Friday, January 28, 2011

Recipes on Demand

Lentil soup in a crockpot. It's easy to throw together in the morning, fills the house with delicious smells all day, and makes a satisfying meal over rice or with pitas. Top individual bowls with yogurt or sour cream or crema la vaquita, or crumbled feta or queso duro blando. Either soup could just as easily be made in a pot on the stove, with a much-reduced cooking time--about an hour from beginning to end, or until the lentils soften. (You'll note, too, that both soups can be prepared not only as vegetarian, but as vegan).

Here are two recipes for the price of one. My kids love both, although AppleApple is not a curry fan, thus making the curried soup a more difficult sell.

Curried Lentil Soup
In a small amount of olive oil, saute 2 chopped onions, 2-4 cloves garlic, and 1 tbsp minced ginger (subsitute 1/2 to 1 tsp ground ginger), and approximately 1 tsp salt. Toward the end, add 2 tbsp mild curry powder and cook off the raw flavour. Scrape into slow-cooker, adding water to the pan to get every last bit out. Black pepper may be added to the mixture, too.

Rinse 2 cups of red lentils and 1 cup of green lentils, and add to the slow-cooker. Now here's the ad hoc portion of the recipe. If you like your soup thicker, add about 8 cups of water or broth. If you like it soupier, use more liquid. I use a 3kg container of frozen homemade chicken stock, and add water, following the whims of the day.

Cook on low, covered, all day (8 hours or so).

Finally, just before the soup is ready to go to the table, stir in the juice of one lemon (or a couple tbsp of cider vinegar). Don't skip this step! It's what finishes the flavour sensation. If you have fresh cilantro, chop and add a bunch at this stage, too. If not, it's still going to taste really good.

Harira
In a small amount of olive oil, saute 2 onions. When softened, add 1 tsp each: powdered ginger, cumin, turmeric, and ground black pepper. A bit of extra cumin won't hurt, either. Fry for about a minute, then scrape into slow-cooker, adding water to loosen every last yummy bit.

Rinse 2 cups of green or brown lentils. Add to slow-cooker.

Toss in 1 whole cinnamon stick. And one can of tomatoes--diced or pureed or whole (I use a quart or half-pint jar canned last summer; size doesn't matter). If you happen to have a bunch of fresh cilantro on hand, toss it in, stalks and all (and fish out before serving).

Again, the amount and type of liquid added is up to you. I use chicken stock if it's handy, but water is a-okay. Add between 6-10 cups. If you're using water, you'll need to add approximately 1 tsp salt; with chicken stock, you may not need any. Taste before serving and re-season, if needed.

Cook on low, covered, all day (8 hours or so).

Finally, just before serving, stir in the juice of one lemon. Really, it's the secret to many good recipes. Cider vinegar makes an excellent substitute.

Note: You are most welcome to add diced carrots or shredded zucchini or other veg to either recipe! I refrain, because that level of mixing and mushing of ingredients does not please my children. I find the most popular slow cooker recipes are those with a short ingredient list. Raw or other cooked veg can be served on the side.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Flip flop

Post-yoga thought: guidance. Sometimes it takes pushing to get to where one wants to go; sometimes all the pushing in the world won't do it. I've had some doors open for me, over the years; and some stay firmly locked.

I'm not a huge fan of waiting for things to come. I prefer to be active. I'm an action verber: a do-er, a go-getter.

But I've pushed a whole lot to get to where I am right now (thinking about my writing). And I think it's time to sit quietly and wait for guidance. That sounds extremely hokey, at least to me, it does. But I think so. I think it's time. In a good way.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Word of the Year

Heart.

Because my heart, speaking literally, powers my body as I work toward the goal of completing a triathlon and/or half-marathon this year.
Because I live in my head. Because I want to allow myself to respond spontaneously, without checking in with my head. If the heart says do this, I want to. At least, most of the time. Okay, even some of the time. (I'm a little bit afraid of giving myself over to my heart; I sense that mistakes will be made; I sense also that mistakes must be made).
Because of love, compassion, empathy. Because in my efficiency, I am sometimes deficient in these most important gifts.
Because it's a challenging word, filled with challenging ideas, for me.
Because I want to explore other aspects of myself, even if it means just pushing ever so slightly against the seeming-solidity of who I am, right now.

But I'm keeping spirit, last year's word. I nominate it to be word of the decade, an umbrella under which I will develop different aspects of the spirit. What does spirit mean, to me? It means the life unseen, not of this world, and yet expressed within this world, through words and deeds. It means: there's more to life than what can be seen. It means mystery. It means being moved. Being open. Being emptied out to make room for God, for the divine.

My poetry book club met for the third time on Saturday evening. We were unable to get copies of the book we'd planned on reading, a collection by Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, we suspect, is even now hand-sewing the binding in readiment for shipment by ox-cart); so instead, we all brought favourite poems to share. We were giddy. It was ridiculously fun. We are getting to know each other that much better. And best of all, there's poetry. I was deeply moved by a number of the poems, unexpectedly moved, caught off guard: ah, there's my heart, opening.

Being moved by a poem. It feels of enormous significance to me, right now, as I struggle to balance my ambitions and my sense of self, to figure out what matters, and why.

To create something that moves someone else, it's a strange talent. It might not even be a talent, but a gift, given and taken away on a whim. It's also a strange thing to want to do: to express the mysterious, to give it shape and form, and to share the beauty, joy, grief, loneliness, ache with others. It's not a profitable enterprise. It's not of this world.

Hello, January.

My new year's anomie seems to be somewhat late-flowering; 2010 was a fine, fine year, and it seemed, at its end, that perhaps nothing needed changing, not a whit. Four weeks in, and it suddenly seems everything needs changing.

I'm conscious of my underlying desire to be independent, financially; not because my survival depends on it, but because, as Fran Lebowitz says in an interview in Bust magazine: "Here is the key to independence: earn your own money ... This is true of life--people who are paying you, whether they are paying for you like parents who pay for children or paying like a boss pays an employee, they're in charge of you. You don't want someone to be in charge of you? Don't take their money."

Now, I am in a marriage I consider happy, in a partnership I consider equal; nevertheless, the fact that I earn next to nothing, that I rely on Kevin to support our family financially, bothers me, and it has for a long time. I read that Fran L. interview on Saturday and it went click in my brain: the key to independence. (I read it out to Kevin, too, and he understood). I wish I could say that writing were my key to independence; but it's not. If my family relied on my earnings, I would have to do something else, use my current skill-set in a different way; and I can't think of any job I'd want to do that would use my current skill-set. And so, I continue to return to the question: do I want to retrain? Do I want to gain a new skill-set? Do I want to equip myself for an entirely different job?

It's not that I imagine myself never writing, were I to earn my money differently. It's that I imagine myself writing the way most writers write: look around--most writers, even successful writers, have day-jobs. The most successful writers, those earning a reasonable living from their writing, work their tails off pitching stories, writing grant requests, and working freelance from job to job until they become Mordecai Richler and editors come to them with story-requests (and I happen to know that Mordecai Richler was an extremely hard-working and not at all precious writer).

I'm not much good at pitching stories. I work pretty slowly. My overall interest, when I write, is to make something lovely, not to earn money.

And that is why I come back to the idea of retraining and earning my living in another way. Earning my living, period. I've given myself the imaginary deadline of CJ entering school, which is in a year and a half, when he starts kindergarten. I will be thirty-seven, not too old, I think, to start something new.

I'm not sure that heart relates remotely to this dilemma. Or, maybe it does and I haven't puzzled out how, yet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homemade Breakfast Pitas

This recipe makes about 32 small toaster-sized breakfast pitas. The dough is like butter. Well, it's made with butter, maybe that's why. Soft and pliable and dreamy to work with. My only reservation is that it requires a lot more yeast than conventional bread. [Note: since originally posting this recipe, I've experimented with less yeast, and have adjusted the yeast measurement accordingly].

Homemade Breakfast Pitas

Combine in a mixing bowl: 6 cups bread flour (whole wheat or some combo of white/whole wheat works well), 4-5 tablespoons honey, 3 teaspoons salt, and 6 teaspoons yeast. Add 4 tablespoons melted butter and 2 1/2 cups room-temp water. Stir well until blended. Knead for 5-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic (add flour or water as needed to reach desired consistency). The dough should be moist-ish, but not sticky.

Let rise, covered, in an oiled bowl, for an hour or two.

Preheat oven to 450.

Punch down the dough, divide in half, then divide each half into 8 pieces. Cover and let rest for 20 minutes. Then, flour a clean surface, divide each dough lump in two, and, using a rolling pin, roll each small lump into a flat circular shape, about 1/8-inch thick, or thicker, if you like a thicker pita. (It's a lot of dividing, so note that each half makes approximately 16 small pitas).

If you have a baking stone, use it. If not, flip over a cookie sheet (or two), sprinkle with water, then place as many pitas as you can on the back of the cookie sheet--I fit six on each tray. Bake until the dough puffs up, about 4 minutes. Remove and cool on rack. Apparently, if you leave the pitas in the oven too long, they won't unpuff.

Note: If you want to replicate the store-bought breakfast pitas, try adding, in small amounts, dried fruit, seeds, and/or spices at the combining or kneading stage of the recipe. My kids can't agree on which fruits/seeds/spices would be acceptable, so I'm sticking with the plain recipe for now. Plain also works well as a flat hamburger or sandwich bun.

Keep the pitas fresh by freezing them. They thaw out quickly in the toaster. Slather on honey and peanut butter, and in our house, at least, the day has a happy beginning.

(adapted from the Joy of Cooking)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sources of inspiration

Little wee writing thought to record for future use (I hope) ... I've noticed that I write the good stuff, the inspired stuff, in small batches, often unexpectedly, though also often when I have the time to hang around and spiral slowly down deep. The corollary of that phenomenon is that I spend many a writing day fooling around, sitting around in front of the computer, slightly bored, not inspired, and writing nothing of any substance or use. (And I don't mean blog entries, because I consider those relatively useful, and, even, occasionally, substantial). I mean, I write nothing of use. Period. Type, type, type, only to realize that a particular story or a particular take on a story is not meant to be; worse, that it isn't a necessary story. It doesn't long to be. (Though sometimes these ideas get recycled many years later). (So, maybe not useless, or not always useless).

Ahem. Nice circular thinking here, OCM. Very clear-headed at 10:41pm, after a good night run around the snowy neighbourhood.

My point. I had one. I want to give myself the freedom to do something else on those writing days of useless effort. Because the writing will get done--it gets done when a necessary story arises and must be told. It does. That's how I write the keepers. Yet I feel guilty because only a few days each week are meant for writing, and I go to great effort and some expense to clear the house of children, in order to write. And then along comes a writing day when I'm not inspired, not at all. What the heck to do? Can I free myself of the guilt and .... and there my imagination pulls up short. And, what? Go for a walk or a run? To a yoga class? Play the piano? Read a book? Write a letter? It has to be something spontaneous, not planned, something flexible. It doesn't have to be the same something every time, either. I'm terrified of losing my discipline; but maybe all this discipline is robbing me of experiences, of sources, of alternative creative outlets that could create connections in my mind; and it's the connections that invent necessary stories.

Maybe there are some new year's resolutions waiting for me after all. I am a generalist, and I wonder what it would feel like, what it would take, to be passionate about something more specific. Being a good writer is a fine and lovely thing, but being a good writer without a subject is futility itself. The book I'm writing has a very specific subject, and it's occupied my mind for a number of years; and I'm seeing an end in sight. What comes next? What are my obsessions, my subjects, my loves?

Word of the year ... I've got one; but I'm holding out for another post to share it. I don't have that post in me tonight.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Happy Place

Best thing about stepping away from writing week was coming downstairs and appreciating the simple pleasure of doing the dishes. That's a hard thing to appreciate most of the time, but it's such a satisfying task: the kitchen is messy, you do some work, and it's clean again. I like that kind of reward: immediate, requiring only elbow-grease.

My happy place is the kitchen. To relax, I bake. So, this weekend, I baked hermit squares, and homemade breakfast pitas. The breakfast pitas were an exciting discovery. The recipe is insanely simple (yeast, flour, water, salt, honey, and BUTTER). Since this was a first try, I made them without any additions, but may try adding some dried fruit and sweet spices, to amp up the breakfasting pleasure. They freeze easily, and can be popped into the toaster and topped with honey and peanut butter. And since breakfast pitas happen to be one of the last must-buy non-local prepared foods in our cupboards (along with rice crackers, almond milk, and some pasta), I'm pleased to find such an easy and tasty replacement. We're trying them out with hamburgers for tonight's Albus-designed supper of hamburgers and homemade french fries. (Albus-designed and Kevin-executed, it must be said).

Our family is edging toward food-weirdness, I realize. Or let's call it eccentricity. We no longer buy cereal except for special occasions (I make big batches of granola instead). I bake almost all of our bread. I'm adding breakfast pitas to that, starting now. We have glass jars of homemade yogurt lining the fridge. I freeze huge batches of chicken stock for future soups. After-school treats are homemade bars or cookies or popcorn. My favourite snack, currently, is pickled beets and turnips--also homemade (my other favourite snack, kim chi, I've not been able to replicate to satisfaction).

Well, we don't make cheese or butter, but then again we don't have a cow. Don't worry by-law officers, no plans for a backyard dairy.

Often, I open the fridge and it looks kinda bare. But the emptiness is deceiving. It's just that the raw ingredients are stored elsewhere, waiting to be made into meal. I like the way we eat. I love the way it tastes, and, the preparation is my favourite part. A good weekend afternoon, at least in part, is spent with the radio on, measuring and pouring and kneading and filling the house with good smells, while putting away food to feed my family for the coming week.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sunrise, Sunrise

What amazes me is how something doesn't exist, and then it does; and when it does, it seems always to have existed.

I want to write something about this writing week, but all I can think of to say is that I'm done. I'm done with the writing week. But I'm also done with the bulk of the writing. I stayed up late working last night, pausing only to dash out to a yoga class in between daytime writing and nighttime writing. And today, a really amazing story came.

So, I'm done.

Tinkering, up next.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing Day: The Fourth

Writing about writing while writing. I've struggled with this over the years. I want to shout: Great day! or Terrible day! or Day of massive frustration and doubt! I guess that's okay. But it can be misleading. The creation of a project stretches over such a long period of time that the emotions on an individual day say very little about its overall progress. It's like taking your temperature and trying to extrapolate from one reading your health for the next six years.

Yesterday was frustrating.

But I begin today with hope. The process is so full of walls--slamming up against them, full stop, bewildered, is this it? And then checking out the terrain. Hang on, I could dig under, or build a ladder or a flying contraption, or blast through, or turn and see where that little path in the grass is leading, the one I hadn't noticed before. The process is full of mini-breakdowns and heartbreaks, followed by mini-revelations and renewed committment.

I was up till after midnight, fomenting ideas. I wonder what will come of them today.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fear and Doubt and Chanting

Writing week. This is the official week of writing, planned many moons ago. Last week, I started the new year with an extra day and a half of writing, and a brand-new story, and inspired energy and spirit; which was quickly subtracted by losing a day and a half of writing at the end of the week due to a mild stomach virus. Thankfully, only the youngest succumbed, and it was never terrible (and when it comes to stomach viruses, I know from terrible, let me tell you; or, rather, I'd best not tell you).

Where was I?

Up and down, that was last week. I ended the week feeling low indeed, struggling with a story that has plagued me since its conception back in June. I've been telling myself (very helpfully) that the story is more ambitious than my talents. And it may be, that. Or, it may be that I've been shovelling into this one story far too much; stories can only hold what they can hold. I spent the weekend in a grumpy panicky state, distracted, anxious, wondering whether I'd lost my nerve here at the last minute; because the damn book is so close to done. This story is the last major story that needs to be written. After this, it's tinkering and chink-filling and trim.

Well.

I did what I could. I tried to remember what works. I did not curl up in bed under the covers (though it was awfully tempting). I prepared for this upcoming writing week the only way I know how: in the kitchen. I baked a batch of granola, filled a container with oatmeal cookies, converted four litres of milk into fresh yogurt, cookied up a batch of tomato sauce for quick meals this week, and finished my Sunday evening by baking four loaves of wholesome bread. I also ran errands, restocked the pantry, went for two long runs, to church, and to a kundalini yoga class. But "class" isn't the right word for this semi-regular event, led by a friend and shared with other friends; it's more like a religious experience. It's pretty much impossible to put into words. I just tried, and erased my attempt. But I think the feeling that is shared in that warm dimly lit studio room is of collective joy: individual effort that somehow becomes shared effort, appreciation, compassion.

I left that beautiful room believing myself capable of finishing the book. I also left knowing I'd scrap the story and start from scratch. I trust yoga to open me to big/simple ideas: that was my big/simple idea. I also understood the image this new story will revolve around.

I think this weekend was good for me. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways: hard not to be writing, hard to bide my time, hard to live with such uncomfortable anxiety and to be around others; but I'm proud of myself for slogging onward. It's really all that can be done when staring down doubt. In the past, I might have holed up and gone even more interior. It's difficult to talk to friends, to reach out, or even just to be out and about when in a state of anxious distraction; but that's exactly when it's so important to keep on keeping on. It's not about faking it. It's about continuing to feed yourself even when you don't feel hungry.

My writing week started yesterday, with a bang: a brand-new story to fill another chink (though not the major story). Today, I attempt it. The big one. It's going to be a whole lot smaller. Maybe it will be small enough to fit into a dimly lit warm room crowded with friends. Who are chanting. We're all chanting.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Writing Day: Plain Kate

I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I'm not sure there's another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.

When I finished writing, around eleven o'clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn't frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she'd obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn't articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.

Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she's ever known. I won't give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested "carving tools" for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).

So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).

I was most intrigued by the author's conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it's there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.

In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I'm going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate's world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that's what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don't mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it's there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn't to be sought out lightly. But anytime you've been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you've been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.

That's what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.

As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I'm making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: "You're working again?"; my husband misses me; I'm largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I'm imagining a nightmare. But I'm not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn't mean it's superficial. I couldn't go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.

Now. To see what's waiting for me today.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Newness or not


So, what's new?

We survived another holiday season intact. Even the stolen stroller story had a relatively happy ending, as we bought what is now our THIRD sturdy bike/winter-tire stroller, a thankfully inexpensive find with help from kijiji. We also bought a major heavy-duty lock (approximately the value of our new/old stroller, come to think of it) on the recommendation of the kindly police officer who took down the report, and remembered me from the first stolen stroller incident, c. June 2009.

It felt like I didn't get enough exercise or outdoor time during the holidays, but when tallied up, it was only marginally less than usual. Still, I felt off-kilter until yesterday morning, when I dashed off to the first yoga class of the year, followed by church, and it was back to the regular routine: there, I felt fabulous, grounded, much less growly, much more energetic. The late afternoon saw me baking a batch of bread, cooking tomato sauce from my canned tomatoes, making a huge pot of hot and sour soup from scratch, and a pizza, too, since the kids don't like hot and sour soup. The kids' lights were all out by 9. Kevin and I met for our usual Sunday night planning session.

Ahhhhh.

It was good to take the holiday and realize that regular life is like a holiday. I have built into the everyday so many sustaining routines that I don't feel a need to take time off or away. But I wonder: how to make room for magic and stepping outside of the bounds of everyday during the holidays. I struggle with that. It is hard to balance the work necessary to bring about such magic moments, with the peace necessary to enter into them.

These next two weeks will be different again as I am going on a writing binge. I won't be with the kids as much, and meals may be served more often from the crockpot. The plan includes an earlier bed and an earlier rise in order to exercise almost every day, as a way of kick-starting the year.

I am testing out a new word for this year, and will report back soon after meeting with my word-of-the-year partner. She should be the first to know.

This end-of-year has been different for me. I usually spend a solid chunk of time on my birthday, which falls on December 29th, journaling ideas about new projects and goals, often quite major, dreaming big shifts and possibilities. This birthday, nothing of significance cropped up. I thought and thought, and scribbled a bit, and talked it over with Kevin, but only came up with this: more of the same, please! Keep writing, keep taking photographs, keep being with the kids, keep exercising, keep spending time with Kevin, keep going to church, keep spending time with friends, keep staying open to possibilities sent by the universe. It feels a bit strange not to have a list of must-dos and want-to-dos, but I think it's okay. I am where I am.

May your year be filled with what feeds and sustains you, too--whether it's new or more of the same. Blessings.