Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Changing of the Seasons

These last few months have been a busy time, full of joy and sadness, celebration and grief, and experiences that run the full gamut of living. I learned of the tragic death of a good friend I had lost touch with. I watched from afar as a friend and professional colleague made her last stand against cancer as her struggle finally came to an end. I participated in the joining of two good friends in marriage and contributed to their simple yet elegant and very personal, intimate wedding. I rallied my family to scatter my father's ashes some three years after his death after the UW Medical School had completed their study his body. I helped my mother mark the 50th anniversary of her marriage to him. I welcomed an old friend from high school into the area and attended my first military function as I witnessed her husband take command of a nearby military base. I saw my niece off to her new life in San Francisco, holding my breath as she lept out of the proverbial nest and spread her wings to really fly. And she is soaring.

And now it is summer, and life feels so good. The heat of the season feels invigorating this year. I am motivated, energized, renewed. I look forward to the transition of the hearth from the kitchen to the yard  as we begin cooking on the charcoal grill. Cooking over burning wood alters the character of food in many ways, and I imagine the meat  picks up some attributes of the wood as it smokes.

My counterpart has been lighting the charcoal in a separate smoker attachment and then adding it to the grill after the lighter fluid has burned off. He adds some of the good hard beech wood scattered throughout our yard, and sometimes a little fresh rosemary, to the grill as well, which add to the flavor of the meat. A small compartment of water just under the meat keeps everything moist and tender.

Sauces and gravies give way to marinades and glazes. Vegetable medleys are replaced by fresh greens and tomatoes and avocado. This summer, I have been getting berries in my salad as well, a culinary endeavor that we have typically shied away from until we experienced the successful execution at the dinner following the aforementioned wedding.

The seasonal flavors and textures of summer leave me feeling light, hopeful, optimistic. The days are long and hot. The air at work is restless as we are unable to escape the conditioning of our K-12 education and the knowledge that the last day of school has passed marking the beginning of summer vacation. We move outside and enjoy the increased daylight, knowing that all too soon, the days will shorten, the shadows will lengthen, and we will be forced back indoors.

But for now, I embrace the sunshine with a smile.

Grilling out

Friday, June 15, 2012

Golden Lady

When I first described her to my spouse, I used phrases like "put together", "a force to be reckoned with", "the most prepared one in the room", and "someone I can learn a lot from". Now that she has passed, I think of several things. A bright shining beacon standing tall, casting her light far and wide, providing guidance and direction to everyone around her. A giant bird from Greek mythology with wings spread wide and so many of us nestled in the warmth of her embrace. She was a role model, a mentor, a friend. She was strong and fierce and a little bit frightening to me at first. She was wide open to life and all its experiences, embracing the joy and the pain and everything in between. She was fearless.

Her fearlessness was contagious. In her sphere of influence, risk was necessary, but planning was essential. She encouraged me to move forward professionally, never doubting my own ability to succeed even when (especially when) I doubted myself. Failure was sometimes inevitable, but usually avoidable if one had a good risk strategy and an accurate assessment of the work to be done. Bold, but prepared, she embraced everything that came her way.

But she also paid attention to what I was doing outside of work. As our professional relationship turned more personal, she learned of my photography hobby and expressed praise for my efforts. She began reading this blog and shared some of the recipes and advice I posted. She knew that if something is important to your friends and colleagues, it should also be at least somewhat important to you. This is one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships and part of what allows them to become deeper and closer and richer.

In the face of terminal illness, she did not shut down and withdraw into herself. She expanded and drew more people near her like some brilliant supernova. She wanted to experience everything, and this included the wonderful experience of getting to know other people. She knew that our relationships with others adds a richness to life, enhancing our own experiences and providing us with a more full view of the world as our experiences are refracted through the crystalline lens of a group experience.

She was also a private person, handling her personal pain carefully. I knew her for almost a year before I learned she had cancer. Through chemotherapy and radiation and a full pharmacy of drugs, her appearance remained flawless and her demeanor unshakable. Even though she was determined to live beyond the disease, she embraced the experience as another part of her life, and did what she needed to do to get through it. No denial for her. And we went along with her as cancer ran its sometimes sneaky course of disappearing only to return with a vengeance. We walked with her at the annual Komen Race for the Cure. We celebrated with her each time she seemed to have kicked it. We embraced her each time it came back and continued to spread.

She is part of a growing list of women I have met who developed breast cancer. The stories include a young woman who barely survived and her mother who knew of the genetic component of many cancers. The mother went to her doctor for a screening, and a small tumor was found. It was removed before it had a chance to take root. Both women survived. A vegetarian who followed all the dietary recommendations for prevention and developed it anyway. She kicked it, it came back, she kicked it again. A friend from high school who is proud of her struggle and so grateful to be cancer-free. A blogger I follow who rails against the marketization and trivialization of this epidemic by the prevalence of pink ribbons on everything from cookies to KFC dinners, yet there is still no cure.

And what is the source of this epidemic? How can we protect ourselves? There are alarming reports of carcinogens in our food packaging, as well as in the additives in many prepackaged foods. Yet maintaining a healthy diet of natural whole foods is not a guaranteed preventative. Earlier this week, new studies questioned the effectiveness of vitamin D as a cancer preventative. Is breast cancer inevitable for US women?

While this is a frightening thought, we cannot live our lives in fear. Breast cancer may be the monster in the closet for me and my peers, but there are things we can do. Early detection is often the key to overcoming the disease. And most of us know what we need to do:

  • A monthly self-exam, usually after our menstrual cycle. This makes us familiar with our bodies so it is easier for us to detect if something has changed.
  • Annual visits to the gynecologist. She will also perform a breast exam and may be able to detect danger before it grows.
  • Bi-annual mammograms beginning at age 40. 
  • A healthy diet and an active lifestyle. This never hurts. While it may not be the secret to prevention, it ensures that we are strong and healthy in body, mind, and spirit and could improve our chances of survival if we develop cancer.
This week I lost an important and valuable member of my circle. While we were not best friends, she was important to me in so many ways. I will always remember her fearless embrace of life - all of life - and her uncanny ability to face everything with a smile. This week, her regular reminders for me to smile have echoed  through my psyche. I will carry that, along with all my cherished memories of her, as I move forward through my own life, enriched for the time I had with her.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Wisconsin!

When you drive through rural Wisconsin, whether on the vast network of county rural routes or the sparse network of interstate highways running along the Fox River and Lake Michigan, there's one thing you can find at almost every gas station along the way - fresh donuts.

By "fresh" I mean made that day and delivered still warm on arrival from a local bakery. I'm not talking about Kirspy Kremes or Dunkin Donuts or anything made out of buckets of frozen dough and delivered by semi truck. I'm talking about a breakfast confection made from scratch using an old family recipe by people who work just down the county road and delivered by one of their kids.

These are the genuine article and a reminder of why ventures like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts seemed like viable endeavors to begin with. But like most things in Wisconsin, the rural gas station donut is still connected to its origin, and those mass-produced counterfeits seem like so much sawdust and fluff in comparison.

Which is one of the truly great things about Wisconsin. Despite the dehumanizing winters and brief growth season, Wisconsin has remained remarkably close to its food. It is still predominantly rural, making even the more urban stretch through the Fox River Valley from Milwaukee to Green Bay a bastion of fresh and local food. Sure, there are the usual national chain restaurants. But there is also a plethora of local eateries and food markets. The proximity of the vast farmland may serve to remind people of where food actually comes from - not a box or a can or a drive-through window, but from the land, from the fields, from their neighbors. And for much of the population, from their family and ancestors.

The area I live in - northeast Maryland - is similarly rural with many local farmers and produce markets, yet we do not share this attitude about food. Harford County is littered with "casual dining" chains and local imitators. Despite the closeness of cattle farmers, vegetable farmers, small dairies, etc, for every Broom's Bloom Dairy or Deer Creek Beef Co-Op, there is a corresponding Applebee's or Chili's. It seems as if Maryland is not interested in food the same way Wisconsin is.There is a common sense thinking about modern, commercially-produced food in Wisconsin that is missing from the culture out here.

Most people are aware of Wisconsin's Germanic and Norse heritage, what with the prevalence of beer, sausage, and cheese in the state. There is also a good dose of French, with the popularity of booyah in the northern regions originating from an attempt to recreate bouillabaisse with what was available in the New World. What is less apparent to the outsider is the Belgian influence on rural Wisconsin culture.

It is only when you drive through the state and look at the architecture - utilitarian, well-proportioned, well-spaced - that you notice something different about many Wisconsin farms. The Belgians did things differently from the Germans and Scandinavians and were thought of as odd. Among the ethnic jokes of questionable taste that I heard in my youth, the butt was always the Belgians. Yet a closer look at their heritage and influence on Wisconsin reveals a practical sensibility not seen in other areas.

The Belgians first settled in Northeast Wisconsin. The largest population of Belgians in the US runs up the peninsula form Green Bay up through Kewaunee and Door counties into Sturgeon Bay and beyond. The society they left int he Old World was multi-cultural, and they retained their open-mindedness and respect for their neighbors even in the face of extreme differences in lifestyle and belief. It is felt that this Belgian sensibility of "live and let live" helped give rise to the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century.

Their country of origin also had a high regard for community. More social than the dour Lutherans of Scandinavia, the Belgians that mingled among them in Wisconsin helped ensure that the communities they inhabited ensured that local sources of groceries and sundry items were kept close, including food. The result is a definition of "local" that means within the county - or maybe the next county over. Compare that to Maryland where food from Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New Jersey is considered local.

In Wisconsin, food is grown closer, travels less, is more likely to be allowed to ripen before it is picked. There is less processing involved, and non-homogenized milk in glass bottles from local dairies is still available in Wisconsin grocery stores. Wisconsin still has a palate that knows how food is supposed to taste. It's easy for the outsider to get a reminder of this. All you have to do is hit the road and find the nearest gas station.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Make Bouillabaisse Out of Common Household Items

Bouillabaisse is the quintessential fish dish. Originating in France, it has an air of sophisticated gourmet. It is a complex collection of flavors and exotic seafood that generally takes the better part of an afternoon to pull together. That is, if you can find all the ingredients.

Garlic and onion

Well, you actually can. And, in the grocery section of the Wal-Mart. The defining flavors of bouillabaisse are citrus, cardamom, and coriander. (Note the absence of saffron. Despite the unmistakable flavors of sunshine and happiness this best loved seasoning brings to anything it is added to, I have been told by those who know more than I that saffron is not a defining flavor of bouillabaisse.) 

As for the fish, you really need an oily fish, a firm fish, and a couple of varieties of shellfish. Add some tomato, some veg, and some olive oil, and you've got it.

To make bouillabaisse out of common household items, you will need:

2 lemons, juiced and zested
1 orange, juiced and zested
2 cloves garlic, pressed
Half a white onion, sliced into strips
1 leek, minced
2 red peppers, slices into strips
1 medium zucchini, sliced
The liquid from one can of stewed tomatoes
2 tuna steaks
2 trout or salmon steaks
1 small bag of medium shrimp
1 small bag of medium scallops
Half a bunch of parsley, stemmed


Most of us purchase most of these items regularly. What you don't have on hand, you can find fairly easily.

Here is the veg you will need for this dish

Prep your veg first. This will take the longest. Depending on your tools and how much assistance you have, this will take 30-60 minutes. We worked together and have a mandolin, a micro-planer, a citrus juicer, and a good set of knives. Our prep time was 30 minutes and entailed juicing and zesting the citrus, slicing the peppers, onion, and zucchini, pressing the garlic, and stemming the parsley.

Ahhh, the mandolin

Zest from the micro-planer

The cooking can actually be done in about 30-45 minutes, and you can still get that complex, layered flavor. The trick is to cook everything in the right order, and to cook the right things together. So, with veg prepped, preheat a generous amount of olive oil in a stock pot and a large frying pan. While they are heating up, season your fish with the zest and spices, going light on the cinnamon and nutmeg.

Seasoned fish steaks

Seasoned shellfish

Cook the shrimp and scallops together in the stock pot until the scallops are nearly done.

This is the base

Transfer the scallops to the frying pan to sear and add butter to the shrimp.

Scallops are better seared

Once both shrimp and scallops have cooked, transfer them to a platter to rest.

We'll come back to these in a bit

Add the onions and leek to the stock pot, where they will pick up some of the flavor form the shellfish.

Layering on onions and leek

At the same time, add the red pepper, garlic, and about a third of the tomato liquid to the frying pan. Use a deglazing motion to remove any scallop bits from the pan.

Preparing a layer of peppers and tomato

When the peppers are tender and the pan is deglazed, add this to the stock pot.

Add a light oil like grapeseed to the pan. Once it has heated, add the fish steaks to cook.

Fish steaks are the next layer

While the fish is cooking, gradually add a couple of splashes of the citrus juice and more of the tomato liquid to the stock pot. When the fish is nearly cooked, add it to the stock pot, along with the cooked shellfish.

Use a little brandy or cognac to deglaze the frying pan, adding this to the stock pot once the alcohol has cooked out.

A little brandy adds to the complexity

Finally, saute the zucchini in a little light oil and add to the stock pot. Let everything simmer together for about 5 or 10 minutes. Transfer to a large platter.

To the table

Serve in shallow bowls with bread. Portion out some of the broth into small bowls on the side to dip your bread in.

On the plate