Wednesday, July 29, 2009

(Broken) Hearts and Flowers

Going outside to get the paper this morning, I found a piece of notebook paper balled up on my lawn. It turned out to be a handwritten letter -- sent not to me, but to Alex, from Emily. I don’t know Alex and I don’t know Emily. Judging by the looks of her precise and rounded letters, she’s about 16. Judging by what she wrote, she’s had her heart broken.

The letter opens, “Why did you do this to me?” I read the first line -- and stopped cold. I felt the blood rush to my face, looked around, wanted either Alex or Emily to materialize and grab the letter out of my hands. But I was alone and as I say, I don’t know Alex or Emily or how the letter wound up on my lawn.

Did Emily write it then throw it away because Alex didn’t deserve her tender words? Did it hurt too much to share her feelings with him? Did Alex read the letter, then throw it away? I do not know you, Alex, but I’d like to think better of you. And Emily, hon, I don’t know you either, but I hope you’re okay.

If I met you, I’d invite you in and despite your wishes, I would not put on April Lavigne or Billie Holiday. I would let you cry, though, and hug you and give you tissues and have you tell me all about Alex, how gently he’d undress you (sorry, Em, it was in the letter, I couldn’t help reading), how he'd lie to his aunts. . . and of course to you. You would tell me why you love him anyway and why you’ll never be happy again or what an asshole he is. Or all of the above.

I would like to do more. I would tell you how wonderful you are, with or without Alex. I might even start to say you don’t need him, but even without having met you, can see how that would sound both foreign and wrong to you, marking me as a lost cause, a grownup, a creature who does not understand the ways of love. So I would shut up.

When you’re lovelorn, when you’re in the throes of it, there is no food to soothe a broken heart. Your stomach is knotted, your soul is shattered, and eating seems painful if not pointless. How can you eat? So instead of feeding you, I'd brew you an herbal concoction, what the French call an infusion -- a cup of lavender tea. Made simply with dried lavender buds steeped in boiling water, it is a nerve tonic both bracing and soothing. It is fragrant, floral and tastes of yearning and loss, but also of healing and spring, and with it, the promise of renewal. Lavender is also the wee-est bit soapy-tasting. That’s okay, Soap is cleansing.

Breathe. Sip. Close your eyes. Keep breathing. Well done.

Getting the first cup of tea into you might provide a little warmth when you had thought you would feel chilled for the rest of your life. And that may be enough, I hope, to keep alive your spark until you can catch fire again. Which I know you will.


Lavender Tea

1 tablespoon dried lavender

1 pot boiling water

Spoon lavender into an infuser or straight into teapot. Pour water over. Let steep for four minutes. Then pour into an eggshell-thin Limoge teacup. Some like to add honey. Breathe it in. Sip. Strain lavender if necessary. The tea gets stronger the longer the lavender sits. You will get stronger, too.

PS To Alex, Emily and all readers -- please send word. Comment. Let me know you exist. Love letters welcome but any sort of feedback will do.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cafeteria Plan

Years ago, I put my husband through grad school. He took night classes, I worked days, we basically didn’t see each other for two years. We had no money. I got by by reading a lot of bleak British post-war novels where the heroine wears tatty sweaters because she’s always cold. She doesn’t have enough shillings for the gas meter in her bedsit so she’s always cupping her hands around a chipped mug of tea for warmth. You’d think this wouldn’t translate in 80-degree Miami, but you’d be wrong.

To save money, I usually brought my lunch to work, but I’ll be damned if I remember what I ate. My big thrill was once a week, usually Friday -- I’d take my post-war novel and go out for lunch. I had a five dollar budget. This obviously limited my options. My treat of treats was to go to a place hopelessly outmoded at the time -- the Biscayne Cafeteria.

It was the cafeteria that time forgot, with a dim interior, formica tables, buzzing fluorescent lights, ancient carpet of indeterminate color, and of course your plastic trays and chrome cafeteria track. Most of the patrons were ancient, too, except for a few young gays, who came for reasons I could never fathom. Perhaps they were hard-up like me. For five bucks, I could get a cup of vegetable soup, a slice of zucchini bread and a cup of tea, by which we do not mean Earl Grey. But I’d open up my library copy of Henry Green or Elizabeth Bowen or Muriel Spark and it was a feast.

The real uneasy-making bit was the wait staff -- aging black men and women in burgundy uniforms of a synthetic fabric that could not have been comfortable. You paid the cashier for your meal and they would take your tray and bring it to your table. This seemed 40 kinds of crazy to me, not to mention demeaning. But when I tried to take my own tray, all hell broke loose. So to keep the peace (and my affordable soup and zucchini bread), I handed over my tray, tipped them when they brought it, and since I went every week or so, got to know the different folks and say hello to them.

I formed a particular bond with a stately waiter named Cyril, who came to look out for me. He’d bring me an extra mug of hot water, so I could stretch my tea bag to make two cups of tea. This was pretty great. Other the months, Cyril told me about his late wife Emma, his three kids, nine grandchildren, his sciatica, the numbers he played in the lottery. I told him about my job, my family.

One particular week, he set my tray down and asked how I was, said he could see something was troubling me. Well, my husband’s beloved grandmother had just died and now my grandmother, with whom I was close, was in a coma and heading the same way. And though I had no intention of telling Cyril, it all came tumbling out, along with some tears.

Cyril nodded. I can’t remember for sure if he produced a tissue, but let’s say he did.

“D’you know what I do when I’m going through a hard time?” he asked. He was such a good man, so decent. He probably prayed. Or counted his blessings. Or maybe went for a walk in the park or played with his grandchildren.

He said, “I drink.”

Turns out Cyril had a fondness for cheap brandy and usually picked up a bottle on his way home. This was not the answer I expected. It’s really not what I’d recommend for him or for anyone. But hey, it worked for him. Hard times are hard times, and be it brandy or books, soup or scotch, I hope you find whatever it takes to see you through.

This soup is a far cry from cafeteria vegetable soup. It’s rich with fresh vegetables and heady with saffron (thus costing more than cafeteria soup), a lightened up version of the French soupe au pistou. Make and enjoy it in hard times and in happy ones.

In loving memory of Felicia Smith, who asked for the recipe.

Vegetable Soup With a French Accent

1-1/2 cups cooked cannelini (or 1 15-ounce can, rinsed and drained)

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

8 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)

8 ounces mushrooms, chopped

8 ounces carrots, sliced (about 5)

1 leek, chopped*

2 celery stalks, chopped

1-1/2 cups green beans, chopped into bite-sized pieces (about an inch long)

1-1/2 cups zucchini, chopped (1 or 2 zucchini)

1 pound tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes)

1/2 cup red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup whole grain orzo

big pinch of saffron threads

sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic and onion and stir until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add carrots, mushrooms, leek, celery, green beans and zucchini. Bring to boil. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, wine and saffron. Add orzo. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until flavors blend and all vegetables and orzo are tender, about 30 minutes.

Serves 8 to 10.

* Leeks are lovely, but they’re dirt hogs -- all kinds of grit and such lurk in their multiple layers. A gritty leek is an unhappy-making experience. Best way to wash a leak is to cut it lengthwise, so you have two half-cylinders. Then slice and fan out the layers. Soak in salt water for a few minutes, then rinse a few times until water runs clean.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Vintage 1934

It is time to celebrate Lewis Kanner, attorney extraordinaire, Florida native, Democrat, Florida Gator, collector of duck decoys, husband to Marcia. . . and my father. He’s 75 today.

He gave me a love for the Everglades and its wonderful waterbirds. A man of endless patience, he taught me how to drive. He shared with me the wisdom of the 2000 year-old man and Mr. Hulot. He gave me excellent if unprintable advice on my wedding day, and the following year, spent a fortune in rice crackers so the two of us could feed every deer in Nara, Japan. Japan is no place he’d even have visited except that’s where I was then living, so he travelled half-way around the world just to make sure I was okay.

He has endured my culinary adventures since I was a kid and only once sustained injury. He loves chocolate but shouldn’t eat it. He does not love vegetables and does not eat them (but should). So to celebrate Lew, behold chocolate zucchini cupcakes.

Happy birthday and much love,


Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature

1 scant cup sugar

1 egg

1 cup unbleached flour

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 cup plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup grated zucchini (about 1 large zucchini)

Preheat oven to 350. Line a 12-count muffin tin with paper cupcake cups (or lightly grease).

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour and cocoa powder.

In a small bowl, stir baking soda into yogurt (mixture will fizz and expand).

Alternate mixing flour mixture and yogurt into batter, Finally, mix in zucchini. Spoon into muffin cups. Bake 30 minutes, or until cupcakes puff and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool and enjoy.

Next: Soup of the evening, beautiful soup.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kidney Pie

You cannot grow a kidney from a kidney bean.  If you could, things would be a lot easier for Ms. X.  Ms. X is the wife of a friend of a friend.  Ms. X needs a new kidney or she dies.  That’s the deal.

This friend, let’s call him Mr. P has said, okay, take mine. Mr. P offered because he’s been buddies with Ms. X’s husband forever.  He agreed to get tested, and guess what, it was a match, much to the chagrin of Mrs. P, Mr. P’s wife.  Mr. P says, hey, I have two kidneys, I’ll be fine with one.  Mr. P has been called many things for doing this, including the one I insist on, the one Mr. P really doesn’t like -- heroic.  Well, tough, Mr. P -- live with it.  

Think of all the people you know.  How many of them would you offer bits of your own body to?  And yet, if you've lost someone you care about, then there's going to be a hole in you. Maybe it won't show up on an MRI, but it's there.  It's as though someone seized a vital organ without your permission.

So along with Mrs. P, who is praying to all available saints, I hope for some kind of miracle -- someone else will be able to donate a kidney to Ms. X, that she will live and be well and Mr. P will live and be well, both kidneys present and accounted for.  And I hope Ms. F who did not get the miracle she deserved, is dancing somewhere and that all the people who love her (including me) can nurse the hole her loss has created, remember her beauty, be kind to themselves and to each other.  Sometimes that's the only miracle we can get.

Kidney (Bean) Tamale Pie 


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups packed greens -- kale or Swiss chard, collards or spinach or a combination, chopped

1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 15-ounce can, rinsed and drained (or 2 cups kidney beans, cooked and cooled)

2 teaspoons lime juice (about 1/2 lime)

1/4 cup cilantro

sea salt to taste


1 cup cornmeal

2 tablespoons flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plain yogurt

1 egg

2 tablespoons melted butter

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

1/4 cup minced scallions

1/2 cup grated cheddar (optional)

Lightly grease a 9-inch pie pan or ovenproof skillet.  Preheat oven to 350. 

Prepare filling:

In skillet (ovenproof or otherwise), heat olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add chopped onion and garlic and saute until vegetables soften, about five minutes.  

Add the greens and stir until just wilted.  With spinach, you’ll be done in a minute.  Your sturdier greens, like kale or collards, will take up to five.

Stir in chili powder, coriander and cumin.  Add kidney beans, tomatoes and tomato paste.  Stir and heat through, about five minutes.

Add lime juice and cilantro and salt to taste.  Remove from heat.  If your day has become too harried, what with medical procedures or personal grief or whathave you, you can stop and this point.   Turn off the oven, pour yourself a nice glass of wine. Eat kidney bean and green filling as is, or over rice.  Or let the filling cool and refrigerate until you want tamale pie.  But if you’re ready, it’s time for


In a medium bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour and baking powder.  In a separate bowl, add baking soda to yogurt and stir.  

Give it a minute to froth.  Then beat in egg and stir in melted butter.  Add liquid ingredients to the cornmeal mixture.  Stir gently until it forms a thick batter.  Stir in scallions and cilantro.  

Take your lovely bean and green filling and place in prepared greased baking pan.  Top with grated cheese, if using.  Spread topping over all.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden.  

Serves 6.