Spice of Life

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Day 5: Citrus

My scones and diet no longer include wheat flour, but they still need zest.

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again. I’m looking forward to my third go at participating in Susannah Conway’s August Break by posting prompts here on the blog and on my Instagram account. There are no rules, really. Simply take a photo every day for the month of August, based on the prompts or not. I take a photo a day all year long, but you can’t lose no matter how many days you keep this up. And the more, the merrier!

The Downsizing Dozen: Basic Bliss

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated 30 years of marriage. The anniversary gave me an opportunity to compare what we had then, to what we have now. And I found us lacking.

We have less furniture now. When I moved in to my new husband’s duplex, I found the usual trappings for a bachelor pad, with the mandatory bookcase made out of boards and cinderblocks, and a mattress on a sheet of plywood. But our friends pooled their meager wages earned as teaching assistants and struggling writers to give us a queen-sized futon as a wedding gift that we used folded on the floor for a sofa, along with the towering coffee table, easy chairs and dining room set that my husband already owned. We were gifted a massive metal office desk that took up half of our spare room and a lovely Victorian dresser that we dragged around the country for 29 years.

We don’t keep unnecessary knickknacks. I brought very little when I moved 900 miles away for graduate school, but I possessed the soul of a collector, determined to scour local junk shops for kitsch to support my “eclectic” interior design plans. As a newlywed, I considered it my duty to transform our modest ranch house into a PeeWee’s Playhouse wonderland, my 1980s TV inspiration at the time. That wacky vision, combined with all the spoils from my in-laws’ big downsize to a retirement community that same year, led to a pretty cluttered and bizarre decorating scheme.

We need fewer clothes. About the only dowry I brought along was a big wardrobe with shoes and accessories, mostly vintage tat and ratty leftovers from college. I never threw any clothing away, even when something wore out, because that’s the way I grew up. My husband was the same way. And in your twenties, I believe style and the way you look are more important than at any other time. All that would change with a new baby several years later, providing very few opportunities to shower much less put together an outfit. But as a newly married couple, we felt compelled to buy more “sophisticated” clothing in rainbow pastels that screamed Miami Vice and shoulder pads the size of boulders to prove our maturity.

We are down to only kitchen essentials. What my husband lacked in furnishings, he made up for in pots and pans. The man wooed me by cooking Sunday dinner with all the fixings after I had nothing to offer but a couple of shriveled up pork chops with freezer burn. He’d inherited many mismatched dishes and silverware, odds and ends from his grandmothers. And I entered my married life with not one but two espresso machines and a demitasse set as wedding gifts, in addition to an addiction to PBS cooking shows. I plunged into gourmet cooking with a passion hotter than any flambé, determined to master the perfect roux, undaunted by a recipe’s 50 ingredients. All of those specialized dishes meant buying more fancy gadgets and better place settings to show off my artistically arranged micro-servings.

Thinking back, there were many other purchases and acquisitions those first few years, including a custom-built bed frame for our first mattress set, a brand-spanking-new car, and a cantankerous Corgi puppy. We finally qualified for a credit card and took on our first loan. We were proud of the parties we gave, the holiday dinners we cooked, and the guests we hosted.

And when we were ready to move 900 miles back to where I came from to start a new life, we realized that the large U-Haul truck we’d rented was too small.

Fortunately, we’ve remembered this moment of truth throughout the years, using it to fuel a shedding process that continues to this day. All the household goods we thought we needed for a successful marriage are no longer necessary. What we lack in possessions, is more than compensated by the love we share, and the trust that we will always have enough.

Well, this is the last of the Downsizing Dozen. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found some value in the details of our journey to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014 and a simpler lifestyle. We will continue to examine, reduce and relinquish the old while we accumulate new experiences and fresh memories, life’s precious present. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, Travel Time in March, Shifting Into Single Gear in April, and Tiny Tending in May.

The Joy of Cooking

Granola Goodness

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before on this blog, it’s all or nothing with me and chores, or pretty much anything to tell the truth. Which is why the simple chicken soup planned for my sickly, sneezing family turned into a baking and broiling marathon of such epic heat that mere mortals had to get the heck out of the kitchen.

Left to my own devices while my spouse spent the first day of his annual winter head cold in bed, I drove a potholed obstacle course to my grocery store for provisions that I had either forgotten or denied that I needed. Upon return, unfrequented cupboards were flung open and out came a box of neglected raisins covered by dust from the ancients, an assortment of hoarded gluten-free flours, various coconut-based elixirs and a whole lot of foodie attitude leftover from the 90s.

Dinner still far enough off to procrastinate, I decided to use up massive amounts of rolled oats collected in a fit of food virtue by trying out that homemade granola recipe I’d squirreled away somewhere on my laptop. And after scrolling saved downloads in the tens of thousands, why not print out instructions for some GF scones I’d glimpsed in passing. This would also be a clever way to involve some shriveled currants that were even older than the raisins, and besides, the oven was on anyway.

And so, with every pan and bowl and utensil stickily engaged in the good fight, granola burning to a nice crisp on baking sheets, food processor belching wheat-less puffs of pasty promise, a chicken breast I forgot to thaw for the soup thumping around in my microwave, I discovered that I was in over my head, drowning in dishwater overflowing a sink crowded with dirty little secrets.

Where had my cooking mojo gone? I ruefully realized that over the years my husband had slowly slipped into the role of family cook, as my motherly pressures to feed a toddler faded, and demands from a public service job increased. My waning interests in cable cooking shows and fancy gourmet magazines were replaced by elimination diets and autoimmune protocols.

I am rusty. I have to start over in this kitchen, get comfortable again with that dance inside a magic triangle of stove, sink and fridge. Ingredients may be different but timing is the same. So what if the granola is a little dark, scones a bit dry, and the soup has too much black pepper. I can’t let silly mistakes and food intolerances shut down the satisfaction of filling containers with tasty fare that I make possible.

As for those coming weeks and years of culinary adventures, I resolve to trim off my fears, simmer some experience, and stock up on joy.

A Touch of Frost

Ol’ Jack Frost was late this year, but that didn’t make his chilling whack any less painful. The flaking stalks of once-proud tomato plants still haunt my patio, because I’ve been too busy to shuffle the funereal procession of exhausted potting soil to our compost pile or stuff the shameful bits I didn’t harvest into a gaping paper yard bag.

Instead, I’m holed up in the kitchen chopping and spinning and preserving all the goodies that kept on coming right up until the end.

For instance, a fairly substantial beefsteak tomato crop was roasted with some garlic, coarse salt, freshly ground pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil until cooked into submission. and whirled until it became a nice sauce for winter stews and pasta.

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Tender basil, of course, was picked well before the Hunter’s full moon and the first cold, cloudless night for my favorite pesto, a simple concoction of garlic, olive oil, salt and those pricey pine nuts. The parmesan cheese is added later.

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I tried something new this year with an abundance of arugula that carried on throughout the summer, much to my delight. I clipped all the leaves and ushered them into my food processor. A couple of quick spins and the green mulch was ready for an ice cube tray. Covered with a little water, and tucked in the freezer overnight, they happily popped out the following day, ready for their next voyage in some slow cooker soup when the cold breezes carry more than a little dusting of ice crystals in the morning.

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These days you’ll likely catch me hovering near my refrigerator, repeatedly cracking the freezer door open for a look at the pretty rows of red and green jars, while bags of frozen herbs rustle down below, captured summer waiting for a thaw.

Jack would be so proud.

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