Savory Grape Syrup on Black Rice with White Beans + Collards

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I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
                                     – Breakage, Mary Oliver
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I was at church a few weeks ago, an hour before mass. The college-student musicians were rehearsing and as I spent a quiet hour in contemplation, the fits and starts of their rehearsal played out in my periphery. Soon my mind wandered to simply listening. Their music is just what I need each Sunday and one of the reasons I go to the ‘sinner’s mass,’ the last one offered. As I listened, I silently marveled at how such a beautiful performance in the next hour could come from a sub-par practice.

I let my mind continue its wondering, thinking back to my own practices growing up. I played the saxophone and piano. The noise made by a substandard seventh grade sax player was a horrendous thing to listen to, I’m sure; my siblings made it clear they’d rather I not practice. The music group at church is substantially more talented but like many rehearsals, theirs was remarkably un-put-together.

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I find that life is much the same as these practices. It’s rough around the edges with fits and starts, jumping from a particular staccato section to the line down the page so as to get the timing down, and then sweeping in and out of the harmony, dropping each one part way through and picking up at another spot.

There’s a randomness to it that is uncomfortable when our expectations are linear. It reminds me of this diagram of expectations versus reality.

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In moments when I most need them, the right words often come back to me, as if in having read them once months or years before, they were saved up for just the time I’d need them again. Ryan Hall’s Facebook posts often harbor the right words:

Sometimes your goals feel far from where you’re at in the moment. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, think ‘What can I be faithful with today to get one step closer?’ and celebrate progress.

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What I’m trying to say through the disorder of these paragraphs, is that life is not meant to be clear. We don’t know what we’re in for when we start. The way through can be equally hazy. As Mary Oliver says, there are a thousand words or experiences or paths to be sorted, each one to be picked up and puzzled back together into some semblance of sense.

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Beauty can come out of the fragmented practices. The hard going and the demanding everyday workouts prepare and toughen us for the real tests, the big performances, the meeting of monumental goals, and dreams that once felt far out of reach.

Sometimes we know what lies ahead; we are confident we can pull off the performance despite not having done it before. Other times we’re simply walking in faith, offering our best in each step and celebrating progress, even the barest glint of it, along the way.

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Savory Grape Syrup on Black Rice with White Beans + Collards
, serves 4

I spent half my childhood practically living at the home/nursery/farm of my two best friends down the road. Jari and Sheila, who I consider my second set of parents, gifted us the richest, grape-iest home-grown and pressed grape juice for Christmas. I’ve had gallons of it tucked away in the freezer for months, all the while trying to scheme up exactly the right way to make use of it. I boiled down a few cups into a thick, molasses-type concoction that is heavily infused with fresh ginger and rosemary. If you have an hour or so to mostly ignore a simmering pot, grab a bottle of grape juice and make syrup! It is simply the best with earthy black rice, white beans, and whatever greens are on hand this spring. 

3 cups grape juice

2 Tbs. freshly grated ginger

2 Tbs. finely chopped rosemary

1 tsp. ground mustard seeds

1 cup uncooked black rice

2 1/4 cups water, chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups cooked white beans

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 medium onion, chopped

2-3 tsp. olive oil

1 large bunch collard greens, stems removed and chopped

a handful or two toasted walnuts, chopped

black pepper to taste

  • For the syrup:  In a medium-sized saucepan, bring grape juice, ginger, rosemary and mustard to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and allow to cook until reduced to about 1 cup of syrup.
  • Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the ingredients by cooking the black rice, chopping the onion and greens, and toasting and chopping the walnuts.
  • When the syrup is reduced, heat olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Stir in the chopped onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes, adding a splash of water or more oil, as needed. Then, stir in the salt, black pepper and greens. Cook just until the greens begin to wilt.
  • In a large bowl or on individual plates, stir together the rice, beans and greens. Top with walnuts and drizzle the syrup over the top, stirring through before serving.

Smoked Paprika Vegetable Chowder with Orange Zest

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At the end of last summer, I purchased a tiny parcel of smoked paprika from the pepper man at our farmers market. I didn’t have a use for it in mind, but I’m all for buying my spices right from the source. I’ve had that paprika squirreled away until this last month, when I finally got my hands on the Ard Bia Cookbook. Ard Bia is a soul-food recharging station, institution, refuge, and dear spot for runners to drop their keys before going for their nightly jaunt, in Galway, Ireland.

 

I’ve been to Galway, once for a weekend. William and I ate pizza at a pub’s bar one Friday night, a music session going, families, babies, all the locals stacked around the “stage.” We didn’t know about Ard Bia then, though I know for a fact we walked right past it.

 

The Ard Bia Cookbook is gorgeous coffee table art for good food folks. The menu is a homey infusion of local and global flavors, and the cookies come standard gluten-free even though an assortment of diets are catered to. Fish is a highlight, being as Galway is situated; local meat, cheese, and vegetables are showcased galore.

 

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I’ve needed to be taken to another place these last few weeks, if only figuratively, and this book has been a welcome reprieve. This winter seems to have hit hard, you see. For so many I know, this season has been awash in illnesses of all sorts, sick kids and sick families, joblessness and wondering where this life will lead next, injuries and aches. This too is a season for new babies, tired parents, soon-to-be moms, and tough little steps each day leading to big life changes {resolutions!} I fall right in there with the masses in feeling less than optimal, as if no matter how hard I try, life is a series of two steps forward, three steps back. The Recipe Redux January challenge was to make something smoky, and so I turned to the Ard Bia Cookbook pantry section, found an interesting Smoked Paprika and Orange-Infused Oil, and incorporated it into a comforting vegetable chowder to combat the winter chill.

 

When I sit down and reflect back on the day and all it brought, a bowl of warmth brings a little more cheer, a little more sunshine into my heart. Wherever you’re at on this winter day, I hope that if you too have broken pieces, they can be mended back together through the uplifting words of a friend, a bowl of warm soup, or perhaps in finding a sliver of light reminding you of one more thing you can try to make it through.

 

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Smoked Paprika Vegetable Chowder with Orange Zest

Serves 4, inspired by Laura and Ard Bia.

Plan to infuse your oil a few days prior to making the soup. It will make a big batch that will keep for quite a while and can be used for all number of things. Alternatively, use another oil like coconut or canola as the base and add an extra 1/2 teaspoon or so of smoked paprika. There are also infinite combinations of winter vegetables that can be used here, so play around with something interesting, or use what you have on hand. 

For the chowder:

1 Tbs. Smoked Paprika + Orange-infused Oil
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 leek, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 thyme sprigs
1/2 Tbs. garlic salt
1/8 tsp. smoked paprika
1/16 tsp. black pepper
1/16 tsp. cayenne
1 pinch each: nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, cloves and ginger
1-2 parsnips, chopped
1/2 a celeriac, peeled and chopped
1/2 a head of cauliflower, chopped small
2 cups cooked white beans
1/4 cup orange juice
3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
orange zest, for serving
additional infused oil, for serving

 For the Infused Oil:
8 oz. good quality canola oil
2 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. orange zest

Heat the infused-oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the leeks and celery and continue to sauté until they are soft, about 5 minutes more. Add the garlic, thyme, and spices to the pot and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the parsnips, celery root, and cauliflower and stir to coat in the oil. Next, add the orange juice, the vegetable broth and the beans, stir again, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, remove the lid and lower the heat to simmer. Let the chowder cook and bubble until the parsnips and celery root pieces are tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Remove the thyme stems and ladle half of the chowder into an upright blender. Purée until smooth. Pour the puréed portion of chowder back into the soup pot and bring it back to a nice simmer. Check the chowder for seasoning, adjust if necessary, and ladle into soup bowls. Top with a bit of fresh orange zest and a drizzle or two of the infused oil.

To make the oil, stir together the paprika, orange zest, and oil and pour into a glass container to store it in. On the stovetop, bring a small pot about half full of water to a simmer. Gently emerge the container of oil into the pot, and allow to warm up for about 15 minutes. Then, remove the oil container from the hot liquid bath, shake to nicely mix the spices, and set aside to infuse for at least three days prior to use. This concoction will keep for a few months in a cool, dark place.

 

Spring Green Fennel Millet Cakes

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I look down at my black work pants. They’re starting to fade in the fold lines, and I have to use a lint roller to make them black again. My favorite blue sweater is comfy, but people are starting to associate me with it. There are likely a few researchers at work who cannot remember my name and instead refer to me as “Blue Sweater Girl.” My shabby black pumps have seen me through many long days of teaching over more than a couple school years, and my scarf was a gift given in my senior year of high school.

Back when I was 13, I spent many hours agonizing over my sense of poverty, and how my shoes weren’t the stylish ones all my friends had. I’m beyond being quite so sensitive these days, but still often feel that people must look at me and immediately think my clothes are more worn than a professional situation dictates. And boring. How frequently can you wear the same blue sweater before people start to notice?

My job is active, and I’m rarely in the same space all day; for this reason I take a little more liberty in regularly dressing in my most comfortable professional clothes. As I dressed this morning in the same blue sweater-scarf outfit, I briefly practiced awesome negative self-talk and went on with my day. “So what if I’m wearing the same outfit again?” I thought.

In the afternoon, I gained a good dose of perspective when the dental hygienist gushed about the blue sweater, the lovely scarf, and how my outfit just “went.” Then she practiced her own form of negative self talk by muttering, “Now I really feel like I need to go shopping.”

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Not-enoughness. We are all surrounded by it. Encouraged to go after more without enjoying what we have. I think about my blog, my writing, my running times, my friendships, my job, and yes, my wardrobe, and I compare myself to the world around me.

I don’t need to. We don’t need to. We only need to be our best self, and to be kinder to her or him. We can all use a good dose of perspective. We are all good enough. In this new season let’s step outside our heads, refocus our energy  and send out our light.

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Spring Green Fennel Millet Cakes
The Recipe Redux challenged us to celebrate patties and Paddy’s Day all month long. These patty cakes are versatile, crunchy, filling, slightly sweet, and have that clean-spring-green look and feeling about them that we crave as the sun comes out and the flowers and trees blossom again. Make up a big batch or two and snack on them throughout the week. 
 
1 cup cooked millet
1 cup cooked small white beans
3/4 cup shredded carrots (about 1 large) 
A large handful of spinach leaves
1/3 cup raw almonds, chopped and toasted
1 cup diced fennel bulb
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 egg or flax egg (1 Tbs. + 3 Tbs. warm water)
salt and pepper, to taste
  • Prepare millet and white beans. Shred carrots and chop and toast almonds.
  • In a food processor, measure in millet, beans, carrots, and spinach. Process until the beans are no longer whole, but make sure the mixture is not entirely smooth.
  • Pour out the millet-bean mixture into a medium bowl, and then incorporate the remaining ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste prior to adding the egg.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lay parchment paper onto a baking stone or pan. Using a round cooking cutter (about 3 inches in diameter) for structure, scoop the mixture into 8 cakes directly onto the baking stone.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes and then using a spatula, turn the cakes. Bake for 5 minutes more.
  • Remove from the oven and cool before eating.