25 February 2009

Lenten Leavings

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
~ Lao Tzu

I love Lent. It is a great time to take stock (again) of one's life and re-adjust what needs re-adjusting, relinquishing some goods in order to make room for others. That is what "giving up" something for forty days is about, a spiritual, mental and emotional spring cleaning.

Letting go can be a frightening exercise, but it is a necessary aspect of life. Either we willingly and lovingly surrender or we waste precious time and tears when things are taken from us. Sometimes letting go can be as simple as clearing our schedule to make time for loved ones. Plan a quiet dinner or simply be in the same room together. Sometimes it is making time for ourselves. When is the last time you took a retreat? Just you and the wind and God (however you define the Supreme Being). A year? Two years? Never? Maybe it is time to take a couple of days and head out of the city and re-prioritize.

Sometimes it is letting go of vices masquerading as virtues. For me this means spending less time agonizing over the plans for a sit down dinner for sixteen and to plan simpler meals with friends ~ where they actually get to see and talk to me, instead of watching the mad chef in the kitchen wear herself to a shadow getting every dish perfect.

There is, of course, a place for perfection and doing the job right. But this is a time to reconnect and enjoy the simple things in life. It is not a time for showy recipes and decadent desserts. Those things will be more appreciated on Easter Sunday ~ welcomed like friends after a long absence. It is a time for hearty soups and stews. Fried chicken and fresh baked biscuits. Chili and homemade cornbread. For the next few weeks, I want to let go and just breathe and refocus my time and attention where it matters most: my loved ones.

May this Lent be one of joy and peace for all my dear readers as well.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

11 February 2009

Food, Fado and New Fans

Worries go down better with soup.
~ Jewish Proverb

A fellow singer asked me the other day if I were Portuguese. She overheard me regaling my friend Jeanette with the details of the fado appreciation dinner she had missed. No, dear readers, I am not Portuguese. But as you know, I love fado. And I love to cook. It is a marriage made in heaven. And one which brings great rejoicing to my friends.

Introducing more of my friends to fado has been on my to do list for over a year now. Since the last Mariza concert, actually. But I did not want to simply play fado for them, or even tell them the history behind the genre. Such passionate and soulful music calls for a proper setting. And I could think of no better setting than to cook a (somewhat) traditional Portuguese meal. This meant doing a lot of gastronomic research.

The first thing I learned was that no matter what else I cooked, I must cook caldo verde, a staple of Portuguese cuisine. It means, quite literally, green soup and although I found several variations, the basic ingredients are potatoes, onions and kale. Sometimes cabbage is also included, but the recipe I chose did not include it. Several cooks suggested making the soup the night before to allow the flavors to seep into each other. The recipe calls for pouring the cooled soup into a food processor, but I have had two mishaps with a potato-base soup turning into glue that way, so I used a Cuisinart hand-held mixer and it was fantastic. I did everything but add the kale ~ which I left to do the next day before serving the soup. Two changes I would suggest to this recipe: one, add more salt. Two, saute or steam the kale in a little olive oil or butter before adding it to the soup. It came out a little too raw for my taste.

For the main course I came across a couple of schools of thought as well. More traditional Portuguese dinners consist of three main entrees ~ usually fish, pork or chicken and meat. In the interest of time and maintaining the sanity of the cook, I decided to make two entrees. This proved to be a wise decision ~ as I barely held on to sanity with just two!

So much of Portugal's identity is wrapped up in its coastline. It is still the economic lifeline for many Portuguese ~ as it has been for their great-great grandfathers. Portuguese tradition says that there are 365 ways to prepare cod, which is so plentiful it is practically the national fish of Portugal! So in deference to the Portuguese fishermen who are inextricably linked to pathos of fado, I made a gratin called Sailors Bacalhau Gratin. I used fresh cod (instead of salt cod) from the local fishmonger. If you make this recipe with fresh cod as I did, I suggest adding copious amounts of salt.

Both pork loin and chicken breasts were on sale, so I bought both. But I found a recipe for Chicken with Port Raisin Sauce that sounded absolutely wonderul, so I used that instead of the pork. It turned out to be incredible and the star of the table. To save time and sanity, brown the chicken the night before and then cook it the rest of the way about half an hour before serving. Chicken is so delicate ~ it can so easily become dry. This recipe did not dry out the chicken at all and the port-soaked raisins complemented the mushrooms. My friend Penafort even asked for thirds!

Coming up with a well executed dessert proved to be a challenge. There were some desserts with awesome names, like barriga de freiras (nun's belly) and papos de anjo’ (angel's cheeks). But as I was making this for the first time for my guests, I wanted to keep it simple, but still interesting. So I chose to make filhozes, Portuguese Cinnammon Doughnuts. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which recipe I used, but the one I have linked to has a dozen eggs, which is what my recipe called for as well. I had not made doughnuts since I was a Brownie in second-grade! I had forgotten how much fun that was. I think that my guests had as much fun watching me make them as I had frying them up. The oil may have been too hot as my doughnuts came out looking more like bear claws than little round puffs. But they tasted exactly like the recipe promised: solid but tasting like an eclair. I still have half a pitcher of batter left over and have been using it to make crepes, pancakes and the occasional doughnut.

While we all enjoyed either a twelve year single malt Scotch or a very smooth Reserve Porto, we watched the live concert Mariza did in Lisbon a couple of years ago. I have seen her three times in concert now, but it was a moving experience to see her perform for her countrymen. They understood not only her language but her heart. And it communicated itself to my friends watching. At the end of the evening, I had converted ten more fans.


Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

03 February 2009

Awaiting the Final Chapter

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight....
Not people die but worlds die in them.
~Yevgeny Yevtushenko

The scent of damp hay caresses me, its touch pulling memories out of the hope chest of my soul. As I breathe in the familiar and comforting smells of the country, my steps slow as I wonder for the millionth time if this is it. Is this goodbye?

It is not. It is only a pulled muscle or a sprained foot. But when one's father is in his mid-eighties, the shadow of the Reaper seems to grow a little longer each year and every physical and medical issue that arises is feared to be the final one. When the phone rings, I am sure that this will be call I do not want to get. I dream of wakes and Requiem Masses and what I will wear. I resolve to fight the local parish priest if I have to and get my way when it comes to liturgical music. I do everything I can to avoid really thinking about it. God forgive me ~ I have even changed the subject or only nodded noncommittally when my father tries to bring it up.

When I was a child, my father was the strongest, tallest, most talented and loving man in the world. The child in me is frightened to see him grow weaker and weaker ~ almost with every visit and see him shrink to almost nothing. This is nothing new, I know. Everyone dies. But, oh! the holes that are left when they leave!

I am quite aware of the proverb that says one cannot add one hour to one's life by worrying. And I am past mistress of the art of "what ifs" and worst case scenarios. It is a fault I struggle to overcome on a daily basis. But when it comes to dealing with this reality, I am wont to face it. I childishly cling to the belief that we will all live forever here on earth.

My father is indeed a very talented man. He speaks eight languages fluently, although some words escape him now from disuse. He is an adept artist, drawing the most life-like faces. A master storyteller, he would regal my sisters and I with stories from the Old Country. He still has an incredible green thumb. I honestly do not know how his tomatoes always grow three times the size and sweetness of everyone else's! Quick at math and all things engineering, he worked on electron microscopes for years and always brought home fascinating pictures of fly eyes and spiders. For awhile, we had an old one in our garage that he used for spare parts.

Still, my father is a mystery, a book which has chapters never read by anyone but God. And perhaps that is my fear. That once the book is shut forever, there is no way of finding out the story until we are together again ~ hopefully in Heaven. Yet, surely this is true for many people. No one knows us fully, not really. At times we hardly know ourselves!

Knowledge is at the heart of love. When you love someone, you want to know all about them. You wonder what it would have been like to have met them when they were children; when you do learn something of their past, especially if it is painful in any way, you wish you could go back and be there for them or even prevent the painful episode from occurring.

But more often than not, those painful episodes close doors that can only be opened from the inside. And who am I to say that my father, or I, or anyone else for that matter, has an obligation to unlock those doors. Certainly if someone chooses to open up, it is a great honor and one not to be taken lightly. But if it never happens, I suppose one must be content with the story as it is told on the outside.

And his is still being written.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela