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There is nothing new under the sun as far as Italian Beef is concerned. The murky origins of this dish swirl around Chicago in the 1930’s, and the recipe is often credited to Italian immigrants who worked at the old Union Stock Yards in the early 1900’s. Tough cuts of beef were slowly braised in a spicy (read: flavored) broth to break down the toughness and add zest. Typically, the broth was made with spices familiar to the Italian palate – garlic, oregano, basil, etc. It was sliced across the grain and served on fresh Italian bread. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_beef)

Mississippi beef is a Midwestern mid-century modernization of the recipe – often done in a slow cooker – in which dry packets of ranch dressing and a powdered aux jous mix are sprinkled over the beef, a cold stick of butter is placed on top of the seasoned beef, and no more than six pepperoncinis are tucked around the sides. The whole thing cooks on low for about 6-8 hours before being served on rolls.

There are abundant variations of this basic recipe. Some departures range from nothing more than the meat and an entire jar of sliced pepperoncinis to the above-mentioned Mississippi beef. For my own tastes, I prefer to hit somewhere in the middle – some spices that keep true to the Italian origins but refraining from going down the path of packet cooking. Nor do I see the need for butter if the meat is cooked slowly and long enough.

The joy of slow cooking is that the meat and vegetables will make their own broth. If the recipe needs to be sped up, a bit of liquid can be used (beef broth would be preferable) to keep the meat moist. It truly depends on how much time can be devoted to the exercise.

Rolling the recipe around in my head, these things start to sound good to my mind-tongue – basil, oregano, garlic powder, paprika (a good one like Hungarian, smoked, or Spanish) liquid smoke, salt, pepper, and olive oil. When mixed, these ingredients would make a moist paste to coat the meat. The jar of pepperoncinis would provide ample moisture and acidity to enhance the flavor of the meat, and a layer of sliced onions (rubbed with any remaining spice mix) on top of everything would provide spice and acid to enhance the other flavors as they cook down over the meat.

When the meat can be pulled apart with a fork, it is done (3-4 hours in a stove top pot or 6-8 hours in a slow cooker). A trick I learned from one of my very good friends who loves carnitas is to shred the meat with two forks, place it on a baking sheet in a single layer, and run it under the broiler until the top side starts to crisp up a bit before returning it to the sauce. That technique enhances the texture. Serve the meat, onions, and pepperoncinis on (toasted or untoasted) hoagie rolls and top with giardinera for an additional Italian kick or with caramelized onions if you’ve a mind to cook up some. A cup of the aux jous for dipping shouldn’t be overlooked.

Italian Beef (Drip Beef)
3-5 lb. chuck roast (or other roasting cut)
1 jar pepperoncinis
1 jar giardinera (optional for garnish)
6-8 hoagie rolls (toasted optional)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp basil, dried
1 tbsp oregano, dried
1 tbsp paprika (smoked, Hungarian, or Spanish)
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp liquid smoke
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper (freshly ground if possible)
1 lg white onion, sliced (cut in half along the equator, and slice with the grain to make sticks)

I use my hands to coat the meat; so make sure the jar of pepperoncinis is open before you rub the paste on the meat.

Mix the herbs, spices, and olive oil to form a paste (add more olive oil if the mix seems dry – up to 1 tbsp more) and rub over the meat thoroughly. Place the meat in a slow cooker. Toss the onions in any remaining spice mixture (or make extra if desired) and hold in a bowl until the pepperoncinis have been poured over the seasoned meat. Top with the seasoned onions.

Cook on low for 6-8 hours. If cooking in a pot on the stovetop, add the beef stock, bring everything to a boil, cover and reduce it to a very slow simmer for 3-4 hours.

When the meat can be pulled apart with a fork, lift it from the broth (reserving the broth in the pot) and shred it onto a baking sheet. Place the meat under a broiler for 2-3 minutes or until it begins to crisp (but not burn). Return the meat to the broth.

Drain lightly and serve on rolls topped with giardinera, if desired, and ¼ - ½ cup of the aux jous. Alternatively, it could be served on a bed of lettuce as a hot/cold salad. Caramelized onions would be a welcome addition to either the sandwich or salad.

Cole slaw goes well as a side dish.

Stories at the Stove: Ham and Pea Salad

Ham and peas have always seemed pleasurable to my palate. My favorite pasta dish is cheese tortellini in cream sauce with ham and peas. The combination of sweet peas and salty ham with some type of sauce to tie them together simply works well.

While I would want to claim such a salad for the South, I suspect it simply is an old recipe that moved and changed to fit the cuisine styles for the differing regions. I remember seeing it at church social buffets as a child, and I probably threw a spoonful of it on my groaning paper plate along with as many other homemade recipes as possible. Oil and vinegar could be a decent sauce, but I have always preferred the creamy treatment - mayonnaise, sour cream, or a combination of both - in this recipe.

One of my favorite secret-sin lunch spots is an old Italian restaurant in town that has a decent salad bar to accompany their lunch buffet. The local senior citizen homes send shuttles to this location most of the days of the week, and heaven help the staff if they run out of roast beef on Wednesdays. It truly is that kind of place.

On the salad bar of the restaurant is the basic ham and peas dish - super simple so as not to offend aging palates - with mayo, celery and a hint of onion for crunch and spice. Black pepper is the only other seasoning. I love it and have been known to go back for an indulgent third spoonful because the lunch buffet is all-you-can-eat. From a technical perspective, it is plain and ordinary, but it appeals to a sense of comfort.

Last weekend, I had a couple of pounds of boiled ham that needed attention. Half of the ham became a split pea soup, and the other half became ham and pea salad. Though I had an idea of what I wanted, I looked up a few recipes to see what others had done. Hard-boiled eggs, scallions (because they were chopped and ready), and a medium cheddar cheese seemed appropriate additions to a basic mayo, prepared mustard, vinegar, black pepper, garlic powder combination - in the spirit of a deviled egg preparation sans sweet pickle relish. A few pinches of cayenne pepper might be considered.

I enjoy it as a lunchtime salad on a bed of lettuce as you would tuna salad.

Ham and Pea Salad (cold)
1 lb boiled ham, cubed
6 eggs hard boiled, peeled
1 cup English peas fresh or defrosted if frozen
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup (or less) mayonnaise
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar (to taste - see below)
1 tbsp. prepared mustard
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Break up the eggs in a bowl with a fork until the whites are a consistent size. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Taste and correct for pepper and vinegar. Depending on the salty quality of the ham, more or less vinegar will be needed.

Serve as a side, on toast, or on a bed of lettuce.
Seizing on a flavor thought, I put together a mushroom and barley stew this past Sunday. I tend to prefer stews to soups as the likelihood of the former to end up on my shirt is much lower than the latter.

"Where's the beef?" you ask. I find that, by the time, the stew is ready, the beef has lost all flavor and is little more than chewy. Of course, this could be off-set by sautéing NY strip chunks in a little olive oil, removing the meat before browning the rest of the ingredients, and adding back in the steak to warm just before serving, but I do live with a mostly-vegetarian (actually a salumitarian - Himself loves salami, and you can get your head out of the gutter).

I was striving to find a way to get the mushrooms to take center stage and find a better root vegetable chorus. Crimini mushrooms are not too expensive in bulk, and they can be big enough to make thick slices. To get the flavor and texture of a bite of steak, I decided to coat them in olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and roast them at 350 for about half an hour - running a wooden spoon through them to turn them over a bit halfway through the roasting process. About five minutes after they hit the oven, the smell was incredibly delicious. A woodsy garlic flavor permeated the air. I was tempted to stop right there and simply eat them with a fork. But no, I persevered to the ultimate goal.

While the mushrooms were roasting, I diced and sautéed in olive oil a standard mirepoix of ( 1.5) onions, (3 stalks) celery, and (4) carrots in a rough dice so that they would still be visible after the stew cooked for an hour. Once they cooked for about 10 minutes over medium heat, I added in minced garlic, thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, bay leaves (all dry), ground pepper, a couple of peeled and diced parsnips, and a peeled and diced rutabaga rather than potato. Parsnips add a sweetness, and the rutabaga has an earthy quality I admire. (Turnips would have been good too.) When the mushrooms were done, I slid them into the pot with the other vegetables along with the pan drippings, added about 8 cups of vegetable stock (made the same morning), a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 cups of barley, brought the mixture to a boil, and reduced it to a simmer for about an hour - maybe a little over because I was doing housework while the stew simmered. I put in a couple more cups of stock during the cooking process to keep it from getting too thick. I tasted and adjusted for salt and pepper right before serving; I love the peppery bite in such stews. (Total volume was about 22 cups, which feeds me for 6 lunchs, made dinner for us both, and provided leftovers for 3 more individual meals at 2 cups per serving.)

The hearty mushroom flavor diminished a bit in the hour of cooking time. I think next time I will add them closer to the end of the cooking process rather than the beginning. Overall, though, I give the dish a solid B+ for texture and flavor. It would definitely be an A if I had thought about that last step. Next time, it will hit the mark perfectly.

This process is typical of my cooking style. An idea for a dish forms; I do some research on it (soy sauce in the stew was a genius idea from one vegan recipe I found); and then - given my preferences - I envision it as I would like it to be. Parsnips and rutabagas are more interesting to me than potatoes. There's no hate for the spud; it has its places. There isn't really a strict recipe I followed but rather techniques I have learned and an understanding of how something like a stew is built. My herb choices were made on the fly when I was digging in my spice drawer. I thought to use some herbes de Provence leftover from Thanksgiving, but I apparently had used it in something else. Marjoram is an interesting choice because of its floral aroma, which can be off-putting if added late but a welcome addition of allowed to simmer for a longer time. Thyme and sage are natural parings with mushrooms, and rosemary accompanies the mushroom earthiness with a woodsy quality. These notes are all filed away in my brain through countless hours of cooking and related activity.

With no recipe but only an idea and a handful of mental notes, I wander into my playground and putter about a bit until something wonderful happens - joy upwells, and time loses meaning.

Free From; Free To

Perhaps it is my subconscious coming to terms - albeit very slowly - with the concept of being middle-aged, but I have felt mentally reflexive lately. My mind seems curious to discuss a number of reflective questions (e.g., What do I desire for my life?; How do I wish to be seen by myself as well as others whose opinions I value?; What do I embrace?; What do I fear?) with itself as I sit by and kibitz occasionally.

Topics discussed in no particular hierarchal order:

Freedom from financial over-worrying
Life Poetry (distillation to the most important elements)
Evolution through Dissolution

The list is existential in nature as a matter of course - full of "big picture" thoughts. My mind, though, is the arena in which they whirl and twirl. Often, I can willfully overlook the spectacle, but at times, I am enraptured by the dances. This is one of those times. I think about the paths my life has led, the ones I find my mental feet upon now, and wonder about those paths yet to come. The thoughts are heavy; I feel their burden. It is the weight of many worlds. I stumble and must often rest.

This encumbrance I shoulder constantly and only feel its weight occasionally - usually when some other support or crutch slips, and I must readjust the contents of my encumbrance. Rarely do I bother exploring which mental strut failed, preferring - in the immediacy of the moment - to concern myself with making sure the jumble is resettled as soon as possible. The finger-in-the-dam approach only works for so long; soon the dam becomes nothing but finger-notches - exceptions to the paradigm - and the paradigm must shift or collapse under the weight of its own inconsistencies.

The anxiety heralding such a shift becomes colossal and crippling, trapping my mind in a trammel. When so caged, any intelligent mind instinctively toggles the survival mode. While this is expectantly pragmatic, the effect leaves a latitudinous swath of carnage. How does one subdue the beast at the moment of its fully-formed birth? It wields a power fueled by a cosmic righteous indignation with the heat of a thousand white-hot suns and feels indulgently recherché. No one is safe - no quarter given. Mercy is vituperatively massacred.

Clearly, the finer choice would be to simply turn aside from such a pernicious path, but the glow is seductive. Ay, there's the rub. The animal's glower is vigilantly wary and constantly poised to strike. The crossroad of that decision - to turn or to engage - is convoluted, abstruse, and ghoulish. You would not think that you could think what you can think when you are in this place of possibility. Unfettered by plodding, mundane morality, you are, for a crystalline instant, in shocked and wondrous awe, savoring each potentiality in turn as you bathe in abandon. A return to the senses is a far shore.

From each such topic as those mentioned (as well as others unnamed), this is my mind's trail. The route is predictable; the scenery and destination are not.

Thanksgiving 2011

While the 2011 menu was mostly a repeat of the 2007 menu and the 2010 menu, it was still divine. For the first time in over three years, it was again in my own home, at my table festooned with all my collected bits and pieces for entertaining. Himself quickly figured out that I had THE PLAN for the day and stopped trying to offer ideas. It is my day, and I do have a plan for it every year. I appreciate that he was trying to be helpful and (as we all have egos) trying to insert some of his own ideas into the day, but I go all megalomaniac with dinner parties, which causes a severe amount of stress for me and usually bleeds over into those who are close to me until the first bottle of wine is opened.

Le Menu:

Herb roasted turkey
Mushroom pie with a sour cream crust
Sage and Andouille sausage dressing
Puree parsnips with sage
Roasted brussel sprouts
Carrot slaw with toasted walnuts
Green peas with mint and caramelized onions
Cranberry relish

If anyone is interested in the recipes, please let me know. Most of them are already in my previous posts, but I'm always happy to share.

Fortunately, this year I took Wednesday as a vacation day, and the dressing is an all-day recipe when you make the bread and the cornbread from scratch first. (The dressing is my favorite.) The cranberry relish was made the previous Sunday as it needs three or four days of maceration in the fridge to balance the tangy with the sweet. Next time I do the mushroom pie, I'll make it the day before and thoroughly warm it up before serving. It always tastes better the second day rather than the first.

I despise my tiny kitchen and craptacular stove. Oh, how I do miss Lucille. She was such a wonderful workhorse on all-day cooking events and was designed for such. Though I consider myself skilled enough to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, having the right tools for the job always makes a difference. It will come in the fullness of time.

Part of me feels saddened that I had no new recipes to share this year, but I was cooking for a new Thanksgiving audience, and it was fun to roll out my favorites from the last fifteen years and share them. (Truthfully, the brussel sprouts and the carrot slaw were newish.) Next year, there will be the expectations of my adopted family, which will set the menu reasonably rigorously, but that is fine. Traditions can be a good thing. I do miss the anticipation of cracking open the Thanksgiving cooking magazine issues and imagining what this or that dish would be like. Those were always moments of profound creativity and anticipation.

For now, this was a mixture of the old and the new - old recipes with new friends and in a new place. A balance can be struck in such places. I was very pleased that elessa and her beau were part of the new.

Packing It Away: Sauerkraut

From childhood, I have loved sauerkraut. Mom bought it occasionally in glass jars, and I remember eating it with smoked kielbasas after the jar had been in the fridge, and the kraut was nice and cold. I always served an extra forkful directly from the jar to my mouth when it came to the supper table.

When I discovered the delightful German delicatessens around Portland, I was overjoyed that they sold their own sauerkrauts. At $3.50 for a pint container, it seemed pricey - given the cost of cabbage at the supermarket - but I was willing to pay the premium because it was just so good, and it made those German sausages and deli meats taste even better.

In following my food feeds, I added sites that spoke specifically about canning. Eventually, the topic turned to sauerkraut. There always seemed to be so much fuss with nursing the kraut along that I never bothered. An article from Martha Stewart magazine started making it through the feeds that had a technique that was pretty much set-and-forget or at least only needed weekly check-ins. The trick is to fold a cabbage leaf on top of the jars to keep the scum from forming on top. Leaving out the caraway seeds for this inaugural batch, I followed the recipe carefully for the most part. Unfortunately, the cabbage head I purchased was 6 pounds. So, it was an easy doubling of the recipe. Most of the recipes I read called for about 3 tablespoons of salt for 5 pounds of cabbage. I decided that 3 tablespoons for 6 pounds of cabbage would be enough. This recipe calls for 1 tablespoon per 3 pounds. We'll see how it goes.

It is amazing how small a volume shredded and salted cabbage actually takes up. I filled two quart jars and one more that was 25 ounces. I used clean jars that are not true canning jars as this would eventually go in the fridge and not be water bath processed. I've done similar when making refrigerator pickled beets. The jars sit out for about three weeks, and I check them every five days by slowly opening and then quickly reclosing the lids to allow some of the built-up pressure to escape. Putting the jars in a non-reactive dish with at least 2-inch sides was a good tip so that, should the pressure build up too high, the overflow would be caught before making a mess. Hopefully, by Thanksgiving, I should be tasking the fruits of my labor - all one hour of it in this case.

Putting foods away has been incredibly satisfying - along with the weekly loaf of bread baked. I really like that the canning projects I am finding are small enough to do in an afternoon and don't result in twenty jars of whatever. Half a gallon of sauerkraut will get used up rather quickly once I pick up some more good sausage and deli meat.

I felt bad borrowing my friends' canning supplies and then never finding the time to go to the you-pick places to get the produce. I've decided that if I purchase organic produce and play with the canning equipment even on this small scale, I will be doing what I want to do and honoring my commitment to my friends to use what I was given. However, in the case of the kraut, I had everything I needed at hand except the proper technique.

Canning is an extension of my recreational cooking hobby, and it is a valuable life skill. What I enjoy most of all is that the final product will keep for long enough that I'll most likely forget it, find it, and then smile wistfully as I remember having "put it up last year."

For now, though, I dream of sausage and sauerkraut.

Pressure-Canning Tomato (Spaghetti) Sauce

Last Sunday was my first attempt at pressure canning. My good friends gave/loaned me their canning (and beer making) equipment while they travel the world for nine months with their pre-teen children. I wanted to add these skills to my food knowledge base. I canned some apple butter last year along with some poached pears, and I made strawberry preserves this summer with freshly-picked strawberries. I have never pressure canned anything. Visions of exploding things danced through my head.

Le Bijou (the name I affectionately call my smallish apartment) has a small freezer that is usually stuffed with frozen waffles and burritos because Himself mostly prefers eating over cooking - especially after a long evening at work. I can't blame him. Still, I want to put things away for later days, and while freezing is easy, space is scarce. Given the circumstances, creating shelf-stable packaged goods seems to be the better way to go.

Himself also recently discovered I enjoy Italian food. He remarked on this when he made a pretty darned good baked ziti recipe last week. I just looked at him as I picked my lower jaw up from the table. When we first met, he wouldn't eat wheat, dairy, or meat. That negates a very large swath of what is my most favored cultural cuisine in the world. So, I stopped cooking that for the most part. (I also came to understand recently that he isn't a big tomato fan. I eat them like candy. Talk about your near-miss dealbreakers ....) Apparently, his world is renewed as his personal perspective shifts. I just shake my head and chuckle most often.

I was in a be-at-home mood last weekend, and a canning project is just the thing to occupy my time when I have an attack of domesticity. Since Himself is taking an interest in cooking and has begun to understand the wonderful value of casseroles, and has been delving into Italian casserole territory, gravy was needed. I made a huge batch a few weeks ago, but that was used up rather quickly. Every time he gets a wild hair to cook, I don't want to be tasked with having to kick start his process by making tomato sauce because I simply refuse to eat that processed crap. It has no real flavor except for salt.

My sauce recipe has been honed over more than a decade of practice. I started with a vegetarian recipe for my early attempts and generally liked the result. I have made changes over the years, but it basically has remained pretty consistent. The big bonus in flavor for me comes from two things: 1) adding half the herbs and spices in the beginning and then half later on in the cooking/simmering process (salt and pepper always go in at the very last minute), and 2) allowing for a long, slow simmer - about 4 hours. The result is a wonderfully rich and robust sauce. Though most all of my recipes are never exactly the same, they are never bad.

Twenty minutes of prep work had all the ingredients in a pot boiling for about 5 minutes and then reduced to a slow simmer for the next four hours. It was just enough time to make Mark Bittman's 4-hour take on the much longer 17-hour no-knead bread recipe while the sauce simmered. The bread recipe takes about 5 minutes to combine the ingredients and then a 4 hour wait for it to rise before a 30-minute second rise and then an hour or less to bake. The resulting bread is not quite on the level as the original recipe, but it is tasty and much more manageable in a single afternoon than spread out over two days. The best part was the 4 hours between the start and the second round of heavy lifting. That was the time for coffee, a blanket, some jazz on the radio, and some reading material. I was welcomely locked in at home for the next 4 hours because I had things percolating.

Pressure canning is different from water bath canning in that you have to get the heat up to about 240 degrees in foods that are low-to-borderline in acid quality. Tomatoes are borderline. Therefore it is highly suggested that tomato sauces should be processed by pressure canning or with the addition of lemon juice before processing by the water bath method. I didn't want the lemon juice to mess with my sauce, which gave me an excuse to try my hand at pressure canning. While it went very easily, the whole time I was peeking out from behind my refrigerator wondering when the canner would explode in a shower of red sauce and glass. Fortunately, it didn't, and I enjoyed hearing the satisfying sound of seven pings as the lids seated themselves. I felt very accomplished the next day when I filled half of one of my cabinet shelves with seven pints of sauce.

Of course, now I want to CAN ALL THE THINGS! That will have to wait. I'm promising myself that I will tackle no more than one small canning project per week. This weekend will be making sauerkraut. I found a great technique that avoids the skimming process, which if not done, can cause your kraut to be milky rather than clear. It is also a small-sized project that makes maybe a gallon of kraut. I think that will be enough to get me started. If the recipe works, I will be able to start another batch just before the current one runs out. In business-speak that is the "just in time" model versus the "just in case" model most often associated with canning in general.

I still have not made Zydeco beans, but that is high on my list. Part of the reason I didn't do any canning this summer is because I never made it to the you-pick places. There always seemed to be something else that had to be done on those summer weekends. Fortunately, there is a great availability of organic vegetables in most of the groceries around me, so I can at least can for the fun of it. I'm not really saving a whole lot of money by doing it, but the result is that I am getting exactly what I want in the final product. That is what draws me to canning. I am finding a lot of joy in the small-batch canning process.

Listening to Stones

For the past few weeks, I've been communing with stones. It sounds a bit weird when I say it like that. The reality is that I am slowly beginning a rock garden in the Japanese style. It all started when Himself found a rock near a rose bush at the corner of our apartment property. It was a nice piece of basalt, and he wanted to incorporate it into our lanai gardening in some way. We both have been reading a book entitled "Sakuteiki." The book was mentioned by a friend of his who is a volunteer guide at the Portland Japanese Garden. We picked up a copy and became more informed about the subject - especially considering the aforementioned friend gave us an insightful private tour of the garden, sharing all her extra knowledge bits that most visitors are not interested in hearing.

Usually, I glom onto some new subject or other on a monthly basis. In August, there were two subjects: tea and Japanese gardening. You can see how the two go together. The tea was easy - go drink tea with people who are passionate about the subject. I learned that I like about tea the same things I like about coffee - robust flavors without too much tannin. (I like that about wine too.) I learned to drink from a gaiwan, and I learned what pu-erh teas are and why I enjoy them so much. (Pu-erhs also have a snob factor.)

Japanese gardening has always been a subject of speculative interest for me. It is why I started (and stopped and started again) bonsai. It was another creative outlet - a hobby, if you will. Being a life-long apartment dweller, the idea of a real garden has been beyond my grasp. With bonsai, though, I have been OK with that. What Himself has helped me see, though, is that container gardening can be extended much further - too far in our case - than a few trees in pots. We've even enjoyed some of the literal fruits of our labor with lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, and culinary herbs this summer. (Himself's attention is flagging as regards the continued maintenance of a container garden. He is becoming saddened by the thought that most of our plants will die as the season turns to fall and winter. This stymies his ability to attend to the needs of the present.)

Because we have the best landlords on the planet, they were encouraging when I asked about planting a few things in the courtyard area of our little apartment complex. It was not being well-maintained, and there certainly has been no investment in beautification. My garden fairy wings apparently sprouted, and I have enjoyed my bit of garden toil for the last several weeks. That rock Himself found was a piece of a long-gone rock wall that once bordered the property from the street. We dug down a little further (inches really) and uncovered over a dozen more beautiful rocks with admirable character on their natural surfaces. Combined with youthful enthusiasm and just enough knowledge from my recent reading to be dangerous, I set about to try my hand placing the stones in a clear area of the courtyard. I rather like my accomplishment. Along with about a dozen plants (many purchased on clearance due to the time of year), I arranged as many stones in very common configurations for a Japanese garden.

One good piece of advice was to simply bring the stones into the space and wait for them to tell me what they wanted to say - where they wanted to be placed. They definitely have a way about them. Yes, I know, they're rocks. But they are the bones of the world. The Japanese think of them as the bones of a garden; plants are the living flesh, and water is the blood.

The thought of them speaking reminded me of when I was a child and wished to be able to speak with trees. (Odd super power, eh?) Of course, this ability was right below my desire to control the elements - very Elmer Fudd-like with my spear and magic helmet. I so very admired trees as silent, watchful guardians. I wanted to be able to get behind what I knew was a veil between me and their world. In a fleeting moment, I thought the same of the rocks I was nudging around my fledgling garden. Now, I understand that stones connect much more deeply to that unknown world, and I want to listen to them.

I see stones everywhere now along familiar paths I have walked many times. Each one I see causes me to wonder about its history and how it came to be in that spot. Who moved it? Why was that one chosen? How was the position determined? There are many low rock walls in my neighborhood. I am only now seeing them. It never ceases to amaze me how my perception can shift when my awareness of something is heightened. As Twain famously stated,"To the man with a hammer, all the world is a nail."

I have a small stone garden. It is my first attempt, and it may not be authentic in the way the Japanese see authenticity, but it is authentic in that it is my garden. There is no other like it. Besides, even the masters had to start somewhere.

I Get Angry - I Give Angry

That's a funny turn of phrase, isn't it? To get, acquire, receive an emotion or state of being. The reverse seems more appropriate - to give anger from a sense of generating it from an internal emotional dynamo and churning it out into the world in waves with the heat of a thousand white-hot suns.

Another turn of phrase - wholly grammatically incorrect of course - is "to get one's mad on." Oh, boy did I on Saturday. It held with me until Sunday, stealing most all of my sleep Saturday night.

Now, what could possibly make me so angry? I usually am very slow to anger but not always. As it happened Saturday, Himself forgot to take his house key when he went to work that evening. I was spending a very pleasant evening with friends at an outdoor dinner gathering about half an hour away that ran late into the evening. Once realizing his error, Himself thought he could remove a screen on the window and gain entrance with the hope that I had forgotten to lock the window. Not bloody likely.

The screens are not designed to be removed from outside the window but from inside the apartment. Therefore, he broke the aluminum frame trying to remove it only to find the window locked. For some reason known only to him, he thought he would succeed on a second window after having failed with the first. His reasoning was flawed, and a second window screen was broken with no ingress achieved.

Upon arriving home and seeing these broken screens, my blood boiled. So many things inside my head were stomping around. What in your lack-of-frontal-lobe-development brain could possibly possess you to break not one but two window screens?! Thoughts on the careless and callous handling of property not his own, time and money that would have to be wasted on repairs, and a general sense of Bill Cosby's "Was your head with you all day?!" invective furiously stormed around my mind's middens. With what little shreds of control I still possessed, my response to his chipper "How was your evening?" was "I do not wish to have a conversation with you tonight." I'm sure I spat the words on the floor. The rest of the evening was spent in very awkward silence, and the bed had a very wide DMZ down the middle. I was afforded no sleep as my anger continued to slam itself against my skull for the better part of seven hours.

Sunday morning, Himself very wisely figured out he needed to not be near me when I arose from the bed. He opted for Buddhist service and lit out of there like his ass was on fire, and his hair was catching. With the bent screens in hand and my anger riding on my shoulders, I went to Home Depot to learn about repairing window screens. This was not my plan for Sunday. My anger only intensified as I felt put-upon to fix what Himself had destroyed in a moment of teenage irrationality. No, I didn't make him fix it. He can't find his way around a screwdriver much less a hacksaw. He'd more likely sever a limb than make it through a little aluminum. Regardless of his ability or potential, in those hours, I would never have given him the benefit of the doubt. Most likely, I needed the activity of doing something rather than sitting and continuing to fume about it.

It turns out that making screens from kits is not too difficult as long as you have the right tools. I was building them on the picnic table outside when Himself arrived from service and was still in an extremely foul mood not having eaten by noon. "I expect recompense for the materials, and you owe me lunch" was my curt response to his salutation. Again, I'm sure I spat those words out on the ground vitriolically. Who in the hell does this?! A fucking twelve year-old?! He was effusive with suggestions for places for lunch. We went. We ate. Our conversation was terse but civil.

I finished the project after lunch. Himself tried to offer help and heaped praise on my work. I was having none of it. Thankfully, Himself went to work mid-afternoon, and I was left with trying to cram my weekend chores into the afternoon before tucking into a plate of Frenched lamb loin chops and corn on the cob, washed down with some home made beer. By the time the last of the laundry was folded, I was tired of holding the anger. Slipping into bed, I read until my eyes grew heavy and, turning out the light, embraced night's bliss.

There is much that can be said regarding anger and its ability to cripple and rob the mind and body through the burning of so much emotional energy. People we love get hurt by it; we hurt ourselves in numerous and often unforeseen ways. The downstream costs usually are devastating. But it feels so good in that moment of righteous indignation. As Pema Chodron said in an interview with Bill Moyers, "There's something delicious about finding fault with something." Anger has a hook that pulls you under. The Tibetan word for it is "shenpa" - an idea to explore.

Achieving some perspectival distance from anger - your anger, my anger - involves acknowledging the state of anger, figuring out its cause, understanding that anger is self-indulgent, figuring out how to let it go, refusing to continue to feed anger, and cultivating compassion - most especially with yourself. Compassion takes courage especially when feeling in an ungrounded state.

This has been a learning lesson for me and, thus, can be seen as beneficial. It is a painful lesson - painful in having gone through anger's wringer. I think I understand myself a little better and hope to use this experience as I grapple with my anger before getting hooked again.

It has been exhausting.
The temperature is starting to warm up a little, or at least I'm trying to urge it along by thinking of summer-time recipes. Usually, most of my recipe cogitating is about my make-ahead meals for the week's lunches at work in order to enjoy a laissez faire attitude at 6:30 in the morning when I am packing up to head to the bus stop.

For weeks, now, I have been roasting a spatchcocked chicken in a covered cast iron pot. Having the chicken on hand during the week is helpful not only for the lunches but for when I trundle home from work hungry and not in a mind to spend an hour preparing. Greek-lemon chicken, smoky chicken, chicken and pineapple on brown rice (such a winner) - the list is never-ending because, what?, everything tastes like chicken, right?

I love pineapple. I love it almost as much as I love mangoes. (Have you ever tried fresh pineapple with Tabasco chipotle on it? Divine!) As I was browsing for chicken salad recipes, thinking I could have it on sandwiches, salads, or wraps for the week, I an across one with pineapple. I tend to not like grapes or Granny Smith apples in my chicken salads and am not a fan of raisins there either. Dried cranberries are not-horrible especially in a curried version, but I did that not too long ago. Pineapple is fresh, summery, and decadent. (We rarely had pineapple in the pantry growing up, and the few times we did, I beat everyone else back and hoarded the rings like Gollem.)

So, pineapple chicken salad seems to intrigue me. (Oooh! I could serve it on cold pasta as a pasta salad!) The basic recipes I found were, well, basic. Chicken, pineapple, mayo, celery, salt, and pepper formed the cast of characters of a slit-my-wrists banal assemblage. There's sweet and fat, but where's spicy and tangy (acidic)? Additions and corrections are needed if this is to be what will satisfy me. First of all, chipotle in either a powdered or liquid form is needed. Of course, cayenne would work, but the smokiness would be missing. Celery is fine, but I think water chestnuts could add an interesting difference if one is so inclined. I'll opt for celery as I like it. Garlic powder seems necessary. Since I plan on eating this for a whole week, tomatoes, though delicious, are neither in season nor particularly useful as they would break down and become watery in the acid after a few days. (Sun dried tomatoes might work. Hmm....) Bell pepper is my usual substitution for tomatoes when I want to make sure to get the vitamin C as well as a color element into a dish. The lime will enliven everything, and parsley will give it a leafy freshness as well as embellish the color palate.

I will be adding chopped smoked almonds to mine, but any type of almond - or for that matter, any nut that seems tasty - would do just fine. Additionally, because there is a shop specializing in spices and herbs not far away from me, I will be adding some smoked freshly-cracked pepper and applewood smoked salt instead of the standard kosher salt and freshly-cracked pepper. That's why "smoked" is parenthetical to the recipe's name. If one was of a mind to smoke a chicken, the flavor will only get better.

If mayo is off-putting, try sour cream, or yogurt instead, both of which can be of the fat-free variety. I like mayo as long as I can mix it with other things to keep it from becoming cloying or clingy on my palate. I envision serving this over a bed of spinach or fresh salad greens or putting it, along with some avocados slices, in a whole-wheat burrito wrap. Of course, spinach in the wrap would be a nice addition as well. Choices ... j'adore!

Chicken and Pineapple Salad (Smoked)

3 cup Chicken cooked and shredded
1 ½ cup Diced celery or water chestnut
½ Onion, diced (can be white, yellow, or red)
½ can or fresh Pineapple diced
To taste Mayonnaise
To taste Salt and Pepper

2 Hard-boiled eggs, chopped
To taste Chipotle pepper (or Tabasco sauce)
To taste Garlic powder
½ cup Smoked almonds diced
To taste Smoked salt and pepper (specialty store)
1 Red bell pepper diced
1/2 bunch Parsley
1 Lime freshly squeezed
½ Zest of the squeezed lime

Serve on bread, lettuce, or as part of a salad.
Avocado slices in a wrap could make an excellent sandwich.

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March 2015



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