Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Here's Looking At You, Kid

Call me a bit of a rebel, I’m not a big on holiday traditions. For obvious reasons, I’m fine with a turkeyless Thanksgiving. I’m likewise fine with a treeless Christmas, a menorahless Chanukah. I do like New Year’s though, with champagne on New Year’s Eve and hopping john New Year’s Day. There is nothing glamorous about a plate of hopping john -- it's rice, black-eyed peas and collards. It’s cheapish to make and plainish to eat, but I love it for being rich in fiber, folklore and mystique. What other dish promises good luck, fortune and romance?

Some say black-eyed peas look like coins and collards or other greens represent paper money, therefore you’ll make as much money as the hopping john you eat.

Black-eyed peas also fit an old superstition that if a dark-eyed man is your first visitor on New Year’s Day, love and good luck will be yours.

Who knows where such stories started? One version has hopping john originating with the slaves who brought black-eyed peas and rice from west Africa. Some say the dish got its name from a child dancing around the stove, eager for supper. What started as a slave dish, livened with a lttle pepper and pork made its way into plantation kitchens.

It could be hopping john got its start even earlier, from our Celtic forebears who lighted fires on New Year’s Eve and danced around them all night. The Anglo-Saxon word hoppan means religious dance.

In either case, dancing seems as much a part of hopping john as black-eyed peas. I'm a great believer in dancing and a big fan of good luck, great fortune and hot romance. Do I believe a plate of rice and beans will make that happen? Not so much, but just enough -- that's why I’ll start the year the way I have for the past decade, with a pot of hopping john ready for New Year’s Day. Call it the victory of hop over experience (sorry).

Hopping John

Traditionally, hopping john is made with everything going into one pot. Traditionally, it is also made with pork. I -- surprise -- have broken with tradition and make this in two pots and sans pig.

Make it New Year’s Eve or even the day before. Flavor improves over time and hopping john reheats like a dream. You’ll have a nourishing, cheap meal ready to go on a day when some of us are too tired and bleary-eyed to cook. And there’s a bonus -- the sturdy rice and beans dish sops up any hangover.

Happy New Year.

1 cup black eyed peas

3 cups of water

6 cloves garlic

1 dried hot pepper

1 bay leaf

2 cups vegetable broth

1 cup brown rice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

1 big bunch collard greens, sliced into thin ribbons

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large pot, bring 3 cups of water to boil over high heat. Add black-eyed peas, 2 cloves of garlic (whole), pepper and bay leaf. Skim off any beans that float. They’re duds.

Reduce heat to low. Simmer beans uncovered for an hour and a half until beans are tender, not mushy.

Add brown rice and the vegetable broth. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Don’t lift that lid. Turn off the heat, leave pot on the burner and let hopping john sit.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, jalapeno, celery and the remaining 4 garlic cloves, chopped. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables soften.

Reduce heat to medium. Add greens by the handful, and cook until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Fluff rice and beans, fold in collard mixture. Squeeze in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Splash with hot sauce.

Serves 6.

Spin the Bottle

I have for some time been searching for a line by one of the French decadent poets. Baudelaire? Rimbaud? Verlaine? One of them guys. The gist of the citation is, be drunk. On wine. On life. On love. On poetry. But be drunk.

I’ve interpreted “drunk” in this context to mean loose, uninhibited, delighted by, infatuated with. I do not interpret it as yoimashita, Japanese slang for drinking to the point of paralysis. This is how the Japanese drink -- single-mindedly, with a real purpose. . . and the purpose is oblivion. You’ve got to see it in action to appreciate it.

My husband and were at our favorite Tokyo sushi bar and the woman beside us was so red-faced and unstable (which, as I say, is the point), she knocked a whole flask of sake onto my husband. Sober, she would have been proper and Japanese and mortified. Yoimashita, she just laughed.

I’m not a yoimashita drunk, but a cheap and happy drunk. A glass of wine and I’m cheery, then sleepy, then out.

Of course there was the first time I drank sake.

I was college freshman in the company of a friend and a guy on who I had a brain-bending crush. We sat in at a banquette which seemed to me rather grand. They were seniors, madly sophisticated. To wit -- they were eating sushi and drinking sake. I, who had no money and no interest in fish, was drunk and dazzled just being off campus and in their company. I just cheered them on and drank tea. I really like tea. But at some point, they insisted I try sake.

The crush proferred his cup. This seemed far more erotically charged than it needed to. I brought my lips to where his lips had been and took a sip. The sake was warm and viscous and tasted like cotton. Then came the afterburn. I spluttered.

“You don’t sip it,” the friend said. “You knock it back.” He demonstrated.

I tried, but the fumes alone made my eyes tear. This made me appear girlie, and not adorably so.

“It’s just wine,” the crush said.

I tried to man up. I could drink wine.

A waitress was summoned, another little cup produced.

Strictly speaking, sake is not wine. It is not fermented in the same way and has an alcohol content that starts where wine’s ends. I didn’t know that at the time but I enjoyed the toasty sensation it produced when I drank it.

They ordered more sake. I did my best to keep up with them and became fascinated by the banquette’s dark, scratchy upholstery. I caressed it. At one point, I began singing. This signalled to crush and friend I was plastered.

“I’m fine,” I slurred. My teeth were soft. This seemed like it might be a problem, but not now, sometime in the distant future. I was floaty and happy and launched into "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."

This turned out to be oddly prescient. Though friend and crush fed me to soak up the booze, crush ultimately had to carry me out to the car, flinging me over his shoulder like a sack of spuds.

I did not get disgustingly ill or even hung over. I was young, my body could probably metabolize sheet metal. The crush did not take advantage of me -- I’d remember that part. What I don’t remember is the source of the being drunk quote. Makes me wonder if I might have been yoimashita when I saw -- or imagined -- it.

Whether it was Baudelaire who said it or an inebriated me, being lightly, giddly drunk on is a philosophy I embrace, even though being drunk on life doesn’t always work for me as it should. I worry about the war in Afghanistan, the fizzle of talks in Copenhagen and assorted traumas closer to home. Being drunk, loose, giddy, in love, is something to shoot for, though. Or drink to. Cheers.

Sake-Spashed Millet with Miso and

Gingered Greens and Tofu

Sake-Splashed Millet

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons garlic, chopped

1 cup millet

3 cups vegetable broth, more if necessary

1/2 cauliflower, chopped

1/4 cup miso

1/3 cup sake

Heat sesame oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic and saute for 3 minutes, or until fragrant. Add millet and stir until the millet toasts. Add cauliflower and broth, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 30 minutes, checking progress periodically, Should mixture dry out, add a splash more broth. After half an hour, all the liquid should be absorbed and the millet should have a porridgelike consistency.

Using an immersion blender, food processor or the back of a spoon, puree millet and cauliflower. It should smoothe out and fluff up a bit. Stir in miso and sake and serve.

Serves 4.

Gingered Greens and Tofu

2 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoon garlic, chopped

4 tablespoon ginger, chopped

6 turnips, sliced

1 head of cabbage, shredded or a big bunch of greens, chopped into bits

1 cup vegetable broth

1 pound tofu, diced

4 tablespoons soy sauce

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic and ginger and saute until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add sliced turnips and coat with oil, stirring for another 3 minutes. Work in greens and stir until just starting to wilt.

Reduce heat to medium, add vegetable broth, tofu and soy sauce. Continue cooking until heated through and greens are tender, about 8 minutes.

Serves 4.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Unintended Consequences

I almost failed high school chemistry because I had a sixth period class, the last of the day, and our instructor was an alcoholic. In her sozzled mind, she’d already taught us the same lesson five times that day and she was crazed and furious because we hadn’t nailed it yet. Also there was the time she allegedly saw a guy spill acid and ripped his pants off “so he wouldn’t burn himself.” Uh-huh.

There was some sort of administrative intervention and another instructor took over, but it was too late for me. As intrigued as I was by chemistry and all its nifty accoutrements and accessories, I was never going to be of a scientific bent. I could neither draw nor fathom the pretty little molecular sequences. Trying -- and failing -- to memorize the period chart made me anxious. But the real problem was I believed in literature, in stories, more than I ever believed in science.

Things are never as simple and elegant as they seem in science. They can’t be reduced to formula. Or if they can be, there are always what Robert Merton (a sociologist, not a scientist) called “unintended consequences,” fallout you hadn’t expected. Side effects. And they’re usually not fun.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” Aylmer, “a man of science,” is obsessed with his wife Georgiana, lovely in all ways, save a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. It is the flaw which obsesses Aylmer. He gets so he can’t stand to be with her, because the defect is all he sees. Aylmer develops a serum to remove the birthmark. It works, and Georgiana is left unmarked, physically perfect. And dead. Death is a fairly serious side effect. No coming back from that one, at least not yet. “With so high and pure a feeling,” Aylmer “rejected the best the earth could offer.”

We may not be perfect, Hawthorne was saying, but we’re all we’ve got and we should embrace ourselves -- and each other. Two hundred and fifty years later, Richard Powers, author of neuro-novels like The Echo Maker and Generosity, says pretty much the same thing. A physicist turned novelist, he knows his science and reminds us a blistering crush is no more than a “surges of dopamine. . . spikes of endorphins. . . waves of oxytocin.” We’re just big bags of hormones and brain chemicals. You can tweak the drugs, of course, with other drugs. Or with genetic tinkering. But would you?

Powers did. He’s one of nine people to have his genome mapped (it was a GQ assignment, they paid the hefty tab). Knowledge, though, isn’t always power. In his GQ article, Powers says sure he knows things about himself he never did before. What he came away with, though, is not an undying belief in science, but a rather touching fondness for human imperfection. I find this very cheering, especially lately, when evidence of my imperfection is everywhere.

I’ve had the text for this post, or at least the core of it, for the better part of a week, but was waylaid by deadlines, Thanksgiving and a boring headcold. Besides, I couldn’t think of a recipe to do it justice or what sort of image to do -- some mad scientist thing? A crazed periodic chart? I made myself far nuttier over this than necessary (quel surprise) and in so doing, tried your patience, please forgive. Fate intervened by way of dinner.

Serendipitously, I had a cauliflower in the fridge, and taking it out this evening for the pasta recipe below, was struck by just how brainlike it looks, I had been writing about brain chemistry. Eureka. This is what I always forget -- sometimes unintended consequences can be positive.

I steamed the hell out of the cauliflower, as I do for this recipe. But what was unusual about today’s preparation is that I left the pot on the burner while I was working, thinking to check its progress, oh, any minute now. This I failed to do until I smelled something burning. Had I had a little more presence of mind, I’d have photographed the very impressive blackened pot. In the heat of the moment, as it were, I was more interested in damage control.

When the smoke cleared, I discovered the cauliflower, which had been sitting in the steamer basket within, was not only fall-apart tender, it also bears a sensual, smoky tang. While delicious, I do not suggest trying to replicate this. Unless you have All-Clad and an intrepid nature (dang, they make All-Clad solid -- the pot cleaned up just fine).

Genetic mapping, Powers says, is only a recipe at this point. We don’t know if the recipe produces “a cracker or a cake.” Meanwhile, we should enjoy who we are now. Our flaws make us beautiful. Or at least they make us interesting.

Unintended Consequences Cauliflower Pasta

1 cauliflower

4 teaspoons olive oil*

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 generous pinch saffron

1 generous pinch red pepper flakes

1/2 cup white wine

8 ounces whole wheat penne

handful fresh chopped parsley

sea salt to taste

Steam cauliflower for 20 minutes or until it’s snowy and falling apart, but not until you burn the pot. No, really, you don’t want to do this.

Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add chopped garlic, saffron and red pepper flakes. Stir for about 4 minutes, until garlic is golden and fragrant. Add steamed cauliflower and mash the whole business. Add the wine and stir to combine, creating a thick sauce. Season with sea salt.

You can puree it into silkiness with an immersion blender or with a food processor, but to me, a rustic imperfection is part of its charm. Either way, it’s delicious.

Make pasta according to package directions. Toss with cauliflower sauce and cook over medium heat until heated through. Top with chopped parsley.

*Note to nonvegans, you can also use brown butter instead of olive oil, which makes things quite luscious indeed. Top with fresh grated Parmesan.

Serves 4.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sesame Possum

sesame art courtesy of the obsessive, amazing Philip Brooker

I remember a time when I was a little girl, riding in the car somewhere with my parents. The car, I believe, was a Dodge Dart, and it seemed to go on for a city block, This was before the days of confining car seats and I was in my own vast world of the back seat while my hip, progressive parents sat in front, discussing someone. They described this person as obsessive-compulsive, which my little girl ear and brain translated as sesame possum.

I had seen this creature and I adored it. We used to have a plethora of possums in South Florida before they became road kill and I admired how they hung from trees by their tails, like ripe fruit. Their short, bristly fur could look as though composed of sesame seeds, and they have those sharp, seed-like teeth, which somehow never scared me. All I wanted to do was get to this sesame possum and play with it.

I popped up behind my parents. “Where?” I asked. “Where is the sesame possum?”

My parents laughed and from the front seat, one-armed hugged me for being the cute and clever kid I was. I’d say they affectionately mussed my hair, but it was Beatle-short in those days (why, Mom, why?) and unmussable.

In any case, the term became part of our family argot. Anyone stuck in some crazed brain loop, anyone fixated, anyone who’s your classic type A -- we call him a sesame possum.

I have a tendency towards being one myself, alas. I noodle, I stew (ah, two cooking terms, no wonder I write about food -- it sublimates my crazies). It isn't that I want to be obsessive. It's that I'm very, very good at it. And I’m an equal opportunity obsessor -- I can obsess over the state of the world or the health of a friend or what I’m going to make for dinner. In fact, I’d been noodling and stewing about how to create this very sesame possum blogpost, wondering how to frame it. Could I get away with a “Sesame Mucho” pun? No, no, no. What sesamesque recipe should I create for it? Maybe I’d make halvah. Does anyone like halvah but me? I could do an Asian sesame something or other. I fretted, I noodled, I stewed. Because, really, obsession is never done, and indeed, I could have gone on for a long time.

Literature came to the rescue, not for the first time.

I interviewed Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in conjunction with his appearance at Miami Book Fair International. His new book The Museum of Innocence is narrated by Kemal, in love with Fusun, and when their affair goes south, he creates a museum of artifacts of their lost love. He collects her stray earrings, empty cologne bottles, her 4,213 cigarette stubs.

“I may not have ‘won’ the woman I loved so obsessively,” says Kemal, “but it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small.”

I asked Pamuk in what ways he might be as obsessive as Kemal. A semi-playful softball question, I thought, assuming he’d go for a parallel between love and literature. Never assume.

“It’s not obsession,” he insisted. “It’s normal.”

Part of me thought, oh, really, Mr. Pamuk, because here in America, we call anyone who moons after someone for eight years, as Kemal does, obsessed, if not a bit of a stalker weirdo. And part of me felt accepted, absolved, relieved, grateful. Call it obsession, call it love, call it, as Pamuk does, normal, “It happens to so many people.”

So, what the hell, a little obsession isn’t so bad, it’s just the dark side of passion, and we need that. I do, anyway. I’d rather be passionate than perfect. Most of us would. For more on that, stay tuned for my next post, Weird Science, which features another author and (yay) another cooking metaphor. In the meantime, here’s

Obsessive Turkish Noodle Stew With Sesame

Sometimes obsession pays off, as with this recipe -- a 21st century version of guvech, a classic Turkish stew, an homage of sorts to Mr. Pamuk. You can bake this for an hour in a covered casserole. You can also throw everything in a generous soup pot, clap the lid on it and cook it over high-ish heat atop the stove for 25 minutes and be done with it. Both ways work. No need to obsess about it.

8 ounces noodles (whole grain fusilli holds the sauce rather nicely)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 zucchini

1 onion

8 ounces mushrooms

2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes (or 3 to 4 really gorgeous ripe tomatoes)

1/4 cup red wine or vegetable broth

1 handful fresh mint leaves

juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons harissa (Moroccan red pepper paste)*

1/4 cup sesame seeds

sea salt and ground pepper

To bake:

Preheat oven to 400.

Pour pasta into a large casserole. Slice zucchini, onion and mushrooms, and scatter on top. Drizzle olive oil over all. Top with mint leaves.

In a large bowl, stir together together tomatoes, wine or broth, lemon juice, tahini and harissa. Pour over noodles and vegetables. Cover with lid and bake for one hour.

Toast sesame seeds in oven (same temperature as guvech) for 4 minutes, or until just golden. Scatter sesame seeds over casserole, season with salt and pepper.

To do stovetop:

Pour olive oil into a large soup pot. Heat over medium-high heat.

Slice zucchini, onion and mushrooms. Add to pot, along with pasta, stirring to coat.

Pour in tomatoes, wine or broth, tahini and harissa. Bring mixture to boil. Stir well and place lid on pot. Reduce heat to medium and let cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables and pasta are just tender and have absorbed most of the sauce. Squeeze in lemon juice and add mint leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400. Pour sesame seeds into a small heatproof bowl or ramekin. Toast for 4 minutes. .Sprinkle sesame seeds over pasta and vegetables and serve.

Serves 4.

*Should you find yourself harissaless, substitute a teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon coriander and 1 teaspoon caraway seeds and hope for the best.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Smashing Pumpkins

Here, in all its splendor, is this year’s Halloween jack o’lantern, a tradition my father and I have practiced, oh, for decades (and yet our skill set has scarcely improved). I’m so happy I took the picture because as solid as it was when we carved it and as formidable as it looked Halloween night, blazing away on front porch step, the next morning it was black.

It is possible in northern climes to keep a pumpkin for weeks if not months. South Florida is different. The light in autumn is golden, the skies a cloudless blue. But call it global warming, call it what you will, it has been unseasonably warm. In a matter of hours, my jack o’lantern morphed into a real Halloween horror, with fuzz blooming from its eyes and mouth, as though afflicted with leprosy. It was, shall we say, pungent. I returned it to the soil, or at least the compost bin. It fell apart with one good clout from the spade.

As if I need further proof of how fleeting time is, we also returned to standard time over the weekend. Though the clock said afternoon, the sky said night. By 6:00 p.m., it was black, as though the sun had decided to call it quits forever and it was the end of the universe as we know it.

Darkness, decay, it’s a spooky time of year, with Halloween, then All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2), also known as Day of the Dead. This is a time for the dead and the living to reach across the great divide and say hey to each other. It could make a girl kind of broody. It made me remember Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” Yes, I know, it’s autumn (although it still feels like summer here). But the poem ends:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

What indeed? I worry a lot about our world. I want to save it -- a tall order and serious character flaw. For ages, I wanted to run off and join Doctors Without Borders and help a third world nation. For a time -- and sometimes still -- the enormity of need paralyzes me. I have concluded there’s ample headache and heartache right here, where I can be of service without needing a visa or a battery of shots.

I do hands-on stuff, I join boards, I give money, I community serve. One small, doable way I can help is by cooking and eating vegan. It lets me make and share food aligned with what I believe in -- more compassion, less carbon. It lets me be the change I want to see in the world, to quote Gandhi (a vegetarian). It lets others, by eating what I cook, be that way, too.

I still want to change the world. But I can’t do it alone. So I do what I can. As Voltaire said, we must tend our own gardens. And mine, my husband points out, is a happy ecostystem, home to birds and butterflies, lizards, bees, frogs, one aged dog and a new pumpkin in the compost bin.

Smashing Pumpkin

This is a simple recipe, elemental, even. Also earthy, fabulous and one of my favorite ways to gourd. This is lovely even grapeless. Try with a sprinkle of turmeric, curry powder or ginger. Autumnal as hell.

As much pumpkin or winter squash as you’ve got on hand -- okay, a 2-1/4 pound pumpkin, or about 6 cups, cubed

1/4 cup walnuts

1-1/2 cups seedless red grapes

2 tablespoons walnut oil

1 sprig of fresh sage (do not attempt with dried sage. You will only be wasting your time).

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425.

Chop pumpkin into cubes, about an inch or so. Dump cubed pumpkin into a large bowl. Add grapes, walnut oil and toss to coat.

Spread pumpkin and grapes on rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and roast for half an hour.

Chop walnuts and sage coarsely. Add to pumpkin, giving everything a stir to prevent sticking, and continue roasting for another 10 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper.

Serves 4 to 6.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

I was happy to see Susan Orlean had an article in a recent New Yorker. I had liked The Orchid Thief and The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, but her New Yorker article showed me a side of Ms. Orlean I had not known -- she is a liar.

In “The It Bird,” Ms. Orlean chronicles her adventures keeping chickens and how they have made her “the object of more pure envy than I have ever experienced in my life.” Okay, maybe she’s not a liar. Maybe she’s just deluded. As a former keeper of poultry, I know what I’m talking about.

You don’t just decide to take in chickens -- I didn’t, anyway. I just looked out one morning to see half a dozen of them parading though my back yard. I live in the city. The chickens hadn’t just wandered over from the neighbor’s farm. They were, I figured, Santeria escapees. I came outside to investigate.

The chickens saw me and knew me for what I am -- a soft touch. They clustered around me, fluffed their feathers and emitted sweet, gentle peeps. They followed me around and would have come inside had I not closed the door. From the window, I watched them eating bugs, scratching in the dirt.

The next morning, they were still there. I fed them what was on hand -- Rice Krispies. After a week, they were still hanging around, so I went to the pet store and bought a bag of Chicken Scratch. They loved it. They loved me. Perhaps Ms. Orleans is in this honeymoon phase of poultry harboring. It will not last.

The chickens quickly went from peeping to squawking and crowing -- just like on a farm. But these were not farmyard friends. These were tough urban fowl. They could not tell the street lights from sunlight, so they’d crow at three a.m. Four a.m. Five a.m. I’d expected they’d be better bred. I’d hoped they would reward my kindness by good chicken behavior. They burned through bags of Chicken Scratch and ringed my house with guano.

Speaking of chickenshit, my neighbors said nothing to me directly about the chickens. Clearly, though, they were aware of them. They ratted me out to the City of Miami zoning department, which assessed me a $500 fine. I was officially now a criminal.

I began a campaign to get rid of the chickens compassionately. The Humane Society laughed at me. The city’s animal control office said they were too busy, that I should catch them myself.

“How do I do that?”

“It helps to get them drunk,” said the animal control officer.

“So, do I say, ‘Let’s go to Tobacco Road, I’m buying?’”

The animal control officer hung up on me.

I exhausted legal avenues and stumbled onto those that were somewhat other. They’re out there, you just never know until you look. I came in contact with itinerant people who said they’d catch the chickens. We made arrangements. They never showed. Then I met one guy. He wouldn’t give me his name. Said it was better that way. Said he’d come around after dark. This was guy I could imagine would drink with chickens. He’d drink with anybody.

I asked how he’d catch the chickens.

"I’m not going to catch them," he said. "I’m going to kill them."

Okay, on the one hand, I was desperate. But I had reared these guys. I hadn’t chosen them, but they'd chosen me. Could I foresake them? They had become loud and nasty and a social and financial liability. But did I want blood on my hands? Even a chicken’s? What is a chicken’s lifespan, anyway? And if I kept them, what kind of quality of life could I offer them? I still had the City of Miami zoning department after me.

The chickens went to a better place. I do not mean they were killed. I mean I took them somewhere else. One night (after dark, as my potential chicken murderer would say), abetted by a friend who’d grown up on a farm, I rounded up the chickens. Actually, I chased and swore at them to no avail while she rounded them up, swiping them from the ground as though they were toys her kids had left behind. We loaded the chickens into a cardboard box and put the box in the trunk of my car. By the way, chickens do not sit calmy in a box. They do what they do best. They make noise and guano.

We took the chickens to Madonna’s house, dumped the box over the fence and set them free. Surely, Madonna had the means to provide better care for them. If she wanted to. I don’t know if she did. I don't know if she shot them, ate them, fed them, dressed them up in her love, had them strike a pose. I don’t know if they lived to tell.

I was never the preening poultry keeper Ms. Orlean is, was never envied by others. I had to spend an entire day in court (my case number: # 279) before the zoning department dropped my case. I’m clean. I don’t have a rap sheet. I count myself fortunate. But I know myself. I’ll always be inclined to take in strays who may repay me with sleepless nights and copious guano, metaphoric or otherwise.

Chickenless Chicken Scratch

So -- what recipe to make for this post? Tough one. I thought of a Madonna tie-in. You can find anything on the internet, so I did a quick Google search -- typing in Madonna’s favorite food. Someone responded, “The tears of small children.” I like this a lot, but it does not lend itself to a recipe. Someone else responded, “Salmon.” Gosh, no thanks. I went back to thinking chickens, Chicken Scratch, Rice Krispies. Eureka. What follows is a very easy and healthier-than-usual version of bhel puri, the classic Indian snack, made with puffed rice and veggies.

3 tablespoons oil

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoons turmeric

2 tablespoons unsweetened dried coconut

1/2 cabbage, or about 4 cups, shredded

1 onion

3 carrots, or about 2-1/2 cups, shredded

1 red pepper

1 jalapeno

1 large tomato

2 cups puffed rice (available at Indian markets)

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

2 tablespoons tamarind chutney

1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add mustard seeds. Cover with lid and cook until the mustard seeds pop, about a minute. Remove lid, lower the heat to medium and add cumin and turmeric and dried coconut, stirring for another minute, or until mixture becomes fragrant.

Using a food processer, shred onion, cabbage and carrots as if you were making cole slaw. Add confetti of vegetables to skillet and stir together over medium heat. Mince jalapeno and slice red pepper into skinny strips. Dice tomato. Add peppers and tomato to skillet and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat.

Squeeze in lemon juice, gently fold in chutney, puffed rice, peanuts and chopped coriander. Salt to taste.

Serves 6.