Butternut ricotta kofta with pistachio-pumpkinseed sauce

Butternut ricotta kofta and pistachio pumpkinseed sauce

Butternut ricotta kofta and pistachio pumpkinseed sauce

Here at The Ordinary we’ve had two snow days and two delayed opening in one week. This means lots of stir-craziness, an increasing amount of crankiness, and a lot of legos. We decided that life is like a box of legos. (I’m not saying it’s not like a box of chocolates, but I’m not a fan of the “You never know what you’re going to get,” part of that statement. I think you’ll find that you have a fairly good idea of what you’re going to get with a box of chocolates. It’s going to be sweet and chocolate covered, you might not know the specific filling, but there are only so many options. Often there’s a diagram, telling you exactly what you’re going to get.) Anyway, life is like a a box of legos. You can never quite find the piece you’re looking for, but you’ll find a similar piece that you’ll throw back into the box, only to realize that it’s exactly what you wanted all along. You can never find the piece you’re looking for, but you might find something totally unexpected, which works even better and sends you off in a new and wonderful direction. Some people need to open the box right away and put it together all in a rush, others take their time, and do it as the mood strikes them. Some people need to follow the directions to the letter, and go carefully to make it look just like the picture. Others throw the rules away, and put together something nobody has ever made before. Some people have a plan, they know what they want it to look like in the end, and others make make it up as they go along. This week Malcolm instructed us all to make “habitats,” and they were trying to make theirs as full of nature as possible. In the end they had a treehouse, the ruins of a castle, and lots of little storm troopers milling about. If life is like a box of legos, I have high hopes for the way theirs will turn out! Full of imagination and creativity. Unexpected but inspired.

As poet R. Lee Sharpe tells us, we’re all give the tools to work with, we’re all given the lego starter set, and what we do with it is up to us…

R. Lee Sharpe
“A Bag of Tools”

Isn’t it strange that princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common people like you and me,
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass, a book of rules;
And each must make- ere life is flown-
A stumbling block, or a stepping stone.

Butternut ricotta kofta and pistachio pumpkinseed sauce

Butternut ricotta kofta and pistachio pumpkinseed sauce

This is my idea of a fun meal! While we were eating I gave myself a little pat on the back, because I don’t think anyone else would think of combining these particular ingredients in this particular way. Grated roasted butternut squash, ricotta cheese, chickpea flour, raisins and sharp cheddar? Delicious! The kofta were plump and pleasant and sweet, and the sauce earthy and a little tart-sweet. We ate these with warm tortillas, lightly cooked kale and spinach and chopped tomatoes and olives. You could eat them with pita bread, or just as they are, dipped in the sauce. They’re gluten-free, too, if you leave out the tortillas.

Here’s The Heptones with Book of Rules, based on R. Lee Sharpe’s poem.

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Mushrooms stuffed with pecans, black beans and smoked gouda

Black bean and pecan stuffed mushrooms

Black bean and pecan stuffed mushrooms

I took the day off work yesterday, not because I’m sick, although I am, but because somebody asked for my shift and I thought, “Why not?” But I felt vaguely guilty all day. I only work two days a week, so it’s absurd to take one of them off. I had the mildly panicky feeling that we had to have a really wonderful day to justify my idleness. We had to do important things, and get a lot done, and have a remarkably good time. We had to have a hundred-dollar-day, because that’s what I might have hoped to make at work. Well, we didn’t get much done, we didn’t have any great adventures or go anywhere exciting. Isaac never even got out of his pjs, and yet I wouldn’t have traded this day or the memory of this day for any amount of money. We don’t have many days off together, because I work on the weekends and our store is open and the boys are in school all week. So David took Malcolm up to the shop, and they learned how to use Malcolm’s new airbrush. And Isaac and I didn’t do much of anything. We built a lego tower. We sketched: he drew sea monsters, “in the mom style,” and I sketched him sketching. We shared a sliced pear and played a game with strange cards and shifting rules. And then he asked me if I like being a mom. “It is a home question.” I replied, “I shall have to lay myself open to such a catechist, and I am not sure that I am prepared to do it.” Of course I didn’t say that! I don’t even fully understand the meaning of the word catechist. But it is a home question, it gets to the very heart of everything, of me, of our home, of my life. Mr. Thornton’s answer is to the question “You are all striving for money. What do you want it for?” And Mr. Thornton was silent. Then he said, “I really don’t know. But money is not what I strive for.” “And what then?” And what then? Well, I told Isaac that I like being his mother, it’s the best thing in the world. And then he said he wanted to see what it felt like to take care of someone. He made me lie on the couch, close enough to Clio that I could pet her, which was an important part of the process. He got me two pillows and a glass of water. He tucked me in with two of the softest blankets imaginable. Then he “unbundled” my hair so I could sleep better. And he read to me from a book of strange facts, about a walrus that plays the flute, and an upside-down house, and a teddy bear made of gold with diamond eyes. He said, “Are you entertained? Are you entertained?” And then he was very quiet so that I would fall asleep. I didn’t sleep, but it seems as though I dreamed in flashes. And that was our afternoon. I suppose everybody needs to be taken care of sometimes, and often you don’t realize it until it comes from an unexpected place, until somebody makes you sit still for a moment. People raced by our house in the cold endless rain, and Clio sighed and groaned and refused to go into the yard. Towards evening when the rain slowed a pale greenish glow filled the sky and as the day ebbed it was as bright as it had been since morning. David and Malcolm came home. We made a good dinner, we went to a movie in the movie theater for the first time in ages. It was a good day, it was a home day, it’s what we strive for.

I like after holidays when giant mushrooms go on sale. I used giant white mushrooms–stuffing mushrooms they call them, but you could easily use portobella instead. I stuffed them with a mixture of chopped pecans, chopped mushroom stems, chopped black beans, and grated smoked gouda and sharp cheddar. I got a new food processor for Christmas, and I’m chopping everything in sight! Watch out!! They were flavored with sage, thyme, and nutmeg. They took on a nice savory-sweet almost praline-y flavor once the pecans browned.

Here’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, by Nina Simone.
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Romesco paté

romesco paté

romesco paté

Yesterday as we were walking home from school, Malcolm told me that he sometimes feels as though he has lots of different people inside of him. He’s not bound to this world or this time or the narrow point of view of one individual person, and he can close his eyes and be somewhere else, in a different world. I thought this was such a beautiful idea, and he spoke about it so beautifully, that of course I wanted to hear more, I wanted to ask him who he became and where he went, and I wanted to tell him he should write about it. Instead, instead, I said, “Oh, and is that when you get distracted and stop paying attention?” Because we’d just come from a conference with his teachers, all of his teachers. The poor boy was sitting at a tiny table with his long legs wrapped around a tiny chair, and he was surrounded by six adults, and we were all talking about him. It’s a familiar story, Malcolm is bright and creative and imaginative (or so say all of his teachers) but he has trouble focussing, and showing his work, and listening and following directions. I know that all of his teachers only want the best for him, and its their job to prepare him to take these epic standardized tests, but I had such a raw feeling of heartache, sitting next to Malcolm, looking out the window at the moody changing weather, listening to him trying to explain himself in his slightly husky voice, which has never really sounded like a small child’s voice. They asked him if he knew what an essay is, and I wanted to tell them all about my understanding of the word “essay,” which means to try something, and not to be crippled by fear of failure. But he said “it’s something really long,” and that’s the answer they were looking for. And as Colbert told us yesterday, the essays on standardized tests are soon to be graded by computers, “You see, tech companies have developed an automated reader which can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds…these essays are being compu-graded by evaluating critical elements like: How long the average word is; how many words are in the average sentence; and how long is the essay. Because as Shakespeare wrote, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit but splendiferous loquaciousness is paramount to acing your Lit final.’” You like to think about what sort of score Hemingway would get for his Nick Adams stories! And then you want to cry thinking about how little creativity and imagination matter in a world where ideas are graded in this way, and in which children are taught to write essays that will be graded this way. The teachers were talking about the importance of following directions, and they said, “If you were cooking something you’d need to follow the directions exactly, or what would happen?” Hoo, boy. I felt like yelling out, “You’d come up with something potentially a million times better! And it would have flavors you like, that combine in unexpected and wonderful ways, and it would use ingredients that you have, that grew in your garden, maybe, and it would be different from anything anyone had made!” Part of the reason I love cooking with Malcolm is that he’s not tethered to preconceived notions of how to cook or which flavors taste good together. His recipes are always completely fresh and unusual and delicious, and they always makes sense in some perfect, strange way. But I didn’t say anything, because I understand that you have to be able to follow directions before you can change them. You have to understand what’s expected of you before you can make something unexpected. You have to know all the rules, and be able to follow them, before you can allow yourself to break them. And I know Malcolm can do it, because my Malcolm, as I know him, is one of the cleverest, most observant and most capable people I know. He notices everything, and he understands how things work, and what he needs to do to make them work. He might be able to travel to different worlds in his head, he might have mighty castles in the air, but they have strong foundations rooting them to the earth. He might be able to see the world from a lot of different points of view, but he’s very strong in himself, he knows who he is and what he’s good at, with a sort of common-sense coolness that I aspire to, myself. When the teachers asked Malcolm what would happen if you didn’t follow a recipe exactly, he said with a smile, “It depends on the recipe.” I love this boy! He’s got a lot of work to do reining in his energy and imagination, but I know he can do it, and when he gets home we’ll cook up the craziest most unusual meal ever, and eat it with great delight.

Romesco paté

Romesco paté

I’ve always loved romesco sauce, the smoky, tangy mix of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, hazelnuts and almonds. I decided to try to make it into a sort of soufflé or paté. So I added some milk and eggs and cheese, and baked it in the oven. It puffed up like a souffle, but deflated pretty quickly. It was nice as a sort of side dish, but I think it would be good spread on crackers or toast as well.

Here’s They Might Be Giants, Malcolm’s current favorite band, with We Want a Rock.

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Black bean and kale cornmeal cakes with fresh avocado cucumber salsa

Black bean and kale cornmeal cakes

Black bean and kale cornmeal cakes

I’m reading Roderick Hudson at the moment. It’s Henry James’ “first serious attempt at a full-length novel,” and it’s quite fascinating. It’s youthful and ambitious, and about youth and ambition, which seems so sweetly unselfconscious to me. James tells the story of two young men–an irresponsible genius and his more mature but less interesting patron. These men are like lovers, almost, and they’re like two sides of the same person (James?). And they’re like the two styles of writing that seem to be battling it out in the novel. The impetuous, romantic and credulity-straining meets head-on with the dense and methodical, and this seems to make the characters unintentionally more human and appealing. But I hadn’t planned to go on and on about the novel! I planned to talk about this one sentence that struck me as very interesting, and here it is…”At times when he saw how the young sculptor’s day passed in a single sustained pulsation, while his own was broken into a dozen conscious devices for disposing of the hours, and intermingled with sighs, half-surpressed, some of them, for conscience’ sake, over what he failed of in action and missed in possession–he felt a pang of something akin to envy.” Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that James? I’m fascinated by the way that time passes differently for different people, or at different times in your life. When I was younger the days seemed very long sometimes, and I remember wishing time away, and trying to fill up the hours, trying consciously to dispose of them, as Rowland does. And I recognize his gentle sense of regret and self-reproach. How could he get so little done and miss so many chances when time moves so slowly? I understand perfectly why he admires and envies Roderick, who doesn’t think about the past or the future or the consequences of his actions, who took the risks Rowland was scared to, not because he particularly wanted to or cared about the results, but because…why not? I’ve never been like that. I’ve never lost track of whole days or forgotten the time, I’ve never been brave or impetuous, I’ve never been able to free my mind of regrets about the past or worries over the future. Time doesn’t travel fluidly for me. But it does go more and more quickly, which is frightening, and makes me rue all of the hours I wished away when I was younger. I never really have anything that needs to be done, and yet I feel as though there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, to do everything I want to do. My days will never pass in a single sustained pulsation, I don’t think, but I have this odd image of myself swallowing them in chunks, hungrily eating them one piece at a time, and then looking back with surprise and some sadness when they’re all gone, wondering where they’ve gotten to. Obviously, the thing to do is to make them delicious, to make every hour of each day as tasty as possible, and then to try to savor them, to take my time, rather than wishing it away.

avacado-cucumber-saladThese little cakes were confounding to my boys. They didn’t think they’d like them, so they didn’t enjoy their first half-hearted nibble. But after some drama and persuasion, they both decided they liked them and ate almost all of them. David and I liked them. They were crunchy out, soft in, with a nice balance of earthy flavors. They were a bit dry, though, as baked goods made with cornmeal alone tend to be, so eat them with a sauce. This little salad or salsa was lovely! I don’t know why I’d never thought of mixing avocado and cucumber before, but they’re really perfect together! Fresh and green and soft and crisp. I kept the seasoning simple – salt, pepper, lime and cilantro, which made the whole thing bright and clean, and just the perfect accompaniment to the cornmeal cakes.

Here’s Wildwood Flower by the Carter Family, because they say “Yes, he taught me to love him and call me his flower That was blooming to cheer him through life’s dreary hour.” No dreary hours!! We’ll have no dreary hours!!

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Crispy soft cornbread pudding

Cornbread pudding

When the power went out last september (I think it must have been during Irene, but it’s all a blur at this point) Malcolm’s first concern was making me coffee. We can smash the beans with a hammer! And boil water over the fire! Must…get…mom…her…coffee!! Ha ha! As if I was some kind of caffeine addict. Well, okay, I’m probably a tiny bit addicted to caffeine. But I’m not the only one! You should have seen this place by the third powerless day. An army of hollow-eyed zombies roamed the town fiending for coffee! The first day after the storm, I wandered the drizzly town, feeling very tired and dejected, but my friend Pat made me a cup of coffee on his gas stove, and my day instantly cheered. The second day, David braved the compromised roads to make a journey to dunkin donuts. And on day three, we made coffee in our own home. We bought ground beans, and boiled a pot of water on the grill. We grilled coffee! And tea! It seems like such a little thing, but the act of making coffee in (or just outside the door of) our own kitchen restored some small sense of normalcy, and made me feel nearly ecstatic. (Or maybe the coffee was unusually highly caffeinated.) It’s not just the caffeine, it’s the simple daily rite of grinding the beans and boiling the water. (Or lying warm in bed listening to David downstairs performing the ritual.) I eat the same thing for breakfast every day. I feed my boys at the same time, most days, and they’re fairly predictable in what they’d like to eat. David eats peanut butter and jelly for lunch almost every day. Anything can happen at dinner time, I like to experiment and make odd meals, as you know, but that cooking and scheming is part of the pattern of my days. I hadn’t realized quite how routinized we were, as a family, until this ten day spate of powerlessness. I hadn’t realized how much the food that I prepare and eat, and the patterns of preparing it and eating it were involved in my comfort and ability to function. It made me feel a little anxious. I worried about the boys getting enough healthy food, even though they probably ate as well as usual. And anxiety makes me want to bake, which, obviously, wasn’t an option. We had fun straying from our usual pattern. We grilled scrambled eggs and toast, which was absolutely delicious. We were more social than usual, and shared meals with friends – everybody bringing their rapidly spoiling food. But I never felt quite right. I had a constant queasy feeling. And I found myself craving solid comforting food – bread and cheese and potatoes. One day we went and bought cans of beans and jars of artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers, and I was actually very excited about the prospect of cooking them over the fire. But dusk came early and the evenings were chilly, and I lost my enthusiasm for standing in the drizzly yard dirtying pots and pans I didn’t have hot water to clean. So what did we eat? We ate grilled toast and grilled bagels and grilled scrambled eggs. We ate rapidly thawing veggie dogs and veggie burgers. We ate pasta at a friend’s house. I made salads with cans of chickpeas and hearty vegetables like carrots and olives and cherry tomatoes. We had a few bags of potato chips scrounged from the dark, cash-only convenience store, and ate quantities of chocolate bars left over from our cancelled halloween. Peanut butter and jelly. Crackers and peanut butter. All-in–all, we ate lots of good food. We lived comfortably. I’m so grateful to have my warm home back, and my working stove and hot water. I cooked up a storm the first day with power – and I haven’t really stopped since. But I think it’s good to shake things up sometimes. So maybe we’ll grill scrambled eggs and toast one morning, just for fun, but I’ll be glad for the hot water needed to wash the dishes after!

We didn’t eat this over the last ten days, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I was craving. It’s comforting and warm and crispy but soft and cheesy. It’s halfway between a sort of corn pudding and cornbread. If you’ve ever made semolina dumplings or roman gnocchi, it’s the same idea, as is yorkshire pudding and choux pastry. But this is made with cornmeal. So it happens to be gluten free! I made it twice in the weeks before the storm, with varying amounts of cornmeal. If you make it with the larger quantity, it’s more like a cornbread, and with the smaller quantity, it’s softer, more like a baked pudding. One time I flavored it with oregano, cayenne and sharp cheddar, and the next I used mozzarella, basil, rosemary and black olives. We ate it with spinach and chickpeas the first time, and with a saucy, tomatoe-y soup the next.

Here’s Comfort Ye from the Messiah, performed by Paul Elliot and the Acadamy of Ancient music, which is (I think) the version I grew up with. It’s so warm and calm.
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Quinoa, spinach & chickpea soup

Quinoa, spinach & chickpea soup

Quinoa? Aw, man, I was totally into quinoa back when nobody knew about it. Back before it became all popular. I used to buy it at this small store that was, like, all hardcore vegetarian stuff, and, like imports. Quinoa was so cool – it was my favorite, and it totally spoke to me. It was my perfect food, man. And then it started getting bigger, and playing the big stadiums, like shoprite, or, you know, pathmark, and suddenly everybody’s eating quinoa. And it’s in cookies, and, pancakes, and bread, and in mother-flippin statues of Mount Rushmore probably. Totally sold out. It’s so sad when that happens to a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. So sad.

That’s right, I ate quinoa in 1993! That’s got to make me one of the first wave of quinoaers, right? Old school! Except for maybe the Incas. They might have come first. When I first met David (in 1993) he made a quinoa-barley soup that his co-worker had recommended. And it was really good! I have to admit that I don’t cook with it as often as I should, and I’m ashamed to admit that it might be because it’s so popular now! It’s so earnestly vegetarian, which is a quality I admire in a food, but sometimes it makes me take a step back from it for a while. Silly, I know!!

If you’re looking for a way to introduce quinoa to somebody who hasn’t tried it, this might be it, because the quinoa is so much a harmonious part of everything going on around it. Malcolm asked what the little floating curls were, and I said, “sea monkeys!” Fortunately he’s too young to know what those are, so I revised my answer to “the ultimate Incan super-food, that made them into superheroes!” He liked the soup a lot, anyway.

I think this soup turned out really well! I’m quite proud of it! It’s got a really pleasing flavor and texture. Very savory, soft, but substantial, and comforting. I grated the zucchini, which, once cooked, gave it a perfect sort of texture. And I puréed half the spinach and chopped the other. I used the broth left over from cooking french lentils, but I think you could make a simple vegetable broth and it would be fine. It’s as close to chicken soup as I’ve come since I stopped eating chicken soup. And probably better for you! It’s simply seasoned with fresh thyme, nutmeg and cinnamon. I wasn’t sure this combination would work, but I went ahead with it on a whim, and it’s really good!

Here’s Carnaval ayacuchano from an album called Peru: Kingdom of the Sun, the Incan Heritage. I love this song!
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Herbed grit cakes

Herbed grit cakes

In a blatant attempt to pander to the southern vote, I decided to make something with cheese grits, y’all. Actually, I cannot tell a lie, it has nothing to do with that. I’m not even running for president! Shocking, I know! The truth is, I like to make recipes inspired by songs, and one of my favorite songs is RZA’s Grits. I find it beautiful on so many levels! It remembers a childhood of poverty, of grits for dinner every night. It’s affectionate and honest, and, it’s so pretty!

I’ve had grits a few times, and, to be honest, I haven’t loved them. They’ve been stodgy and tasteless. So I wanted to do something a little different with them. But nothing crazy fancy, I wanted to keep it simple! So I used half milk/half water to make them, and I steeped this mixture with some aromatics as it was warming. Once the grits were cooked, I added eggs and cheese, and then I chilled the mixture for a while, because I had to get the boys from school!

These turned out really nice. They were so far from stodgy that they were almost delicate. A little crispy on the outside, but with a nice, soft, flavorful and comforting interior. We ate them with a red lentil cashew curry, which I’ll probably tell you about later. But they would make a nice meal with some greens, potatoes, and maybe a fresh tomato sauce, or some beans. Anything, really! And I think they’re gluten free.

Here’s RZA with Grits. (I like the video, too!)
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Red bean hominy stew & little cornmeal “quiches”

red bean posole stew

I’ve been feeling super blechy the last few days. Headache, stomachache, sore throat, the ague. I’ve got the ague, I tell you!! So I wanted to make something spicy and flavorful to clear the sinuses and get past my dulled palate. So I made this stew…red beans, zucchini, hominy and some spices – lots of spices. Hominy is, as I understand it, corn kernels, skins removed, treated with lime. Round here, you can buy it in cans (Goya! Oh boya!). It has a mysterious taste and a lovely texture. Soft but firm. It makes a very very nice addition to a saucy spicy stew. This stew was so pretty when it first started cooking – red, green and white. Lovely.

cornmeal quiches


To go with it, I made these tasty little…good golly, I’m not sure how to describe them! They’re not popovers, not muffins. For all the world, they’re like tiny little quiches. They make their own crust…of cornmeal toasted in brown butter. And the inside stays very dense and eggy and ridiculously comforting and tasty. They’re quite magical! They’re not hard to make, and I think they’re gluten free. I might try them next time with some grated cheese stirred into the mix, to make them more quiche-y than ever.

Here’s Old Corn Liquor, by Joe Thompson. He’s remarkable! And this meal really did include corn in just about every form but liquor.
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