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.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Charmed, I'm Sure

photo illustrative magic courtesy of Philip Brooker

I have always been a hard sell when it comes to magic. Back when I toggled my first loose baby tooth, my parents explained about the Tooth Fairy -- your tooth falls out and the Tooth Fairy appears while you sleep, takes the tooth and pays you for it (your original Cash for Clunkers concept). I looked at them, smiled coolly and nodded. I didn’t believe a minute of it. I was over magic by the time I was five. Kind of too bad, but that’s the way I’m made. I didn’t burst my parents’ bubble. The idea of the Tooth Fairy seemed to make them so happy, and I didn’t object to handing over my teeth in exchange for the coins my father left by my bed.

Several years later, my adult teeth affixed firmly in my head, I’m beginning to believe magic isn’t such a bad thing and might, even, in fact, exist. Paul Bowles defined magic as “a straight connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man, a hidden but direct passage that bypasses the word.” I might add it bypasses the eye, too, unfolding within its own damn time frame which is not necessarily ours. Perhaps that’s why we say a watched pot never boils, because though there’s science behind cooking, if the end result is any good, there’s magic’s involved, too.

It may also be why with Joe Meno’s otherwise excellent novel The Great Perhaps and with the film Henry Poole Is Here, two works about belief, magic, transformation, the whole shebang, the pivotal moment, the sea change, felt false or even forced to me. As with the Tooth Fairy, I wanted to believe, but I didn’t. Magic is not interested in proving itself to you, it just happens. I mean good magic, white magic. The other stuff -- when the roof leaks or your honey dumps you or the doctor says pathology, that to me isn’t magic. That’s life doing its best to bleed magic right out of you. Magic can happen despite that stuff, but you can’t set your watch by it. Like H1N1, it comes, it goes.

Maybe magic is Blake’s energy, eternal delight. I see magic with P, who makes art, and with S, who makes bread. Sometimes I’m even capable of magic myself -- more often, my husband says, than I realize. I certainly wasn’t capable of it at three this morning, in a knot of insomnia-induced dread (see previous post). Magic does not come on demand. It cannot be forced -- God knows I’ve tried. It can sometimes, however, be coaxed.

Ritual helps -- you know, indulging in the notion that something you do or say or wear can affect change. This is known as magical thinking, a rather sparkling term made famous by Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Magical thinking is probably a mild form of delusion. I see nothing wrong with this. Magic comes with surrender, with infatuation with possibility, with being loose and giddy right up in life’s ugly little face.

And if magic is being coy or annoyingly elusive, the next best thing is to appreciate it and be grateful for it when it comes. This is what I tell myself, anyway. Then I curse and make dinner.

Magical Moroccan Tagine

Most Moroccan tagines take hours. The transformation that comes from slow-cooking is part of their magic. You can make this one, with very few ingredients, in minutes and you don’t even need a tagine. That is its own kind of magic. Freewheelingly adapted to the point of being unrecognizable, its origins can be traced back to a recipe by the oh-so-magical Paula Wolfert.

Enjoy over whole grain couscous or quinoa. Also very nice stuffed in a pita.

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic
1 head of broccoli

1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

a pinch of red pepper flakes or, even better, Aleppo pepper

sea salt to taste

1 large handful cilantro

In a large (14-inch or so) skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat.

Mince garlic and add, stirring, just for a minute or two.

Chop broccoli into bite-sized pieces, both florets and chunks of stem. Yes, you are using the entire broccoli. Magic does not appreciate waste. Neither do I.

Add broccoli to skillet, along with tomatoes, paprika and pepper flakes. Stir together. Reduce heat slightly, so tomatoes are still on the boil. Stir constantly. The tomatoes will (magically) thicken and turn jammy and the broccoli will become tender, in less than 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Chop cilantro. Add to broccoli. Season with salt. Enjoy the magic.

Serves 4.

Next up: Fowl play.