Month of May: “Together: Our Community Cookbook” Recipe: Jennifer Fatima Odonkor’s Harira or Moroccan Chickpea Soup

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Moroccan chickpea soup with dates is a simple inexpensive soup made from ingredients that seem as though they would clash but surprisingly they don’t. Somehow it all worked and it is delicious.

Below is a tiled gallery of just a tiny sampling of art work Abby made throughout the years. I know she struggled her whole life with the deep need to create in contrast with the constant call of responsibilities to earn a living and raise a family. Many times along the way she started art businesses, participated in art shows as well as side hustles. I had always hoped she would have partnered up with some super wealthy person so she could stay at home and unleash all that ever flowing artistic energy. Even though that never came to be, she forged ahead in spite of her many hardships and obstacles and generously shared with us so many many beautiful creations along the way. Whether it was baskets, loom weavings, ceramics, oil painting, charcoal drawing, soft fiber sculptures, stained glass, willow furniture or barn boards…Abby could do it all.

Ingredients: 2 onions roughly chopped, 4 celery sticks chopped, 1 can diced tomatoes, > 1 cup cilantro, 1 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, 1 tsp. ground pepper, 1/2 tsp. white pepper, 1.5 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. turmeric, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp ginger, 1/5 tsp olive oil, 1 quart boiling water, 1/2 can chickpeas rinsed and skins removed, 1/3 cup brown rice vermicelli noodles broke in small pieces, 1 egg, 1/2 tsp. ghee, handful of dates.

1.Place the onions, celery, fresh herbs and tomatoes in a food processor and process until smooth. Pour the ingredients into a large pot. Add spices and salt and olive oil and bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the boiling water, turn up the heat and boil for 20-25 minutes until thickened. Add the chickpeas and noodles, turn heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.

3. Whisk the egg along with the ghee, whisking all the time for 5 minutes. Make sure the heat is very low.

4.Serve the soup with chopped dates and bread. Squeeze a lemon wedge in if desired.

Month of May: “Together: Our Community Cookbook ” Recipe: Cherine Mallah’s Belboula or Barley Porridge

“As soon as I saw you I knew an adventure was about to happen.” Winnie the Pooh

Together: our community cookbook is a labor of love created by Meghan Markle when she was HRH The Dutchess of Sussex. It is a wonderful cookbook that was inspired from the Hubb Community Kitchen in London. This Grenfell community kitchen was made available to the women who had lost their living spaces after a terrible fire had run rampant through the towering apartment building in 2017. The women consist of many nationalities and religions. Each recipe gives credit to the woman who shared it. Meghan had befriended many of these women and collaborated on this project to create this delicious collection of ethnic foods in honor of the lives lost. I highly recommend it especially if you like Middle Eastern food.

Our first recipe is a simple barley porridge sweetened with honey and topped with fruits and nuts. The recipe calls for barley couscous (belboula) which I couldn’t find so I substituted it for pearl barley instead. Cook grain. Add cinnamon and sweetener of your liking and add any kind of milk. I used cashew milk.

When I met Abby in Texas way back in 1983 she invited me to visit Wisconsin after our tree planting season ended. I accepted and hitched a ride with her and her sidekick Nik taking a stop in Arkansas. When we arrived in the enchanting Kickapoo Valley I met her family at a most inviting place called Greenhollow Cabin where they all lived. It was a graying log cabin perched up in the magical hills of the valley outside of the smallest town you can imagine. The town was called La Farge which consisted of a bank, a few bars, a tin structure diner called the Band Box and a grocery store. Abby’s family was mom Janet, step father Mark, brother Aaron, step sisters Jersey and Emily and step brother Sam. Abby was the eldest of the offspring and they all lived together in this small space with a green view from the front porch, no running water and an out house. Each of the children had a bedroom about the size of an office cubby. Everyone was warm, funny, creative and full of life. I thought the whole arrangement was grand and I INSTANTLY fell in love with each and every one of them which I still feel to this day, decades later and miles apart.

Everyone needs a soft place to land and Greenhollow Cabin was a place that embraced me with open arms and for that I will always be grateful and reflect on those memories fondly.

Month of April: “Salt Fat Acid Heat” Recipe: Persian rice (Tahdig)

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi

Tahdig literally means bottom of the pot and is a Persian style of rice. It is made in stages; first boiled in very salty water and then pan fried until the prized outcome of a golden thin crispy crust is hopefully achieved. Since I never made it before I was surprised and pleased that it released from the pan in one piece with only a few scorch marks. Not perfect…but very very close.

Over the 35 years of my friendship with Abby, we went through two extended periods of not speaking. The first time was when we had our first babies and the second was fifteen years later. The latter lasted nine ridiculous years! Both times it wasn’t clear if we would ever speak to each other again. In the wake of our ups and our downs there lay a string of poor judgements, reckless behaviors, self destructive habits, lack of boundaries and a run in with the law. All of this greatly affected us and our surrounding circle of family and friends… forever. 

Our relationship wasn’t always lovely glossy snapshots. At times it was more like postcards from the edge. Like everyone else’s relationships it was fragile, complicated, self serving, challenging, confusing and heart wrenching.

(pause and sigh)

But at the end of the day Abby was always much more forgiving than me. I was not always so eager to let go of disappointments or emotional hits. It’s always taken me a long time to recover from a deep wound. And an even longer time to release the built up residual bitterness inside of me. I think Abby had a much more compassionate loving way about her…she just accepted us with all our flaws and ingrained ugly parts. She was beautiful that way. The last line of her mom’s eulogy about Abby she said with a lump in her throat, “she makes me want to be a better person.” And it was true. It was absolutely true. She made all of us want to be better. It wasn’t always easy. There was pain as much as there was love. She wasn’t perfect by any means. I wasn’t perfect. None of us were. But anyone who was loved by her was perfectly lucky. I know I was.

Ingredients: 2 cups basmati rice, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 4 quarts water, 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt, 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of oil.

1. Rinse rice until water runs clear. Boil the water in a large saucepan and add salt once boiling. Water should taste like the salty ocean. Add rice and cook al dente for about 6-8 minutes and drain in a colander. Take 1 cup of the rice and mix with 3 tablespoons of yogurt. Add butter and oil to a 10 inch cast iron pan and heat on medium. Once melted, add the rice mixed with yogurt and spread into a thin layer. Add the remainder of the rice and try to gently mound the rice to the center. Make 5-6 vent holes in the rice with a utensil. Make sure you reach the bottom of the pan. You should be able to see the oil and steam from the vents. Add a little more oil if needed. Fry for 15-20 minutes on medium turning the pan a quarter of a turn every 3-4 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat and cook for another 15 minutes or so. ( I cooked mine for 25 minutes in total.) Remove from heat. Take a spatula and loosen the sides. Put a plate over the pan and flip. Cross your fingers! If the rice does not come out in one section you can easily piece it together. No one will ever know.

Month of April: “Salt Fat Acid Heat” Recipe: Caesar’s Salad

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Theodore Roosevelt

For the lesson in acid, I piggybacked off the previous recipe of basic mayonnaise to make a Caesar dressing. In these strange times of staying at home to flatten the curve it felt sensible to make do with what is at hand in my pantry and fridge. Acid is sour by nature but when combined with other tastes it can elevate our food to reach a more satisfying blend. In a Caesar dressing, lemon and vinegar are our acids. Combined with the salt of the anchovies and the fat of the egg yolk and olive oil, the result is a balance of classic goodness.

I reflected on this concept of making do and wondered how this could play into the story of Abby and me. There are a few but the first one that came to mind was nursing. Abby and I had many overlaps in our lives and nursing was one of them. In 1985 I was a single mom and had to come up with something fast to make a living. Three years later when my son was still a toddler I graduated from nursing school and became a registered nurse. In 1989 I landed back in Wisconsin and was grateful to be near Abby once again. I encouraged her to go back to school as well and enjoy the fruits of a handsome (lol) and consistent paycheck. Surprisingly she listened to me and in 1991 she graduated in a white cap ceremony. We would laugh really hard together over the years because she would curse my name for suggesting she follow suit. She shared with her mom one time that she would not be a nurse forever but she was. It was a bittersweet choice for the both of us for sure.

Yet at the time that is what we had to work with. My sister and Abby’s grandparents were nurses. My mom had dreams of becoming a nurse but claims her desire was squashed in her family so she never pursued it. It made sense at the time to go with the familiar. In looking back though, I don’t think it was the best fit for either one of us. Abby felt most at home creating something from her hands and imagination. I felt most at home in the kitchen or the garden. Those passions stayed with us over the years but were often thwarted by obligations, distractions and busyness. We were people who found it hard to stay on one track.

On the other hand, a nursing career no doubt provided us with a decent stable life. I wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t grateful for that. We were able to provide lovely spaces for our children. We had extra spending money to travel. We weren’t rich of course but we had enough. And we had many eye opening real life experiences along the way. Abby worked in small town hospitals, home health agencies, inpatient mental health and private duty providing care for ventilator patients. I had worked in city hospitals, home health agencies, clinics and nursing homes. My field of expertise was in hospice care and by far the most rewarding. Hers was private duty. These experiences took me to Calcutta, India in to work with the dying in the facilities established by Mother Theresa; to Belize, Central America to initiate the idea of a palliative care program in a small community and to Ireland to visit the first hospice ever established. Abby was a traveling nurse at one time and spent weeks as a home health nurse in Washington state among the giant trees and craters.

Abby was an extremely hard working nurse and would often take long overnight shifts and then work more during the day with a second part time job or babysit small grandchildren. She was crazy that way. In her last years, overworked with a slew of health conditions, the toll of nursing was heavy. Fortunately in her last months she was on disability for shoulder and knee surgeries. She had the benefits of life and health insurance. She had time with family she may never otherwise had….a small silver lining. She did what she could, with what she had, right where she was, right to the end.

Ingredients: 3/4 cups basic mayonnaise, 4 anchovies chopped and pounded into a paste, 1 garlic clove pounded with a pinch of salt, 3-4 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, 1 cup of finely grated parmesan, 3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.

Mix all ingredients together and adjust either salt or acid to taste. Make salad with romaine lettuce, croutons and slivers of parmesan cheese.

Month of April: “Salt Fat Acid Heat” Recipe” Classic Mayonnaise

“Oh my soul, sometimes we don’t know what to do. We work so hard being tough on our own, but now it’s me and you.” Climb on (A Back That’s Strong) from Shawn Colvin’s Fat City album

I lost my inspiration for this project over the last weeks. Day in and day out it has been all about a mysterious contagious worldwide virus and a madman at the helm making everything worse. At times it truly feels like Armageddon. My heart aches for the sick and the suffering. I am a hospice nurse. I know what goes on behind the scenes. I feel pain for people waiting in long lines for food that is chosen for them, unable to work, propelled into debt. So many stories left untold, too difficult for us to process. Feeling overwhelmed is an absolute understatement.

Meanwhile my studio lease will expire at the end of May and I was thinking that this blog means so little in the grand scheme of what is happening in every country on our planet, why not just get this thing done? Who knew a pandemic would come along? Just get it done. It’s good enough. I was beginning to accept that. However that wasn’t to be. I was about to be shot in the arm.

This week I received a comment from a reader that rearranged my outlook. A woman, sheltering in place googled Tassajara cinnamon buns and my blog just happened to appear as a top option. She opened the link and apparently was touched. Come to find out not only had she read “Fair and Tender Ladies” the novel Abby and I loved (from previous post) but, here’s the crazy part…she was related to the author!! I mean, c’mon, what are the chances of that??? It was one of those moments when you know with certainty that some kind of cosmic thing was playing with you and all you can say is that it was no damn coincidence.

Of course I immediately thought of Abby. It was a message. Like this lovely woman became a conduit between my soul living here in this space and Abby’s soul who knows where. It reignited my flame. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

So today I made mayonnaise. It was a lesson in fat. Apparently an egg yolk can take in almost a cup of oil that is whisked into it drop by drop. It’s a lesson in not only emulsion but in ultimate patience as well. I always wanted to create this ambiguous substance that all good cooks apparently make. So here it is, mine made with olive oil to be used on a sandwich, maybe some white crusty bread, bacon, tomatoes, garlic and arugula?

Ingredients: 1 room temperature egg yolk, 3/4 cup olive oil

Add 1 egg yolk to a bowl, ceramic if possible. Add the oil ever so slowly, drop by drop at first while whisking the entire time. If the mayo gets too thick, whisk in a few drops of water to loosen it up. When you get half way through the oil you can add it in slightly larger pours. The key is very very slow. Store in fridge for 3 days.

Month of April: “Salt Fat Acid Heat” Recipe: Buttermilk Chicken

“My dear Silvaney…for all of a sudden when I saw those lights, I said to myself, Ivy, this is your life, this is your real life, and you are living it. Your life is not going to start later. This is it, it is now. It’s funny how a person can be so busy living that they forget this is it. This is my life.” Lee Smith from “Fair and Tender Ladies”

Fair and Tender Ladies is a fictional novel that Abby and I loved. It’s a story about Ivy Rowe, a Virginia mountain girl later woman and mother who is drawn to the beauty and rhythms of her natural world. The places she lives have names like Sugar Fork, Blue Star Mountain and Majestic. She has a calling and a talent to write but little opportunity mixed with a strong pull towards family obligation keep her from discovering her true independence and a larger world. The book is written in the form of letters to the various characters in her life…the one most closest to her is sister Silvaney, who we as a reader gather is developmentally disabled but Ivy’s heart and soul and closest confidante. The story takes us through Ivy’s life and all she learns along the way.

It’s a beautiful read and now for me a small but lasting memory. I recently revisited this book a few months ago and cried many times for Ivy and her identifiable struggles. I cried for myself. There was so much of me, so much of Abby in those pages. We were both Ivy, both Silvaney to each other.

And now…here I am. This is my life. I have normalized concepts such as sheltering in place, flattening the curve and social distancing. I have put a pause on my life uncertain of what comes next. The world has become more frightening. I am full of anxiety and caution. Today I read the leading corona virus doctor said we may never want to shake hands in public again. Wait, what?!! It’s such a crazy time on so many levels for all of us. Right now my emotional body is very heavy and I feel the need to move this energy out. Today I really miss my friend. It is hanging over my heart and chest like a storm cloud making it hard to breathe. I need a good cry….a good hard rain…to let the tears come and wash away the helplessness and the fear and the loss.

This is my life. This is it. And as Robert Frost, the famous American poet who died the day I was born, has written, “in three words I can sum up everything I know about life…it goes on.”

Here is a wonderful recipe for learning the salt lesson of seasoning from within. A salty buttermilk marinade breaks down the proteins of the chicken to produce a tender moist roasted chicken. Take 4 teaspoons of sea salt mixed with 2 cups of buttermilk and add to a gallon plastic bag along with the chicken pieces of your heart’s desire. Marinate for 24 hours. The following day remove the chicken, scrape off the marinade and roast at 425F for 20 minutes, reduce heat to 400F and continue for another 20-30 minutes more depending on your size. Chicken should be brown with clear juices.

Month of March: “Ottolenghi” Recipe: Chickpeas and spinach with honeyed sweet potato

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise.” Albert Camus

March 1, 2020. COVID 19 arrives in New York state, my home state. March 11, 2020 the first positive case appears in my county. Since then many people have fallen ill and many have died. The grief and loss and fear is palpable each time we read the news or sign onto social media sites. Our world as we know it will never be the same. Never. Each night, in the safety of my home, I say my collective prayers but they feel so small and irrelevant.

In early February, my husband came home with canned milk, pounds of dried beans, dried grains, rice and bleach. I was upset that he brought home so many extra items we really didn’t need. But he knew. He sensed that this was different. He said, “You don’t shut down cities the size of London (referring to Wuhan) for nothing.” I brushed his high alert aside. “I’m not worried, it’s just like the flu,” like so many of my medical colleagues felt as well. We had lived through H1N1, SARS, and Ebola without too much panic. Why was this any different? But over the month of February I started getting concerned and began stocking up in just in case we needed to be at home for a few weeks. The more I read and researched, the more concerned I became.

Yet, as Albert Camus writes, it still takes us by surprise.

I thought about Abby and knew that if she were still here, she would be ALL OVER THIS! We would have been talking and texting and sharing articles from sun up to sun down. She loved science and could critically examine complex issues from all angles. She would have been watching over her brood like a hawk as well as looking out for those in need she didn’t know. I can imagine her volunteering for deployment. She was a front line kind of person. She was a hero. She was my hero.

It feels strange and inconsequential in a way to continue with a food blog. Who knew that my year long project of honoring my friendship and processing my grief would include a global pandemic? It’s surreal and absurd to say the least.

But I will finish what I started. Two months left to go. The finale remains to be seen.

Above is this month’s cookbook’s one and only carefully chosen recipe of comfort, something we all need more of at this very frightening time.