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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

Ingredients

  • 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))

Directions

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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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:

Papdzules

Egg enchiladas smothered in pumpkin seed sauce

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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.
Filling
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.
Moussaka
Original Recipe                                                            Alternatives
3 medium eggplants
3 large onions diced
We usually use sweet onions
Butter
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
Nutmeg
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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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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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
Cilantro
·      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)
Sauté´:
1 large leek
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 medium celery stalks, chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
Add:
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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Elephants, Dolphins and Sri Lankan Lentil Pancakes with Coconut Sambol

     About every 2 -3 months, I remember with delight to make Sri Lankan lentil and rice pancakes.  In a gluten free household, they are one of our favorite breakfast foods, so hearty and satisfying – full of protein and carbs –yummy! 
     Still, I can hardly even think the words “Sri Lanka” without immediately being transported to 1984, the year we got married and the year we lived near our friends Diane and Charlie in Los Angeles.  Diane had been my best friend in high school and co-incidentally we both moved to the Los Angeles area and met engineers who got jobs for the same company, Hughes.  We were in each other’s wedding parties and married within a month of each other in the same beautiful little glass church atop Palos Verdes. Our interests ran alike: skiing, sailing, travel.  Before long we both had sailboats.  There was an undercurrent of competitiveness as one or the other of us got a bigger sailboat, or a better job, or a cuter house . . . . but I remember the intense pang of envy that came up when Diane and Charlie got the chance to travel to Sri Lanka.  They came back with totally cool stories and decorated their little house with Sri Lankan batiks and photos of themselves riding elephants! It looked so exotic, so amazing, so fun.
     They did not come back with Sri Lankan recipes, however, and the course of our lives fairly soon thereafter took us to different parts of the country to have and raise our families.  While we didn’t lose touch, we rarely saw each other for the next 25 years.  So forgive me as I meander over to another completely different memory triggered also by these pancakes, for the recipes came to me another way, years later after we had children. 
     I learned how to make this simple culinary delight in Hawaii on a trip where we spent time swimming with wild dolphins.  On this occasion we had been invited to stay with a friend who lived on the northwest corner of Oahu.  They had a little cottage a few blocks from the ocean.  She was a fellow American whom we met at a meditation retreat, married to a copper artist from Sri Lanka, who was also the primary cook in their household.  He made fabulous dishes usually featuring wild plants and exotic trees from their abundant garden and always accompanied by lentil pancakes and sambol – a coconut curry condiment.  What a sweet vacation this was for us! 
     Their neighbor, Terry Pinney, who lived on the ocean, was a fascinating woman who made her living arranging for autistic kids to swim with the wild dolphins that frequented the sea near her house.  She said she had a psychic connection with the dolphins that allowed her a closer relationship.  While this was fascinating in itself, her stories of working with autistic children were particularly heartwarming. 
     She had other stories about dolphin research too.  My favorite was about a  friend of hers who studied dolphins in captivity.  The researcher felt a little sorry for them and on a whim decided to teach the mother and baby dolphin how to paint – no kidding!! I saw the videos of it.  The researcher strapped a giant paintbrush to the head of the dolphins and then hung one giant palette of paint colors and one giant empty canvas from the dock.  The dolphins learned how to go up to the paint and get a color on their brush and then paint it on the blank canvas.  Incredible!  She did discover something as well.  The baby only painted with primary colors while the mother painted with all colors – so fascinating.  I read recently you can now arrange for a “painting with the dolphins” vacation . . . isn’t life grand?
     Anyway, Terry knew just where and when to go to find the wild dolphins.  Our friend  let us borrow her kayaks to get offshore a bit to try. At Terry’s direction, we kayaked out to an empty bay and then, as instructed, mentally called the dolphins to come find us.  Sure enough before too long a large pod came to visit.  9 year old Jaime was fearless and absolutely in kid heaven.  She jumped out of the kayak and went swimming with the pod.  One dolphin singled her out.  I can still see the look of total delight on Jaime’s face when she reported that one of the dolphins talked to her!  She said the dolphin looked her in the eyes and squeaked.  She squeaked back!  It was obviously a peak experience for her.  Unfortunately, her 6 year old little sister had a peak negative experience, deriving from a fellow kayaker who commented that the bay was teeming with tiny stinging jellyfish.  Truthfully, they did sting, but it was very slight and had no lasting ill effect and mostly just felt like tiny bits of sand brushing against you.  It was terrifying to a 6 year old, however,  and to this day Sanni is petrified of jellyfish . . . .
     When I think back to that time (minus the car theft . . . ) I remember especially the amazing time with those dolphins, the warm Hawaii breeze and sitting around a low coffee table hearing a little about life in Sri Lanka and eating fabulous homemade Sri Lankan finger food. Included is the recipe I copied down back then for the Urud Dal pancakes and Sambol condiment.
     It’s funny how life comes full circle.  Recently we got back in touch with Diane and Charlie and managed to see each other in person.  Jay started working for a company in Campbell, CA  very close to where Diane and Charlie live  in Los Gatos.  As serendipity would have it, his travels coincided with Charlie’s 50th birthday and we got to share in his celebration.  As we contemplated what gift to give to our friend whom we hadn’t seen for so long, we decided to peruse old photos from our time together in Los Angeles.  I came across a perfect one from a Halloween party long ago.  The photo is cute of the two of them and I immediately noticed in the background those beautiful Sri Lankan batiks I mentioned earlier. . .
     We had the good chance to stay overnight at Diane and Charlie’s current house–a beautiful storybook house that sits atop the hills of Los Gatos with romantic vines crawling over the back portico, a full vineyard and a to die for panoramic view of the Monterey bay– amazing!!  Sri Lankan touches still decorate the house, statues and photos of elephants here and there. 
     Diane came to visit us recently as well.  We put her in the “elephant” room and because I had recently been reminded of their trip to Sri Lanka from my trip down photo album lane, I made Sri Lankan pancakes and coconut Sambol.  We swapped stories and reminisced.  It was a perfectly easy and relaxing time–almost as if no time had passed at all.
     And without further reminiscing, here is one of the simplest most versatile and favorite recipes in my arsenal–wheat free, vegetarian, loaded with protein and delicious! 
Sri Lankan Lentil Pancakes
Original recipe                                                            My various adaptations
Leftover cooked rice – 1 – 3 cups
Leftover alternate grains – I’ve used Quinoa, brown rice, millet
Urad Dal (white lentils) – 1 ½ cups
Masur Dal (red lentils) – 1  ½ cups
Salt and water
Little bit of rice or wheat flour (optional)
omit
5 – 10 fennel (optional)
omit
     This recipe is so simple you won’t believe it – but you do have to have a little patience as it has to sit for at least 12 hours and is better the longer it sits.
·            Start with some already cooked rice or other grain. 
o   I usually do this when I happen to have some leftover from another meal.
o   Note:  this recipe is very forgiving and in true peasant cooking fashion, I never really measure anything – it is approximately equal amounts of rice and lentils (a little less lentils), but don’t take that too seriously – it seems to work no matter what the ratios . . .
·       Put cooked rice in a large bowl and add uncooked lentils. 
·       Add water to cover and some salt.  (You can add more later). 
·       You don’t have to stir or anything, just let it sit overnight. 
·       You may have to add more water if the grains and lentil absorb all the water and the mixture looks dry.
·       In the morning blend the mixture until smooth – add a little more salt.
·       Add a sprinkling of rice flour to the mixture (I often omit this stage and it still works)
·       You can go ahead and make pancakes at this point, but it is better if you let it sit for one more day.  You can let the batter sit on the counter for several more days – or put it in the refrigerator, if you prefer.
     In a large frying pan add a generous amount of oil (I usually use olive oil)  pour batter like with pancakes and smooth in a circle to thin the batter a little.  Cook this pretty slowly over medium heat – it takes a while, be patient!  When brown on one side, flip the pancake over and cook slowly on the other side.    We usually serve these with an over easy fried egg on top and often with the coconut sambol recipe (below) on the side.  It’s really good with regular salsa and avocadoes too.  We usually serve it for breakfast, but it’s equally good and filling for dinner too.
Coconut Sambol
Original recipe                                                           My adaptations
Hard coconut pieces (cut into small pieces or grated)
(either use pieces from a fresh coconut or use ready made unsweetened coconut flakes – or unsweetened grated coconut)
Handful of onion chopped
Fresh or dried chiles to taste
I often just add a little cayenne instead
Curry leaves
I often just use curry powder – about 1 -3 tsps
A little water
Optional:  shallots, garlic
I usually add salt
     Blend all ingredients together and serve in a bowl on the side.  This is another very forgiving recipe, perfect peasant style recipe.   I don’t think I have ever measured anything.  I just throw varying amounts of the above ingredients into a blender and voila! Everyone loves it–just try it!

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Thanksgiving Memories and Leftovers: Turkey Burritos!

     Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where bits and pieces of memories from years past weave their way through my mind creating a rich Thanksgiving tapestry of sorts.  So many stories come to mind and whole scenes from different eras in my life and lessons learned.
     When I was a young kid, Thanksgiving was not an extended family affair. This was because my parents were both European, and not only was our extended family too far away, they also didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  My parents, who became US citizens of their own right, were dedicated to all American Holidays, however, and to make the occasion grand they always arranged for a traditional Thanksgiving feast and for us to share the day with family friends.
     Thus, even though I am of European descent, my memories of Thanksgiving as a kid include the sound of American football playing on the TV in the background, a bowl of whole nuts next to a roaring fire, and a very traditional feast with Turkey, cornbread, stuffing, rolls, some decadent vegetables/cream/cheese casserole, yams or sweet potatoes and of course mashed potatoes and gravy.  My favorite dish was the stuffing – specifically my mom’s version – which she must have had to figure out on her own without the benefit of family tradition . . . the torch got passed, however, and when I first got married and realized we wouldn’t be able to make it home for Thanksgiving, I called my mom to get her recipe.  (Below is the well-loved index card where I recorded her recipe.)
     The morning was always dedicated to cooking, the afternoon to eating and the balance of the evening to playing games. Pie and a walk generally happened at some point during the evening festivities.  In those days, the ultimate goal was to stay up long enough to have a turkey sandwich at midnight!
     Beyond the basics of the day, my memories of Thanksgiving also come with thoughts of gratitude and grace.  There have been many Thanksgivings where one or another person held us spellbound as they recited their version of grace, or where they shared their grandmother’s favorite grace, or made up their own, or where we all contributed and reflected on what we were thankful for.
     But I remember one Thanksgiving learning about another kind of grace too.  On this Thanksgiving we had been invited to my Auntie Jeanie’s house (she was a beloved adopted “auntie”). . . and now just thinking of her immediately makes me recall the moment, while she was in the process of dying, that she asked me to speak her eulogy, and me in reflecting on her beautiful life and it’s undeniable impact on me and those around her, summed her life up in two words: “dignity and grace.” Auntie Jeannie was lovely and charming  through and through.
     On this particular Thanksgiving, as we all sat down to dinner, we became aware that a Thanksgiving Day travesty had occurred:  the turkey was burned to an absolute crisp.  Auntie Jeannie, however, did not fret for even a second.  She never apologized.  She never worried about her cooking or what we all might be thinking or what we were going to do without a turkey.  She simply put the charcoal black turkey on a beautiful serving platter in the middle of the table and said simply “Oh, it looks bit black”.  Not a single additional word was said.  And, with that leadership, we all took heed and turned the focus back to each other and the conversation to more interesting topics.  There was plenty of other food and we feasted gloriously, turkey or not.
     To me this simple act captured the essence of grace.  She knew instinctively what was important that day–and the fact that she had burned the turkey was not the most important thing, not even worthy of further comment really.  We were, after all, ultimately most grateful to be spending the day together and enjoying each other’s company.
     Now so many years later, our Thanksgiving feast has had to change to accommodate wheat free, meat free, sugar free dietary constraints.  Thus many of the stalwart favorites that seem to be the cornerstones of a Thanksgiving feast are not options–is this a travesty?  Not a chance–no matter what ultimately ends up on the table, we get to spend the day together cooking and conversing – what could be better?
     Below is our menu from this year’s Thanksgiving feast:
·      One small turkey breast (for the non-vegetarians)
·      One Quorn Turk’y Roast (a meat-free, non soy product)
·      Gluten Free Vegetarian stuffing (see below)
·      Mashed Potatoes
·      Vegetarian Gravy (Allrecipes.com)
·      Red Onion, Orange and Grapefruit salad
·      Green Beans with shallots and onions (WholeFoodsmarket.com)
·      Sweet Potato and Pistachio Quinoa (Food.com)
·      Stevia Sweetened Pumpkin Pie in a nut crust
     I don’t plan to write out all the recipes–just the gluten free vegetarian stuffing, (But, if you are interested, feel free to contact me for any of the recipes above) It was a fabulous feast!  Old stories were told and new ones were born . . . .
Gluten Free Vegetarian Stuffing:
Mom’s recipe                                                Udi’s                                                Mine
1 lb loose pork sausage – spiced with salt, pepper, nutmeg, sage, poultry seasoning
Omit –see seasonings added below
Prepared spiced bread crumbs (Pepperidge Farms)
1 loaf Udi’s Whole Grain Gluten Free Bread; 1 loaf Udi’s White Sandwich Gluten Free Bread
1 loaf Schar Classic White gluten free bread; ½ loaf gluten free rye bread
2 -3 onions chopped
2 onions chopped
2 onions chopped
Chopped celery (lots)
½ cup chopped celery
1+ cups chopped celery
Homemade chicken broth
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 cup vegetable broth
1 egg optional
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 eggs, lightly beaten
chopped parsley
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup chopped flat parsley
1 Tbl chopped flat parsley
3 Tbl chopped fresh sage
3 Tbl chopped fresh sage
½ cup chopped fennel
1 Tbl ground fennel seed
Some of mom’s seasonings added to taste:  nutmeg, rosemary, thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to tasteMom’s version:  Fry pork then sauté onions in pork fat
··    Mom’s version:  Fry pork then sauté onions in pork fat
·      Gluten Free version – make bread cubes:
o   toast bread and cut into cubes, put in a bowl with parsley sage, salt and pepper
·      Vegetarian version:  sauté onion in olive oil
·      To onion mixture add fennel, celery
·      Combine onion mixture with bread crumbs  and add eggs, stock, cream and gently toss
·      Add any extra seasoning to taste
·      Transfer to a buttered shallow baking dish and bake covered for 30 minutes at 325 degrees; to brown cook uncovered for an additional 20 minutes
——-
So Thanksgiving, 2011 has come and gone, but I will leave you with one final postscript and my favorite recipe using Thanksgiving leftovers, which I picked up from my mother-in-law and which has become a tradition in our house too:
Turkey Burritos!
These turkey burritos are no ordinary burritos —no these infamous burritos include all the thanksgiving dinner leftovers:
·      mashed potatoes
·      turkey (cut into cubes) or Quorn
·      stuffing
·      green beans or other vegetable casserole
·      gravy
·      sweet potatoes
·      cranberry sauce
·      everything! – all mixed up in one big skillet.
     After heating and mixing all the leftovers in one big skillet, you wrap it all up in a tortilla (corn or flour) and add a little homemade salsa (tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno) and voila! Yum!!! – McCandless Family Turkey Burrito leftovers — perfect peasant cooking food.
     So, take a look in your fridge – are there still Thanksgiving Day leftovers?  Forget about Turkey soup – make Turkey Burritos.  You will love them.

And last but not least my mom’s stuffing recipe, faithfully recorded and, as I mentioned, showing much love from Thanksgivings past . . .

 

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Lummi Island Holiday, Howard, and Hot and Sour Soup

     What would Thanksgiving be without Hot and Sour Soup?  Such is the tradition in our family . . . 
     It’s funny how traditions get started and then how they get maintained.  As a family grows, you come to develop your own rituals and quirks.  We celebrate birthdays in the morning, for instance, by waking the birthday person up early singing and bearing tea, breakfast in bed and presents.  True – it is slightly tormenting – but sweet!  Over the years, when the kids were young and we were all living in the same state, we figured out how and where to celebrate different holidays, delegating Thanksgiving to Lummi Island at my in laws up on Lummi Island and Easter to Whidbey Island at my parents.  (Were we spoiled or what?!!) Both developed into unique and festive extended family occasions with certain ritual traditions.  Hot and Sour Soup on Thanksgiving Eve became one of those cherished traditions. 
     It was started many years ago by my father-in-law, Howard.  Howard had an interesting life, growing up one of 14 kids on a farm in Pennsylvania and ending up on six acres of forest on a tiny island, Lummi Island, in the Pacific Northwest.  He made his way on the island as handy man and house remodeler, and was plenty busy taking care of his customers, but he always a few other interests going as well, such as building his own home from the ground up, and he wasn’t afraid to start learning something new.  Well into his middle age he took up saxophone, for instance, and for a while studied and grew bonsai trees.  Then there was his stint as a volunteer fireman and his hobby for fixing up old cars, which ultimately led to converting an old shed to a complete paint shop and resulted in a gorgeous poppy orange fully converted 1965 mustang. 
     But the hobby I want to talk about, is the time he decided to learn how cook Chinese food and, in particular, his interest in perfecting Hot and Sour Soup.  It all culminated around Thanksgiving one year.  This particular year when we arrived on Lummi the evening before as we were inclined to do to prolong the holiday, we were greeted with a steaming bowl of homemade Hot and Sour Soup – oh my was that delicious after our longish drive with young kids!!–peppery hot, in a rich broth with soft bits and crunchy bits and all sorts of new and interesting flavors.  It was an instant hit.  “How did you make this?” we cried out – “it’s wonderful!”.  “Oh it’s no big deal,” he said, pleased that we appreciated it. “You just throw a bunch of ingredients into the pot.”  (yum, just my kind of meal!)
    And so it came to be that each year as we approached Thanksgiving, we’d beg Howard  “Please make Hot and Sour Soup again!!!!  We have to have it!!”  For truthfully, even though we would always also have a gorgeous traditional Thanksgiving feast – it was our secret favorite part.  Thanksgiving Eve had to start with Hot and Sour Soup and then after all the gorging was over, the perfect night cap was a little bowl of Hot and Sour Soup to end it all too.
     Howard passed away in August several years ago now (although he still visits me in my dreams from time to time), and I remember as we were approaching Thanksgiving that year, it suddenly dawned on me that he wouldn’t be there to make the Hot and Sour Soup! – a small thing, I know, but somehow important.  I realized that this had become a beloved tradition in our family and the baton had to be passed along.  If we waited too long, his recipe might be lost.
     I called Sandy on the spot and asked her did she know where Howard kept his recipe for Hot and Sour Soup because I wanted to carry on the tradition and make it.  She thought she did and hunted through the kitchen announcing she had it along with his notes from his different trials and errors.  She started reading and I realized I didn’t even have a paper and pen handy.  I grabbed the nearest thing I could find – a bank deposit envelope – and furiously began scribbling as Sandy looked through his books and notes.  I ran out of space and had to open the envelope up and keep writing on the other side.  Sandy and I cried as we interpreted and copied his notes, but it was a good cry . . .
     That year, and every year since, I’ve made Howard’s Hot and Sour Soup–adding a couple touches of my own and now making a vegetarian version too.  I keep thinking I should transcribe the notes I took that day – but I can never do it.  I love that tear water and food stained bank envelope.  It captures perfectly that moment of realizing we had to continue Howard’s tradition and invites me to intentionally pause to remember all the little things about him and about that era when the whole extended family got together – before we got relocated across the country, before the kids grew up and went away to college, before Howard died.
     So, as a prelude to some recipes from the rest of our equally unusual Thanksgiving Feast– which this year will be Meat Free, Wheat Free, and Sugar Free . . . I share with you my favorite part of the annual feast:
Howard’s Hot and Sour Thanksgiving Eve Soup 
(serves 6 as is – but we usually triple it)
 
    Howard’s version                                                My vegetarian adaptations and notes:
6 cups chicken broth
6 cups vegetable broth
2 – 3” squares of firm tofu (1 package)
Note:  cut these in matchsticks
½ lb pork – cut in 1/8” wide strips
Omit
Tofu/Pork marinade:
        1 tsp soy sauce
I use wheat free tamari
        1 tsp rice wine vinegar
        ½ tsp cornstarch
        ¼ tsp dark sesame oil
6 dried Chinese black mushrooms or shiitake 
Note:  soak these for 15 – 30 minutes in very hot water , drain and shred 
10 wood ears
Note:  soak these in a different bowl in very hot water, cut off hard edges and shred 
8 Tiger Lily buds ( I add these)
2/3 small can bamboo shoots
Note: drained and slivered
One small can water chestnuts
Note:  drained and sliced
Combine:
   3 ½ Tbl cornstarch and 7 Tbl water
Combine:
   3 Tbl soy sauce
I use wheat free tamari
   3 Tbl rice wine vinegar
   3 Tbl minced ginger
   2 Tbl minced scallions
   2 tsp sesame oil
   1 tsp pepper (or to taste)
Note:  sometimes I use white pepper too
2 large eggs beaten lightly
1 tsp each salt and sugar
(I don’t worry about this much sugar)
2 Tbl rice wine vinegar
Green onions minced for garnish
     A note about the ingredients in this recipe.  There are really only 3 unusual ingredients in this recipe:  chinese black mushrooms or shiitake, wood ears (another mushroom) and Tiger Lily buds all of which you can find at an asian grocery.  Tiger Lily’s are the only ingredient that you probably have to go to an oriental grocery store for.  Usually you can find the dried black mushrooms or shiitake and the wood ears at a store like Whole Foods.  You can make this without the Tiger Lily buds.
 
     You will need several bowls for combining different portions of this recipe.
In bowl #1 combine:
  • 1 tsp soy sauce (tamari)
  • 1 tsp rice wine/vinegar
  • ½ tsp cornstarch
  • ¼ tsp sesame oil
  • pork slices. 
  • Set aside for 25 minutes
Note:  I don’t use pork so I marinade my tofu in this mixture – adding more in the proper ratio if needed
In bowl #2 soak:
  • 6 dried Chinese black mushrooms in very hot water for about 15 minutes, then drain and shred
In bowl #3 soak:
  • 10 wood ear in very hot water – cut off hard edges and shred
In bowl #4 combine:
  • 3 Tbl soy sauce (tamari)
  • 3 Tbl rice wine vinegar
  • 3 Tbl minced ginger
  • 2 Tbl minced scallions
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp pepper (you may add more later to taste)
In a large pot bring the following to a boil:
  • 6 cups of broth (you may choose to add more later)
  • 1 tsp each sugar and salt
  • 2 Tbl rice wine vinegar (or a little less)

Add:

  •      Pork mixture
  •      Tofu (cut into matchsticks)
  •      Black Mushrooms, Wood Ear and Tiger Lily buds
  •      Bamboo shoots
  •      Water chestnuts

Bring back to boil then skim off froth and add: 

  • Cornstarch mixture (3 ½ Tbl cornstarch + 7 Tbl water) to large pot

Cook 1 minute to thicken, then remove from heat and add:

  • 2 large beaten eggs by stirring them into the big pot with a chopstick
  • Soy sauce (tamari) mixture from bowl #4
Taste and determine if more rice vinegar or pepper is needed
—–
     And here, capturing my own wabi sabi method for preserving recipes, the bank envelope on which I furiously scribbled Howard’s recipe:
 
 

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