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As we prepared for camping with my extended family, my Aunt Lee mentioned a canned stew they always take camping. “It’s really gross, but they love it,” she said, referring to her kids. “That’s what camping is to them.” Anyone I’ve ever meant who has camped with any regularity has some strong opinions on just what it is that makes any given woodsy experience camping. S’mores are a key component for me, along with speckled metal tableware, and the unmistakable sound of tent poles slipping against the canvas. For some, it’s not camping without ghost stories by the campfire or hot chocolate sipped in the dark. If you’re my cousin Oliver, it is all about the fire, tending it until the coals disassemble under the tap of a stick, to be restarted again with a blow from puffed cheeks.

If you’re one of the lucky offspring Jake and I may someday produce, you are in for a treat, because above and beyond our traditional burritos, some fork-flipped morning pancakes, a teepee style fire, and the smell of a certain green dish soap that will probably never run out, we are bent on providing a real psychological trip. Go to bed happy and full of puffed sugar, wake up at two a.m. convinced the camper across the way is going to axe your tent. Say what you will about how we set up camp, but we are two people exceptionally skilled in imagining our own bloody demise.

I have not watched many horror movies, but I am familiar with hubris, cognizant of the proclivity for bad things to happen in the dark, and a reasonable judge of events warranting ominous soundtracks. Horror movie heroes always look so silly, and we are ever crying after them:

“Don’t wander off alone!”

“Just forget about examining that sound, and find some light!”

“No, no, no! It is a bad idea to venture down that unbeaten path as the sun is setting!”

But then again, they aren’t aware they’re a horror movie character. They can’t hear the ominous music. No matter how reasonable your sense of foreboding, those little things (the matches you forgot, the significant look from the gas station stranger) don’t take on meaning until you know there is a potential killer on the loose and you’re heart is beating like you’ve just run a 3-minute mile. At that point, these little observations all assemble into the shocking realization that you are tragically doomed.

Jake and I camped two weekends ago at in the Cascade Lakes area near Bend. Things did not go as planned. The first night, the site where we planned to camp was full, and after touring a number of other packed campgrounds, we settled for a campground near the highway: acceptable, but no water in sight. The next day brought the same problem. We thought to get an early start on other campers, to snag a site right after checkout, but we again found ourselves rolling hopelessly past site after full site, each well-laid an assault on our campground short-fallings. “To hell with this,” we finally cried to the overstuffed campsite that became our last straw, where a young girl in a ruffled suit strode by with a pug, and a boy with spiky hair rode by on a bike. I swear they stared menacingly. I think their eyes may have gleamed a little. “To hell with this! We have a four wheel drive vehicle. We’re done with camping in civilization! We’re taking this to the forest roads, to the unchartered territory, the camps of the free!”

Cue ominous soundtrack as we turn onto National Forest Development Road 4209

“4209,” that’s what we call it, with a bit of scathing deference in our voices. 4209 and our car had met the day before, courtesy of a mistaken direction on GoogleMaps. Driving down then, we had deemed it all but impassable and turned around. But, campground vacancy, or lack thereof, worked in the favor of our sinister plot, and there we were, less than 24 hours later, a brand new hope for the same stretch of rubble.

4209 is unfit for travel by passenger cars. The road is like a riverbed in drought, rocks strewn hither and thither, enormous ruts, jutting boulders. Jake, in the driver seat, straddled the chasms and dodged buttes. There were moments we thought we’d never make it, thought we might turn back, but civilization had done us wrong.

As it turns out, so did the backwoods

There was the mosquito infestation, insects that swarmed as though they’d never before encountered human flesh, and still no more promise for a campsite. What ultimately slowed us down, though, was the other-worldly screeching emitting from our front right tire.

At first hint of this racket, Jake and I regard each other with dismay. We pull over and jack up the car, take off the tire, examine the brake. Jake bruises his forearm badly on the wheel well trying to loosen the bolts holding the brake to the rotor. I kick the car. Jake tells me not to kick the car when it is jacked up. I call my dad and get out the words, “car trouble . . .  camping . . . unimproved road . . . no one around . . . bad . . . reception . . .  can’t . . . hear . .  . ” before the phone cuts out. Jake swears at the car. We each have two flies circling our heads, their buzzing incessant, unmistakable mocking in their tone. I am standing 20 feet up the road and I begin to cry thinking that we will surely meet our end: If not starving to death, then devoured by mosquitoes. If not devoured by mosquitoes, then driven mad by these goddamn deer flies. But, we have a cooler full of food, the almost ripe huckleberries and the car’s shelter from swarming mosquitoes. Jake takes out his pajama pants and begins to swing them wildly around his head, cursing and gritting his teeth. So, it will be the third then.

***

It is Sunday night, and the neighboring campers at the campground we finally find are sparse–mostly fisherman and older couples occupying those sites directly on the lake. We have had our share of bugs, and are elated to have any choice of sites at all and so we choose a campsite far from the water, surrounded by dryness. We have one neighbor, who we don’t see all evening, but as we pass his site, Jake notes the neatness of the camp, a lamp hanging from a PVC stand, Coleman stove opened on the table’s end. “Who would have such a clean camp?” we wonder, and then we go to cook potatoes in the fire.

That night, I wake to a repeated rustling and the light of a flashlight scanning the nearby woods. Jake has left the tent. I turn over and close my eyes again, but the scanning continues. He goes to the car, then returns, then walks off in another direction. After ten minutes, I pull on some pants and go to investigate. Jake sits in the driver seat of the lighted car with his foot propped up on the seat, applying a band-aid to a hiking blister on his ankle.

“I walked by to catch a vibe, but he’s just sitting there staring in the fire,” Jake reports on our sickly neat neighbor. Evilly. Menacingly. I can hear these attributes in the undertones of his voice.

There is a sinister clarity that descends at 2:00 a.m., especially if you’re prone to embellishment and a bit of drama. There are things that might strike you odd about your camping experience early in the evening, but go ultimately unnoticed: perhaps an unattractive man-made fountain gracing the campground entrance, the fact that there’s no need to pay until morning, perhaps the presence of no one but a single RV parked behind the “Camp Host” sign, the owner of which insists he’s “not really the camp host, but just camp wherever you like.” Come 2 a.m., when you wake in a cold sweat, those details have sorted themselves into a rather gruesome story wherein the RV camper drowned the real camp host in the river, built a ramshackle fountain to lure people into a sense of beauty and security, but will personally see to it that you don’t pay in the end–well, you’ll pay, alright, but the currency won’t be money.

The onset of mosquitoes, the treacherous 4290 were clearly clever ruses to wear us down and weaken our resolve. Where we earlier joked about banishing a screeching demon from our wheel well, we now see the noise as an obvious incidence of foul play, an unmistakable intrusion of an ill-intentioned horror-seeking villain.

Finally, our neighbor’s neatness–at first, impressive–now seems too perfect and contrived: “Safari hat tipped against a water bottle, Coleman stove set up just so, lamp hanging from a pole, dish towel draping deliberate, yet casually, next to lamp as if to say, ‘Look other campers, I am just like you! I cooked my dinner and then did my dishes after a long day of wholesome recreation. I have no reckless and creepy intentions. I have no blood-stained axe stashed within my tent.'”

***

The dark is like a mirror trick, our image of this unseen camper’s face appearing like some flame-stained demon in the flickering of our imaginations, his expression contorted, his anguish palpable as he waits in silence for the last remaining variable, for us to slip back into the tent, so he can fulfill his perverse and gruesome plan. Smoke rises and it’s difficult to tell who is crazy, this nocturnal man staring into a dying fire, a beer in the crook of his elbow, or these robed strangers whispering conspiratorially by their unlit fire, one eye still fixed on the nearby camp.

Three times waking to a sound in the night, rising from the tent, sitting by the fire, going to sleep in the car, and it’s no longer something that happened by accident one night, and rather something you do. Perhaps this ritual has become a part of our camping experience like a certain handle-less corningware coffee pot is part of my parents’ morning, its inside stained brown in a ring three inches from the top, the exact depth my father fills when pouring water every day. My parents make good coffee, one with a rich flavor and sweetness to it that many an electric maker is hard-pressed to replicate. You could give them a new pot for Christmas, one with an internal percolator, but I’m certain it would go unused. Offer them a filter and they will say they like the grit. It’s possible they began by “roughing it,” making coffee in a ceramic pot, and grew so accustomed they began to prefer it. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s my sense that our camping experiences begin like that—making do until the clumpy canned soup, the too-thin sleeping pads become the norm, become fun. The grounds aren’t so gritty anymore, they make the whole cup better.

So, it might just be a case of “you can’t take the over-exaggerated gruesome fabrication” out of the camper. You can’t take it out because I think I enjoy it. Just a little. Just the part where the camp was less scary when Jake and I sat there together in the early morning, our shoulders almost touching, how the frogs became louder as our heartbeats grew slower.

Of course, I can’t guarantee our aforementioned offspring will view our horror movie ritual the same way. Perhaps they’ll see the late night flashlight, hear our whispers, groan and bury their head in the sleeping bag hood. Better, though, they will get the notion to start the fire, to cook another marshmallow, to point their sleeping bagged feet toward the center of the circle. Maybe they too will relish the stillness and the biting night air and our voices will droop heavy with sleeplessness as the moon slips into the Western sky.

I have been eating a lot of French toast, with plenty of cinnamon and sprinkled brown sugar. Reshi has been eating a lot of mice, straight up, from the kitchen floor.

He has just learned to stalk them: sitting inside the cabinet door that always hangs just a little bit open, he stares at the stove. Sometimes we’ll hear the crash of the bowls, a spattering of cat food, the plink of a spoon he licked after dinner as he intercepts a rodent on its ill-advised journey across the tile. Sometimes the attack is silent, and we’re only alerted when he steps from the kitchen, a panic-skewed tail dangling from his mouth.

He regards us stoically, the venerable hunter, as if to accept the praise.

And so it comes: “Holy moly, that’s his fourth one tonight!” “Yes, Reshi, you take care of those mice for us!” “Wow, he’s a good little hunter!”

Then, the chase begins, because he knows, and we know, that since the incident with Fang— the psycho-like scene, an evident bathtub mauling, blood smeared in circles round the living room, the disemboweled rodent corpse we never found—there has been a new rule instigated in this household to which all other rules will henceforth bow: the dispatching of small mammals is to be executed in the great outdoors.

Most of us find it easy to abide, but Reshi sometimes resists and often requires an army of opposition to successfully shoo him outside and close the door*. And so, whoever is closest, or whoever recovers from the mouse sighting most quickly, takes off after our tuxedo-ed warrior, toward whatever chair he may pick to conceal himself and his furry captive. The chase is rather halting and non-committal, pierced with cries of “take that outside!” and characterized by a wide-leg mouse-evading gait and a good deal of shrieking. When caught, Reshi is carried, mouse end pointing away, like a volatile punctured water balloon out the open door.

Reshi views the situation differently. Regardless where he intends to kill it, he does not like to share his mice. Should you succeed in wrapping your hands around his middle, if only to transport him, he lets out a deep foreboding growl like the rumbling of evening thunder, a sentiment I can only take to mean: touch-the-mouse-and-you’ll-be-fighting-your-own-mouse-in-the-kitchen-battles-from-this-day-forward-you-lazy-belly-grabbing-moron.

Indeed, no one can deny the service Reshi provides through his active repression of the mouse community that besets our kitchen. His is similar to my current project, by which I employ French toast consumption as a method for managing the bread remnants in the freezer. We are not so different, this cat and I, both lovers of order and population control. Only I like my mice . . . I like my . . . I do not like mice at all.

Let’s talk about French toast instead.**

It occurred to me to post this just on the off chance that you, like last week’s me, had never happened upon the urge to eat French toast in single servings any and every day of the week for breakfast (and sometimes lunch), to liberate it from weekends and enjoy it all the time. The possibility should have occurred to me since I happen to know my sister is a routine French-toaster, but it hadn’t. I started craving French toast after we planned to, and then did not, eat it while camping. Since returning to civilization, I’ve eaten it on days when I was off work as I put off cleaning up the kitchen. I’ve eaten it before working out and after returning from the grocery. I started with maple syrup, and when I ran out, began sprinkling a touch of brown sugar on top for sweetness. French toast can be light and yet filling with a hint of special occasion-ry. On Saturday, my toasting technique greatly improved, my dish usage stream-lined, I ate it in the early morning, and it made working on a weekend more palatable. I kid you not.

I do not kid about breakfast or about cleaning out the freezer. I will just have to keep eating French toast until this bread affliction is vanquished. I might just growl if you try to stop me.

*A short list of rules toward which Reshi resists compliance:
Dead rodents must be left alone and should not be revisited as playthings.
Having held a rodent in one’s mouth, one must not lick other’s faces.
No rodents on the bed.

**Empirical evidence indicates my consistent inability to discuss food in a context that makes people actually want to eat it. My apologies. I’ll work on it–or I’ll continue to only sometimes write a food blog.

Single Serving French Toast

I like to mix this in a square tupperware container approximately the size of my bread. It makes just enough for two little pieces of bread. If your bread slices are a little bigger, that would probably be just about right, too. If I don’t use all of it, I just stick it in the refrigerator for the next time. A five inch cast iron skillet has been sitting on the stove all week racking up mileage.

I tend to prefer a nuttier bread base because I like the chewiness provided by whole seeds and sprouted grains in an otherwise custardy texture.

2 small/1 large piece(s) of bread
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
1/4 t. cinnamon
a sprinkle of brown sugar (optional)
butter or oil for the pan

Optional finishes:
nectarine
maple syrup/brown sugar

Whisk the milk and egg together in a small, flat-bottomed bow or square tupperware container. Add cinnamon and a pinch of sugar, if desired, and whisk again. Place the bread in the egg mixture in a single layer. Allow to rest a minute or two on each side, until saturated, a little difficult to pick up, but not falling apart. Meanwhile heat butter or oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) over medium heat in a small skillet. Place the saturated bread on the pan and allow to cook until the bottom side is browned, about two minutes. Flip and cook second side to a golden brown and the center of the bread puffs ever-so-slightly.

Flip onto plate, and allow to rest about thirty seconds, perhaps as you slice a peach. Spread toast with butter, sprinkle with sugar and forget about your earthly obligations as you devour it.

A place on a hill

Should you ever wish to expose me as a narcissist, you might point to a moment in my youth where I propositioned that someday I live on a hill and my family live in lower houses surrounding me. I did not suggest that they live next door as my grandmother and her grandmother did on a little street in Swayzee, Indiana. Not even down the street as my father’s brother now lives from his parents, a stone’s throw if you have a good arm and the chosen stone is heavy enough to pick up some momentum. No, I wanted to live on an elevated out-cropping, hoarding the best view of the stars for myself.

Fortunately, my family didn’t interpret it quite like that and I’m fairly certain I didn’t mean it that way either. It was undoubtedly something said during an all-too-soon departure, where everyone stands around and exchanges hugs and leans through the windows to give kisses or comment on the odometer, or peer into the back windows and ask whether we checked under the bed for forgotten shoes. Maybe I was in the back seat of the Subaru and we joked about future meetings and living arrangements like people sharing the last few bites of cake, nibbling bits off the corners, pressing our forks to pick up crumbs, as if by drawing it out this way, we could make the conversation last until the next visit.

***

My earliest memories with my mom’s side of the family place us all around a metal basin full of cold water and fresh picked apples ready for cider. My three-year-old arms are in the cold water up to my elbows–it darkens wristbands of my coat and draws goose bumps on my wrists. The smell of dust coats the barn floor and the flowery smell of my Aunt Becky’s shampoo is wafting toward me from across the water. There’s the dull thump of the apples bumping each other in the water, sometimes the squeaking of their skins. Finally, there’s the sound of the conveyor belt, carrying inspected apples to the presser, always circling. I’m not sure how many times I was a part of this autumn ritual; I was still young when the Dougherty Orchard stopped producing cider on a large scale—maybe I was really only there once—but the image has a quintessential bearing, real or imagined, on my identity. “My family has an apple orchard,” is a phrase I uttered no small number of times in elementary school show and tell.

***

Grandmother lists available ingredients and turns over the kitchen: summer squash, beets, onions, garlic, fresh corn, swiss chard, all grown by my grandfather and great-uncle. “I’ll just wash the dishes,” she tells me. It is a good arrangement. I am happy there: planning squash soup and beet salad, a frittata, and pizza, a clafoutis with the Michigan cherries. Happily Busy. Every time someone comes into the kitchen—my Grandmother, back from her meeting with the women of the Methodist Church; my mom, in from the garden; Aunt Sarah, just arriving from work— they ask what they can do to help. A bowl sits between the sinks, garlic and oil re-gathering in the bottom, a whisk resting against the side. “Oh, I’ll wash dishes,” they say, “I can do that!” I don’t wash a dish the whole time I’m there.

***

Aunt Sue reminds me of the hill scenario: “You know, you used to want to live on a hill, surrounded by all of us. What if we supplied you with ingredients and you cooked for all of us, too?” I am reminded of a treaty simulation during fourth grade Native American history. “If you read for a whole day,” the student teacher proposes, “we will give you three days off of school.” I have been assigned to play the Indian chief, and I think it sounds like a pretty good deal. We agree to the treaty and the traders inform us that our days off will take place all in a row, the week after school is already out. I ponder the hill. You will supply all the ingredients, I think, what is the catch? Maybe it’s the dishes. That could make a lot of dishes.

***

Grandmother takes me to the Marion church to make noodles for a fundraiser. In the kitchen, members of the congregation mix the dough and run it through the machines, then fluff the noodles with flour. Grandmother and I take the trays, spread the noodles on the papered tables in the sanctuary. She shows me how to shake the dough through my fingers, to sift out the dumplings so that it falls in even curly piles across the surface. Two hours pass. It’s work akin to pea shelling and corn husking, to addressing large mailings at an office job I used to have—a little conversation, and I could do it all day.

***

Grandmother has a way to wash dishes, looking through the window toward the bird feeders and the trumpet vine growing over the shed, past the overgrown gravel lane where we used to pick the pineapple weeds just to smell them. She washes the plates first, and they dry fast. She talks about my great-grandmother and how she would whistle up the walk to see her, talks about the people at church and a bag I made for her that she uses to carry books at conferences. She washes the bowls and they drip onto the plastic mat. It has been a decade now that we have lived over a day’s drive away from my extended family. 20 trips back and forth and often times I’ve felt idle without my Montana friends. I’ve written many lost lists and watched far too many “That’s So Raven” reruns for one person’s sanity. This time, I don’t spend an idle minute all week. One meal over, and I start planning what to do with the bunch of beets Uncle John set in the sink.

Grandmother rinses the glasses, stacks them close together along the rack. Her process is zen-like, no questions about her next move, a measured method like shelling peas or placing apples on the conveyor belt. A hummingbird comes and goes.  I watch as butter sizzles in the skillet.

A bit of a pickle

I once got myself stuck in a mint green un-zippered skirt that wouldn’t come over my head.

In Traverse City, Michigan.

At the National Cherry Festival.

In a Porta Potty.

I may have bumped into wall, and I kind of cringe to think of it, because I am capable of eating a lot of cherries in one sitting. I have done it. And while I won’t fully admit to the after-effects, I can only imagine the smelly plights that a porta-potty, unlucky enough to be placed at a festival celebrating easily poppable stone fruits might endure. I’ll just say this: prunes take a lot of flak, but it’s not all their fault.

My senior year of high school, I went through a skirt sewing phase, by which I mean I came home every day from school and I sewed a skirt. By the time I got to the sixth or seventh one, I wasn’t even using another skirt as a pattern anymore. I would just cut four rhombuses, two taller, two shorter. Sew the front together, sew the back together, sew sides, hem bottom, hem top. Bam! Skirt!

There was only one problem. Having already passed through puberty, I had these pesky protuberances above and below precisely where I wanted the narrowest part of my skirt to fit. And so, each of my waists had to be large enough that I could weasel my my way into it, but not so wide that it would fall over my hips.

Learn to sew a zipper, you say? Why, yes, that does have some rational grounding. In fact, even I was not so thick as to not see the logic in the general availability of fastened skirts in department stores. Because to pay money for a skirt that takes you five minutes to fit over your head in the morning, a skirt whose application requires you to pause briefly to breathe before holding your breath again, so that your rib cage won’t expand and your shoulders won’t move as you force a cotton weave to stretch to it’s greatest capacity–to pay for that, well, that would be absurd. But, when your primary objective is to quadruple your skirt collection, ease and wearability be damned—well—then an hour spent learning to sew a zipper means an hour thoroughly squandered. So it was that I showed up to school the last month of senior year, with each day a new skirt.

I have talked a lot about getting the skirts on. I have not so much mentioned getting them off, and I should, for while getting them on was a bit of an ordeal, shedding them was something I usually opted to behind closed doors, where no one was around to hear the grunting or knocking that ensued when I extracted my body from the tightly hemmed bondage. It usually involved undressing from the waist up, so as to not restrict anything in places where it could not be adjusted. Without fail, I would find myself bent over trying to will my shoulders into my ears as my hands tugged at the bottom hem.

So, of course I had some inkling of the endeavor at hand when, at the Cherry Festival, we readied ourselves for a swim. Even though I wore my very appropriately cherry printed swimsuit underneath my clothes and could easily have stripped down to that had my wardrobe involved functional pieces, I marched to the porta-potties. No unintentional exhibitionism here!

What I had not factored into the equation was the sticky nature of sweat and the expanding effect that a hot summer day can have on the skin. What I had not planned on was inserting myself directly into the movie scene where the girl, having forgotten to lock the porta-potty door, stumbles into it and out into the world as she works to pull her skirt over her head. She finds herself strewn on the ground amidst gaping onlookers, her legs askew, her head obscured by said skirt, her cherry-print bikini bottoms exposed for all to see. This is the stuff front pages photos are made of—at least that’s what I would be on the look out for if I were the photographer at the Cherry Festival. A fresh perspective. A bit of an edge.

In the end, we had to cut it off right there on the beach, the failure of my porta-potty mishap hanging from my person. I stood there, hunched with my dad’s pocket knife and seam-ripped the skirt from my hips. All-told, this is rather a sad story. The original handy work was never the same again.

Today, I embark on my summer adventure which once again includes a trip to the Cherry Festival. The cherry swimming suit will surely adorn my luggage. I’m not sure about the skirts yet. You might imagine one would have learned her lesson, but alas, while I have more actual sewing patterns under my belt now, the fact of the matter remains: I have still not learned to sew a zipper.

People like to refer to that Julia Child quote about  “never apologiz[ing]” for what happens in the kitchen. Now, not to put myself up there with the great one or anything, but I’ll just take that a step further and say that it’s good to also know how to promote what you plan to serve. Talk it up. Rave about the ingredients. Make your guest’s mouths water so they can’t wait to feast. And here’s one thing I find especially effective: bring up the old components whose greasy/on-the-verge-of-moldy behinds you managed to salvage by whipping them into the culinary concoction at hand.

Well, that last one doesn’t work for everybody. Fortunately, my friend Molly, who joined me for lunch on Wednesday, is a lady who appreciates a waste-free lunch, and would, I think, be just as sad as I am to see a handful of criminis, no matter how shriveled, fall to the mercy of the compost pile, especially if that pile resembled an algae swamp as ours does, rather than an earth renewal process. So she didn’t flinch when I described retrieving from the depths of the ice box the source of that odor at which Jake and I have wrinkled our noses all week and declared “something’s smelly in here.” Nor did she set down her fork even when I suggested that the cheeses had been rather “well-aged.”  Before, I could get to the questionable lemon I juiced for the crust, she offered that the leeks had been new. Indeed they had–the one ingredient I bought just in time to help me use up all these leftovers.

We ate small slices of the resulting galette, kind of a rustic tart, and stalks of roasted asparagus on the front steps in the sunshine, serenaded by the sweet sounds of rap music drifting over from the glass studio. Hot food in the day time always feels like a bit of a luxury to me. Lunchtime is  often a time to scrounge, to slap together pieces of bread, to reach for the the chips and salsa, or to eat the leftover that I’ve packed in my lunch. To have made something expressly for the purpose of eating at lunchtime, to eat it on a plate and be able to go back for seconds–well, it has the same excitement effect on me as weeknight baking: the feeling that I’m somehow getting away with a party on an otherwise ordinary day.

And yet, some days just call for this kind of lunch-y treatment. As we ate, I recalled to Molly how my childhood friend, Nicole, and I would sometimes get the urge to do something different for lunch. We generally turned to one of two solutions, both of which relied on the compliance of other neighborhood children. The first was to solicit a few dollars from everyone, including ourselves and order delivery pizza. The second, which we resorted to on our even more desperate days, was to call an impromptu potluck at the neighborhood park, with the prerequisite that anyone attending bring something edible. Perhaps we should have been more specific with our criterion, or at least vetted our invitees more thoroughly, because the resulting meals rarely met our hungry expectations. For years, we invited our neighbor Mary, whose parents were from China, with hopes that she might bring egg rolls. There may never have been an egg roll to speak of in Mary’s house, but we were set on the rather stereotyping assumption that they had to turn up in her clutches one of those days. Alas, most often she brought crab chips. And then there was Fionn, whose invites were allotted more cautiously once he arrived bearing co-op bags of bulk flax seed and bee pollen. To be fair, our contributions were probably at least as sorry–our interest was in finding ourselves a decent lunch, after all, and not actually in feeding the neighborhood children.

But, I share a little better now, and can readily access the grocery, so even when pickings are low, the neighbors are not my first resort. This is probably a good thing since I have a feeling some of them are surly: bolted iron gates and watch dog signs abound in these here parts.

I’m looking forward to trying this type of pastry in the future with other past-prime ingredients. In fact, I might even go as far as to recommend that you allow your mushrooms to dry in a paper bag in the refrigerator–their texture was a nice addition. Or you could take the easy route and just buy dried mushrooms.

“Just in time” Mushroom, Leek, and Goat Cheese Galette
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Crust:
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
a few cranks from the salt shaker
8 T. unsalted butter
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
juice of one small lemon (about 2 tsp.)
1/4 cup very cold water

Filling:
2 T. salted butter
1 small leek, halved and sliced thinly (to equal about 1 cup)
3/4 lb. mushrooms, thinly sliced (if a small portion have been sitting in a paper bag in your refrigerator for the past month and you have to resuscitate them in boiling water, so be it)
1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic, chopped
about 5 oz. crumbly goat cheese (I used a mix of feta and chevre)

Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Place in the freezer along with the stick of butter for half an hour. When butter is sufficiently chilled, unwrap it and grate it into the flour mixture, fluffing lightly with fingers or a fork about every third  of the stick to coat the shavings, and prevent butter lumpage. After the whole stick is grated, use a knife to finish mixing and break up the lumps a bit more. You want it to resemble a course meal.

In a smaller bowl whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, and ice water. Make a well in the center of the flour/butter mixture and add half of the wet mixture. Mix with fingers gently until large lumps form. Remove the lumps and hold them in your non-dominant hand, as you use your other hand to pour the rest of the wet mixture into the flour, and then mix again with fingers to incorporate most of the dry ingredients. Smack these new lumps onto the old lumps to make one giant lump/ball, do not over handle, and cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

To make the filling, melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the thyme, rosemary, and garlic and saute for another minute, until it begins to smell herb-y. Raise the heat to high or med-high and add the mushrooms. Cook until soft, mixing occasionally, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

Roll out crust into a 12 inch diameter circle. Transfer to an ungreased baking sheet or pizza stone.

Crumble the cheese into a medium sized bowl.Pour mushrooms over top of the cheese and mix gently. Spread this mixture onto the pastry crust leaving a 1 1/2 inch border. To finish, fold in the edges, creasing every two inches or so, leaving the center filling bare.

Bake the pastry for 30-40 minutes in a 400 degree oven, until pastry is lightly browned. We allowed the galette to cool slightly before eating. It was good warm, and then good again at room temperature when we went back for seconds.

This weekend I spoke with multiple family members who were throwing open windows, and weeding, reveling in the general spring-ness that seems to have crept in everywhere. I know everyone writes about the seasons, and maybe it’s not that interesting, but I can’t get enough of the reminders like the  Michigan crocuses above poking up from under brown leaves to tell me warm weather really is on the way.

A few weekends ago, Jake proclaimed it spring. He cited the car, that cocoon-like suggestion of summer it becomes when it basks in full sun on a spring day. On days like this, we close the car doors quickly, and sit for a few moments before driving off. We watch the sunshine and the shadows and pretend our metal shell is not a temperature barrier and that the same warmth surrounds everything we can see. We let the air stand like warm breath on our skin before we roll slowly backward and the fresh air from the vents swirls us back to real time.

In the spring, I am always a little surprised to find myself emerging from something of a sensory hibernation, as if I’ve had my arms clutched tightly around myself, over my eyes and ears all winter, and am only now feeling the air move around me for the first time in months.

I breath in deeply upon stepping outside, and the smell of the blossoming plum trees is so intoxicating, I wonder whether I have smelled anything all year. Yesterday, I left the windows open all day, and after closing them, late into the night, I found my nose still searching the air for pockets of a deeply earthy fresh smell that lingers, like grass roots in gas form. Walking outside, I turn my head and look around me, and feel as though my neck hasn’t moved in months as I peer down paths I never knew veered off the roads I’ve traveled for weeks.

I feel expanded, and the atmosphere seems larger, more grand, more thoroughly permeated, as though I can hear crickets chirp from miles away. A few nights ago, I listened to a frog croak outside for several hours, its song streaming freely through the same window that kept the winter out.

I approach the spring with a conflicted desperation each year. One part of me sees the first daffodils and wanting to race on, eagerly asks, “great, but what next? What blooms guarantee we have slipped inescapably into summer?” The other part of me stood still on a hill on the community campus yesterday, just before the sun set. I watched geese wander the soccer field and willed the sun to stop sinking–wait a few moments–because this time of year, there’s no telling when a day like that will come again.

I wrote this poem below two years ago in May, as the title suggests, but in its sentiment, its motion, I think it is a poem for March. I think we are all the March cottonwood seed: when the time is right, and the day is clear, we flood in swarms from the warmth of our homes, our catkins if you will, and pour into the streets. We are hurried at first, eager to take it in, and then we linger, drifting along river paths, hovering over garden beds, air-borne by some kind of sunshine-induced elation that only fickle spring weather can bring.

On days like today, when the sky is overcast and the air feels damp, I lie in wait, water the plants outside, admire the potted narcissus on the table, and look for the next warm gust to lift me up again.

Oregon in May

On Sunday, the cottonwoods
announced their existence,
and Eugene became a bit
fluffier under a dusting
of their downy seeds.
Cottony springtime reminders
clung to cobwebs
and collected at curbs,
dry and feathery
like a final winter snow.
After two days, a cloud
of them had settled
on the stagnant streams,
and I half expected
the ducks to be covered,
drifting from under
the footbridge
as if tarred and feathered,
fluff balls caught in a mallard’s
stately tail or dangling
precariously from the edge of a beak.
The rest wafted through campus,
across the bike paths,
hovered above the Willamette
with the same dissipated
intention of someone walking
through a garden on Saturday:
hands in pockets, guided only
by a winding grass trail
and the smell of hydrangeas
around the next bend.

*I’ve been thinking about the comments on here, how I could better use them. Given that I keep plugging on about after dinner conversations and stories, I would love to hear more stories from anyone reading. Here, I’ll try to make it easier by asking a question:

What clues you in that spring is coming?

Or, here’s another: Word has it that much of the country had a lovely Saturday. What did you do to celebrate the weather this weekend?

Refurbished ugly edibles

Summer as an adolescent is a restless experience. At least this was the case with the adolescent summer I remember best– the three months following our move to Montana–which found us virtually friendless, transportation-less, and apparently lacking any propensity for meaningful creative endeavors. And so, with all manner of orthodontic tortury plaguing our jaws and the just-as-attractive opaque silver lipstick coating our lips,* we turned–as you might expect three conflicted sugar-loving hermits to do–to the comfort of Maury, country music videos and a seemingly endless supply of boxed pudding mix.

A daily portion of televised domestic conflict can lead a person to do some unnecessary things–like allow their picture to be taken by a younger sibling while wearing opaque lip gloss. Or to spend almost an entire summer inside. But, perhaps it was an overdose of Toby Keith in a tank top that led us to one day combine a questionably old box of graham cracker crumbs with instant pudding and top it with some candy covered nuts and grated almond bark. Not so far-fetched perhaps, but my teeth hurt just thinking about it. Then, there was the day when we squandered an inordinate amount of perfectly good fruit by covering it in vanilla instant pudding. If you have never tasted this, I feel I’ve let you down a bit by not being able to describe it, but the truth is I found it so unpleasant even under the judgment-squelching clutches of boredom that I have not eaten it since.

I hope you have not lost confidence in my culinary skills because I am about to share something of a recipe with you. I tell you all this to suggest that perhaps my food-related prowess lies not in the invention of recipes, but in the re-imagination of items that might otherwise go to waste. While I’m sure those almonds tasted like Reba McEntire’s hair as we ate them in front of what must have been our forty-fifth top twenty CMT countdown, I maintain that if that was our best creative invention that summer, at least we can stay we didn’t stop at the instant pudding fruit salad.

Today, however we turn to savory rather than sweet. If I were to write a food blog, perhaps I would call it something like “Delicious Dregs,” and would consist of posts regarding two part recipes, wherein the first part would require you on one day to make a full-on recipe I had found somewhere else, and the second part would suggest, on a different day, that you remove the leftover contents of your previous dinner from a tupperware container in the refrigerator, throw them in a frying pan with extra cheese, maybe additional butter, some fresh herbs, or an egg, and cook until parts of it caramelized and transformed into a new meal. Bam!

Or maybe I would call it “Cheese is a Miraculous Thing.”

Oh, HEY. Or . . . “After Dinner!” As in after the dinner you made from scratch.

Either way, the power of cheese never ceases to amaze me, and so I present you with “Delicious Big Bowl Quinoa” refrigerated, re-imagined, and refurbished.

First make this recipe and enjoy it for dinner.

I generally halve it if making it for two people, and I’ve used a pretty wide variety of vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, green beans, even frozen peas. When finished, just put all leftover ingredients, excluding feta and walnuts, into the same container.

For part 2.

Remove leftovers from refrigerator. Pour a little olive oil into a skillet and warm over medium heat. Spoon a pile of quinoa mixture onto the pan and sprinkle it with tiny cubes of cheese–could be feta, could be cheddar, as I used. Allow this mixture to heat up, you can toss it a little to distribute cheese, but end with it in a circle.

Make a well in the center and crack an egg into the hole, allowing the white to seep through the grains. At this point you could treat it like you treat a fried egg. If you like them sunny side up, just allow the white to cook completely. I flipped the egg briefly, it was easy because the egg had adhered to most of the quinoa, so it was all one piece.

Last night, I ate this plain with some salt and pepper. Today I had it with guacamole. I briefly considered, last night, eating it with some garlicky plain yogurt, but then realized I had eaten yogurt for two other meals and a snack, and decided to refrain.

But, lest you think this more complicated than it really is, here are the simplified instructions.

For delicious transformation of quinoa, potatoes, and onions:
Dump leftovers.
Sprinkle Cheese.
Crack Egg.
Cook until done.

*And by “our,” I mean “my.”