Forty is the New Forty

It was my birthday the other day, and a few people (separately, not as a cohesive group) asked me how it felt to turn forty. Did I have to work myself up to it? Do I feel different?

Last year on my birthday, I was super depressed. Not because of my age, but because I had just let myself go from a job that wasn’t working out, even though I liked it. I was depressed because I had failed– even though that particular job is, I have since learned, set up for massive amounts of “failure”. I was a part time instructor at a city college. I loved the student body and the people I worked with. Actually, I just passed other instructors in the hallways. The real people you work with when you are a part timer are the students themselves. They’re your real coworkers, because you see them every single day, up close and personal. My whole education has revolved around teaching college, and all of a sudden I wasn’t doing that anymore, and I was really, really sad.

I also know that I don’t want to go back, because I will never get picked up full time. It would be like going back to that boyfriend that we enjoyed but who never really got us, and we would have to pick up ALL the tabs for dinner instead of half of them, and maybe he might go out drinking with girls that aren’t you. It would be like that.

So, last year during my birthday, it was very difficult to untangle how I felt. Was I depressed because my career was down the toilet? Was I depressed because my career had actually been a “career” that whole time? Or was it because I was getting older? Was it because I was 39 and didn’t have that second kid yet?

And so a year has passed, and I have let go of most of the guilt that had frozen me immovably. I’ve begun to thaw and take action. I’ve let go of the idea of having a second kid. And while I am a year older and the big 4-0, I am actually in a happier place than I was just a short year ago. I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps I was tired of being depressed? That is too dismissive of depression, and I know better than that. But on some level, I think that is what happened. Some part of me decided to stop being sad and feeling guilty and try something else, and I think I just had to feel my way through it or something.

Me in 1987, when I was convinced I'd be an artist or  forensic anthropologist.
Me in 1987, when I was convinced I’d be an artist or forensic anthropologist.

So, no, I didn’t have to get myself ready for 40. It was ready for me, waiting to legitimize me somehow. It’s okay to not get carded at Trader Joe’s (though I still am flattered when it happens). I can look at the twenty somethings and instead of feeling a thirty something pang of Remember When, I can sigh with relief that I’m not their age anymore! I’m not intimidated by a whole lot other than my own mind. Which means I am more formidable than I thought. And that is a pretty awesome revelation, if you ask me.


¡Popsicle Power!

Few things in life get me more excited than popsicles. Sure, ice cream is exciting too, but ice cream more often than not is a somewhat guilty pleasure. I have been known to finish off a pint of Vanilla Swiss Almond, but each time I take a bite I tell myself it is the last one– until my spoon hits another chocolate covered almond bit, and then I tell myself that the next bite will be the last one. And if, in the middle of the night, I covertly finish off the Trader Joe’s Mint Chocolate Chip, I rationalize it. I had to eat that last portion because I need to make room in the freezer! Sound familiar?

Popsicles are guilt free. Most of the time, they are just sugar water. And because they don’t carry the same kind of luxurious guilt (for me, anyway) I can enjoy them gleefully. Also, I live in Fresno, California, and in the summer temperatures can soar as high as 115° and stay there or near it for a string of hellish days, so I could even argue that popsicles are a necessity.

In those wickedly hot summers, I freeze an entire box of Otter Pops at a time. I designate a pair of my daughter’s blunt tipped scissors to be the Official Otter Pop Snippers, because I don’t know who can actually tear the tops off decently, in a way that doesn’t shred your mouth. Every time we go in or out of the house, we grab an Otter Pop– or one of the Mexican brands that I prefer because they have flavors like banana and mango– and use them as a sort of climate control.

Paletas have received a lot of press lately, and rightly so. They are pretty popular here, and at some grocery stores, right there in the impulse aisle of chewing gums and single sodas are small freezers with paletas. I always go to the checkout line that has the paletas freezer, always. Even if there are ten people in the line, and the next register has two. Popsicles will win every time! My favorite flavor is rice pudding with raisins. You wouldn’t think raisins could possibly be good in a creamy popsicle, but you would be so wrong. Each frozen raisin is like a tiny jewel. But, you know, if you want to be a stick in the mud, you could just get cookies and cream.

When I find an arroz con leche paleta at the grocery store, I make my husband drive so I can sit in the backseat and eat it right away. That's normal, right?
When I find an arroz con leche paleta at the grocery store, I make my husband drive so I can sit in the backseat and eat it right away. That’s normal, right?

If you are lucky, there might be a paleteria in your own town, and it is probably well worth your time to find them. I am lucky enough to have La Reina de Michoacan, which has been around for years. Now there is even a gourmet popsicle cart, Ooh de Lolli, that makes the rounds along with all the local food trucks (and can I just say, thank God for food trucks?). Experimenting with different flavors and local fruits and ingredients lends a certain air of respectability to what used to be a kid culture, you know? I’m relishing it. I am even jealous of New Yorkers who get to try La Newyorkina paletas and so I follow her on Facebook. Does this make me a popsicle stalker? I sure hope there are other paletas and popsicle fanatics out there. So far, the only other person I know he gets such a kick out of it is my father in law, who is known for raiding freezers.

Another thing I like about the recent popularization of paletas is that enthusiasts like myself can even make them at home. I bought a popsicle maker, thinking I could totally just do all this myself. Well, it is fun to experiment, and I was able to use up some coconut milk I had hanging around– but it’s rather labor intensive and I only get two popsicles at a time. Two gloriously tasty and refreshing popsicles that give me a sense of pride and accomplishment– but still, only two. When popsicle consumption is a guilt-free necessity, it seems that the old standards are still the best. I will still be loading up on boxes of Otter Pops and Tampico freezer pops.

Hello, Mr. Whitman: A Book Review of Sorts

Have you ever destroyed a work of art? I mean, a work of art that wasn’t your own? I think anyone who writes has ripped out pages or deleted them in a fit of pique, and when I painted I would have to start over, and of course musicians destroy entire instruments sometimes (but not often, thank God, because that’s destroying the thing you make your art with, which is beyond pointless even if it does feel cathartic at the time).

I don’t remember when I started to revere the printed word. I do remember feeling a deep sense of sadness when I realized the flaps in Pat the Bunny were irreparable (Ha!) but I don’t remember actually having destroyed them myself. Who knows? I was a baby, for Christ’s sake. My mom tells me I started reading when I was two (!), so it’s all kind of blurry. But as long as I can remember being a conscious being, I knew that harming a book was a really bad thing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was in my twenties and had already pondered long and hard about being an English major (and Linguistics, Art History, Art, Biology, and Anthropology majors) and I found myself demolishing a book. A classic, at that!

I’d read a Walt Whitman poem in one of my classes at City College, and because I had liked it, I’d bought Leaves of Grass at American Books in Tower (now gone, the cranky German lady who owned it either died or retired). I sat myself down in my bedroom, on my bed, and started reading.

Anger bubbled up from inside me like a hot spring. It uncoiled something in me that was either so tightly wound that it broke me when it sprung forth, or I just got speared through by a wire of– of what? Understanding?

The same thing I had liked when I read the lone poem in class– of getting it, feeling that feeling– was the same thing that pissed me off immeasurably now that the whole book was waiting for me in my lap. It was just too much. Too much! My little twenty something year old brain was so full of frustration and unrequited love and loneliness, that Leaves of Grass broke me.

From my spot on the bed, I hurled the book at my bedroom door. It was a paperback, and the glued spine cracked and a chunk of pages fell to the side. I got off the bed, picked up the book, and threw it against the door until it looked like a dead bird. You know how it is, when your cat catches something and it ceases to be a bird and turns into a haphazard collection of feathers.

Then Walt Whitman’s remains went into the trash, and I carried around a hatred of him like a small purse. It wasn’t legitimate luggage. He was like a fanny pack. I felt guilty for having destroyed him, but I stuffed it down and wore it and went on with my life. I was one of those English majors that fell in love with Waugh and Maugham and Greene and their nostalgic peeks into that weird era of Colonial life, and then became one of those English majors who went on to take multiple courses of Postcolonial lit and saw the pallid underbelly of those times, and the repercussions, and of course all the ugly parallels in our own country. Because I wasn’t a fan of Frost, Thoreau, and a whole slough of Americans, Whitman didn’t really come up in conversation that often.

But lately I have been more curious about him, thinking what it would have been like to be a man who loved men during that time. And over the years, as my husband and I wonder if we should follow the exodus of Central Californians to Portland (I call it Little Tower of the North, since everybody in the Tower District is either thinking about moving to Portland, is in the process of moving there, or has moved there and come back), I have given a lot of thought about what it means to be a Fresnan, a Californian, and an American. I could move from Fresno, but not California, I have decided. I am a Californian through and through. I suppose if we totally run out of water I might have to rethink that, but for now, because I don’t have to flee, I won’t.

Why would I leave this? This beauty is in my own backyard. It houses hawks, squirrels, and an ass ton of all sorts of other birds.
Why would I leave this? This beauty is in my own backyard. It houses hawks, squirrels, and an ass ton of all sorts of other birds.

A few days ago, I went to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It has both the First and the Death-Bed editions. I hadn’t heard of a death-bed edition before, so that just goes to show how out of touch I am with American poets. Sad, isn’t it? But I can read Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Gawain and the Green Knight with no problems and abridged versions just get in the way, so lay off.

Walt Whitman in 1854. Apparently he is only 35 in this portrait, but doesn't he look older?
Walt Whitman in 1854. Apparently he is only 35 in this portrait, but doesn’t he look older?

As I sat across from my mom, who was reading guitar magazines, and we sipped our coffees, I flipped past the introductions and started reading the same passages I must have read before– and this time instead of uncoiling so violently, I melted. Into an Amélie-worthy puddle. My mom, the tables in the cafe and the people sitting at them, the grinding of the cappuccino machine– it all dissolved and it was just me and Walt Whitman. I could hear it now, my ears weren’t all stoppered up with anger. It was okay to read him, because I was not so lonely, not in the middle of a string of unrequited loves. I could just read and accept it and let myself feel along with him, and it was glorious.

No longer a book hurler, I now melt.
No longer a book hurler, I now melt.

Well, it is still glorious. The dude wrote lots of poems, and now I’m ready for them.


How to Eat Everything but the Kitchen Sink

We get a CSA box every Wednesday, and believe it or not, we usually end up using our fruits and vegetables up by Tuesday. Some weeks, I have to buy auxiliary vegetables like potatoes or onions, just because I go through them more quickly. But after having done this for a few years now, we’ve finally got it down. For the most part.

All it takes is one night of take out, however, and our vegetable usage is all thrown off! I don’t know how that happens exactly, but as soon as I order take-out (because sometimes a girl needs chow mein) all the chard immediately wilts, as though it heard us placing the order and died of shame.

I have a few tricks up my sleeve too, judgmental rainbow chard! I call these wily tricks Kitchen Sink Dinners, since everything but the kitchen sink ends up in them, though a name involving refrigerators would probably be more apt.

My personal favorite is to chop up a bunch of vegetables that are starting to look a little haggard into smallish pieces, toss them with lemon, minced garlic and olive oil, and then put them on top of a pizza crust. Anything works. We’ve used kale, asparagus– anything. But maybe not turnips. Sprinkle some cheese on there to glue them all down (Cheese as glue! Perhaps don’t scrutinize that too much?) and pop it all in the oven. Depending on how many people are in your household and how many people you are feeding, you can get rid of a lot of vegetables this way. And if they are wilty, well, it doesn’t matter because once they come out of that hot oven, they will look the same as if they had been fresh to start with. And of course, bonus points because now there’s cheese.

When I am feeling super lazy, I make a soup in the crock pot. This is good when you have a lot of questionable root vegetables, but greens work well, too. Using the same principle as the kitchen sink pizza, a kitchen sink soup cooked in a crock pot (or even on top of the stove) cooks everything to death anyway!

Sure, it’s always best to use fresh– but sometimes if it is a question of using something up before a new CSA box arrives or simply not wanting to waste food, wilted or slightly shriveled vegetables are better than nothing. We have been known to stick a romaine heart that had seen better days onto the barbecue grill, or sauté mixed lettuce in a stir fry, in place of bok choi.

Jams and preserves are good for using up one kind of fruit, or even two that go well together, but my CSA box tends to toss in what they call a Seasonal Fruit Mix. This time it was peaches, plums and apricots– but in other seasons it’s apples and pears. A clafoutis is an impressive way of using up fruit. It looks pretty, and when I tell guests I made a clafoutis, their eyebrows rise a little at the French name. I must run in an easily impressable crowd, n’est-ce pas?

Not long ago, Smitten Kitchen– one of my go-to sites, whose recipes never ever produce less than stellar results– came out with a one-bowl recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars, and it uses up two cups of fruit at a time! I think it just might be the ideal fruit-user-upper. If you have four cups of fruit, simply double the recipe and use a bigger pan. I mean, it’s perfect. I don’t care for baked strawberries, so I used peaches, plums, and pears, and I think it may have actually made the fruit taste better. No joke. Usually, I like my fruit unadorned– but this? Whoa.

I don't know who Severin Roesen was, but he seems to have been a great artist who probably also did not like to see fruit go to waste.
I don’t know who Severin Roesen was, but he seems to have been a great artist who probably also did not like to see fruit go to waste.

What kinds of dinners do you make to clean out the refrigerator, or use up the remnants of a CSA box? I like my methods, but I loathe wasting food, and I’m always up for learning one more way to avoid throwing away a vegetable I know I should be eating.

Who Follows Recipes, Anyway?

Most of the things I cook, I make from memory. After standing next to my grandmother enough times while she made beerocks, liver and onions (which is delicious if you do it correctly), kritharaki, our family recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing, and all sorts of other random things, I internalized the recipes. They are the sorts of things I know I should write down, but haven’t yet. I’m the only one left in the family who still cooks, so if anything happens to me, our recipes will disappear. That’s reason enough to scribble things down or blog, right? If I blog about it, my family’s recipes will be immortalized in some kind of nebulous internet cloud, and someday my daughter’s daughter will be able to look me up and find everything online, with pictures. Right after she parks her hover car, of course.

That’s not to say that I’m not constantly checking little things, like how long do I cook brown rice? Is it Israeli couscous that has the same cooking time as white rice or am I thinking of something else? Do you stir it–or keep it covered and zealously guarded against pot-peekers? Do I use the same amount of yeast for panettone as I do for cinnamon rolls? But I check these things online more often than not. It’s difficult to find a cookbook that can answer quick and random questions as easily as the internet.

In our house, cookbooks are our coffee table books. We keep them near the kitchen table, and while we’re waiting for something to finish cooking, or sometimes even while we are eating, we’ll flip through them and admire the ingredients more than the actual finished product. “Look at all that lamb,” my husband will drool as he flips through the Greek Culinaria, or we’ll have a mock debate over which is more universally useful– butter or olive oil (Both! Why choose?). Or we’ll gaze at the sausages and cheeses of the German Culinaria and argue amiably about why German food isn’t as popular as I think it should be. Spaetzle, people!

Magazines are flipped through in much the same way. “Oh, that’s what you do with pea tendrils!” Or if we are looking through Lucky Peach, “Where do you even get liquid nitrogen?” because for quite a few issues there, there was a lot of foam. We were quite relieved when they went back to street food.

Because I cook mostly from memory, I have a really difficult time following a recipe. If it’s cookies, I halve the butter. Well, perhaps in nearly everything I halve the butter. I’ll switch one meat out for another, use water instead of milk, use a dash of salt instead of a teaspoon. I simply can’t leave recipes alone. Even if I set out to follow a recipe to the letter, I usually end up arguing in my head with the author of whatever recipe or cookbook I am following using for inspiration.

The only exceptions are David Lebovitz (anybody who doesn’t like him can go kick rocks) and Deb Perelman (the Smitten Kitchen genius). I use up leftover bananas in banana breads almost weekly, and had grown tired of using the same recipe for  years, so when I saw that she had made a Double Chocolate Banana Bread I thought I’d give it a shot. I’d already trusted her before with a Grapefruit Pound Cake amongst other things, so when I saw that the recipe called for only one cup of flour I paused. My faith was shaken. I did check online to see if anybody had reported any errata, because one cup of flour seemed absolutely crazy pants. But then I went ahead and followed her recipe blindly and can honestly say that it was one of the best banana breads to come out of my oven in a long time. No whisky frosting necessary.

Perhaps it’s because Perelman is so meticulous in her recipe development that I can let go and trust her in the way I would trust my own senses? I’m not really sure why I can trust Perelman and Lebovitz and not other cookbooks. I can see why home cooks often make projects out of following a specific chef’s cookbook as a sort of challenge. I wouldn’t be able to do it, though. It would be sheer torture, like wearing strappy sandals on a mountain hike.

Oh, Fannie Farmer! What would I ever do without you?
Oh, Fannie Farmer! What would I ever do without you?

I do have one very unfashionable, very out of date cookbook that I reference all the time. If I need to remind myself of the difference between a brisket and a shank, or if I need the milk to flour ratio for a cottage pudding, I have my 1965 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Her spine has fallen off and she is held together with masking tape (a very poor choice of tape, I might add), but I found her at an AAUW book sale when I was a teenager and will never give her up. She is like the WASPy grandmother I never had but was always curious about. But even so, I’ve never listened to her like I would my own internalized grandmother. It’s just not in me.



Use It Up: Cilantro

Cilantro, or coriander, is one of those herbs that people tend to either adore or despise. Is anybody merely neutral about it? I can’t get enough of it, but some of my friends look like I’m trying to make them eat cricket protein bars or something. It’s just a green, guys. They probably have a genetic predisposition to think cilantro tastes like soap, so I shouldn’t judge (but I do).

The more pressing issue, I think ,is what to do with all the extra cilantro we usually end up with. Have you ever noticed that cilantro either costs about $1.99 for a teensy little plastic wallet containing about three sprigs, or costs a dollar if you get two generous bunches? I always get the big bunches, because I could eat those three meticulously packaged sprigs while I’m trying to get a bottle of wine open.

Here is what I do with my extra bunches:

1. Chop it up, and add it to cabbage for tacos. This is such a no-brainer, I’m not sure if I should even include it.

2. Make cole slaw! Between the cilantro, the peanuts, and the sesame oil, I can eat an entire bowl of this. However, I replace half of the green or Napa cabbage with red cabbage, just to make it pretty.

3. Cilantro Lime Hummus. Okay, so limes are scarce (though they’re still at my grocery store, so I don’t know)– just use a lemon. But Cilantro Hummus! That’s like peanut butter and chocolate, but geared towards the savory crowd!

4. When my husband and I got engaged, we were at a beach house and soon found that although we had gone shopping for spaghetti ingredients, we had bought cilantro instead of parsley. We were too drunk on happiness and red wine to leave the house again, thus our Engagement Pasta was born! Simply make marinara as you normally would, adding half of the cilantro bunch while cooking the sauce, and the other half stirred in right before serving.

5. I have saved the best for last, because this Yemen Hot Sauce can go on anything (tacos, mixed into pasta, on toast, on an omelette)– plus it preserves the cilantro for a little while! I’ve even used questionable cilantro that was at the This-Is-Kind-Of-Wilty-And-Eew-This-One-Is-Slimy stage, and it was awesome. I have to admit, I leave out the cloves, use lemon, and add a third of a can of chickpeas, which makes it more of a pesto. Make both!

I Heart Marmite

I’ll admit it. The first time I tried Marmite, it was because I am a bit of an Anglophile and I’d read about it in a book. I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like, but I knew I wanted to try it just because the characters had. When I saw it in the jams and jellies section at Cost Plus, I debated for the longest time. What if I didn’t like it, and then I was out five dollars? What the heck is yeast extract anyway? And the ingredients list is not very appealing: Yeast Extract, Salt, Carrot and Onion Extracts, Spice Extracts– along with some  Niacin and B12 tossed in there.

Nerdy thing that I am, I put the Marmite back and went home to research it. Normally when I’m faced with something I haven’t eaten before, I just buy it and try it– but because this is a processed food I was being more skeptical than usual. Buddha’s hand? I’m on it! Tongue tacos? Just give me extra hot sauce. Strange spread for my toast? Well, hold on now, let’s not get crazy!

But as soon as I read that Marmite originally used yeast extracts from the sludgy bottoms of Bass beer barrels, they had me. I went back immediately and bought it because BEER JAM. Do you really need another reason?

It’s been a few years, and I’ve gone through countless little amber jars of the stuff. I can’t bring myself to recycle the jars, since they’re kind of cute in a retro way, so I use them to hold buttons, beads, spices, and cupcake sprinkles. I’ve got quite the collection going, and I think I’d like to start branching out and getting some different flavors or collector’s editions. There’s even  a Guinness Marmite, and Marmite crisps. I’ll take ’em all, thank you very much!

While I’ve heard of people using it as a broth base or even drinking it mixed in to hot water, my preferred vehicle is sourdough toast. If I’ve made a soft boiled egg, I use it on my toast soldiers, and if I’ve made a hard boiled egg, I slice the egg up and put it on top of the Marmite toast.

It's like having an umami bomb for breakfast!
It’s like having an umami bomb for breakfast!

What does it taste like? Well, to be honest, it doesn’t really taste like beer jam. It is about as umami-laden as a food can be, super salty and almost tangy. It’s almost like a bouillon. I’ve been known to lick bouillon cubes when I’ve got a salt craving– but who hasn’t occasionally licked the MSG flavor packet from infant ramen, or the cheese powder from a macaroni and cheese pouch? If you ever find yourself doing any of these things, you and Marmite will probably get on like a house on fire.

The flavor is milder if you mix it in with butter first.
The flavor is milder if you mix it in with butter first.

The only thing regrettable about my Marmite experience is that I regret introducing my husband to it. He usually has an aversion to condiments that aren’t hot sauce (he’s one of the Sriracha-loving millions but won’t even kiss me if I’ve eaten something with mayonnaise) but when I told him it was beer jam his interest was piqued. At first he feared it was like bacon jam, which I think is a great idea because it’s spreadable bacon, but I got him to try one of my Marmite toast soldiers and then he was a goner. Now I have to share my tiny jar of Marmite with him, and it doesn’t last nearly as long as it used to. To make it even worse, my daughter wants to see what we’re squabbling over in the morning over breakfast, and I just know she’s going to be a chip off both of the old blocks.