Collards with artichoke hearts, olives and capers

Collards with artichoke hearts, olives and capers

Collards with artichoke hearts, olives and capers

Isaac carried his new superhero to school today. He’s made of bright pink pipe cleaners (the superhero, not Isaac.) His name is eel man. Isaac started telling me a story about how eel man made a giant ball of electricity and threw it in the ocean and then… “Is eel man a good guy or a bad guy?” I asked. Turns out he’s both. “Ah,” I said, “So he’s morally complicated.” Yeah. He’s good when he thinks it would be fun to be good. Well, we got back to the story, but it had changed a little. I could hear the little wheels whirring in Isaac’s head. “Wait, I’m talking to mom, and she’s actually listening to me.” Suddenly eel man’s exploits seemed a little too dangerous for all of the innocent bystanders who might be bobbing in the waves of eel man’s ocean. In the new ending, eel man cuts the nets of fishermen to free the fish. Which proves how well Isaac knows me, but is also morally complicated, if you think about it too much, because now what will happen to the poor fisherman and his imaginary starving family? Everything is morally complicated if you think about it too much! And I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good to think about it too much, and try to find some sort of balance that helps you navigate waters made choppy by giant balls of electricity. I’ve been reading my new biography of Jean Vigo. His father took the nomme de guerre Miguel Almereyda, and anagram for “there’s the shit.” He had a hard life, he had plenty of reasons to be angry at the world. His family abandoned him, and as a teenager he found himself sick, alone and starving. He was imprisoned several times as a boy…once for “borrowing” money to pay rent, and once for attempting to blow up a pissoir, although he was so worried about hurting innocent people that he bungled the whole effort. He was sent to prison none-the-less, where he was kept in solitary confinement and semi-darkness and abused by sadistic warders. He found comfort and friendship amongst the anarchists, communists, socialists and syndicalists, and he found an outlet for his passionate anger at society. It’s so strange to read about this world, so morally complicated as to be contradictory–so appealing and flawed, so concerned with organizing and yet so chaotic. We meet violently angry pacifists, militant anti-militarists. They started a newspaper and words were their weapons. Their ideals changed subtly all the time as the world about them changed, and they spoke with complete certainty and passion about each changing belief. Their words were so effective that they were received with fear and distrust as if they had been actual weapons. Almereyda found himself in and out of prison, sentenced again and again for articles that questioned the system, that encouraged strikes by workers and soldiers. Everything fell apart with WWI. Everything changed in ways that were beyond Almereyda’s control. But it seems that he and his friends still struggled to make sense of it, they continued to write about it, they tried to ensure that the changes that came with the war were good for the people, for the workers, for the poor. And many years later, his son Jean would make films that celebrated revolution and anarchy, but glowed with love for all people and reverence for all life, and these would be feared and banned, too. But they would live on as a testament to the power of word and image, to the revolutionary power of art. It’s a funny old world.

Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love collards! I’ve never treated them quite like this, but I thought it was delicious. Collards have a textural assertiveness that went perfectly with the bright sharp flavors of capers and olives. This was very simple to put together. If you added some beans to the dish (white would be nice!) and served it with rice or pasta, you’d have a quick meal.

Here’s Rebel Waltz from The Clash
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Collards with walnuts, corn and smoked gouda

Collards with corn, walnuts and smoked gouda

Collards with corn, walnuts and smoked gouda

Sometimes I’ll get a little speck of light in my vision, like a sunspot. And it will grow, and start to shimmer. It will take the shape of a laurel branch, climbing up the side of one eye. It will be jagged and flashing and electric. I can see around it, but I can’t see through it, and half of my vision will be obscured. Between me and the world is an odd animate light, sparkling and growing. It’s a little rip in the fabric, a small malfunction of the wiring. If this was a science fiction movie, it would be that moment when you’d say, “My god, I’m a robot! How long has this been true? Is anything real? Are my memories my memories? Have I actually felt all that I’ve felt and done all that I’ve done?” And then you’d look in the mirror and part of your skin would be torn off, and wires would be poking out, and sparks would start shooting all over the place! But it’s not a science fiction movie, and so it’s not the moment that I discover that I’m a robot, but that I’m a human, which is equally strange. Maybe more so. The frantic glow fades, eventually, but I always feel discombobulated for some time – sensitive to light, and wary of another episode. It’s hard to shake the strangeness of realizing that you’re a person, a bundle of thoughts and recollections and hopes and worries and tastes, looking out at the world through this strange, warm, vulnerable, incomprehensibly busy body. It feels so odd to discover that what I see – the world around me, my vision – is who I am. My impressions of the world, gathered from all of my senses, are more closely connected to my sense of myself than other people’s impressions of me, and this must be true for everybody! Each person is the world that they create around themselves as they experience life! It’s a weirdly freeing thought! (What is she going on about?) This morning I had the little shimmering light in my eye, but it never grew, it faded without incident. Obviously, it still left me feeling a little blurry, though, or I wouldn’t be rambling on in this ridiculous fashion!

Let’s talk about collards instead. This is all part of my fiendish plan to make collards as popular as kale. Why does kale get all of the attention? Just cause it’s frilly and pretty? Well, collards are delicious, too, despite their dull surface and flat leaves! I do love collards, they’re so nicely substantial. I mixed them, in this instance, with walnuts and corn, for a little crunchy sweetness, and smoked gouda, for a little melty smokiness. I also used pomegranate molasses, which is just enough strange and sweet to lively up this dish! This is a good side dish, but if you ate it with some rice (and beans, even) it would make a good meal.

Here’s the Ink Spots with When the Sun Goes Down (you don’t get sunspots any more!!)

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Collards and red beans with smoky masa harina pudding-bread

Masa harina bread and collards

Masa harina bread and collards

So I seem to have brought some sort of stomach bug home from work this weekend. Ug. I feel better now, but I’m tired. I spent yesterday morning in bed with my eyes closed feeling like a big ball of nothing but sick-feeling pain. And then as I started to feel better, I watched the reflection from the windows on the ceiling, and the way it changed like rippling water every time a car passed the house. I felt like I was rocking a little, and the cars sounded like waves as they crashed by in the wet street. Did you know that the word “nauseous” comes from the latin which comes from the Greek for “ship”? I felt like I was on a bright ship lurching along on clear, light, choppy waters. I thought that this would be a good time to really think. Not just about all of the odd figures I saw in the brown patches on our cow-print curtains, but to think about big things, about everything. To form thoughts and connect thoughts, and try to sort things out, and try to remember, and try to plan. It turns out lying in bed fighting off nausea is not a good time to think. I felt very old and not strong enough to fight off a creeping feeling of dispiritedness, and now I feel very tired. And that’s all I’m going to say about that! I’ll talk instead about Joan Aiken, because I love Joan Aiken, and I find her incredibly comforting. Joan Aiken was a writer of brilliant children’s books that never caught on in America, which I think is a crime. Her characters are so lively and engaging, her settings, with their invented historical epochs, so appealing. I love her vast knowledge on small and eccentric subjects – fabrics and styles, music and paintings, nautical matters. And food. Joan Aiken’s books are delicious. She brings her characters into situations of great deprivation – they’re cold, wet, hungry, poor and miserable – and then through some gracefully wrought turn of events, they suddenly find themselves in warmth and comfort, with something tasty and toasty to sooth them. Even the names of the dishes bring solace – pipkins of soup, hampers of pies, and hot possets for all! In the way that certain foods can bring comfort when you’re ill, once you’re well enough to think about food at all, and certain books can bring comfort when your head isn’t so achey you can’t read, Aiken’s warm and timely meals strengthen and console, not just the characters, but the reader, too. Viz: Bonnie and Sylvia are ice skating through the grounds of Willoughby Chase when they find themselves impossibly far from home, with snow falling thick and fast, and wolves gathering in the shadows. What do they do? Take shelter in Simon’s cave, of course! Once they’re snug with his bees and his geese, our lithe and bright-eyed Simon makes them little cakes in the fire. “The boy had separated the fire into two glowing hillocks. From between these he now pulled a flat stone on which were baking a number of little cakes. The two children ate them hungrily as soon as they were cool enough to hold. They were brown on the outside, white and floury within, and sweet to the taste. ‘Your cakes are splendid, Simon,’ Bonnie said, ‘How do you make them?’ ‘From chestnut flour, Miss Bonnie. I gather up the chestnuts in the autumn and pound them to flour between two stones.'” As they’re leaving the cave, “The boy Simon dug in shallow sand at the side of the cave and brought out a large leather bottle and a horn drinking cup. He gave the girls each a small drink from the bottle. It was a strong, heady stuff, tasting of honey. ‘That will hearten you for the walk,’he said. ‘What is it, Simon?”Metheglin, miss. I make it in the summer from heather honey.'” OF COURSE HE DOES! Of course Simon gathers chestnuts in autumn and heather in the summer, and makes lovely restorative cakes and tinctures with them! And I love him for it! I could make a list a mile long of scenes such as this…spice cakes and plum brandy, ginger bread and applesauce, thick comforting chowder. But I’ll give you this bittersweet example, instead. I love Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea trilogy. It’s so dark and wild and richly imagined; the characters so strong and complicated and bizarre. The central figure, of course, is Felix. He lives in Spain with his cold and unloving grandfather and great aunts. His only friend is Bernadina the cook. Her bustling kitchen is a haven for him, and she shows her love with special treats she prepares for him. When she dies, he visits her kitchen…”It looked as if she had been making herself a merienda just before she had taken ill. A pestle and mortar stood on the big scrubbed table with some chocolate in it she’d been pounding, and a platter held a pastry cake sprinkled with salt, my favorite food. Maybe she was going to sneak it up to me in my room. Now I couldn’t touch a crumb of it.” Poor Felix! One of my very great pleasures, here at The Ordinary, is to bring attention to books and movies and songs that I think should be better known. Joan Aiken is one of those things, in America at least. Put down your sparkly vampires and your derivative wizards, and discover the mad, wild, dark and beautiful world of Joan Aiken. It’s like a warm, restorative, complexly-seasoned posset!

This meal was very comforting in its way. The masa harina bread was soft and dense inside, which is why I think it’s pudding like, and it has the lovely mysterious flavor of masa harina. I love collards! They’re quickly becoming my favorite green. I don’t know why they’re not as popular as kale, but I’d like to announce my campaign to make them so!! Here they’re sauteed with red beans, tomatoes, and lots of lovely spices, like ginger, smoked paprika, and cardamom, to make them spicy, smoky and a tiny bit sweet. Delicious!

Here’s Bessie Smith with Thinking Blues.
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Collards, roasted mushroom and pecan pie with a spicy smoky crust

Collard pecan pie

Collard pecan pie

Malcolm came home from school yesterday and lay on the couch and wept. I asked him if something upsetting had happened, and he said, no, he was just tired, and he really wanted some pineapple. We’d bought a pineapple on Monday, and I kept telling him it wasn’t ripe, because, honestly, I can never tell! The last time we bought one I prudently waited until it was moldy and disintegrating, just to be sure. So I gave him a dish of pineapple, and I got myself a glass of wine, and he got a blanket, and we cuddled on the couch and watched a dumb show about Merlin. And then snow began to fall, thick and fast – the prettiest snow I’ve ever seen. It sparkled! It looked like crystals falling from the sky and forming an improbably light, even blanket on the ground. And when David came home we went out to dinner. We almost never go out to dinner, just the four of us, maybe twice a year. It’s so nice when we do! I felt so happy being with my family, in our little booth, eating delicious and unexpected food. We always bring a blank book when we go out – the same book each time, and we all take turns drawing in it. We have quite a collection of crazy pictures, and each small sketch transports us back to the good meal we had and the good talks we had. Last night we talked about the things that might have been worrying Malcolm. We talked about a game his whole class plays, and he said that by the end everybody is mad at each other because they’re competing, and that doesn’t feel good. He leaned up against me. Both boys ate with good appetites, with glee, and Malcolm said, “I love food!” And, of course, I love that he loves food. We talked about all the places we’ll travel, when we’ve got the time and money. We talked about taking a plane somewhere with no plans, and just making it up as we go along. Finding a place to stay, finding a lovely restaurant, with little booths, where we can eat strange and wonderful food, and draw in our book, and talk. And then we drove home through a glittering white world to our old warm house. A good night!
Isaac's beautiful landscape from our restaurant book

Isaac’s beautiful landscape from our restaurant book

I love collard greens. I love their substantial texture, and their mildly assertive taste. I like to pair them with smoky crispy things. I thought of the crust in this as being almost like bacon – crunchy and smoky with smoked paprika. The pecans added a nice crunch, and the roasted mushrooms brought their lovely savory, meaty flavor.

Here’s Fox in the Snow by Belle and Sebastian.

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Collards, tomatoes, olives, and pecans and THE ORDINARY MANIFESTO

Collards, olives, and pecans


Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog! Our little Ordinary is growing up. I’ve rambled on from week to week, with no apparent purpose or direction. Sometime over the summer, on a warm, golden, unplanned day, the kind it hurts to think about now that it’s getting cold and every moment is scheduled, I sat beside a creek watching my boys catch water bugs. I thought about The Ordinary, and I realized that it has a pattern and a purpose. I’ve been struggling to define it in my head, but I think I do actually have a hidden agenda, and it all stems from the idea of ordinariness. I’d like to celbrate the ordinary, and the day-to-day, and to say that ordinary things, well-done and well-observed, take on beauty and value. When I realized this, in the summer, I got very excited like a little kid, and thought about writing a manifesto (which is something I would have done as a child). And then, like a little kid, I got distracted, and other concerns took over. But on this, the auspicious occasion of our one-year anniversary, I’d like to attempt to collect my addled thoughts in…

THE ORDINARY MANIFESTO

* We believe, as the Specials say, that nobody is special, which means that everybody is. Everybody is strange and surprising and capable of remarkable things.

* We believe that there’s great value in just being alive, staying alive, and keeping the ones you love alive, if you notice everything and question everything as you move through life.

* I joke a lot about championing mediocrity and lack of ambition, but I’m speaking of those things as they relate to our current definition of success. We believe that the way we define success, and the achievements that we value and reward in our society are skewed. Compassion, kindness and imagination deserve more recognition than wealth, fame, or salesmanship, and are worth passionately pursuing.

* We believe that there’s value in all jobs, if they’re done with love and care, and …

* … We believe that this includes the job of caring for a home and raising children. It’s a cliché to say that this is the hardest or most important job, but there is some truth to that old chestnut. Nobody should be criticized for maintaining a career outside the home while they raise children, but nobody should be deemed a failure if they decide to put that career on hold. We realize that it can seem like the most ordinary job at times, in its relentless everyday-ness, so it is important to notice everything, and to approach it with creativity.

* We believe that creativity is valuable – for each person and for all people in a society. This is true on a large scale – in the creation of books and films and music, (and the reception of those things), but it is true on the small scale of the ordinary as well. Day-to-day life can be elevated by the application of imagination and observation. Preparing meals, for instance, which seems like a tedious chore to many, can become a source of joy as well as sustenance. In all creative endeavors, as in life, soul, grace, and honesty are more important than cleverness or talent.

* We believe there’s great beauty in simple things, if they’re well-seasoned. This is true in art and food and life.

* We believe there’s beauty in economy – in using every part of something – in having what you need and using what you have.

* We believe there’s beauty in the every day – in things that you do every day. There’s beauty in the rhythm and the pattern and the expected, and in the times that the pattern changes, even for a moment, which can make you step outside of your expectations and seem very perfect.

* We believe that there’s beauty in art that celebrates the ordinary, and in ordinary life lived as art. When something is captured and observed, when it is noticed, it can become important.

* We believe it’s important to find balance in your life – to find a way that you’re comfortable taking things from the world and giving them back to the world.

So that’s it, for now! These observations are subject to change and open to discussion!!

Collards, tomatoes, olives and pecans might seem like a simple dish with which to celebrate The Ordinary’s birthday, but I think it’s perfect. It’s made of fairly humble foods, but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve made in some time. It uses vegetables we’ve gotten from the farm, it’s very simply seasoned, but it turned out to have such a nice combination of flavors and textures. Sweet, spicy, salty, acidic, and soft and crunchy, all at the same time. It was a very delightful surprise.

Here’s a short list of ONE songs, to mark the occasion.

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Collard, black-eyed pea and pepperjack dumplings

Collard and black-eyed pea dumplings with pepper jack

At the beginning of the year Malcolm had to fill out some sort of worksheet to introduce himself to his new teacher. What does he want to be when he grows up? A mailman! Wot? I thought, not famous artist or rock star or astronaut? “Mailman” seemed like such an unlikely answer for a ten-year-old. Obviously, it’s a good, solid job, with benefits, and one anybody should be proud to hold. But our Malcolm is not a practical man. He’s zany and disorganized and fantastically impulsive. Sometimes it seems as though he’s got more physical and creative energy than can be safely contained in one human being. The more I think about it, though, the more I love his answer. I like the idea of having a sort of regular, down-to-earth, ordinary job (like, ahem, waitressing, say), and having the rest of your life be the outlet for your creative energy. I believe that it’s grounding. I believe that working with people and serving people is inspiring and that anything you do, creatively, benefits from the sort of warmth of understanding you achieve when you feed a person or ring up their groceries or deliver their mail. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that artists are a refined class unto themselves, with supersensitive souls and a delicate constitutions. Everybody, human and animal alike (I believe) is possessed of a potentially rich and receptive sensibility, if they take the trouble to open themselves up, and the time to notice. And plenty of well-known artists have had very ordinary jobs. T.S. Eliot worked as a teacher and a banker, and apparently scribbled his poems on matchbook covers. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. (And I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, if anybody else would like to chime in, here.) Obviously, it would be wonderful to have a rewarding career, creatively and financially, and find everything you need in one package. But that’s not a reality for many people. For me, the important thing is not what you do for a living, or how much money you make, but how you occupy your mind while you’re doing your job. I can just see Malcolm, walking from house-to-house, his mind a-buzz with crazy schemes and inventions. (In fact, he once described a scenario in which he worked as a mailman, and as well as people’s mail, he’d deliver trash from house to house. He’s a big fan of trash, and likes to make new things out of it. So he’d deliver one person’s cool garbage to somebody else who could use it to make something they need. One person’s trash is another person’s inspiration.) I believe this applies to motherhood as well. It’s so hard to be a mom sometimes – you’re criticized for working, criticized for giving up work to stay home. It can lead to real feelings of failure! (Which, in turn, makes you a worse mother, which makes you feel like more of a failure, and on and on…) Whether you stay at home or you’re out of the house building a career, you can always have something that you’re working on, in your head or on paper or on canvas or on film. You can delight in your children as your creation, and celebrate their imagination.

The very act of cooking dinner in the evening can be an expression of your artistry! And you’re sustaining your family! Double plus bonus points!! This weekend at work I didn’t make very much money, but I was allowed to take home some leftover cubes of pepper jack cheese. Score! And we got some collards from the farm. I’ve been dreaming about making some sort of savory pastry – crunchy outside, soft and warm inside, with lots of melting cheese (it’s started to get very cold here!). I love secret melted cheese! So I decided to make a cornbread crust, and inside have a layer of collards and black-eyed peas surrounding a big soft melty bit of spicy cheese. I thought these were so delicious, I was quite proud of them, and gobbled them up. They were fun to make, too. And as David pointed out – black-eyed peas and collards are both considered lucky foods!

Here’s a song David discovered that’s been stuck in my head (in a good way) ever since he played it for me. I find it quite moving! It’s Neneh Cherry and the Thing with Dream Baby Dream.

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Collards with spicy soft potatoes

Collards and potatoes

We had a slow weekend at work, and I passed the time by reading some of the free publications in the lobby. Welladay! One particular publication had me in such a tizzy that I stood in the wait station banging my forehead against a shelf and muttering aloud, to the amusement of my co-workers. It was an editorial about honesty, and in particular about the value of honesty in politics. (Aha! I thought, he’ll discuss Paul Ryan’s little flight of fancy at the Republican National Convention.) I knew I shouldn’t start reading it. I knew I should have stopped reading it. But, I tell you, it was like a verbal train wreck. I couldn’t look away. As a former copyeditor, reading this editorial gave me the vapors. The author’s style is very distinctive. He begins by stating an opinion. Generally a far-fetched opinion, and one designed to offend as many people as possible. Then he says, “You might not agree with this, you probably don’t agree with this. But you can’t dispute it. It is a fact, an indisputable fact. They’ve done studies.” Does he say who has done which studies, or tell you where to find them? He does not. He’ll do this several times in his little essay, and you can feel him shivering with delight at the idea that he’s making so many people angry, but that they can’t dispute his incisive reasoning. And then he makes lists. Halfway through a sentence he’ll stop and try to define something and he’ll tie himself in so many knots that he gets lost and wanders for half a paragraph, and then he’ll try to find his way back into the sentence, and bring it in for a landing, but it’s too late. Ironically, this week he derailed himself by attempting to define the word, “ignorance.”

Oddly, I was thinking about honesty on the way to work this weekend. I remember discovering, when I was little, that telling a lie was a lot more trouble than it was worth, because you had to remember the lie that you told, and it generally spawned more lies, and you had to remember those as well. Oh, what a confusion! I value honesty in human beings, of the not-telling-a-lie variety. And I value emotional honesty, as well, in art, and music, and film, and literature. In my opinion, all of the cleverness and skill and talent in the world are worth nothing if they’re not backed by emotional honesty. It’s a difficult quality to define, but you know it when you see it. For me, it’s closely connected to soulfulness and grace – two other indefinable but necessary qualities. And, as I was thinking about it this weekend, I realized that part of the reason I love certain hip hop artists is that they contain high levels of these particular elements. It’s a fact. You might not agree with me, but you can’t dispute it, because it’s indisputable. They’ve done studies. So many studies.

For instance, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, which I know I’ve mentioned before, is, to me, full of honesty and, well, soul. And they mention collards, which allows me to gracefully guide this train of thought into the station. We got some collards from the farm, and I was thrilled. I thought about preparing them in a similar style to a dish we have at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant. Flavorful, but simple, with soft, comforting boiled potatoes. So that’s what I did. I really loved this dish! I think I practically ate the whole thing all by myself, and growled at anybody that tried to take a spoonful.

Here’s Goodie Mob’s Soul Food. (again!)

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Collards with pink beans and crispy masa harina crackers

Collards and red beans

As I hinted yesterday, cooler weather marks the highly anticipated return to stew season, here at The Ordinary. The excitement is palpable – akin to fashion week, really. What kinds of greens will we be eating this year? Will we be cooking red beans or black beans? Small white beans or large white beans? Are chickpeas still in fashion? Of course they are! And we’ll be cooking all the beans! All the greens!

In another lifetime, I might have gone to Gobelins, an animation school in Paris. They produce such clever, beautiful films. Here’s one called Rhapsodie pour un pot-au-feu, which I will share with you as a celebration of stew season…

This particular stew is a little spicy. It has collards, pink beans, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. It’s saucy and flavorful, seasoned with sage, smoked paprika, and cumin. If you can’t find pink beans, you could use red, pinto, or roman. I made the little crackers with masa harina, and they’re yummy, too. They have a little kick, because they contain cayenne. I fried half in olive oil on top of the stove, and I baked half in olive oil in the oven. The baked ones came out very crispy and quite hard – perfect for dipping in soup, although a little too hard to eat on their own – like rusks, I guess. The fried ones are nice as a snack, though – crispy outside, soft inside.

Masa harina crackers

Here’s Jimmy Smith with Come on Baby, from Home Cookin.
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