You send me, honest you do

I love getting packages in the mail, especially food-related items. Ordering ingredients and kitchen tools is always fun, especially when I’ve forgotten I’d done so and they arrive like surprises, but it’s even more festive and exciting when people send me stuff out of the blue. It feels like an old-fashioned treat, like Christmas, no matter when it happens.

Last spring, for example, a friend who lives in London mailed me two china plates stamped “Manhattan Blue Plate Special” and a big bag of Guinness crisps, which are insanely good and greasy (and gluten-free). If I lived anywhere near where they were sold, I would eat them all the time, so it’s probably lucky I don’t. Last fall, my sister, who lives in Amsterdam, sent me a care package chockfull of treasures from a HEMA shopping spree, including little sake cups, an apron, chocolates, and dishtowels.

And last week, an old friend, a Brooklyn writer who has a house in Costa Rica, sent me a bag of dried black peppercorns from the “winter garden” he and his wife maintain down there. Their airy house, with a cozy wraparound veranda plus a roof with an amazing view, is perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Caribbean. Just up the hill behind it, a solid wall of unbroken, thick jungle apparently goes back all the way to Panama.

Many years ago, on my birthday, I sat on their roof veranda, looking out over the lush hillside and ocean while the sun set, drinking rum and eating turtle soup that had simmered all day on their stove. It was a guilty pleasure, but it was memorably delicious, rich and flavorful and tender, and I ate two bowls of it and craved it again when I woke up the next morning.

Another time, a group of us trooped into the jungle behind their house to shoot guns at targets. We got caught in a rainstorm so intense, it was like being in a lukewarm shower turned on full force. Water streamed into our eyes, drenched our faces and shoes. We stumbled back the way we came, but now our machete tracks were obscured by mud and battered leaves, so we got absolutely lost. The wall of vegetation around us was so dense, there was no gauging direction. Somehow, maybe just dumb luck, we found the way out, but there was a tricky half hour or so during which I imagined the many miles to Panama with more than a little nervousness.

Last week, safe and dry in my kitchen in Maine, I opened the double-wrapped package that had just thunked onto the entryway floor through the mail slot. I inhaled the fresh, strong, earthy smell of the peppercorns, instantly inspired to figure out what to do with them. I thought about steak au poivre, but I didn’t feel like a hunk of red meat just then; I wanted something lighter, but satisfying and filling.

And then my thoughts turned to Asian noodle soups. A while back, I learned to make pho from a Vietnamese cook who showed me how to toast a spice bouquet, then simmer it to make the broth. I decided to tinker with that spice combination to make a broth and serve the soup with bright and spicy ginger scallion sauce. For the soup ingredients, I decided on cod, baby bok choy, and shiitakes. I used thick Thai rice noodles, but if I could eat them, slippery, hearty udon noodles would be my first choice for this soup, the perfect combination with the firm fish and tender vegetables.

Fish Noodle Soup With Ginger Scallion Sauce

In a cast-iron skillet over high heat, toast the following spices for about 5 minutes: 5 crushed cardamom pods, 2 teaspoons of authentic homegrown Costa Rican peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, and 5 star anise. Add them to 6 cups of chicken broth in a stock pot along with sea salt to taste, 1 chopped hot pepper, 8 crushed cloves of garlic, a thumb-sized piece of ginger crushed with a meat tenderizer mallet, and a quartered yellow onion with the skin on. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for about an hour.

While it bubbles away, make the ginger scallion sauce. In a Cuisinart, mince a thumb-sized piece plus a finger-sized piece (ouch) of ginger, stopping before it becomes a paste. Do the same with a roughly chopped bunch of scallions. Put the scallions and ginger into a big, tall-sided pot – the taller the better, because this is going to be a flash mini-volcano. Add plenty of salt and mix — it should taste just slightly too salty. Heat ½ cup peanut oil until it smokes. Pour the molten oil into the pot all at once, and stand back. When it calms down, stir well, let cool, and put into a serving bowl.

Meanwhile, wash and chop 3-4 heads of baby bok choy, separating whites from greens, and a box of shiitake mushrooms. Cut 1 1/4 pound of cod into bite-sized pieces.

Prepare a package of udon or rice noodles according to the directions on the package.

Pour the hot broth through a strainer into a wok over medium heat, adding couple of dollops of toasted sesame oil. Add the white parts of the baby bok choy and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shiitakes, the green parts, and the cod. Stir and simmer everything for a few more minutes till the fish is flaky and the vegetables are just soft.

Divide the noodles into 4 bowls and ladle the soup over them. Garnish with generous dollops of ginger scallion sauce.

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She’s my neighbor, fill my cup… sugar on my tongue

Just as we were heading out to take our walk this morning, Tom Earle, the local farmer, came walking up the icy path across the yard to our front door, asking to tap the maple trees that line the driveway by the barn. We tagged along with him over to the barn, where his pickup truck was parked. He scrambled up into his truck bed to gather stacks of galvanized steel buckets. “Apparently now galvanized steel is no good for eating,” he said, “but I don’t know.” From the cab, he fetched a ball peen hammer, a battery-powered drill, a small metal tap, and a plastic spout.

He approached the nearest maple tree. We followed him, clambering over the hard icy packed snowdrift. They’re old, the trees here, with silvered, hoary bark, tall and shaggy.

He told us this is a good time for mapling now, cold nights and warmer days, when the sap, frozen in the roots all winter, thaws in the sun and rises hydraulically up the trunk and into the branches to feed the tree. “They have vacuum pumps now, the modern maplers, and even with the new machinery, they only get about 7 percent more than with these old methods. And that’s only 10, 20 percent of the tree’s sap. Some of them are planting maple trees a few feet apart and when they get high enough, they go through and whack off the tops and take out the sap that way.” He shook his head and laughed.

“Kind of like mountaintop removal mining,” I said, cringing a little as Dingo took a shit right by the front right wheel of Tom’s truck.

Tom politely ignored Dingo and considered the lower trunk. This one already had a mapling hole in it. “The hole always leaves a little bruise,” he said. “You don’t want to use an old hole.”

He walked around the trunk and stopped. “The sap is everywhere right now, but a good spot is usually under a branch.” He drilled a shallow hole a foot below the biggest low branch, then gently pocked in the metal tap with the hammer. “You can hear the sound change when it hits the sap.” He set the bucket’s handle into the hook in the tap so it was wedged securely just below it. A clear, thin drop welled and pinged into the bottom of the bucket. “The first drop,” he said, attaching the spout.

“I wonder who first thought to tap maple trees,” I said.

“The Indians didn’t have buckets, so they hollowed out tree trunks and set them under the spouts to collect sap,” he said. “And to sugar it off, because they didn’t have pots, they would drop hot rocks into the tree hollows. It’s 40 to 1, the ratio of sap to syrup. It takes two days in a pot with a good fire going. Imagine how long it took with hot rocks.”

“I wonder if animals like maple sap,” I said.

He laughed. “Everyone knows sugar,” he said. “I’ve got a terrible sweet tooth, myself, but we’ll have enough maple syrup left over to sell.” He invited us to visit his sugar hut later on, an invitation we accepted, and then off we went for our walk in the sudden springlike warmth. The dirt road had melted in rivulets and ice shards. The air temperature was less than 30 degrees, but the sun warmed everything up.

By the time we got back, less than an hour later, Tom had moved off to tap another copse of maples, and the trees lining the drive each had two buckets attached to their lower trunks.

It’s amazing to me, a former New Yorker who spent my entire post-school life in the city before I first came up here 5 years ago, to live in such close proximity to people who know how to DO shit, who’ve learned, and who practice, the old traditional ways. When my ex-husband and I renovated our 19th century row house in Greenpoint, we did most of the work ourselves, in part because there was no one to hire. Jon had worked for about 15 years after college as a building contractor, but when his joints gave out and he left that business, there was no one to hand it on to. All the young kids were now in I.T. and media.

Up here, this is not the case. The contractors who renovated our Portland house were our tenants’ best friends; finding them was the easiest thing in the world. I had been wanting to watch someone tap a maple tree, and he came walking up to our front door one warmish late-winter morning.

Sometimes I feel like all I have to do is ask, and I meet someone who has what I want.  Last month in Portland, at the first meeting of our newly formed Scotch Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, I idly expressed a yearning to cook moose. It turned out that Bri, who lives two blocks away from us, had a freezer full that she wasn’t sure what to do with; her girlfriend’s father is a hunter.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “If you give me some of that moose, I’ll cook it for the next Scotch Club meeting.”

When I went to her house to collect it, she handed me three packages of frozen meat marked “backstrap,” “New York sirloin,” and “stew meat.” I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I took them straight home and thawed the packages in a pot of hot water. The meat was a deep ruby-purple. There was no fat on it. It smelled mineral-fresh, not gamey at all; I reserved all the liquid that pooled in the bags from thawing.

I had decided to bourguignon the hell out of the moose, so I used Ina Garten’s recipe, substituting moose for beef. I used plenty of thyme, butter, lardons, cognac, and an entire bottle of dry red wine.

That night’s Scotch club meeting began in the living room with cheese, crackers, and a tasting of the night’s first single malt, Glenfiddich, which we all pronounced smooth and tasty. Then we thronged into the kitchen and filled our plates with buttered fresh gluten-free fettucine topped with moose bourguignon and buttered peas, and alongside, a salad of herb mix and fennel with a strong vinaigrette. The moose meat was tender and savory and stalwart enough to sop up all the rest of the single malts that followed that night.

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Bali Ha’i will whisper in the wind of the sea: “Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!”

Winter in New England is full of unforeseen challenges. The New Hampshire farmhouse furnace, which is about three decades old and has been limping along for the past five or more years on replacement belts and magic, has been officially pronounced dead today, or rather, it’s cracked, and the carbon monoxide it’s probably giving off would be dangerous, if the house were better insulated, or insulated at all.

And our house in Portland is home to four humans, two dogs, a cat, and an indeterminate number of squirrels. These past few weeks, according to our tenants, who live upstairs, the squirrel population has exploded and expanded. Before, according to Abby, they could hear a family of squirrels talking, fighting, having sex, giving birth, celebrating, and dying, leaving their excretions and carcasses within the walls of the house, and that was bad enough. But this winter, the squirrels seem to have quadrupled in number and expanded from the walls into the ceiling. And now, she and Tom can also hear their vigorous chewing, of the house itself.

A dangerous, dead furnace, a rapacious infestation of squirrels: both are problematic, potentially expensive, and time-consuming to deal with. A new furnace costs a small fortune. Exterminators charge as much as $75 per squirrel; who knows how many are up there? More are born every day, evidently.

The guy from White Mountain Oil & Propane is downstairs in the cellar right now, testing the carbon monoxide levels. By law, he had to shut the furnace off, which leaves us completely without heat in the middle of February. There is a Yotul woodstove in the middle downstairs room, but we’re low on wood; we weren’t here this fall to buy another cord, so we’ve only got a few sticks left. It’s a balmy 35 degrees today, but next week is going to bring another polar blast. We won’t be here, fortunately, so we can shut off the pipes and skedaddle out of here, but we’re coming back in mid-March, and it will still be full-on winter then. So we’ll have to figure something out, soon.

When we go back to Portland, we’ve got the squirrel problem. I’d consider camping out in a lawn chair with my .22 (I do not own a .22 but would happily buy one for this purpose) and picking the squirrels off one by one as they came down the fire escape. I have no ethical problem with this, because I would then dress, cook, and eat them. Friends who’ve done so assure me that aside from having to pick buckshot out of your teeth, they’re delicious. Squirrel pot pie, braised squirrel stew, deep-fried squirrels with cream gravy, we could eat free-range, organic meat for weeks…. But too bad, it’s illegal to shoot a gun within city limits. And catch-and-release in the dead of winter is cruel; they would freeze and starve to death. So we’ll have to have them killed somehow.

Ah, the joys of life in the far north! At least we have plenty of water and food. At least this house is nicely porous, so we didn’t die from carbon monoxide poisoning while the old furnace was exhaling its toxic last breaths. And at least those squirrels haven’t chewed through any electrical wiring and set our Portland house on fire. Yet.

My older sister Caddie is the one who pointed out that the oil smell from the furnace was probably not all that healthy. She lives over in Vermont, and she had a week’s vacation, so she motored across northern New England on Monday afternoon and parked her Subaru next to ours in front of the barn. She brought a big bag filled with delicacies from her part of the world: apple butter, cider jelly, a round of soft, mild goat cheese, boiled cider, apple cider syrup, two bottles of French wine, butternut squash seed oil, tea, and a tin of almond thumbprint cookies she’d baked for us.

Caddie and I sat by the fire while the sky got dark, talking away, while Brendan made dinner: a leg of lamb, roasted with rosemary and garlic, with his grandmother’s Italian curry – two each of yellow onions, green peppers, and peeled red apples, minced and sautéed in plenty of olive oil, then simmered in 2 1/2 cups whole milk, with 2 heaping teaspoons of curry powder and 2 tablespoons of flour, whisked in until it thickens – along with broccoli rabe and Arborio rice. This meal, one of my top three death-row choices, is always served with Major Grey’s chutney. This time, it was perfect: the lamb was tender and perfectly flavored; the curry was delicate and sweet and luscious with the soft rice and vinegary chutney; and the broccoli rabe was bitter and garlicky. We sat at the candlelit table and feasted, talking and drinking wine.

Afterwards, we watched the Olympics, suffering and kvetching through the bobsled races to get to the ice dancing, which we all three loved. While we watched, the furnace blew its evil oil smell upstairs. It’s been doing that for a while, and we’ve just sort of ignored it, since we don’t have any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, headaches or nausea or dizziness, and Dingo is fine, too. But there’s something about an older sister. She is indeed the boss of me. When Caddie pointed out the potential dangers of this situation and told a story about her own long-ago brush with carbon monoxide poisoning, driving a rusted-out car that she finally fell out of, unconscious, all my denial disappeared.

So we’re without heat for now. And when we go back to town, we’ll see those squirrels sitting outside the kitchen window, staring in at us. They look like they’d taste delicious in écureuil au vin.

Caddie’s Almond Meal Thumbprint Cookies

Those cookies were so good, the entire tin was gone by the next afternoon. We’re not sweets eaters, but these were sublime, so I made her give us the recipe, and here it is.

2 c. almond meal (Bob’s Red Mill can be kept in the freezer for quite awhile)

¼ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp salt

2-3 Tbsp. date, maple, or brown sugar

(mix these dry ingredients together)

¼ cup honey  (or honey/maple syrup)

¼ cup coconut or organic corn oil or melted butter

2-3 T. whole or almond milk

½ tsp. vanilla

(mix these ingredients into dry ingredients…should be gooey…)

Roll into lovely little balls, dip the tops of balls into an extra bit of almond meal, place on greased baking sheet (thick one if possible…and/or line with parchment paper – these guys brown on the bottom easily)

Press down in middle with a thumb or the back of a coffee scoop.

Can be filled with jam before or after baking… I filled with plum jam…but the imagination can take over here… (chestnut spread?  chestnut/chocolate?  fig jam?  ooh, ooh.)

Anyway, I digress… Bake for about 10 minutes in a 375 degree oven.

Let them cool a little before taking off the rack… They’re very crumbly when hot, and stay together nicely when cooled off a bit.

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Bring it on home to me

By the second week of January, most of my resolutions for the Year of No seemed to have fallen by the proverbial wayside, which I envision as a grimy urban curb strewn with cigarette butts, used condoms, and good intentions, like the road to hell. I had kept exactly two of the many, and they happened to be the easiest: I had said no to blurbing books, and I hadn’t spent any unnecessary money. Also, I reminded myself, I had kept up my daily fast hard 4-mile walk, thanks to Dingo, who demands it; that hadn’t been a resolution, but it was something, at least. I reminded myself of this to keep from feeling like an abject slug. It helped, but only a little.

I’d embarked on my plan for 2014 with the sense that if I were going to give so much money to environmental causes, sign so many petitions, write so many letters, I should take care of myself as if I were the planet. Corny, I know, but “change begins at home” always sounded good to me, if only because “at home” is where I live, and I have no control over anywhere else.

The other self-care resolutions I promised myself I’d keep this year included brushing and flossing my teeth with stringent discipline, drinking less red wine and more green and nettle tea and water, eating less food, less meat, less often, doing Pilates again, starting my novel, and spending less time on the computer and more time reading, ideally great novels.

As of mid-January, these were all failures.

Oh well, I thought. Then I went to the dentist with dread and loathing borne of many prior traumatic dental experiences; this past semester of teaching took all my concentration, apparently, so I had none left over for flossing. I braced myself for a root canal, or a stern lecture at best. But the hygienist and dentist gave me heartening news: things weren’t so bad in there. I left with spanking-fresh teeth, tartar-free, no cavities. A fresh start is inspiring and symbolic. Good news can spur change better than bad sometimes, or maybe I just buy into the deal-with-the-devil cliché. Whatever the reason, I’ve brushed and flossed every day since, just about. Close enough for me.

A few days later, on a surge of inspiration perhaps borne of my dental triumph, I started my new novel. Wow, I thought, a novel again, how exciting, I have no idea what I’m doing, let’s go. I remember this. It’s the best feeling in the world. The novel is my true home, and it’s always good to be back, even though I always have to force myself to go there, stay there, face it.

I have always loved to make a pot of tea before I begin my writing day, usually at 3:00 in the afternoon, after my correspondence, errands, 4-mile walk. I reinstated this ritual, and then, maybe as a result, I found myself eating less food and drinking less wine as a matter of course, without trying. When I’m writing, I don’t want to cloud my brain with excess and indulgence.

Then February came around with its midwinter doldrums and cabin fever, but I didn’t lose heart: my head was clear, my novel was underway. In the first week of the month, I found myself hungry for books and bored by the Internet. A hot bath is my favorite place to read in the wintertime anyway, and this is a very cold winter.  When my writing was done for the day, I ran a hot bath, got in, and picked something from my stack of unread books. And thus, I spent hours away from my computer every day, not missing it at all.

Now it’s almost mid-February, and I have one more resolution to keep.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, I heard from my Pilates teacher yesterday. She asked where I’ve been. I told her I’m in and out of town and working and distracted. I told her, also, how woefully depleted my core strength is these days. She wrote back to tell me about an online 31-day challenge she’s going to run, starting March 1st.

And then it hit me, with the simple beauty of an algorithm or a koan: not everything has to happen all at once.

Typing this, I have to laugh at the obviousness, but it’s nothing I’ve ever learned in any deep way. Does everyone else know this already except me? I’ve always been so impatient. Once I decide something, it’s got to be done NOW.  If it takes longer, I’m a failure. If I skip one thing, it’s all worthless. For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone into frenzies of reform, attacking my decisions with the rabidity of a zealot. Gradual, thoughtful change is nothing I understand.

This extends to my tooth-gnashing, wee-hour fretting about climate change and the planet: we have to stop using oil NOW, stop fracking NOW, right NOW, everything has to come to a screeching halt and CHANGE, presto, otherwise we’re lost. I know I sound like a five-year-old, but in many ways, I am a five-year-old. I don’t care how it sounds, if I can start doing Pilates on March 1st without being a failure, then maybe there’s hope.

Chinese-ish Japanese-ish Soup

The other night, after a good afternoon of writing and reading, I simmered two 6-inch sheets of kombu, dried seaweed, for 20 minutes in about 2 quarts of water, then removed them and cut them into strips and put them back into the water along with a sweet potato and 2 carrots cut up into tiny cubes, a big handful of chopped shiitake mushrooms, a chopped jalapeno, plenty of minced ginger and garlic, 4 star anise, a hefty shot of Bragg’s liquid amino acids (use soy sauce instead if you like) and another of hot chili sesame oil. After 7 minutes, I added one cubed chicken breast and a chopped bunch or two of scallions.

Separately, I made half a package of Maifun, those delicate little rice noodles, according to the package directions.

When it was all done, I put a handful of noodles into 2 bowls and ladled scoops of soup on top plus extra broth. I served it with hot chili sauce. We devoured this supper, finished it with mint tea, and slept deeply and well.

There was enough soup, with noodles, left over for the next night’s evening meal, as well.

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I’ve seen it before, it happens all the time

Mae West said, “To err is human, but it feels divine.” How right she was, to a certain extent.

It’s been quite a while since I did anything really bad, dammit. The errors I make these days are modest in scope, caused largely by unintended social klutziness: rushing forth in my enthusiasm to speak and depriving someone else of the spotlight; inflicting my will on others without thinking and then realizing how unpopular my unilateral decision was; or blithely assuming people are more comfortable socially than they are and making a blunder in judgment.

But when I was younger, and not even that much younger, my life was spinning off like a revved-up racecar without a driver. Back then, for years and even decades, I made colossal errors, life-changing ones, errors so big, they set me on a different course.

It did not feel “divine,” exactly, to err so dramatically, it felt stressful and strange, nightmarish even, as if I were going against the high standards I generally like to hold myself to, acting out of loneliness and hunger rather than generosity and thoughtfulness. However, these mistakes I made set off a chain of events that caused me to act decisively in order to stop making them. If I hadn’t made them, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, I’m sure of that, so regret is useless.

If anything, making mistakes teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Besides the usual residual rewards of a life fully lived, such as wisdom and hindsight and forgiveness of others and the knowledge of what an incredible asshole you’re actually capable of being, big mistakes teach you who your true friends are and who’s been judging you, sniping behind your back, and slitting their eyes at you all along. This is useful information, as any Shakespearean tragedy proves: naïve belief in the high opinion of others can be deadly. Mistakes make you humble, cure you of arrogant superiority. At least, they did me. And they made me appreciate the people who love me in a whole new way. I can’t take anything for granted anymore, not ever. To err is very human, I think.

I’m sitting in front of a hot fire on a zero-degree night in the White Mountains. It’s a tough world out there, beyond the walls of this farmhouse. Tonight, outside, the sky is dark and clear, mad with stars. The eaves are hung with icicles sharp as shards of glass. We saw a very thin coyote at the bottom of the field the other morning. He was trolling the edge of the field, for what food, I didn’t know. He didn’t bother coming up to root for fallen apples in the snow in the orchard, so maybe there weren’t any. Compared to the portly old velvet-furred pasha of a canine dozing at my feet, the coyote looked truly wild and on the verge of starvation. There’s no supermarket for him to go to.

In the woods, the dark, shaggy branches of the hemlocks are heaped in pillows of white snow.  On our walks, we stop to look at the brooks, whose surfaces are iced over in ornate layers and hummocks.  The snowy, frozen lake is bluish in the shade. The air has been so cold, so dry, that once we warm up from the hard exercise, I’m weirdly reminded of hot days in Arizona, of that desert air that scalds the skin with its parched aridity. The absolute lack of moisture makes our skin crackle. The hard packed beige-brown sand on the road over the ice also feels desert-like, as does the sunlight, which, although it lacks warmth, is intensely bright.

We come into the warm house after our walk with our skin flushed, our scarves frozen from our exhalations, noses dripping, blood pumping. We shed everything as fast as we can, gulp big glasses of cold well water, and then, within twenty minutes, we’re chilly again, and the layers gradually go back on.

When we went to the barn earlier to get more wood, we bundled up as if we were heading out into the Siberian steppe. Our boots creaked in the snow as we walked in the tire tracks across the yard to the driveway and across it to the barn. We had to go through the stable to the woodpile because the side entrance is buried by the towering pile of snow that slid from the roof last week, when it warmed up enough to melt it slightly. We shoe-skated over the ice on the floor to the nearly-depleted woodpile, loaded up and staggered back to the house with our armloads.

In here, in front of the fire, it’s warm and safe. Dingo’s on the window seat snoozing. Brendan’s making veal cutlets, dredging them in beaten egg, then bread crumbs, and then he’ll fry them in hot oil. Sweet potatoes are in the oven; peas are simmering in a pot.

It’s a Blue Plate Special night. This is always an occasion for contemplation and gratitude, especially in light of the flood of bad news that crowds into my sphere of attention, constantly, with no hope of improvement or change. Today’s haul was typical: the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline is open for business as of today, thank to our President; the rare albino baby dolphin who was caught in Japan the other day in their latest mass haul has been shipped off to a life of captivity, and its mother has committed suicide; Chevron, who has dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the once-pristine river system of the Ecuadorean Amazon over the years, is suing an Ecuadorian man who claims the poisons caused the cancer that killed his father and wife; and so forth, on and on, day after day. It’s too much to believe, the scope of our environmental ruin. My own individual death feels totally insignificant to me now. What a strange species we are.

So we turn up the heat, put another log on the fire, and tuck into our plates of food. Everything feels hard-won, provisional, and fragile, and I love it all the more for that.

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Yerushalayim shel zahav, veshel nechoshet veshel or

Sometimes my brain goes offline. It puts itself in Idle. This happens after periods of intense thought and writing and reading, but at other times, it happens for no apparent reason. I wake up stupider than usual, and I have a hard time making conversation, and I can’t write anything at all, and reading anything more challenging than a glossy magazine is an effort. So I sit in the bath with a glossy magazine and drool gently and stare into space and let my thoughts bump around like bears in the dark. That’s been my general state these past couple of weeks. Three or four weeks, actually. It’s been going on for so long, I’m starting to suspect it’s my natural state, and my occasional bursts of sustained writing and reading are the anomaly, artificially induced by deadlines.

The one thing I can still do when my brain is in sleep mode is cook. Thank God, because I still have to eat. Lately, I’ve even been having dreams about cooking. One night, I made linguine, over and over, all night long. I cracked an egg into a mound of fine-milled buckwheat flour, threw in some salt, mixed it into a dough, rolled it out, and cut it in long, fine strips and hung them on a rack. During the course of that night, I must have made enough fresh buckwheat linguine to feed the homeless population of Portland, Maine.

Anyway, a couple of nights after the linguine dream, I had a dream about a cucumber and tomato salad. It was very simple—summery, juicy, crunchy, and fresh. In my dream, I was so excited to eat it, I couldn’t stop banging on about how good it was and how much I’d been craving it.

When I woke up, it seemed obvious that I needed to make and eat this salad as soon as possible. Later that morning, after a fast hike through the slushy snow and ice on the Casco Bay trails at the Eastern Prom, we stopped at the small market on Munjoy Hill and bought a basketful of groceries. I love this little market. It’s tiny, but it’s full of everything we want and need, all of it beautiful, most of it locally grown.

We bought vegetables, herbs, tahini, chickpeas, lemons, feta, wild rice, and wine. Just before suppertime, I put a cup of wild rice on to cook in two cups of chicken broth. Then I made a batch of hummus in the little Cuisinart: first a quarter of a cup each of lemon juice and tahini, then when that was all smooth, a couple of cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of olive oil and a 15 ounce can of chickpeas, well rinsed, in two batches, with a dash of water. I dumped the creamy, rich hummus into a bowl, smoothed it out, then sprinkled cayenne and paprika and poured olive oil on top. It tasted better than any store-bought hummus I’d ever had. I’d never made it from scratch before, and now I couldn’t fathom why not.

Then I peeled, cored, and chopped two cucumbers along with two ripe tomatoes, diced a red onion, and minced a big bunch each of mint, cilantro, and parsley. I diced two red peppers, squeezed half a cup of fresh lemon juice, and then I was ready to throw together a tabbouleh and a salad.

I stuck the cooked rice in the freezer for a while to cool, then took it out and added half the chopped herbs, half the red onion, and a red pepper. I poured half the lemon juice into it, doused it with olive oil, added black pepper and cumin, mixed it well, tasted it, and lo, it was done.

The cucumbers and tomatoes, the second red pepper and other half of the red onion, and the rest of the herbs and lemon juice went into a separate bowl with more olive oil, cumin, and black pepper. I crumbled the entire block of feta over it, considered and decided against olives, mixed it well, and then that was done, too.

We heaped our plates high, piling the salad on top of a bed of baby arugula and the hummus on top of the tabbouleh. We sat at the counter, crunching away. The cucumber and tomato salad was as good as the one in my dream, or maybe even better, since I hadn’t thought to add feta in my dream. Sometimes real life is better.

We ate the leftovers for dinner the next night; the salad had marinated in the olive oil and lemon juice, and the wild rice tabbouleh had steeped in its own flavors, too, so everything was even more delicious the second time around.

My brain is still offline. But it’s a bit clearer; that influx of fresh raw vegetables seems to have given it a sort of boost, along with the “Israeli sandwiches” we’ve been eating for breakfast. I call them that because they remind me of the breakfast buffet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where I had the luxury of staying when I was in Israel for my cousin-in-law’s wedding, many years ago. In the hotel dining room were tables filled with platters mounded with smoked fish and creamy cheese and sliced raw vegetables and bagels and rye breads and fruit salad and olives and hummus and babaganoush and tabbouleh. I’ve been to Israel three times, and Jerusalem is an amazing, awe-inspiring city, of course, but that breakfast was memorable.

Israeli Breakfast Sandwich

Spread soft mild goat cheese on two pieces of hot toast. Add plenty of smoked fish (I used bluefish), ripe tomato and peeled cucumber, and a small handful of arugula. Clap the pieces together and eat it right away.

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We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet

2014 is going to be the Year of No: no blurbing books, no reading anything I don’t want to read, no writing anything I don’t want to write, no drinking and eating too much, no spending so much time on the computer, no spending money on anything but necessities, the most important of which are Dingo, our house, the car, groceries, and books. NO NO NO. It’s also going to be a year of writing a new novel, a novel I’m starting to feel excited about, something new and different.

On December 14th, after two long, grueling days of driving back home from Iowa City, we crossed the Maine border well after dark (“Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be”). We pulled into our garage that night at 8:00. Laden with stuff, we unlocked the door and walked into our house. I staggered around, my jaw agape: I couldn’t believe it. While we were in Iowa, I focused anxiously on all our house’s problems.  I had forgotten how beautiful it is.

When the car was unloaded, Dingo walked and tucked away in his bed, we went straight to our favorite corner bistro and ordered the meal we’d been dreaming of for 1,000 miles: cocktails and lobster tail salad, then green salads and steak frites with a bottle of robust red wine. It was heavenly to be back there, eating our favorite meal; all the waitstaff remembered us and said welcome back. Walking home through the icy, snowy night, we had a silly fight, because we were as tired and cranky as two-year-olds after a birthday party. We laughed at ourselves, collapsed in our big comfortable bed, and corked off to the best sleep we’d had in months.

And then, in the week that followed, while Brendan got right back to work without missing a beat, I crashed into mornings and afternoons of long baths and spaced-out daydreaming. However, in a deeper sense, I also felt recharged, inspired, reconnected to my literary roots by my time in Iowa. I missed my students, the profound camaraderie we shared all those months. But it was good to be back in this ocean town with its briny winter air, softer somehow than the Midwestern bone-dry Arctic chill.

We spent Christmas in New Hampshire with Brendan’s parents, brothers, and grandmother, cooking feasts and playing games and walking in the icy snow. There was a tall, festooned pine tree in the library. On Christmas day, Brendan and his father made an Italian bolito, beef roast simmered with carrots and potatoes, then the fragrant broth used for tortellini soup and the tender meat served sliced with the vegetables alongside and a salsa verde of minced capers, anchovies, parsley, garlic, hard-boiled eggs, vinegar, and olive oil.  We drank wine at the long table by candlelight as the sun went down and toasted one another – “To family.” This was Brendan’s and my fifth Christmas together and my third with his family. It was the best one we’ve ever had.

On the 28th, this past Saturday night, we threw a small cocktail party. It started at 5:30, as most evenings do in this town, and was over well before 10.  About twenty of us drank two and a half bottles of whiskey, six bottles of wine, and three bottles of cava. We also ate a heap of food, a good-luck southern New Year’s spread: pulled pork (for health and forward motion), hoppin’ John (for luck), macaroni and cheese (for gold), and collard greens (for money) simmered with smoked ham hocks (for even more health and forward motion), plus doughnuts (for continuity, coming full circle) for dessert. We had decked the living rooms with pine wreaths and boughs (which we got for free because it was after Christmas, so the guy at the flower shop down the street was about to throw them all out), plus lots of lit candles and strings of old-fashioned colored Christmas lights, the 1970s bulb kind. The rooms were aglow and gorgeous, but of course everyone congregated around the food and booze in the undecorated, brightly lit kitchen and didn’t budge. And so it always goes… but it didn’t matter. It was so good to see our friends again.

We spent last night, New Year’s Eve, with more friends. My paperback editor and her husband, who are in town for the holidays, came over for a glass of wine and a couple of hours of bubbly, convivial conversation, and then we drove to South Portland to a dinner party with one of our favorite couples, Michael and Jeffrey, and some old, dear friends of theirs. First, there was smoked fish with flash-pickled carrots and beets along with Japanese roast pork wrapped in lettuce with hot pepper sauce. For dinner, they had made a Boston boiled dinner, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes, another variation of the good-luck traditional humble New Year’s meal – “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.” 

We all laughed and talked all night on gusts of warmth and happiness. Our hosts’ charming, gamine seven-year-old daughter, Phoebe, performed magic tricks with aplomb, then brought out her whoopee cushion and remote-controlled flying sphere, to endless hilarity. The two dogs and lovely little tabby cat were charming and gamine, as well. We got home by midnight, went to bed shortly after that, and awoke to a bright new year, ready to let go of the old one.

Hoppin’ John

Sauté in plenty of olive oil 1 chopped onion, 2 ribs celery, 1 green and 1 red pepper, and 8 cloves of chopped garlic. Add very generous dashes of cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, thyme, as well as 2-3 minced jalapeno peppers and a bay leaf. Add 1 package chopped turkey andouille (4 sausages) and sauté until everything is fragrant and soft. Add 2 cups of chicken broth, a can of diced tomatoes, several shots of Tabasco, 2-3 cans of lightly rinsed blackeyed peas, and ½ cup long-grained white rice. Simmer, covered and stirring every now and then, for 30-40 minutes. Add more broth if needed. Taste — adjust seasonings — cook until rice is soft.

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