Friday, August 21, 2009

Spirit House

This photo looks very like the spirit houses I used to see around Asia. There’s usually an image -- a portrait or statue of the spirit, whether it’s a god or someone no longer living, and some offerings, frequently oranges. Candles and incense are lit, all of which is done to keep the spirits from being pissed.

Eastern religion was not on my mind when I started this. I wanted to write about figs. If anything says life, it’s a fresh fig. It’s a lovely source of fiber, antioxidants, potassium and magnesium, and lovely, period. Even erotic. As D. H, Lawrence wrote:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin

Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,

After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way

Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

You can read the whole Lawrencian thing at

In any case, don’t be polite, be vulgar. Figs demand to be bitten. It is a crime against nature to do otherwise.

Figs are just starting to come into season, reason enough to live and be joyful. A fresh fig really needs no adornment, but what the hell kind of recipe would that be, so I scrambled for a fig idea despite being 1) short of time and 2) halfway nuts. So I thought, nuts. Nuts are nutritional powerhouses -- with protein, fiber, trace minerals, and my favorite, walnuts, are a good source of omega 3s, too.

Walnuts scared me as a child. Unlike almonds, which are smooth and uniform, they’re lumpy and resemble brains. Instead of peanuts’ frank, happy flavor, walnuts are earthy and rich but with a hint of puckery tannin, thanks their paper-thin brown skin. It is their odd shape and counterpoint of flavors I now love about them. Go figure.

Spirit houses are little altars for those who no longer have their bodies. We, fortunately, have homes for our souls -- our bodies. We rarely appreciate our bodies, but we ought to, they're very clever. We should pay attention to our wonderful bodies and treat them right. This recipe helps. It’s the sort of food to make you glad you’ve got a nice corporeal self, to make you glad you’re alive. It is not, however, gorgeous. All the ingredients save the orange are brown, put them together and you have a taupe spread. Do not let this discourage you. You get the juxtaposition of the fruit -- soft and smoothe and sweet -- with the nuts -- solid and crunchy and bracing. This is warming and fragrant and sensual, a spread to appease the most cranky of spirits.

Why are the figs and nuts, the cornerstones of this recipe, not in the photograph? Because they’re in the pate, silly.

Fig Pate

1 cup dried figs

3/4 cup walnuts

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamon

1 orange

2 tablespoons red wine

Place figs, walnuts, cinnamon and cardamon in a food processor or blender. Cut orange in half. Pop out any visible seeds. Toss half the orange in with the figs, nuts and spices. Squeeze in the juice from the remaining orange half. Add the wine.

Process for a minute or two, until mixture forms a thick paste.

Awfully nice on whole grain toast with a glass of sherry or a fortifying cup of tea. Spoonfeed to someone of whom you are fond.

Keeps tightly covered in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.

Makes 1-1/2 cups, serving 4 to 6.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Orange Crush

It is Sunday afternoon, I am in my frock, ready to go out. I am waiting for my husband, who’s been out running errands, to pick me up. He is a smidge late. I am used to this. The phone rings. “I’m okay,” my husband says, “but I’ve been in an accident.”

My heart and stomach fall down my inner elevator shaft to the bottom. He’s okay, I tell myself, running out the door. He called, he spoke and he said he is okay, ergo he is okay. This is what I think as I run. I do not have to run far. The accident has happened a block from our house.

My husband was driving home when a 17-year old ran a stop sign. Husband is indeed fine, kid is fine, both of them standing bewildered in the debris in the middle of the intersection. I am wobble-legged with relief. My husband says he felt tremendous relief at the sight of me, too, and holds the image of me storming towards him like some righteous angel, my white frock fluttering. The dress would soon be drenched with sweat, thanks to anxiety and to standing outside in a shadeless 90 degrees. That part his brain has kindly edited out.

Angels and such are a good idea, but I’m not one and I don’t believe in them as a rule. Yet some benevolent something-or-other must have been present. Had the kid or my husband been driving faster, if there had been any sort of injury or worse or, oh, I can’t even bear to think about it. And since I could not bear to think about it, I got a headache and a sound worm -- the technical term for a refrain or song stuck in your brain. A logical choice would be Radiohead’s “Airbag,” with its happy (for Thom Yorke) refrain, “An airbag saved my life.” Instead, my brain seized on REM’s “Orange Crush.”

My husband was not crushed, he is not orange, nor is his car, he doesn’t even drink Orange Crush. We met at an REM concert, but well before the song came out. I had liked “Orange Crush” for its boppy hook until learning it was really about Agent Orange, after which it pretty much creeped me out. But we don’t get to choose our obsessions.

I play “Orange Crush” repeatedly to try and get it out of my mind. It doesn’t work. I kind of hate when life so shakes you up and instead of devoting your life to finding a cure for cancer, you go and do something weird like obsess about an REM song. And yet I think these shakeups, however we react to them, are also when we are closest to the real business of living. Even if we don’t understand it. At least that's what I tell myself by way of comfort -- this is easier for me to accept than angels.

Back at the scene of the crime, the cops come. They fill out a report. We learn the kid is driving with a suspended license. Kid's car isn't so bad. Husband’s man vehicle has to be towed. He endures a few days of achiness, but he is, as he says, okay. I pop ibuprofen for a few days, just to keep him company and do not tell him about my “Orange Crush” obsession but take to touching him more frequently, as a way to reassure us both. And come up with this heady saffron and orange-scented couscous to cook this sound worm out of my head and celebrate the privilege of being alive.

Here’s a vid of REM doing “Orange Crush.” Proceed at your own risk.

Heretical Angel Orange Crush Couscous

A word about this couscous -- it is heretical. The Moroccans would no sooner tart up their couscous than they would sell their mamas. They serve couscous, their national dish, fluffy and unadorned, to serve as foil for the subtly spiced tagines. Nevertheless, I have turned couscous into a stand-alone salad that demands and deserves its own attention. Apologies to any offended parties.

1 cup whole grain couscous

1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup white wine

1 good pinch of saffron

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon coriander

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or other red pepper flakes

grated rind of 1 orange (about 2 teapoons)

juice of 1 orange

4 scallions, chopped

3 handfuls fresh herbs, chopped, including parsley, mint and cilantro

3 handfuls arugula or spinach

sea salt and ground pepper to taste

1/3 cup chopped pistachios

Feta would be a nice addition for those who goat

Pour orange juice and white wine into a medium saucepan. Bring to boil. Add saffron and couscous. Turn off heat and cover pot. Let stand for about 8 minutes or until liquid is absorbed, Fluff couscous with fork. This is fun.

In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, spices, orange rind and orange juice. Pour over couscous. You may add the scallions, herbs, greens and chopped nuts now, but the couscous is exponentially better the next day. Even this scribbling, which seemed entirely scattered yesterday came together neatly and swiftly this afternoon (note to self -- be patient, sometimes things improve over time).