Wednesday, February 21, 2018

If you're invited to my house for dinner, here is what I am probably going to serve you (currently): pork and mushroom lettuce cups

I go through phases of what is my "go-to" meal to feed dinner guests. The criteria are I have to feel confident in my abilities to cook it and it must be generally acceptable to most people's tastes. I feel that I have overlooked some pretty obvious good blog content by not sharing my favorite dinner guest recipes here. Today is my first step in addressing this.

In my early years of learning to cook, I made for dinner guests a tomato based Penne Rosa pasta and sometimes added a splash of vodka to it. In the next phase the penne pasta stayed but I traded the creamy tomato sauce for peas and pancetta, a dish I still love. From there, I side-stepped pasta completely and went to "snacksgiving": a casual spread of veggies and dip, really good cheese, crackers, sliced pepperoni and salami, and assorted pickles and olives.

I have no real explanation for this latest evolution. Maybe it reflects my own increasing awareness of eating healthy and my guests more frequent needs to eat gluten and/or dairy free. If I were to have you over for dinner now it is likely I would serve you an asian flavor profile inspired lettuce cup, filled with ground pork and mushrooms. I love them and I love sharing them. The lettuce cup filling can be made in advance and all the veggies prepped too, which helps me avoid the panic of last minute kitchen chaos. It easily caters to guests dietary needs but without anyone feeling like they are missing out on anything. If my guests are light eaters, this is a lovely supper on it's own but if not, I can easily double the recipe, add on a a side of coconut rice and spicy roasted green beans and even teenagers can be filled up (I speak from experience here). I also like any meal that empowers guests to make their own choices: You don't like radishes? cilantro? peanuts? No problem- just don't add them.

This is a great weeknight meal but I would never actually cook it on a weeknight. I generally make a large batch of the filling on a Sunday evening and if, making just for my husband and I, it will feed the two of us for at least 4-5 lunches or dinners. All we have to do is reheat the pork and mushroom mixture and pull out the prepped veggies.

I have been making these lettuce cups on and off for about five years but in the last six months made a concerted effort to dial in the flavors. The dish starts with caramelized onions and then builds with garlic and ginger and adds a whopping 16 oz of mushrooms to serve like little flavor sponges to soak it all in. That veggie mixture is then set aside and the pork is browned and drained. The pork, onions, garlic and mushrooms are then stirred together and lacquered with hoisin and soy sauce. At the end, water chestnuts give a good crunch and lime juice, cilantro and mint provide an herbal zingy lift. If you happen to have some Thai basil, I would recommend adding it. If you have an aversion to cilantro, feel free to leave it out of the filling, but I would recommend making some available as a topping for guests. I dearly love it here and would hate for a fellow cilantro lover to miss out. This glossy goodness of filling is then dolloped into ruffle edged butter lettuce leaves and topped with chopped and diced veggies.

The topping options is where the asian theme becomes even less defined. You can be more or less fussy about these. A little frilly grated carrot adds crunch and while there is onion in the filling itself, I like the bite of fresh chopped scallions as a topping. Unless there is an allergy issue, I think the salted peanuts are a must. If I learned anything in 2017, it was that my meals are much better with a jar of quick pickles in the fridge. I love to have some of Smitten Kitchen's pickled sandwich slaw on hand, which we freely eat on nearly everything and provide a particularly good sharpness here.

pork and mushroom lettuce cups

2 large yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled then minced
16 oz mushrooms, chopped (a mixture of cremini and white button mushrooms is nice, but okay to use all one type, your preference)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds ground pork or chicken
5-9 tablespoons of hoisin sauce (about 3/4 of an 8.5 oz jar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
8 oz can water chestnuts, sliced then chopped
1/2 lime
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons chopped mint

to assemble:
2 heads butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed
additional options:
grated carrot
chopped salted peanuts
sliced scallions
chopped cilantro
lime wedges
sambal oelek
pickled red onions and radishes

1) In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 of the 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and saute chopped onion until translucent, then reduce heat to low to allow onions to caramelize, about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.

2) To the onion/garlic/ginger, add the chopped mushrooms and increase the heat back up to medium. The pan will initially be dry but once the mushrooms start cooking, they will release moisture. However, it looks like it is too dry, you can add a splash of water or chicken stock. Cook until mushrooms have cooked through, the moisture is mostly cooked out and the mushrooms are now starting to soak up the onion/garlic/ginger goodness.

3) At this point, remove the vegetables from the pan but do not wipe out the pan. Put it back on medium heat and add the last tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the ground pork or chicken and brown, breaking it up with a spatula. I like the meat pretty well broken down, so I do quite a bit of chopping with the edge of my spatula. Once the meat is completely cooked through and any moisture has been cooked off, you can drain it briefly on paper towels (if your preference is to remove some of the fat) or you can proceed. Personally, ground chicken is pretty low in fat and ground pork is too. Keeping the fat in adds a little more luxury to the final sauce but you certainly can drain it off.

4) To the ground meat, fold in the previously cooked onion/garlic/ginger/mushrooms and hoisin and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of water and reduce heat until it is a simmer. I will let it simmer like this for a good 20-30 minutes, adding more water as needed. As the moisture reduces out, the hoisin sauce sort of glazes everything. During this time I work on washing, chopping and slicing the accompaniments.

5) To finish, add the chopped water chestnuts, lime juice, cilantro and mint. Give a couple big stirs to incorporate. Serve with a pile of lettuce leaves and the veggies and condiments of your choice.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

cranberry and mulled spice sorbet

I know we are past Thanksgiving and I promise this is not a recipe strictly for Thanksgiving, but please bear with me while I ramble down the trail:

In numerous posts, I express my love for the many facets of Thanksgiving. In my praise, one area I have neglected is the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. From my perspective, the end to the Thanksgiving meal, especially if you're with a large family, is often an array of desserts: there is ubiquitous pumpkin pie, some type of apple dessert, and often also something involving pear. At my sister-in-laws Thanksgiving, there are generally five to six types of desserts, one of which is a pistachio pudding folded with whipped cream and studded with mini marshmallows and maraschino cherries. I dearly love it.

Just like a savory buffet, a good dessert buffet includes a balance of flavors and textures. While I would never be one to decline three types of pie in a sitting, I think there is something about having different formats represented. Four years ago, I hosted Thanksgiving and a number of my guests, for health reasons, were strictly off gluten and dairy. I wanted to provide a dessert option that met their dietary requirements, felt rich and indulgent, and balanced out the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. Enter: cranberry sorbet.

First off, it is gorgeous. Look at that color! It is the sort of vibrancy I miss in the winter months, when the available produce appears in the same shade range of pale to squash. Which is why I am sharing this recipe with you now. I suspect you, like me, have an errant bag of fresh or frozen cranberries kicking around in your fridge. Wouldn't you love to have a little tub of this zingy sweet in your freezer, just waiting to dip into? To bump up the seasonal flavor, I also include some classic "mulling" spices. We enjoyed a few rounds of mulled wine this winter and I thought the flavors would be a good match here, warming up the tartness of the berries. Finally, to cut the mouth-drying sour of the cranberries, the sorbet base includes mixed berries. I use a bag of "assorted berries" in the grocery store freezer case and it often includes raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, but really I think you could try this with cranberries plus one berry, say raspberries, if that's your preference.

I like to think of this as a winter berry sorbet and it would be a shame to limit the enjoyment of it to a singular holiday. To further the point, it would be stunning to pair a scoop of this with a scoop of mandarin orange sorbet. As I believe with all ice creams and sorbets, they are a perfect make-ahead dessert to have on hand for houseguests or a weeknight dinner party or Winter Olympics viewing party(!). I have not done the research but am curious as to how a scoop of this would do if floated in a little sparkling wine. If anyone tries it out, please let me know.

cranberry and mulled spiced sorbet

for the simple syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar

for the berry and spice base:
1 pound frozen mixed berries- blackberries, blueberries, raspberries
6 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
1 mandarin orange or clementine, cut in half
1/2 fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon sticks, roughly broken
1 star anise
3 cloves
1 cup of water

1) Make the simple syrup: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix together the water and granulated sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

2) Make the berry and spice base: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix all the ingredients together. Heat to a simmer and then lower heat and cook for about 45 minutes. What you're looking for is for all the berries to have burst and broken down and the clementine too. Remove mixture from the heat and let cool slightly. Then pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to hold back all the pulp and whole spices, reserving the gorgeous spiced berry juice.

3) To the spiced berry juice, mix in about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the simple syrup. How much sugar to add really depends on the sweetness of the berries and your own palette. Although, I will say that flavors dull once they are frozen and so what may be perfect at room temperature will likely not be as balanced once it whirls in the ice cream maker. I tend to lean towards the sweet side but just a smidge over. Take this mixture and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Once it is throughly chilled, add to the ice cream maker and follow manufacturers instructions. Once the sorbet is mixed, I like to freeze overnight so that it is a fully firm texture.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roasted tomato and carrot soup

I did not own an umbrella until I lived in California. I was thinking about this, last week, as I walked to my car, in what the locals call "freezing rain", and I was wearing the wrong jacket, sans umbrella. It is funny that I did not own an umbrella because where I grew up, Southeast Alaska, is considered a temperate rain forest. My hometown receives a yearly average of 49 inches of rain. But, when I lived there, I did not carry an umbrella and neither did most people I knew. I suspect there were a couple of drivers for this: first, when it rains with such frequency, you dress for it. I think most of what I owned, outwear wise, was water resistant. (The one exception being a pair of 80's "moon boots" for the snow that really served as sponges to absorb slush and water. Anyone else have a pair of those worthless things?) Second, umbrella's are kind of a pain to deal with: opening and closing while getting in and out of a car, and drying them out, bleh. In SoCal, the rain was so rare, it was a fun diversion to pull out my umbrella and rain boots, (both striped, natch.) A rainy day felt like it's own type of holiday, where we could justifiably eat hot soup and grilled cheese and stay in and watch movies. Now, living in Washington, once again rain is a regular part of my life and so I need to find my umbrella. I am learning about all sorts of new weather too- inversion fog, the aforementioned freezing rain, and a regular wind that blows so strong, neighborhood trees grow at a tilt. Soup, rather than being a holiday treat, is de rigueur.

As a I shared in my post on split pea soup, I have been stocking my freezer up, which pleases my inner Marilla Cuthburt. These past months I returned to an old favorite- roasted tomato carrot soup. I first made this about 16 years ago. That December, for my 21st birthday, my friends threw me a beautiful dinner party at their apartment. The starter was Ina Garten's roasted tomato basil soup. The finish of the meal was when the party guests took turns saying kind things to me, which included one friend confessing, to a table of people and my new husband, that he secretly had a crush on me for two years. The evening was a memorable one for many reasons.

While I do not recall how I replied to my friends confession, I do remember I loved the soup. At the time, my husband and I rented a small one bedroom second story apartment that faced a courtyard with a pool. An architectural throw-back to the 1950s, I don't believe the stuccoed walls held a stitch of insulation. When temperatures would get "chilly", in the 50 degree range, (hilarious, now that my daily high is in the 30s), I liked to cook in the oven, as the apartment was small enough that a good casserole could really warm things up.

I wanted to re-make Ina's soup, but round out the acidity of the tomatoes. Also, while the roasted tomato and basil is delicious, sometimes it reads too much like pasta sauce to my palette. The solution became adding a pan of carrots to the oven, along with the tomatoes. This addition also results in soup that is a gorgeous orangey-red, like a color from a J.Crew catalog.

Over the years, I have made many iterations of this soup, tinkering to get my desired flavor and texture. I think it is perfect all on it's own, and for those of us making more healthful choices after two months of drinking eggnog in our morning coffee (ahem), it is a good fit. But, it is also sublime when finished with a splash of heavy cream or dollop of sour cream.

roasted tomato and carrot soup

roasted tomatoes:
3 lbs roma tomatoes, halved, cored and seeds scooped out (about 15 tomatoes, but do weigh them)
1/4 cup olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

roasted carrots:
3 large carrots, scrubbed and halved (I don't bother with peeling)
2 tablespoons olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

soup base:
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock (or use vegetable stock for a vegetarian/vegan version)
28 oz can whole tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 400. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the halved tomatoes with olive oil and salt. Roast for 90 minutes or until the tomatoes lose their shape and start to char. On a second rimmed baking sheet, toss the carrots with olive oil and salt and add to the oven, alongside the tomatoes. Roast the carrots for 60 minutes or until they are tender and edges start to char.

2) Meanwhile, prepare the soup base: heat the olive oil in a large soup pot (preferably one with a heavy base). Saute the onion over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook briefly, (seriously, like 30 seconds) and then add the chicken stock. To this soup base, add the roasted carrots and simmer for about 15 minutes. (Why? The carrots have a tendency to get a bit shriveled around the edges and it do not blend up as smoothly in the final product. I like the flavor that roasting produces but recommend softening them up in the soup base for a bit).

3) Once tomatoes are roasted, add to the simmering carrots and stock and then also add the can of tomatoes and fresh thyme. Bring it all to a simmer. Remove from heat and, using an immersion blender, blitz it all until consistent smooth texture. Please take care not to splatter yourself with hot soup. If it's all a bit thick, you can thin out with a water that's been swirled in the leftover can from the tomatoes (just and idea).

Monday, January 1, 2018

a few of my favorite things- new years day edition 1/01/18

Our first holiday season in our new home was special: we hosted family for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I felt so fortunate to have space for everyone to feel comfortable. We made Christmas cookies and then delivered them door to door in our neighborhood, singing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas".

We had a white Christmas and took afternoon drives with family into the snow covered passes around our town. At one point, we had to stop the truck to let a group of wild turkey march across the road. We decided that the group of turkeys should be called a "gobble".

During the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did so much cooking y'all. Even I admit to being impressed with how much I pulled off: vanilla marshmallows, peanut brittle, fruit nut balls (not as well received as I wanted them to be), coconut meltaway cookies, iced sugar cookies, blueberry cobbler, chocolate loaf cake, creme fraiche ice cream, spiced cranberry sorbet, apple tart, gingerbread cake, and, as always, salted dark chocolate chip cookies. That is just the sweet stuff- does not include the ham, turkeys, brisket, roasts, etc. I think I will always remember this Christmas as the one I was not working and had the time to cook my little heart out. I suspect every holiday after this will be a bit of a disappointment to myself. But I am thankful that this year I was able to immerse myself in it. Nothing makes me happier than a table with friends and family and good food.

Like most years, we had a quiet New Years Eve. Today I will make my own resolutions and goals for 2018. Yesterrday I had a sad thought: 2017 is the last year that I will be able to say I lived in Southern California. In 2018, I will only have lived in Washington. I have been feeling pretty homesick for my SoCal friends. Just after Thanksgiving, one of my dear friends had the loveliest fresh balsam fir wreath delivered to my home. The Christmas holidays were a nice diversion but on Saturday a package arrived from two of my close friends and it was filled with so many thoughtful gifts, one of which was a small box of chocolate covered espresso beans from a favorite downtown LA patisserie and I went ahead and started crying. Change is hard and sometimes it feels like the more I settle in to my new life and surroundings the more I realize the loss of what I left behind. I really miss my friends. So, one of my goals for the new year is planning a So Cal visit.

One thing is for sure: I am thankful for this space and you, dear reader, for continuing to visit. I look forward to writing and sharing in the new year. Blessings to you and those you love!

Here are a few of my favorite things (lately):

For supper, I made this pasta dish with kale and red pepper flakes and we wolfed it down.

One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times about not shopping for a year.

If you're looking for something to listen to while taking down the Christmas tree, here is a link to the top ten interviews from NPRs "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.

Something to think about as you head back to work: according to Harvard Business Review "Research: Men get credit for voicing ideas, but not problems. Women don't get credit for either."

Did you get a gift card to a bookstore (ahem, Amazon) and it's burning a hole in your pocket? Here are some of my favorite reads from this year*:
**books I read this year, but not necessarily published this year :) 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Eve nachos

Here is my favorite Christmas memory: I was 20 years old and home in Haines, Alaska, on break from college in So Cal. Our family tradition is attending the Presbyterian Christmas Eve candlelight service. It attracts quite a holiday crowd and is a great chance to see everyone who is visiting. As a college student, it was an opportunity to sit with my childhood friends, all of whom were spread out around the US. With my family, it was a chance to connect over a well-loved tradition. As we funneled into the sanctuary, we picked up a service program and small white candle punched through a heavy paper round. The paper round serves as a drip protector for the candle wax. The service can vary from year to year in the opening carols and text of the message but it always ends the same: the congregation lights their candles, starting from the front of the church, passing the flame to the neighbors in the pew and then the church overhead lights are extinguished and we all sing "Silent Night." This moment feels the most like Christmas to me- the sound of our voices swelling to the music and the glow of candlelight.

This particular year I was sitting with my friends and two sisters. As one does, we had been a little jokey and teasing to each other through the service but nothing too disruptive. Reliving childhood antics, we used our hands to warm the bottom end of our candles to shape the wax into hooks or small twists- an activity that entertained us through many a childhood Christmas Eve service. I never fail to be amazed that everyone who walks in the door is given a candle- even kids. In a residential setting I would never give a five year old an open flame and then ask them to sit still for eight minutes, but it is such a sacred activity that I think we collectively overlook the logic of it.
This year felt special. I was engaged and this would be my last Christmas home with my family as a single person. In this same church, in just six short months, I would walk down the aisle. My friends and sisters, in dusty pastel dresses and dyed to match pumps, would stand up with me.

As we neared the end of the service, the interior lights were turned off and at first, the room was dark, but the candlelight glow increased as more candles were lit. We were sitting in a row of chairs at the back of the room, in the overflow section. Momentarily, there was a hush through the group and then the congregation stood and began to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" led by a lone piano accompaniment. I believe somewhere around the third verse, in the space where we all paused for breath between the lines "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Son of God loves pure light", my younger sisters voice rang out clearly across the silence, an emphatic "SHIT!" Turns out the paper round "drip protector" had not quite done it's job and, at just the right moment, her drippy candle rolled hot melted wax onto her hand, startling her with it's blistery pain. My friends and I lost it in giggles. It was all we could do to keep from howling out in laughter. In an attempt to maintain some composure, I remember closing my eyes so I could not see the expressions on my friends faces, tears rolling down my cheeks to hold the hilarity in. The faithful gathered in the church soldiered on with the song and when the service concluded and the lights went up, our row and the rows in front and behind us, exploded in laughter. I turned to see my sisters face, beet red in embarrassment. She had been concerned that she would get in trouble or be chided for her expletive slip but it was so damn perfect in it's execution that we couldn't help but find it absolutely hilarious.

That was 17 years ago and still, every time I sing "Silent Night" at the end of any candlelight service, I have to check myself to not start cracking up. I guess I like a little profanity with my sacred moments. Or maybe what I like is a little reality. I am all for Christmas magic. I believe in it. The way Christmas lights symbolize such optimism in our dark nights, the hope of the redemption that Jesus' birth brings to the world. But sometimes I think I put too much pressure on myself to manufacturer some movie set of a Christmas experience: the perfect food, lighting, table setting, gifts under the tree, and velvet and bows picture. I was thinking about Mary, Jesus' mother, and wondering what she would think of the lyrics in "Silent Night." Would she say "Yes, it really was a holy experience- I felt the presence of God the whole time." Or would she confess that she was worried that the cattle would accidentally nibble on baby Jesus in the hay manger if she nodded off? I wonder if the reality of the experience was not one of reverence but rather scary, painful and cold. All that to say, if our holiday traditions are feeling a little ragged around the edges or if the impossible logistics of Christmas wore you down, I think it is okay if our Christmas does not look like how we think it is "supposed to look". I don't think Jesus' birth looked the way we think it should either.

A year after that night of candlelight service hilarity, my new husband and I had to decide how we would celebrate Christmas Eve. Holiday's in the early years of marriage are leaving the familiar comfort of your family's traditions and expose the awkwardness of not yet having honed your own new traditions. There is some negotiating for which traditions you keep and which you alter or discard. On Christmas morning of our first year of marriage I was alarmed to discover that my husband had hidden my Christmas stocking. With a huge grin on his face he explained "It's like a big game of 'hot and cold'- you have to find the stocking!" I responded that a Christmas stocking is not an Easter basket and I was not in the mood for games. (Just so you know who prevailed, I now have 17 years of experience both hiding and finding Christmas stockings.) But this first Christmas Eve, we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. Christmas Eve with my parents always included a beautiful oyster chowder, but with Southern California temperatures in the 80s, that did not sound good. As an homage to our new warm-temperature Christmas life, we settled on making nachos with homemade pico de gallo: it was something that we love to eat, felt a little indulgent and we could enjoy making together. Christmas Eve nachos are now our annual tradition. I love it's simple beginning but also the ease of it. While I love the formality of a big holiday meal, it feels like a bit much to have them back to back on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, it's fun to have a slightly dressed up version of a guilty pleasure. The crunchy salty gooeyness of the chips and cheese and seasoned beef, the tang of tomatoes and onion and, because it is a holiday, we eat as much sour cream as we want. Now that we have moved away from California, this tradition feels even sweeter.

These nachos are, of course, welcome at anytime.

Christmas Eve nachos
The recipe below yields enough for 2 large sheet pans of oven nachos but if making for more than 3-4 adults, I would definitely double the nacho topping and pick up a 2nd bag of chips and more cheddar cheese.

taco seasoning- makes enough to season six pounds of burger
1/4 cup chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon each paprika, crushed red pepper, and salt
1 1/2 teaspoons each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, black pepper

nacho topping
1.3 pounds ground beef (splurge on good quality, like sirloin, if you can. It's Christmas time!)
2- 3 tablespoons taco seasoning (see above)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
15.25 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed

pico de gallo
3 pounds roma tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 - 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note at step 3)
9 scallions (1 bunch), chopped on the bias
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeno (optional)

2 ripe avocados
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
good squeeze of half a lemon or lime

to assemble
15 oz large bag of salted tortilla chips
4 cups shredded medium sharp cheddar cheese (2 cups per sheet pan)
1 pint sour cream
pickled jalapenos
guacamole (see recipe above)

1) Make taco seasoning: in a small bowl, stir all taco seasoning ingredients together, until evenly mixed. Save 3 tablespoons for this batch of nachos and store the rest for later use. Alternately, you can use one of the pre-mixed seasoning packets at the grocery store.

2) Make nacho topping: in a large skillet over medium high heat, cook the ground beef. Use a spatula to chop and cook until beef is completely browned. To drain, transfer the ground beef to a plate lined with paper towels and wipe the skillet out. Return beef to the skillet and add 1 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of the seasoning. Stir to combine and heat mixture until it boils, then reduce heat to a simmer. While beef is simmering, make pico de gallo. (Keep an eye on the pan and add additional water to keep from drying out). The longer the burger simmers, the more tender the meat will become. Think of this almost like making a taco meat bolognese.

3) Make pico de gallo: Cut roma tomatoes in half and scoop out and discard seeds. Chop tomatoes into 1/2 inch dice and add to a large bowl (you want a very large bowl to mix it all together.) To the bowl add the juice of one lemon and the kosher salt. Give it all a big stir. (Note: I HIGHLY recommend starting our conservative on the salt and tasting the salsa mixture with your tortilla chip, as you may want to adjust the salt level to the salsa based on the saltiness of the chip- i.e. the saltier your tortilla chip, the less salt you'll want in your salsa.) Then chop the scallions and cilantro and add to the tomatoes and stir together. If making the salsa in advance, cover and refrigerate but allow 20 minutes for it to come to room temperature before serving.

5) The beef should still be simmering and to it add the drained and rinsed black beans.

4) Make guacamole: Cut the avocados in half and remove the seed. Take a butter knife and, while the avocado is still in it's skin, score the flesh into cubes. Then, take a spoon and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Add the salt and a good squeeze of lemon or lime and stir but take care to not smash completely into a puree- I like guacamole that has a bit of the avocado cube textures in it.

5) To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and scatter a good layer of tortilla chips. To the tortilla chips, sprinkle about 3/4 cup of the shredded cheddar cheese and then top with half of the ground beef and black bean topping. Top with 1 1/4 cup shredded cheese and bake for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and gooey. Remove pan from oven and serve with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and pickled jalapeños.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

split pea soup

First off, my most sincere thanks for all the kind words and messages on my last post. It really meant a lot to me. I read every single comment and felt your love and care. Thank you.

We have now entered the time of year where I want to eat and do all the holiday things. There is no shortage of activities and to-dos and I am on board for all of it. Really, sign me up. But I also don't want to be shackled to my kitchen while everyone else is off having fun. My latest trick has been making a big batch of soup and freezing half of it. I know, this is not new nor really a trick. I bet most people already do this but it's kind of like I just remembered it and man, am I glad I did. In the past month I made the following soups: chicken noodle, tomato carrot, spiced lentil, and split pea. With each batch I freeze a portion for future consumption and I when I arrive at that future need, I am so thrilled with my own foresight: "Well done me from 10 days ago! Look at how well you planned ahead!" I pull one of the frozen soups, put in the fridge to unthaw for a couple days and we have a wonderful weeknight meal.

Split pea soup has been a favorite since I was a kid and my Dad used to put a batch in the crockpot, to cook all day with a ham hock. It was a comfort to walk in the door, from out of a cold snowy day, and have a bowl of it.

If there is split pea soup on a menu, I almost always have to order it. For years if I went to California Pizza Kitchen with friends, I ordered the split pea and barley soup. People would talk about the CPK barbecue chicken pizza and I had no idea what was being referenced because I was too busy eating soup. (My husband and I also used to really love their waldorf chicken salad but they changed the recipe a bit and it's no longer my favorite.)

While some soup recipes requiring doubling so that there is enough for leftovers, this recipe makes a whopping large batch of soup. I'd be impressed if someone had a soup pot large enough for doubling it. But what I really love about this recipe is the addition of dried oregano. In a million years I would not have thought to include it but Ina Garten, as she does so well, knows that the subtle herb note provides the perfect lift to the split peas.

The only slight change I have made to the recipe is to add all the split peas at once and to cook until they are soft. Ina's original instructions have to cook 1 1/2 pounds of the split peas and then halfway through the cooking time, add the remaining half pound. The idea is that this adds a little bit of texture to the soup but I've found that I prefer the split peas cooked all the way through and smooth.

split pea soup

2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 cups medium-diced carrots (about 6-8 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled but well scrubbed (about 6 small)
2 pounds dried split peas
8 cups chicken stock (for vegetarian split pea soup, please feel free to use all water)
8 cups water

1) In a large stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil and, once heated, add the onions, oregano, salt and pepper. Do not let the onions brown, but cook until they are translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the garlic and saute for about a minute.

2) Add the carrots, potatoes, split peas and stock and water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat so that the soup simmers. Split peas take a good long time to soften up. I find I need to cook for about an hour. While the soup cooks, a bit of foam with form at the surface. Take a spoon to skim off and discard. Give the whole mixture a good stir, every once in a while and take care that the bottom of the soup is not getting burned.

3) Before serving, taste for salt and pepper. It is at this point that I divide the soup and serve half and freeze the remaining portion.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The year of three Thanksgivings

The year of three Thanksgivings is a 12-month period in 2014 and 2015 during which I cooked three Thanksgiving meals, but not one was on Thanksgiving Day. It was also the hardest year of my life.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Growing up, my Grandma Irene hosted and it was a family dinner for seven: my parents, two sisters and I, Grandpa Tom, and Grandma Irene. My immediate family did not bring anything, Grandma took care of it all. She set her dining room table early in the week. Brought to Alaska in the late 70’s from the ranch house in the Midwest, the table would be set with slender brass candlesticks and linens in dark cranberry. When we arrived at her home in late morning, there was a snack or “relish” tray for us kids. One of our favorites was a Ritz cracker topped with a dollop of sour cream and a smoked oyster. The oven racks were loaded with a turkey and various casserole dishes. Grandma, never one for last minute chaos, made all the side dishes in advance and simply reheated them on Thanksgiving Day. After our snack, my sisters and I would adjourn to the den to fight over which TV channel to watch. With no cable TV at home, we considered an afternoon of it a luxury. At some point, mom would stick her head in to let us know dinner was ready and we would pry ourselves from whatever Disney channel drama we were sucked into and move to the dining room table; the candles glowing and our glasses filled with sparkling apple cider. After grace, we’d load up our plates at the buffet on the kitchen counter. Like most family Thanksgiving menus', there was little variation from year to year: bronzed roast turkey, Stovetop stuffing, green bean casserole (the kind with canned green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup- I still love it. One year Grandma substituted in garden grown green beans and us kids were horrified), homemade gravy and always, her incredible mashed potatoes. There was  cranberry sauce made from the high bush cranberries Grandpa Tom picked when he went out chopping wood. In my childhood memory, it was a meal of elegance, calm, and plenty. I admired Grandma for her ability to so seamlessly carry it off. I felt so loved.

Grandma Irene loved to host holiday dinners for us. Years later, when she broke her hip and recovered at an assisted living facility in Seattle, my family flew to join her for Christmas. My older sister lived locally and offered to host at her house for dinner but Grandma insisted we all dine at the assisted living home. The facility put together a nice meal and we all dressed up, including Grandma Irene. I think she needed to feel like she could create a beautiful meal experience for us again, regardless of the circumstances.

First Thanksgiving 
Place: My parents’ house, Haines, Alaska
Time: October 5, 2014
Number of guests: 11
  • Herbed butter roasted turkey
  • Grandma Irene's mashed potatoes
  • Homemade gravy
  • Roasted butternut squash with maple syrup
  • Stovetop stuffing
  • Classic green bean casserole
  • Jellied cranberry sauce
  • Rolls
  • Pumpkin mascarpone pie
In the fall of 2014, I was living in Southern California. I grew up in Alaska and so my husband and I planned a fall visit to see my family. My parents, younger sister and Grandma Irene all lived there, although in recent months, Grandma had moved into an assisted living facility in town.

I had not been home in autumn season since leaving for college, 16 years prior. Fall in Southeast Alaska is beautiful- the trees in the Chilkat Valley glow in their yellow, orange and red colors, a contrast to the river and snowy mountain peaks.

The months prior to this visit had been painful. My husband and I spent the previous two years visiting doctors and running tests which resulted in my diagnosis of infertility. In late 2013 we experienced three failed rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in May of 2014 we moved on to the more invasive procedure of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just in time for our 14th wedding anniversary, the IVF cycle failed. It was devastating.

The week that followed the IVF cycle failure remains the longest of my life. I saw gray hair develop overnight. I moved in a fog and there are blocks of time I simply cannot recall. Our doctor was surprised by the outcome as my body had been responding well to the treatment injections along the way. In the infertility world, I was young, just 34. Three days after the cycle failed, we met in his office, surrounded by heavy dark wood bookcases, large diplomas, and an oversized saltwater fish tank. He encouraged us to consider another round of IVF. He said we could try a different medication protocol that could potentially produce different results. We said we needed to think about it.

Before deciding what to do next, I needed to hear myself. The previous months had been noisy with worry and anxiety and I felt cut off from my intuition. The infertility treatments involved significantly increasing the hormone levels in my body and I did not like the way I felt. I described it to someone as feeling like I woke up with Attention Deficit Disorder. It was hard to focus.

My husband and I gave ourselves time. When I was diagnosed with infertility in late 2012, I felt like my body let me down. These limbs, these organs were a disappointment because they were unable to do the one thing that was most essential, the genetic purpose of my existence, the reason I am a woman. Weighed down by stress, I began to over eat. By summer of 2013, I gained about 25 pounds. After the IVF cycle failed, I realized how poorly I was treating my body: pumping it with drugs, scarfing down whatever would momentarily make me feel better. I did not think my unhealthy eating contributed to my infertility but I knew it was making me feel bad. I bought a T-shirt that said, "I love you no matter what.” I would practice saying it to myself in front of the bathroom mirror- trying to tell my body that no matter what happens, I love you and I will take care of you. I could never get so far as saying “I forgive you”, but I knew it was a start. My husband and I did a month of intense healthy eating (basically a diet where you eat only non-processed foods, protein and vegetables. There is no dairy, sugar, or wheat.) Between June 2014, when the IVF cycle failed, and my trip home in October 2014, I lost 19 pounds and was feeling better about myself. My husband and I decided we would do another round of IVF after our Alaska vacation and viewed our trip home as a good break before diving back into the madness.

It was my idea to host a Thanksgiving dinner in October, during our visit home. Since moving away for college, I had not had Thanksgiving with my parents and hoped to recreate some of the comfort from my childhood memories. We had our Thanksgiving meal on a Sunday afternoon. In a notebook, I outlined the menu and timing of the prep-work. That morning, before Church, Dad helped me get the turkey in the oven. The turkey roasted in the same (well-scrubbed) oversized lidded roasting pan he uses in the summer to boil the crab he catches. To set the table, mom and I thumbed through her table linens and supply of candle holders. When I blind baked the crust for the pumpkin pie, I realized I put too much water in the dough. An easy mistake, too much water initially helped the crust dough form together but, in the heat of the oven, the crust collapsed, the edges rumpled down the sides of the pie plan. With the back of a well-worn wooden spoon, I pushed the crust back into place and quickly poured the filling in, a mixture of pumpkin, mascarpone and spices, hoping the pressure of the thick custard would help hold the crust in-place while it finished baking. We sat down to dinner around 4pm and joining my family were other local extended family members and friends. Grandma Irene was too frail to travel by car from the assisted living facility. My biggest regret from that day is not saving a plate of food to share with her later. I wish I had made the time.

My memories of this Thanksgiving meal are the warm glow of the table candlelight against the indigo of early evening and how everyone lingered at the table to visit. At one point, Dad pulled mom and I aside in the kitchen and told us what a beautiful job we'd done with the dinner. My husband and I felt such optimism heading back to California- like we could bottle it up, like we could hold it with us forever. It made us want to believe the next round of treatment could be successful, that we could still have our family.

The next morning, before we left my parent’s house, my mother slipped a carved silver bracelet cuff on my arm. Grandma Irene made it in 1977, when she was studying Tlingit silver carving after moving to Haines from the Midwest. Grandma Irene made the bracelet but gave it to my Grandma Betty, my Dad's mom, who had it for 37 years. For some reason, in the summer of 2014, Grandma Betty sent the bracelet back to my mom. She wanted her to have it because her mom had made it. A handmade piece of jewelry shared between both Grandmothers, I knew what a family treasure it was. The animal carved on it was a bear. My mother gave it to me and said that I was her "coco bear", my childhood nickname. Because I called her "mama bear", she thought I should have it. Unspoken was the deep desire that someday someone would call me "mama bear" too. I wore it like a talisman.

Second Thanksgiving
Place: Grandma Irene's house, Haines, Alaska
Time: November 28, 2014, the day after Thanksgiving
Number of guests: 8
  • Roast turkey
  • Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes
  • Stovetop stuffing
  • Green bean casserole
  • Rolls
  • Jellied cranberry sauce
  • I don't think there was any pie
The second round of IVF was harder: the new stimulation drug protocol recommended by my doctor doubled the amount of injections my husband administered to me. During the first IVF treatment round, I had a nice soft pillow of belly fat to pinch to stick the needle into, but because I had lost weight, it was not as easy. My husband was patient and skilled but the daily process wore on us both.

I have hated needles all my life. I hoped a side benefit of IVF would be I could overcome that fear, like it was some kind of immersion therapy. It actually made it worse. We administered the medicines each evening at 9pm and, as the clock ticked closer, I found my anxiety level spiking. Our routine was to sit at the dining room table, lay out the needles, syringes, and vials of medicine. I would watch as my husband carefully measured the doses and then close my eyes and count to ten. I willed myself to focus on counting the numbers, believing I could handle anything for ten seconds. I began to hate the sight of my dining room chairs.

At the infertility clinic, each time I had to have blood drawn (which was a lot), I bribed myself with the promise of a new book. I would already have the title picked out in my mind and when the phlebotomist would secure the cotton ball in the crook of my arm with a Band-Aid, I'd whip my phone out to the Amazon app and make the selection.

How an IVF cycle works is a patient takes medication for a number of days to stimulate the ovaries to produce a high volume of eggs. In a regular ovulation cycle, a woman's body will produce 1-2 eggs. The goal of IVF is to produce many more eggs. Once they have grown to a mature size, the patient is sedated and the doctor "retrieves" the eggs by a large needle (basically, my absolute fucking nightmare.) Once the eggs are removed, they are fertilized with sperm and grow for 3 days. It is normal for not all the eggs to fertilize and by day 3, the patient and doctor will discuss how many embryos are available to transfer to the patient’s uterus.

Through all of these weeks, I prayed. Most often my prayers were just “please, please help us.” There have been times in my life when I have prayed and felt God give me peace or confirmation for whatever it was I was asking for. During this second IVF cycle, we were driving home from church, eastbound on the 210 freeway and somewhere around Pasadena I confessed to my husband that, in my prayers, I had not felt an answer from God that this treatment would work. I said it felt like we were doing it so that we could know we tried everything but I did not feel a surge of faith to believe this was going to happen for us. How I did feel that God responded was the sense that, someday, my husband and I would be okay. It was a reassurance that this experience would not permanently break us. The promise that someday I would actually feel okay seemed impossible but I clung to it.

On Sunday 11/16/14, I was five days away from egg retrieval. My husband and I went to church in the morning and, in an attempt to distract ourselves from the upcoming week, then visited Huntington Gardens. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to walk. My phone showed a missed call from mom but I decided to call her back once we were home. As we drove away from the gardens, my sister texted, "You need to call mom." My stomach sank. My husband pulled the car over and, at a curb, under a canopy of ginko biloba trees turned gold by fall, my mother told me Grandma Irene died. My mother and younger sister had been with her as she passed away peacefully. I knew she had been declining but hoped I could get through the IVF cycle and have the opportunity to tell her I was pregnant. Losing her was heartbreaking. Five days later, under sedation, the doctor retrieved my eggs. In the haze of the recovery room, he briefly squeezed my hand and offered only "We'll see how it goes." On Saturday 11/22, we learned that, once again, none of my eggs were viable. My husband and I met with the doctor on Tuesday 11/25. We asked if he thought there was anything else we could do. He said that while he would be happy to keep taking our money, he did not have any reason to believe future treatments would result in a different outcome.

On Thursday 11/27, Thanksgiving Day, we left to attend Grandma Irene's funeral in Alaska.

In the few days between the IVF cycle failing and traveling to Alaska, I realized that I was not up to the tasks ahead of me. One of the terrible things about death is that it is emotionally devastating but also there are quite a lot of activities to be done along with it. I knew that, in my state, I did not have it in me to be the support my family needed. But I also knew that I would desperately disappoint myself if I wasn’t able to do that. I began to play a little game, asking myself, in twenty years, how will I wish I handled this? The answer always came back that I will wish I had been engaged and supportive. I told myself I could fall apart another time, that there would always be time to do that. I forced myself to engage and step-up. And so, I made Thanksgiving dinner.

We arrived the day after Thanksgiving and my family had waited until we were home. Understandably my mom and her older sister were wrapped up in preparations for the memorial service and my older sister and I took the lead on putting a casual Thanksgiving meal together. In my notebook, I still had the outline from the Thanksgiving I cooked in October and I used that as a basic plan but edited it down. I am sure I did not make a pumpkin pie. We decided to cook and host in my Grandma’s house. It was bittersweet to be in her kitchen without her. Every cupboard, drawer and dish had memories attached to them. When I made the potatoes, I looked at the worn wooden handle of the masher and thought of all the Thanksgivings she had used the same tool. I remain grateful for that last experience of cooking in her kitchen.

The next day, I helped set up the church for the memorial. My sisters and I sang a hymn for the service. In the time that followed, I project managed the process of packing up my Grandmother’s house, dividing up the belongings among her children, and shipping them to the different parts of the country where they lived. Through it all, my husband never once left my side. His presence was persistently with me. We were so broken but we moved together through those days. I shared with him my desire to push past my pain and be there for my family but he tried to draw limits where he could. At the memorial service a well-meaning family member tried to insist on Josh video-taping the service for family that couldn’t be there, but he declined, knowing that where he needed to be was sitting beside me, his arm around my shoulders.

Going through Grandma’s belongings took a number of days and one of the things found were two beautiful pairs of baby-sized handmade Native Alaskan moccasins. My mother and Aunt insisted my older sister, three months pregnant, take a pair. They turned to me and asked if I wanted a pair. I quickly said no. I knew it would be too painful to bring them home and leave them unworn. No one looked at me but they kept asking “Are you sure you don’t want them?” insistent and seemingly puzzled as to why I did not take them. Over and over I said no. It was like we were talking in code about my life, the subtext being, had I really given up hope on children? Or maybe, given everything going on, they had momentarily forgotten my circumstances. I walked out of the room and stood in an alcove, taking in big gulps of air and forcing myself not to scream.

For people who have not experienced infertility, I do not know if I can properly convey the depth of pain and disappointment. While the treatments and doctors’ visits and medication protocols were awful, they were at least an active thing to do. While we were doing them there was still hope, still a belief that maybe we would get pregnant and have a child and this terrible time would be a blip in our lives. While we were going through the treatments, I felt like I was housed in a bubble of grace, like I was able to cope. But once it was over, once it was clear this was not going to happen for us, it became very dark. Having this darkness descend at the same time I was reflecting on my Grandmothers beautiful life, celebrating all she had given to her children and grandchildren, added a new element of loss to her death. A deep fear gripped me that there would be no children or grandchildren when I die, no one that I leave behind. One of the things infertility illuminated for me was how the desire to have children is tangled up in the personal desire to keep on living. It is the survival of my gene’s but also a belief that somehow the essence of me will keep going- someone who has my smile or love of reading or something. My grief was a mess of loss for Grandma and loss for myself. I felt bad that I couldn’t just think of her, but it seemed like both sides of my life had been chopped off- my past with her and the future with any children. I floated only in the undefined present.

This pain was only in thinking of my own loss. When I thought about my husband, I could barely breathe. I felt keenly that I had let him down in the most basic way- that I had broken the most basic responsibility. I have never been unfaithful but my infertility felt like the deepest betrayal.

We went back to California.

Third Thanksgiving
Place: Family Reunion at the cabin, Fish Hook Lake, Minnesota
Time: July 5, 2015
Number of guests: 40
  • Roast turkey breast
  • Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes 
  • Sauteed green beans with shallots 
  • Roasted butternut squash
  • Kale Salad with parmesan, golden raisins and lemon vinaigrette 
On Thursday 7/02/15 I flew from Orange County John Wayne Airport and switched planes in Denver to a regional airline to Fargo, North Dakota. I picked up the rental car and sat in the Fargo International Airport for eight hours waiting for my mom and sister to fly in from Alaska. They had missed their earlier flight and I sat next to the baggage claim turnstile and read an entire book on my phone. Once they arrived, we drove two hours to my Aunt & Uncle’s cabin in Park Rapids Minnesota. The weekend was a family reunion of Grandma Irene’s children and their families. In total, it was expected to be 30 adults and 10 children. Because Grandma died in winter, travel to Alaska for the memorial service had not been possible for everyone. The siblings wanted to get together to remember, share and be with one another. The logistics of a crowd this size can be a challenge and each family took a turn making dinner. My mom, younger sister and I signed up for Sunday 7/05 and mom had the idea to do “Thanksgiving in July”. When she told me about it over the phone, a few weeks earlier, I thought it sounded like a good idea. After all, I had made two Thanksgiving dinners already that year and because it was a meal Grandma did so well, I thought it fitting. However, there were a number of things I did not take into consideration: I would be cooking Thanksgiving for a much larger crowd of people (about 40), which is a lot of people to be worried about serving raw turkey to; I would be grocery shopping for Thanksgiving items in a small town in July and certainly could not count on the availability of off-season goods; I would be trying to pull this all off in a kitchen that I had never been in; and finally, I was exhausted and spent beyond anything I had ever experienced.

Since the failure of our second IVF cycle seven months prior, I continued to work and go through daily motions, but inwardly I was struggling significantly. In January, there was a reorganization at work and I remained in my same position but new leadership took the team in a different direction. As my work changed, I struggled to find focus and clarity. The skills I had once relied on did not serve me well and, for the first time, I found myself failing at work. Although the previous years had been heartbreaking personally, professionally they were a time of some of my biggest accomplishments. Work had been a place of comfort and escape. Those successes were a source of strength for me and when that went away, it was devastating. I started to have anxiety attacks. My confidence in my abilities eroded.

In addition to the loss of Grandma Irene, in December 2014, my father’s mother, Grandma Betty, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In March 2015, she passed away. I was sad for her death and also for my parents to lose both their mothers so close to one another. We thought we might have more time with Grandma Betty. She had a wonderful wry sense of humor and was tough as nails. During World War II, she worked at the Boeing factory and, later, after her first husband left her for another woman, raised three small children on her own. She was the first person I ever saw flip off another driver (I was six years old) and us girls loved her ballsy no-nonsense attitude. I tried to channel her strength.

My husband and I continued to go through our days. We’d hug and say “I’m sorry it’s so hard”. Sometimes we’d quote Winston Churchill to one another, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” We realized that not only were we experiencing internal loss, but our place in society also changed. As a married couple in our 30s without children, we became outliers. Arounds us, most friends had young families and our ability to connect with them felt stunted. When the thing you want most, to raise a child, is not available to you but is the primary occupation of your friends, relationships suffer. At church, I cringed at the seemingly constant emphasis on families and parenting (don’t even get me started about Mother’s Day). My grief could be ugly. The Sunday morning music leader used to regularly share stories of his son, as a metaphor for how much God loves us. He would say things like, “When I look at my son sleeping in his car seat, I think of how much I love him and how much being a father has taught me about God’s love.” I wanted to slap him and tell him to quit being so smug. With fresh eyes, I thought of my single friends who wanted to be in relationships, but were not. My own loss gave me empathy for how much they too must have felt left out and how, in years past, in my own blissful ignorance, I may have been the one who caused it.

My husband and I did our best to support one another but I went into survival mode, seeing one day at a time and being easily overwhelmed. I was unbearably sad but did not share with friends or family about what was going on. My own isolation did not help me.

I remember a particular Saturday evening: my husband was out of town on a business trip and I did not make any plans. I was going to distract myself with a movie but that night, not even that worked. I laid on the thin wool rug on the floor of the den and my dog Duke laid down next to me. I draped an arm over him, felt the warmth from his long body and sobbed. I continued to believe that someday I would be okay but could not imagine how I would get there. I was stalled.

It was in this state that I arrived at the July family reunion. It was good to see people I had not seen for a long time, but my focus quickly shifted to the dinner my mother, sister and I committed to cooking. My task oriented brain locked on to the one thing I could try to control. I made it into a much bigger responsibility than it was.

My first step was to check out the local grocery store which, understandably, did not have turkeys in July. They did have frozen rock-solid turkey breasts. I read online that it is okay to unthaw frozen turkey in a tub of water as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes. With worry as an alarm clock, I spent the late evening and early morning of Sunday 7/04 changing the water on a sink full of the turkey breasts because they did not have time to thaw out in the fridge.

Like the previous Thanksgiving dinners, I put together my notebook timeline and did as much prep work as we could in advance: the morning of we snapped the ends off of five pounds of green beans, I finely chopped multiple bunches of kale and, so the greens would have time to soften up, pre-dressed them in olive oil and lemon juice. The fact that I served kale salad as part of a Thanksgiving menu should be an indicator of how far gone I was. In the afternoon, I quick blanched the green beans and set to work peeling 14 pounds of potatoes. Somewhere in this process, I started to cave inwards. I was overwhelmed and mostly because I had such little personal resources to draw on. I paused to give myself a little pep talk. I did not want to draw attention and have a meltdown or disappoint my family. I knew I needed to dig deep to find the motivation and strength to continue. In that moment, I saw a clear image of my Grandma Irene, sitting at the dining room table, smiling at me. As I went about making the dinner, I used her image keep me going, the belief that in doing this I was honoring her memory.

I want to be clear: at any point in time I am I could have asked my extended family for help. I know they would have been so gracious about it. But my pain masked my ability to see options. I made it through the dinner but, I know it was not the best. There was plenty for all to eat but the mashed potatoes were lumpy and dry, I did not make any gravy and there was no stuffing. When I sautéed the green beans, I used butter instead of olive oil, so after they were cooked and sitting on the buffet, the butter turned back to solid, cold nubs studded through the beans. One of my Uncle’s carved the five turkey breasts, which, mercifully, were cooked through.

Somehow, this thing that had helped me, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, also exposed how much help I needed. My inability to handle it woke me up to the realization that I was not getting better on my own. During that four-day visit, my stress level was so high, I had difficulty eating. Back in California, I discovered I lost 6 pounds on my already slim frame. I admitted to myself that I was not yet okay. I asked a friend for a referral and found a local therapist. Working with her she helped me see that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. The reliving of events, the crying in the shower, the anxiety attacks were because my brain was treating any little thing that went wrong on the same scale as this big thing (my infertility) that went wrong. I started to see the therapist regularly and began the painstaking work of talking about my experience, learning about anxiety and sharing my grief. At work, I eventually found a new position that I was a better fit for and again experienced some success, which helped me regain confidence in my abilities. None of this was clear or easy, but slowly, I started to feel better.

It has now been three years since the hardest year of my life, my year of three Thanksgivings. I wish I had a splashy ending for you. I wish I could tell you I finally got pregnant and we have children. I wish could tie it all up with a neat bow. God, I wish I could. Part of the reason I have hesitated in sharing my experience is because I feel the burden of wanting to have a happy ending to share. I do not like the unresolved, but this side of heaven, there are some things I will not understand.

However, three years later, I am where I hoped I would someday be: I am okay. My husband and I are okay. To be okay, after where I was, feels amazing. I understand my inability to have biological children will likely always be painful and in some ways, that is a comfort. It is no longer a pain that I need to avoid or fix, but it also no longer dominates. I think anyone who has significant loss can understand that grief becomes something to live with. I can hold my grief and also be profoundly grateful for my life today: my husband loves me and I am still married, I have friends and family that care for me, and there are so many beautiful things in this world. At 37 years old, my life does not look how I thought it would, but I am okay.

Singer-songwriter Laura Marling has a song “Blackberry Stone” and the last lines of it say:

                “But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, wouldn’t let me. 
                 But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, I needed.
                And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry stone.” 

What is funny is I thought the last line of the song said, “And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry scone.” I looked it up the other day and learned it actually says, “sweet-smelling blackberry stone.” Over all those months, when I listened to the song in my car, I liked my version of the final line because it reminded me that I loved simple things, like scones, too much to turn my back on life. It is basic but my love for food, creating and sharing it with others, anchored me and helped me to keep living until it would no longer hurt so much. I think that is why I wanted to cook all those Thanksgiving dinners- I was reminding myself that even though everything had gone wrong and I could not fix it, I was still in a world where I could make Grandma’s mashed potatoes. And that, with the belief that someday I would be okay, was enough to help me through.

Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. This year, when I sit down at the table, I bring with me all the previous meals, good and hard, and I am grateful to still say grace.

Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes 

At each of the three Thanksgivings I cooked, the menu was a little bit different, but one thing was constant: the mashed potatoes. This is how my grandmother made them and they remain my Thanksgiving standard. With cream cheese and sour cream, these mashed potatoes are rich and not unlike the filling to a twice baked potato. If you're concerned about the proportion of cream cheese to potato, feel free to dial it back but may need to increase the amount of milk.

These potatoes have real heft to them- the perfect vehicle to hold a pool of gravy. The recipe below reheats beautifully and scales up nicely. For a Thanksgiving crowd, I usually double or triple it. When it comes to leftovers, I do not want to run out of mashed potatoes.

8-10 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch cubes
8 oz cream cheese, cut into half inch cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup whole milk
salt and pepper

1) To a large lidded pot, add cubed potatoes and fill with enough cold water to cover potatoes by one inch. Place lid on pot and cook over medium high heat until water boils. Once boiling, remove lid and reduce heat, but keep the water at a good simmer. Cook until potatoes are very tender, about 20-25 minutes. To test the potatoes for doneness, I remove a couple of cubes and try to smash them with a fork. It should yield pretty easily.

2) Drain potatoes and return to pot, but keep off the heat. Add in the cubed cream cheese and sour cream. The residual heat from the pot and just boiled potatoes should start to melt the cream cheese. Add in 1/2 cup of the whole milk and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash together the potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream and milk. As you work, you will likely want to add the remaining 1/2 cup whole milk to keep the potatoes from becoming too dry. Mash until the potato pieces have all broken down and mixed with the cream cheese, sour cream and milk to form a heavy mash. It will not be light and fluffy but should be mostly smooth.

3) Serve immediately or transfer to an oven-safe casserole dish, cover, and keep warm in a low oven.