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a taste of something fine

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Wednesday nights are usually a work night for me at The Inn. I like the place, I like the people I work with, but between the cooking gig and my church gig, I’m out of the house six nights a week, which means my wife, Ginger and I, don’t get to eat supper together very often.

Last night we did. The chef called to say he didn’t need me to work and all of a sudden Ginger and I had a dinner date.

Though I do love food, meals are what matters most. It’s not about the tastes as much as it is the experience: the chance to stop and share a meal with someone you love – and, of course, cooking what they love. I asked what she wanted as she headed out to work.

“Polenta!” she exclaimed.

Ginger had to work fairly late, so as the sun set on an already grey day, I poured myself a glass of wine, put Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using in the CD player, and began to work on dinner as he sang:

The papers lie there helplessly in a pile outside the door
I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t remember what they’re for
The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve
Ah, that’s much too old a story to believe

Polenta at our house means I make it (adding lemon juice, green chiles, and cheddar cheese), pour it into a 9-inch square Pyrex pan and let it cool, and then slice it and sauté it. I also pounded out a couple of chicken breasts, marinated them in Dijon mustard, rolled them in Ritz cracker crumbs, and then sautéed them as well. Ginger asked for green beans, but I had different plans for myself. A friend mentioned to me the other day he had been served asparagus with proscuitto and fresh cranberries, so I thought I would see if I could make that happen. I cut the proscuitto into thin strips and cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces. I put the proscuitto in first; when it was starting to crisp I added the asparagus and the cranberries and sautéed all of them until the berries began to pop. It was excellent.

And you know that it’s taken its share of me
Even though you take such good care of me
Now you say “Morocco” and that makes me smile
I haven’t seen Morocco in a long, long while
The dreams are rolling down across the places in my mind
And I’ve just had a taste of something fine

Every meal is a memory, a chance to lean into all that it means to be together and savor what it feels like to belong. When we reduce it to feeding, we miss the stuff that matters, the chance to be truly nurtured. I realized how badly I need the connection as we ate. I miss being at home for dinner.

When I was growing up, my family sat down to dinner together every night. The conversations around the table were informative, though not always deep, but in the years that followed when distance developed between my parents and me, the memory of those meals kept me from walking away. I had a place at that table. So did they.

I don’t belong anywhere in the world more than I belong with Ginger. And I remember that best when we sit down to dinner together.

And you know that I’m looking back carefully
”Cause I know that there’s still something there for me
But you said “Morocco” and you made me smile
And it hasn’t been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine

Peace,
Milton

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food for friends

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First thing: the soup came out great!

Second thing: in my continuing journey through blogdom, I decided to set up another blog with just the recipes, rather than trying to make them fit into the narratives. You will find them at don’t eat alone: the recipes (creative, huh?).

There’s no such thing a good soup recipe for one because soup tastes better when it’s shared. Any food does, for that matter.

I have a big container of pumpkin apple soup (Check the link; I tweaked it a bit) just waiting for someone besides me to enjoy it. And I know exactly who needs it today. There’s a couple in our church who have been lifelong members and who have both been sick over the holidays. They, like many of us, don’t receive help easily, yet, somehow, they will receive it from me. It’s like that scene in The Breakfast Club where Molly Ringwald’s character is putting make up on Ally Sheedy’s character.

“Why are you doing this,” Ally Sheedy asks.

“Because you’re letting me,” answers Molly Ringwald.

The husband loves the lemon bars I make, so I just took a batch out of the oven to go along with the soup. When they cool, I will be off to make my delivery. That’s what friends do.

Food heals when it comes from the hands of a friend.

Peace,
Milton

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a good day for soup

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We are in a the middle of a stretch of gray days where it is not so apparent that the sun has even risen. The lights are on, the schnauzers are snoozing, and I’m in the mood for soup — but not for going to the grocery store. A quick glance in both the pantry (I have several cans of pumpkin) and the fridge (apples! and one more sweet potato), as well as a Google search for soup recipes, has brought me to my project for the day, bouncing off of some recipes I found here:

Pumpkin Apple Soup

1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb bacon
2 cup water
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 can of pumpkin
2 cups apple cider
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 apples, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1/3 cup crystallized ginger
1/2 t cumin
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t tumeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper

I’m going to saute the onion and bacon in olive oil, add the water and potato until it cooks, and then throw in the rest of the stuff and let it simmer for an hour or so. I’m going back and forth about whether or not to add any curry powder to the mixture. Finally, I’m going to puree it all with my Braun stand mixer (my current favorite appliance). I’ll let you know how it turns out.

I think it’s going to be great. However it tastes, it’ll make the house smell warm and hopeful. And I can snooze a little with the schnauzers while I’m waiting for my late lunch.

Peace,
Milton

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first meal

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Every few years, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day both fall on Sunday, which means we have church services on days we not normally do so. Yesterday, for me, it meant, other than my cup of coffee on the way to church, my first meal of the day and the new year was Communion.

In the United Church of Christ, we don’t have a set way Communion has to be served. The most common method is to pass trays of bread down each pew, followed by trays of small glasses of wine (or grape juice), so we all serve the meal to one another. Yesterday, we served by intinction, which means everyone came forward, tore off a piece of bread from a common loaf, dipped it in the common cup and then took both elements together. Either way, we always end up with leftovers.

On the one hand, the fact that we have all eaten and there is still more is a helpful metaphor for the expansiveness of the love of God in Christ: regardless of how much we need, there is always more. Yet, I watched as folks came through the line yesterday and they tore of pieces of bread so tiny that they could not dip them in the cup without getting their fingers wet. Why do we come the Table of God for the Ultimate Meal and nibble at our food like kids being forced to eat broccoli for the first time?

Several summers ago, when I saw how much we had leftovers after we had passed the food around, I sent the elements out a second time, and said then much of what I have said here. We still had more on the plates than ended up in anyone’s stomachs. I wished I had kept passing the stuff around until we finished it, until we settled in and really ate together. The focus on reverence in the meal in most churches has made us more aware of the precision of the plate passers than the power of the meal. I wish we felt the freedom to talk as we passed the elements, calling each other by name, telling stories of our faith, forgiving one another, and remembering why we gather together as the people of God. What I noticed most yesterday as people came through the line was the look in their eyes: am I dong this right?

Who can eat under that kind of pressure?

Springsteen says, “Everybody has a hungry heart.” He’s right. His words remind me of the last verse of Thomas Webber’s hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate”:

Here see the Bread of Life; waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the Feast of Love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

How can we come so hungry and yet feel that we are not worthy to take what we need to be filled?

One day, I want to share a Communion meal where each person has plenty of bread and we drink wine from large glasses that can be refilled so we can talk late into the night, telling stories of how Love has found us.

I’ll bake the bread; you bring the wine.

Peace,
Milton

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starting off right

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I love the way our home feels when it’s filled with people sharing food, drink, and conversation.

Twenty-or-so people made their ways to our open house this afternoon. We never really know how many folks are coming. We aren’t very good at the formal invitation thing; we just tell the people we see along the way and wait to see who shows up. If you’ve been once, we expect that you know we are going to do it again next year and the invitation still stands. Part of what that means is we never quite know what the collection of people who gather is going to look like, which means the afternoon is always filled with wonderful surprises.

Some of the best recipes happen that way as well.

As I was putting things together for this afternoon, I found I had a sweet potato left over from Christmas, some cranberry chutney I made a couple weeks back, a bag of mini marshmallows, and a pack of wonton wrappers. I boiled the potato and pureed it with some maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg and then put a teaspoonful of the mix with a spoonful of the chutney and a marshmallow in the wonton wrapper, folded it over and fried it. Good stuff, Maynard.

Whatever designs I have on 2006, I can rest assured that things are not going to go as I expect them to, unless I expect the recipe for the year to require much the same improvisation as the wontons. I have some ideas about what I hope will be on the menu for the year ahead, but I don’t yet know what ingredients I will be working with.

Here’s what I do know: we started it off right with a house filled of friends and a table filled of food.

Peace,
Milton

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what’s with the black-eyed peas?

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As long as I can remember, New Year’s Day meant black-eyed peas. It also meant ham and cornbread, because that’s why my family always ate with black-eyed peas. The peas were for good luck, they told me.

When we moved to Boston fifteen years ago, I went to the local supermarket in Charlestown to buy some black-eyed peas. I searched the dried beans, I searched the canned beans — no luck. Finally, I asked the store manager if they carried them.

“Shu-ah (which is Boston for “sure”),” he said, “they’re in the ethnic section.

Thank God for Goya.

This morning I did a little surfing to find out why black-eyed peas on New Year’s? I found three explanations.

The first — from a guy in Florida, I think — said the dish promised prosperity: the peas represented coins and the collard greens (which he cooked alongside) represented folding money.

The second — from a farmer in Arkansas — said the role the peas played in crop rotation put nitrogen back in the soil and enriched it for the coming crop.

The third — from the deep South — said troops from the North raided the camps of the Southern soldiers one New Year’s Eve and all they had were black-eyed peas.

When I come home from work tonight I will start soaking the dried beans to get ready for our New Year’s party on Sunday afternoon. Since the house will be filled, mostly, with folks who did not grow up in a pea-eating tradition, I’m going to fix them three ways (one, I suppose, for each story): traditionally, with some ham, garlic, and a little sugar — and cornbread on the side; as a variation on “Chile Macho,” a recipe from my mother (a can of green chiles, a can of Ro-tel tomatoes, one diced onion, two cups of cooked black-eyed peas, 2 T vinegar, Salt, and sugar); and as Akkras, a West African bean fritter (2 cups soaked — but not cooked — peas, 1 chopped onion, 1 fresh red chile seeded and chopped — all put in the food processor — and oil for frying).

One way or another, everyone will get a taste of good fortune.

Peace,
Milton

PS — I sent some of you an invitation to be a member of this blog. I didn’t realize the catch was you had to creat a blog of your own. I didn’t mean to create any obligations. Sorry.

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bread makes the meal

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My earliest food memories have to do with bread.

I grew up in Africa in the late fifties, sixties, and seventies. What bread we had my mother made from scratch, at least in the early years. I think that’s one of the reasons I grew up wanting to be in the kitchen. There’s something about the smells of the whole bread baking process — the dryness of the flour, the pregnant promise of the yeast as it dissolves, the aroma of invitation that fills the house as the bread bakes — that make most any house feel like a home.

For Ginger and me, special occasions are marked by special bread.

My mother passed on a family recipe to me for “Refrigerator Rolls,” which is a bread dough that contains yeast, baking powder, and baking soda, and will keep in the fridge for a week or more, making it possible to bake a little each day.

Here’s the recipe:

1 quart milk, scalded and poured over

1 cup sugar and
1 cup butter
(I do it in the bowl of my kitchen Aid mixer on low speed)

Let cool and then add

2 packages yeast dissolved in
1/2 cup water

Add

8 cups of flour, one cup at a time (I use 1 cup of whole wheat flour)

Cover and let rise until doubled, then add

1 cup flour mixed with
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking Soddy

Cover and let rise again.

When I make our rolls, I use a biscuit cutter and then drag the bottom through some olive oil and fold then in half. You can also cook the dough in loaves; it also makes great cinnamon rolls. Bake at 425 for 12-15 minutes. We’re talking seriously addictive bread here.

I’m convinced part of what makes bread dough rise are all the memories it contains. Each time I make the rolls I am tapping into the history of my mother and grandmother doing the same thing. I am also connecting with all the loaves that have been baked and broken at any table that was and is to come.

That’s good honest work.

Peace,
Milton

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staying at the table

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“A crazy guest eats and leaves right away.” (Arabic proverb)

There were six of us around our Christmas table this year. We sat down to eat about three and got up from the table somewhere around seven. We had stopped eating quite awhile before we left the table, but we stayed to be fed by the conversation.The same six, along with five others were around the table at Thanksgiving–and we ate and talked and laughed and cried for eight hours. Sharing the mashed potatoes and green beans makes it easier, somehow, to share feelings.The food tastes better, too, when there are more with whom to share.

One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a cookbook called Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. Along with recipes from around the world, it’s filled with photographs,stories, and quotes (like the one at the beginning of this post) that create a conversation that moves beyond the recipes.

Whether food or friends, life is best savored rather than gulped.

Peace,
Milton

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working with what i have

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I’ve been staring at the “posting” screen for several days now trying to figure out how to join the world of food bloggers. Since I’m writing from a Mac and I don’t know much about HTML, I’m still not sure about adding links and so forth. I wanted the blog to look less plain, but I decided to work with what I have rather than wait for everything to be perfect.

But that’s the way it goes. I ran out of time before Christmas and so I asked my friend Jay to go to the grocery store for me. I had made a list of the stuff that was on sale that I needed; I failed to add some of the basics. When I got up on Sunday morning I realized I didn’t have everything I had planned for. So I headed to the pantry and the fridge to see what possibilities existed that had yet to be discovered. I found arborio rice, Israeli couscous, Vidalia onions, a few sweet potatoes, some craisins, slivered almonds, pine nuts, and fresh spinach.

We sat down at the table to a meal of brown sugar ham, drunken turkey (marinated in bourbon, maple syrup, and orange juice), sweet potatoes au gratin with carmelized onions, roasted corn and pineapple risotto, and couscous with craisins, almonds, pine nuts, spinach, and a little Jerusalem spice I found in the freezer.

We had six around the table: all friends who have become family, all folks who help to make meals matter. We ate and talked for several hours. Food is best with friends and family.

Like it says at the top of the page: don’t eat alone.

Peace,
Milton

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