out The Whole Chile Pepper Book and began.  Into the blender I popped serranos, jalapenos, garlic, shallots, ginger and cilantro.  Then into my beautiful stone mortar I threw coriander seeds, caraway seeds, whole peppercorns, cumin, nutmeg, cloves and lemon rind, and, pestle in hand, began grinding . . . It was bewitching . . . the fragrance of these fine spices and chiles swirling together filled the kitchen.  (Trust me, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle yet – it’s worth it just for this recipe.)  The stress of three days traveling for work, the recent worries about my own worthiness, all got lost in the scent.  Jay, in the other room ever working long diligent hours paused as the smell reached him.  “When will dinner be ready?”
     And, as I stood there grinding, my memories swirled too, and I began to realize that life is a bit like that:  a combination of all kinds of different ingredients:  different eras, different chapters, different stories.  Each one contributes some of the flavor to your life’s story, and together, however humble or grand, they create something rich, extraordinary and unique.
     After making the green curry paste once again after so long, we sat down to eat while watching a movie:  Arabian Nights.  In the movie Scheherazade tells the prince a series of wondrous stories to cure him of his madness.  And in one of the opening scenes, we hear these words: “People need stories more than bread itself – they teach us how to live and why”. 
     And so it was that the “open sesame” magic of reopening The Whole Chile Pepper Book and performing the actions required to make the paste had two effects:  one was bringing to mind stories from an entirely different chapter of my life–stories that left their own indelible lessons; the other was to simultaneously bring me to the present moment: standing in my new kitchen, filled with a delectable aroma, children now off to college—the mystery of my life yet unfolding unknown before me.  
     As I stood there, experiencing the discreet spices combining to create something new and the confluence of my stories old and new, I recognized my own madness and programming  and appreciated the possibility that whatever had passed before and whatever was yet to come, I was still learning how to live and why. 
     My life is filled with stories that feed me: some good, some not so good.  Some of these stories may inspire me to act more loving, forgive more easily, or participate more fully, as the storyteller in the Arabian Nights proclaimed.  And yet, as I was recently reminded, and what my own moments of great clarity support:  even the greatest story is not as good as that which lies beyond the reach of any story, that which lies beyond the “I” in the stories, beyond the reach of fear and worry, beyond the reach of all afflicted emotions.  What is that?  Pure awareness –-a state of being that might be described as vibrant still peace –where all that remains is a reverent awe and a whisper of curiosity as to life’s beautiful potential.  Devoid of all stories, life itself is inherently burgeoning and fertile, hot and wholesome.
     Time to cook.
Green Curry Paste
The Whole Chile Pepper Book                                    My adaptations
10 Serrano or Jalapeno chiles, stems removed (heat can be adjusted by reducing the number of chiles)
6 Serranos, 1 large Jalapeno
I play with the amount and kind of chiles I put in my paste and I always taste the chiles to gauge their individual hotness – if I am lacking hotness, I add the seeds too.
(Note: the end next to the stem is the hottest part of a chile)
2 Tbl chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped shallots, or substitute ¼ cup chopped scallions, including the greens
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh ginger
Sometimes I use a little more
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp whole coriander seeds
2 tsp whole caraway seeds
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp ground cumin
I always use whole cumin seeds and double the amount – 2 tsps whole seeds
1 tsp ground nutmeg
I use freshly ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp grated lemon rind
2 to 4 tsp vegetable oil
I use olive oil
Yield:  1 cup
I usually find my batch is more than 1 cup
·      Puree the chiles, garlic, shallots, ginger, and cilantro in 1 Tablespoon oil until it is a smooth paste.  (I usually just use my blender for this.)
·      Grind the seeds and peppercorns.  (I always use my stone mortar and pestle –mmmmm)
·      Add ground seed mixture to paste
·      Add any remaining ingredients (for instance if you had ground cumin or nutmeg)
·      Puree to a thick paste, adding more oil if necessary.
     If you want a yummy recipe to use this paste with, try this one, also from The Whole Chile Pepper Book – you can use whatever protein you want – last time I made the paste I used one half in the below recipe with chicken sausage instead of plain chicken and the next day I used white fish instead of chicken in this recipe.  You could also use just vegetables or vegetables and tofu or another meat substitute to make it purely vegetarian.
Chicken with Green Curry Paste
The Whole Chile Pepper Book                                    My adaptations
4 Serrano or Jalapeno chiles, stems removed, thinly sliced
As much as I love hot food, I usually only add one or two or sometimes no extra chiles, since the paste above has so many . . .
1 cup Green Curry Paste (above)
When I make the Green Curry Paste recipe above, I often split it into enough for two dinners – not sure if I use a whole cup or not
1 Tbl fish sauce
Vegetarians can substitute extra sauce or tamari
1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut milk
1 can
1 ½ lbs chicken, skin removed, cut into 1” strips
I substitute whatever protein I have:  chicken sausage, tofu, fish . . .
1 Tbl sugar
I use sucanat
2 tsp lemon juice
I sometimes use lime juice
½ cup chopped fresh basil
 . . more never hurts
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
I often add additional vegetables to this dish:  onions, bell pepper, zucchini .  .  . whatever I have on hand
I add salty water or chicken broth for a soupier version
·      Heat the curry paste and the fish sauce in one half of the coconut milk. 
·      Add the chicken (protein) and cook until just tender. 
·      Remove the chicken and keep warm (I almost never actually take the chicken out . . .)
·      Stir in the chiles, sugar, lemon juice, and remaining coconut milk.  (I usually taste it here to decide how hot I want it and if I want to add more chiles.)
·      Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce is creamy and thickened. (If I want to make it a little soupier instead of thickened, I sometimes add salty water or chicken broth.)
·      Return the chicken and add the basil. 
·      Cook for additional 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
·      Serve over steamed rice.  (I often serve this in a bowl so that I can scoop up extra sauce and drown my rice a little.)
     Invite a little hot and wholesome into your life today!

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Bell Bluff, Buddha and the Brain, GigaBeam, and Bi Bim Bap!

     Last week my niece, Mikayla, came to visit.  The story was that Mikayla had been accepted to a couple universities in San Diego and came down to take a closer look, but I think she just wanted to hang out with us!  I am so glad she did–it was relaxing and fun and gave me an excuse to do all the things I like to do around here:  check out new places and things to do, go shopping, go to the beach, kayak on the lake, and of course–cook exotic and yummy peasant food and climb Bell Bluff!
     This is how the week looked:
  • Wednesday: University of San Diego –did you know this is the 4th most beautiful campus in the world?   And I have to say it lives up to that reputation with stunning architecture, landscaping and views! 
  • Thursday: prom dress shopping (anyone who knows me, knows this was super fun for me!) and yoga
  •  Friday: talk to the honors program and watch a water polo match (my first) at San Diego State University–my goodness, I had no idea how cool San Diego State University was.  In addition to a complete recreation and fitness facilities, they have an Aquaplex!  SDSU was just selected for the second year in a row to host the NCAA Women’s Water Polo National Championships in 2012.  It’s no wonder, the facility is quite impressive:  Five different pools, of varying depths to accommodate diving, water polo, lane swimming and recreational fun – not to mention a giant hot tub as well . . . the students study for exams in bikinis on poolside loungers – who wouldn’t want to go to school here??   Okay – the honors program is pretty cool too – only 200 kids out of 5,000 incoming freshman make the cut!
  •  Saturday: climb Bell Bluff and make Bi Bim Bap!  Mind you the Bell Bluff hike is not for sissies. It is about 9 miles roundtrip and takes five long hours–the first 4 miles are a gradual doable ascent, then the last half mile is a bushwhacking scrabble up the mountainside.  The hike was sweetened with the knowledge that our dinner plans were to introduce Mikayla to Bi Bim Bap – a Korean meal served in a hot stone bowl with rice and vegetables (steak and eggs optional) and a special chili sauce.  Yum–this is truly one of my favorite peasant recipes–and to think I didn’t even know it existed until 5 years ago!
  • Sunday: Dutch Easter brunch (my mom’s famous tradition featuring a collection of eggs, meats, cheeses, breads, chocolate and condiments), lazing around reading, and kayaking on the lake
  •  Monday: work on a surprise for Mikayla’s parents, go see the wave pool and boardwalk at Mission Beach, and go to a special class taught by a psychologist, Doug Brackmann, called “Zen, Buddha and the Brain”
     As you can imagine, we had a great week–but one of the peaks (literally and metaphorically) for me was hiking Bell Bluff and making Bi Bim Bap (well–also coming up with the surprise for Mikayla’s present, but shhhhh, it may still be a secret)
     The thing about hiking Bell Bluff, is it’s always somewhat questionable–once you make it to the base of Bell Bluff and start climbing straight up–whether you will actually make it to the top this time. Intense resistance and the urge to quit as exhaustion sinks in grows exponentially.
     Luckily, we simply impose a free whining zone for that last stretch–we take a deep breath and freely complain about all the bits and pieces of our bodies that are tired and hurting, but we keep walking.  Somehow paying closer attention to the body (instead of the “I can’t do this!” I’ll never make it!”  “What was I thinking anyway???” thoughts that begin to run rampant) helps.
     It turns out, while we didn’t especially make the connection, this mountain climbing tactic is essentially what we are learning in our Zen, Buddha and the Brain class and simulates what we practice when we meditate–whenever the mountain of life seems too steep–that is, when mental suffering sets in–bring your attention back to the body!  Notice what is going on physically, instead of the story generated by your thoughts.  Allow your thoughts to drift away naturally, bring your attention back to the breath.  mmmmmm–it’s so good!
     But, speaking of good, let’s get back to Bi Bim Bap–the real inspiration for writing this blog entry . . . it was actually during a time in the last five years when I was bipping and bopping up and down the east coast for work that I came to try Bi Bim Bap for the first time.  I could hardly believe that there was a gluten free ethnic dish of this quality that I had never even heard of!  At the time, Jay and I were working for GigaBeam, whose headquarters were located in Herndon, VA, not far from DC.  For a period of a couple years, we worked long hours and would be away from home for 2 – 4 days at a stretch almost every other week.  We got to know all the restaurants in the vicinity of work intimately.  Then one day a new Korean Restaurant opened very nearby (sadly that restaurant has since gone out to business.)  A colleague very excitedly told us we had to go there and we had to try the Bim Bim Bap – the Bee Bim What?  Well try it we did and it became our favorite dinner choice.
     Bi Bim Bap is traditionally served in a hot stone bowl (and then named “Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap,” which I am advised means Hot Stone Bowl with Mixed Rice.)  The hot stone bowl allows the rice on the bottom of the bowl to get crispy.  On top of the rice, a whole bunch of seasoned vegetables and mushrooms sit and for non-vegetarians some steak strips marinated in a sweet sesame, garlic and soy sauce mixture as well.  Then a fried egg is added, and the whole thing is smothered in Korean Chili sauce called Gochuchang, sometimes spelled Kochuchang (Hot Red Pepper Paste).  This sauce really makes the dish and tastes decidedly different from a Mexican or Chinese hot pepper sauce.
     By my way of thinking Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap is quintessentially peasant, but made exotic and interesting by being served in stone bowls.  Recently when my mom was visiting I discovered a great Korean supermarket, “Zion Market”, in San Diego (something like Uwajimaya of Seattle).  We were able to purchase some of these stone bowls and voilà can now make authentic Bi Bim Bap!  (But, don’t let the lack of stone bowls stop you from making Bi Bim Bap – it’s delicious either way!!)
     So in honor of one of the best things I got from working at GigaBeam . . . . an introduction to Bi Bim Bap . . . and in honor of Bell Bluff and Buddha Brain . .  I offer you one of my new favorite recipes:  Bi Bim Bap.  I have tried several different recipes, but have settled on the following one that mom found at allrecipes.com.
All Recipes.com recipe                                                My substitutions:
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup wheat free tamari
½ cup white sugar
½ brown sugar
½ cup sucanat
¼ cup minced garlic
1/3 cup chopped green onion
4 tablespoons sesame seeds
20 ounce rib-eye steak, sliced thin
Omit for vegetarians – I use filet mignon
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups uncooked glutinous (sticky) white rice, rinsed
I sometimes substitute regular short grain white rice
6 ½ cups water
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
Omit or use whatever you have on hand
1 pound fresh spinach, washed and chopped
12 ounces cucumber, julienned
12 ounces carrots, julienned
Sesame oil
8 ounces bean sprouts
6 eggs
6 sheets nori, crumbled
I offer nori sprinkles on the side (or omit if I don’t have)
6 tablespoons sesame oil
¼ cup chili bean paste (Kochujang)
  •  For the non-vegetarian version:  Make the marinade for the beef.  Combine soy sauce or tamari, sugar, garlic, green onions, sesame seeds in a large bowl;  add the sliced beef strips to the marinade, and season with salt and pepper.  (note:  if you are making a vegetarian version – make some of this marinade and soak your vegetables in it instead.)  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (well – okay I am not usually that organized so I just marinade it while I am cooking everything else . . .)
  •  Bring the rice and water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low and cover; simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes.  (Or — do as I do and use a rice cooker and hit start.)
  • Preheat an oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C), and place Korean stone bowls in the oven.  (Note:  I have tried the oven method with the stone bowls in the oven and I find it just does not get them hot enough.  I put them directly on the burners of my gas stove–as the Korean lady at Zion market suggested–to heat them instead.  And remember – don’t be deterred if you don’t have stone bowls, just put the ingredients in your regular soup bowls.)
  •   Place wok or frying pan over medium-high heat.  Cook carrots and cucumbers in a small amount of sesame oil to soften, stirring frequently.  Remove from pan, and set aside.  Add a small amount of sesame oil to the pan, and cook spinach in sesame oil for a minute or two.  Remove spinach from pan and set aside.  Add the meat strips and marinade to the wok, cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid reduces in volume, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  •  Transfer the stone bowls from the oven (or stove top) to suitable heat resistance surface.  Brush each bowl with sesame oil to coat.  Divide the rice into the bowls, and gently pack to the bottom (it’s perfect if you have gotten the bowls hot enough for the rice to sizzle as you arrange).  Arrange the cucumbers and carrots, bean sprouts, greens, shiitake mushrooms, and beef mixture over each portion of the rice.
  •  The allrecipes.com recipe now says to add a raw egg to each bowl, and to drizzle it with sesame oil and nori sprinkles.   But I always fry the egg over easy first and then add it to the bowl.
  •  Serve with the Kochujang sauce and encourage guests to smother the top of the bowl of food with the sauce.
     Oh, this is just the best!!  All yummy ingredients, an interesting sauce – pure comfort food.  But don’t trust my word, ask Mikayla!

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An orchard full of fruit, a little audacity and Avocado Soup

I woke up yesterday morning thinking “I’m going to make Avocado Soup today!”  In all the years of eating avocados, I have never made Avocado Soup, so it was with a little excitement that my day commenced – something new!  (You’ve gotta enjoy the little things . . . . ) It was a beautiful day in Alpine, CA.  We worked out in the orchard nurturing the newly planted Pineapple Guava, Key Lime, Pomegranate, and Banana trees.  The already blossoming Orange trees smelled divine.   I took Gypsy for a walk and we did some hard physical labor sifting gravel to improve the main driveway entrance.  Then we went inside to work on relaxing  — an oxymoron, I know – but sometimes during the busiest of times, when the mind has become used to thinking incessantly and the body has become used to going, going, going, it takes a little effort to slow down and relax.  But we did finally spend a few hours doing nothing but sitting. 
As my day progressed and I relaxed, the thought of Avocado Soup simmered in the background and the tapestry of my day became woven with avocado memories . . .
Avocados feature largely in our life.  I don’t think there is a day that goes by that we don’t have some avocado in at least one of our meals.  They are just so good!  I never subscribed to the fear of avocadoes because they are high in fat.  And, I’m happy to report that my instincts about avocados are now fully supported by nutritionists who claim them to have the perfect ration of proteins, good carbohydrates and good fats, not to mention vitamins B6, C, E, and K as well as potassium, lutein and beta carotene.   Some people have said you could live on Avocados alone – I know I probably could, and at one point in life practically did . . .
It was 1983, and I was living with Jay in his frat house  (shhhhh . . . don’t tell . .)  I was a secret stowaway, actually, hidden away in his curtained lofted single bed.  Jay shared his room with another frat member, who tolerated my presence – probably because we studied about 20 hours a day on campus and were rarely there.  The room was located in a wing of the frat house that had some rooms they rented to outsiders, separate from the main house.  It took nearly 6 months for the rest of the frat house to figure out I was actually living there and not just staying over a lot . . . They kicked me out, but I managed to score a room in the Co-operative Housing located directly behind the frat house.  I only ever did stay there for 2 nights . . . but we benefitted from having the Co-op’s dining hall food available to us as well. I would load up a couple of plates of food, hop the fence and cuddle back up in the curtained loft.)
But back to the avocados . . . . Jay’s frat house was located a couple blocks from the UCLA campus.  We had discovered that the old UCLA horticulture garden, was on the same street.  It was hard to find because it was completely fenced in and wildly overgrown.  One day, while walking down the block, Jay noticed a loquat tree – one of his favorite fruits. (We have planted three in our orchard in Alpine!) He clambered up the fence, brought me up as well and we sat there gorging on loquats.  From our vantage point, we could see more of the horticulture garden.  In the middle was a grove of avocado trees.  Hundreds of avocadoes were rotting on the ground and the trees were still full!   We jumped out of the loquat tree into our newly found secret Garden of Eden.  It was an unkempt mess of trees with a single dirt road running through the middle, but oh my gosh, it was paradise for a couple of half starving college kids!  The horticulture garden contained all kinds of fruit trees, all apparently abandoned, or in the least not well taken care of.  Some of the fruit trees were some kind of half-breeds, we never could fully identify (UCLA had opened a new horticulture garden on the other side of campus where most of the current research took place.) But the real score was the avocado grove we had spotted from the loquat tree.  That first day we gathered as many as we could stuff into our pockets and hold while climbing back out of the loquat tree.  As you might imagine, the avocado grove became a regular stomping ground for us, and the source of a significant portion of our college calories and nutrition!  Eventually we brought bags along to carry the fruit out, but still we could only carry so much because we had to climb back out. 
One day, just before Christmas, we came up with the idea that we would gather a couple extra bags of avocados that we could give as Christmas presents for our family in Washington State.  What could be better than a bag full of avocados from California for Christmas?  We knew it would be a hit.  We clambered over the fence, bearing more than our usual number of bags, figuring we’d just get them back over somehow.   We had just finished stuffing four bags full of avocados when we heard a noise.  Uh oh – busted!!  We’d been visiting the grove for months already and had never seen anybody.  But there was no mistake, someone in a truck was headed directly for us.  There we were in plain sight in the middle of the dirt road each carrying two brown grocery bags stuffed to the top with avocados.  Me, being the wimp that I am, immediately pictured myself in jail over Christmas break, but Jay took a different approach.  Instead of running and hiding or begging for mercy, he boldly walked right up to the guy in the truck (the fruit would have just rotted on the ground after all!)  “Excuse me,” he said.  “Would you mind opening the gate? Our hands are full.”  (“Brilliant!” I thought quivering.  “Such audacity!”)  “Sure,” the guy said and headed over to unlock the chained and padlocked gate.  We walked out on the road and through the gate, carrying our gifts, our head’s held high, as if we were two of the three kings, bearing not Frankincense and Myrrh, but . . . avocados.
Alpine’s a bit too cold to grow avocados, although we may try a special hardy variety we’ve heard about.  These days, our secret avocado grove looks remarkably similar to Costco . . . but who can argue with a bagful of avocadoes for $6?  We always have them in the house.  We have avocados with our eggs, avocados in our salad, avocado toast, guacamole and chips. Yum.  But, as I said at the start, we have never had Avocado Soup. 
As the dinner hour approached, I started to look for a recipe. I perused the internet a bit, but since I had been musing about the early days of our relationship, eventually I went for my oldest cookbook, one of a set of three that I got about a year after we were married, all put out by Sunset Magazine, who published about 24 different specialty cookbooks.  In hindsight it is no surprise the three I picked, budding peasant cook that I was: “Cookies (New & Traditional favorites)”,  “Casserole Cookbook (one-dish meals)”, and “Homemade Soups”.  These three cookbooks, published in 1985, are well-loved, dog-eared, and falling apart, particularly Homemade Soups (see picture), but they have served me well!
As I suspected my treasured Sunset Magazine Homemade Soup cookbook did have a recipe for Avocado Soup.  It only called for 5 ingredients, which I had on hand.  My major deviation was that I served it warm instead of chilled.  I learned that trick because I had seen a very similar recipe online for an Ecuadorian version of Avocado soup (http://www.tstastybits.com/2011/09/crema-de-aguacate-ecuadorian-creamy-avocado-soup/), that was identical less the bacon. 
This soup is just yummy – naturally comforting, creamy and delicious!  We had it with cheese quesadillas.  There is lot more that you could add to this soup (some I have noted below), but even if you don’t it is fabulous!  One recipe I saw sounded really good, but it called for several ingredients I didn’t happen to have on hand.  I thought it was worth including down below because it was featured on Good Morning America and was from a book called “10 Things You Should Eat”.  

So here first is the simpler recipe of Avocado Soup that I made (that certainly also qualifies for one of the 10 things you should eat!)
Sunset’s  Recipe                                                Alternatives and Options
2 ripe avocados
(a little more can’t hurt)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
I use lime juice because Jay prefers it
1 clove garlic
About 5 cups chicken broth
Vegetable broth
½ pound bacon, crisply cooked, drained and crumbled
I used Turkey Bacon – this is mostly a condiment and can easily be omitted
1 small red onion, finely chopped
I used a half a sweet onion
Salt  and Pepper                                              (I added some, although the recipe didn’t specifically say to)
Other common additions:
Yoghurt or sour cream
·      Cut avocados into chunks and place in a food processor or blender along with the lemon (lime) juice, garlic, and about 1 cup of the stock;
·      Whirl until smooth. 
·      Transfer avocado mixture to a bowl and blend in remaining stock (about 4 cups) until soup is desired consistency.
·      Add salt and pepper to taste
·      If serving cold – cover and refrigerate until well chilled
·      If serving hot – heat, but do not boil
·      Place bacon and onion in a small serving bowl to sprinkle over individual servings.  Makes about 6 servings.
And a more complicated version From Anahad O’Connor and Dave Liberman’s : “10 Things You Should Eat: Avocado Soup”  (Note:  they do no blend the soup)
1 large leek
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 medium celery stalks, chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
½ tsp coriander
¼ tsp cumin
1 large ripe, Hass avocado, pitted, peeled, and mashed
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Serve on top:
1 small bunch scallions, finely chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Just think, if it weren’t for a little audacity, I may have lost my appetite for avocados – what with getting thrown in jail and all.  So be bold – try avocado soup.  Be really bold – try it hot!

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