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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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The Humble Cauliflower

Cauliflower: "the garden's pale brain"

I recline on a beige vinyl examination table with needles dangling from my face.  They waggle in my peripheral vision when I twitch my lips.  Still more needles hang from the skin on my wrists, ankles, and knees. The air smells faintly medicinal, like bandages; a metronome clicks softly in the darkened room.  I am thinking about cauliflower.

“Write anything lately?” asks Dr. R, positioning a small needle gun against various points on my ear.

“No,” I say, frowning.  “It’s a terrible triangle.  If I’m cooking, I’m not reading or writing.  If I’m reading, I’m not writing or cooking.  If I’m writing…  Ugh! Do you know that I have about five essays in process right now, but none of them are going anywhere?”

He smiles, a lock of hair flopping over his eyes.  I wince when the needle gun applies pressure to an especially sensitive point on the ridge of my ear.  Dr. R dials back the needle’s intensity.  After a few more jabs, we move on to dinner plans.  “I’m going to make coq au vin with my girls,” he says.

I murmur in appreciation, trying not to move my head too much.  “As soon as I get out of here, I’m heading to buy a bottle of wine,” I say.  “Which I’m going to drink while I make a cheddar, ale, and cauliflower soup.  It’s a Bittman recipe I saw in the New York Times…”

“It’s funny that you bring up cauliflower,” he says.  “I was just thinking about a cauliflower gratin that I made once.  It’s one of Nick Stellino’s recipes.  So good!  Do you know him?”

I don’t know him, but Dr. R does a quick search for the recipe online as I recline in the dim coolness.  He prints it for me and sets it by my side as the needles do their work.  I try to relax, musing about the heroes of my kitchen; wondering how certain people rise to the level of fame that allows others to refer to them strictly by last name (Bittman, Bourdain, Pepin) or first (Julia, Mary Frances).  I’m thinking about the charge I get when I meet a fellow lover of good food, how honest and easy it is to ‘talk food’ with others.  My stomach rumbles at the prospect of a heaping mountain of hand-grated sharp cheddar (I always grate extra to compensate for the pinches I steal during preparation) and dark, nutty ale, frothing over boiled cauliflower florets.  Curiosity gets the better of me.  A needle falls from my right wrist as I reach for the recipe. Capers, garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, Pecorino Romano…  The recipe reads as deliciously as I imagine it will taste, though I make a mental note to double the cheese when I try to make it.

*

The cheddar and ale cauliflower soup marked the end of my yellow period, a bizarre month-long rash of yellow dishes.  What an incredible farewell!  My friend, Casey, and I devoured the soup in one sitting, mopping up its last vestiges from the pot with hunks of bread and leaving nothing behind but a thin film of cheese.  The hearty soup was a perfect send-off to yellow cuisine… and a warm welcome to the chill of autumn, which brings with it the opportunity to start roasting foods again.  Foods like cauliflower.

Cauliflower is a member of the diverse brassica family, which includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, collards, rutabaga, and kohlrabi. Harold McGee writes that cauliflower is a “mass of undeveloped flower stalks,” whose development is “arrested” before they have the opportunity to flower.  (Other edible flowers include broccoli, artichokes, apples, pears, and citrus fruits, as well as numerous varieties of blossoms that are more commonly acknowledged as flowers, like roses, violets, jasmine, lilacs, and marigolds.)

I have often thought of cauliflower as an underappreciated vegetable.  My research – happily – indicates otherwise.  In 1891, Arthur Alger Crozier devoted over 200 pages to the humble head in a book called The cauliflower, just two years after James John Howard Gregory, a seed grower and distributor in Massachusetts, wrote the formidable Cabbages and Cauliflowers: How to Grow Them.  Samuel Johnson and Lorna Crozier (relation to A.A. Crozier uncertain, though potentially serendipitous) both rhapsodize the cauliflower.  Ms. Crozier writes: “The garden’s pale brain, it knows the secret lives of all the vegetables, holds their fantasies, their green libidos in its fleshy lobes.”  The ‘brain’ portion is called the curd.

Cauliflower withstands colder temperatures, making it an ideal winter vegetable.  It tastes delicious roasted or in soup.  (To prevent yellowing, try boiling it with a little bit of lemon juice or vinegar.) Cauliflower can be pureed or mashed, and served as an alternative to potatoes.  Escoffier writes of a puree that incorporates boiled, pureed cauliflower with mashed potatoes, cream, and butter.  The New Larousse Gastronomique offers several sauces, recipes, and preparations for cauliflower, as does Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking contain intriguing recipes for fried cauliflower, and Curnonsky, the ‘Prince of Gastronomes,’ cites a mouth-watering gratin called Cauliflower Cheese in his Traditional French Cooking.  Cheese is a popular accompaniment for the vegetable.

The leaves of the cauliflower are also edible, though according to the Food Lover’s Companion they “take longer to cook and have a stronger flavor than the curd.”  The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper offers a good leaf-inclusive recipe with helpful cooking suggestions.  My preparation of choice requires no heat at all: I wash my cauliflower and dry it well, chop it into bite-size florets, salt it, and eat it raw.  If I’m feeling particularly industrious, I might make a little dip with Greek yogurt and ranch dressing.

*

MFK Fisher wistfully recalled the time she spent in Dijon, where “the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil.”  Back in the States, she found she could no longer make the creamy cauliflower casseroles she created during her magical time abroad.  “I could concoct a good dish, still … but it never was so innocent, so simple … and then where was the crisp bread, where the honest wine?”

The vegetable strikes similarly wistful notes with me.  In French, cauliflower is called a chou-fleur, which literally means cabbage flower.  It is one of those sweet translations that appeal to my love of words, inseparably connected with one of my mother’s own beloved translations.  Mom used to chop off the florets and trim down the stalk, cutting away the cauliflower’s fibrous layers to reveal the little nubbin of edible stalk at its core.  She called this piece the kachun, or heart.  I’ve written about the kachun before; it will forever be the tastiest part of the cauliflower for me.  Each time I prepare a cauliflower, I make sure to savor the kachun and say a prayer for my mom, who fed me well on a steady diet of hearts.

Cauliflower Salad
(Recipe credited to my friend Kari, who credits her aunt Vicki.)

1 head iceberg lettuce, chopped well
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium red onion, diced
1 cup crispy crumbled bacon
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup mayonnaise with 1 packet ranch dressing mix
Black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together.  Tastes best when shared with friends.

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