Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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Voice: Lost and Found

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Hello again. It’s me. I’ve gone missing since early February, at least from this page. Those who’ve been blogging much longer than I have already know what I’ve discovered: use that voice or lose it.

For a host of very good but also not very good reasons, I’ve not written here for the past five weeks or so. I’ve missed the writing and I’ve missed the visiting that happens afterwards. I’ve missed these things much more than I ever thought I would when I first started this blog. The longer I went without starting or, in some cases, finishing a post, the harder it was to find my voice, my words. They were working full time in other parts of my life and my work and when I called upon them here, they shook their heads, turned their backs on me, and punched out on the time clock.

Then, my friend Sue called me up and asked me if I wanted some greens from her garden. I said sure. When Sue calls and asks me if I want anything from her garden, I always say yes. I’ll have more to say on this subject very soon. For the moment, though, let me show you the “few greens” that Sue brought me:

Sue doesn't just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Sue doesn’t just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Lettuces, fennel, kale, celery, arugula and arugula flowers which turn out to be delicious as well as pretty.

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

A little later she brought me some sweet peas which are not edible but sure smell nice.

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Today, my friend Polly gave me a dozen eggs. They were tan, perfect, and freshly laid by her four hens. “The girls have been busy,” she said when I wondered how she could spare so many.

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My friends didn’t just give me food, they gave me tonight’s meal and tomorrow’s breakfast and enough eggs to make a ricotta pie this weekend.

The gifts are like my friends: generous, beautiful, and so nourishing to body and soul. Without realizing it, they gave me everything I needed to write this post. The words came easily. There are only two that really matter:

Thank you.

Here’s how I dined tonight.

I turned some of Sue’s greens, fennel fronds, and the arugula flowers into a chopped salad. I chopped up some of my own mint and basil to add to the mix. Chunks of avocado, a little squeeze of lime, a drizzle of olive oil and some of the nasturtiums that finally showed up this year in my backyard.

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Notice the arugula blossom waiting for my first bite:

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The kale and what Sue calls her “spicy greens” made a great sautee. Olive oil, a little garlic and a bit of shredded parmesan:

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Intervention

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I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.

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Love, A La Mode

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When I moved from the East Coast to San Diego in the spring of 2002, I found myself a stranger in a place that felt like home. There is no explaining that kind of feeling, it just happens. It happens more easily when you land in a community of loving, welcoming people who begin as acquaintances and become friends.

Some of those very special people came over the other night and we did what seems to be becoming an annual event: a potluck and ice cream social. We make baked ziti (okay, my husband makes that), and ice cream (that’s me), and they bring wine, beer, salad, starters and sides. They also bring lots of laughs, warmth, and the bonds that have formed over ten years as we have met weekly to explore our faith, among other things.

But the other night was all about ice cream. When it comes to food preparation, I pick my spots and increasingly, my favorite spot (or as my mate has begun to call it, my obsession) is making ice cream. Maybe it is because when I make it, it is always for people I love. Even better, my favorite recipes involve ingredients made by people I love. As I prepare the custards and try new combinations, I think of their faces and what they mean to me and I swear all that adds a little something wonderful to the finished product.

Here’s how it works. They tell me what flavor they are craving, and I go hunting for the best guides. My first stop is, without fail, David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop” as well as his website. If I am making non-dairy, coconut-milk based ice creams (which are amazingly rich and delicious) I always use Rori Trovato’s recipe for chocolate coconut ice cream as a base and improvise from there.

And when it comes to adding a little spirit to the whole production, I can’t go anywhere but Peach Street Distillers because, well, I’m the distiller’s mother. But I’m not completely biased, their stuff wins awards from people with no blood ties at all so they must be doing something right.

The other night, we enjoyed some new twists on the old vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry standbys. Adding Peach Street’s Colorado Straight Bourbon to the vanilla and chocolate turned them into something extra decadent and addictive. Slipping a little extra of their Goat Artisan Vodka into the fresh strawberry frozen yogurt kept it soft and creamy and never interfered with the fresh strawberry taste. Of course, all the recipes I share below can be made without the alcohol and will be delicious.

Enjoy!

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Vanilla Bourbon Ice Cream

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s recipe for vanilla ice cream in “The Perfect Scoop.”

Ingredients: 1 cup of whole milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, 2 cups of heavy cream, pinch of salt, 1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, 6 large egg yolks, 3/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 4 tablespoons of bourbon (I use my favorite, Peach Street Distiller’s Colorado Straight Bourbon. If you don’t live near Grand Junction, here’s where you can find it or order it online.

1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.

2. To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2l) bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Set a strainer over the top of the smaller bowl and pour the cream into the bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Rewarm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan. NOTE: leave the vanilla bean in the warmed milk the entire time.

4. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.

5. Strain the custard into the heavy cream. Stir over the ice until cool. The vanilla bean will remain in the strainer. Rinse it and then add it back into the strained mixture with the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably (I say DEFINITELY) overnight.

6. Remove the vanilla bean, add the bourbon, and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. NOTE: The high fat content of this ice cream, combined with the bourbon will make the resulting ice cream soft and luxurious – it won’t get rock hard. I always plan to let it have at least 24 hours in my refrigerator’s freezer after the ice cream freezer has done its work. But if you can’t wait, slurp some right out of the ice cream maker. It’s delicious.)

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Chocolate Bourbon Ice Cream

This tastes like a frozen version of those rich chocolate bourbon balls that often make an appearance at Christmas. In fact, this ice cream, along with a coconut milk based “frozen pudding” are going to make an appearance this winter at our holiday feast. I’ve adapted David Lebovitz’s recipe for Chocolate ice cream in page 26 of “The Perfect Scoop.” This is a rich, dark chocolate – no milky sweetness – and, with the bourbon, makes for a particularly decadent experience. Full disclosure: I’m a chocolate fanatic and often eat it unsweetened. One of the great things about David Lebovitz’s recipes is that they go easy on the sugar so the flavor of the Ice cream is pure and wonderful. This recipe is for those who like their chocolate nearly ”straight-up” but it can be sweetened up by using chocolate with lower percentages of cacao or adding a bit more sugar.

Ingredients: 2 cups heavy cream, t tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder (I use Trader Joe’s which is not Dutch process and it works and tastes delicious), 5 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use Trader Joe’s bittersweet bar with 73% cacao), 1 cup whole milk, 3/4 cup sugar, pinch of salt, 5 large egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 4 Tablespoons of bourbon.

1. Warm 1 cup of the cream with the cocoa powder in a medium saucepan, whisking to thoroughly blend the cocoa. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer at a very low boil for 30 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring until smooth. Then stir in the remaining one cup of cream. Pour the mixture into a large bowl, scraping the saucepan as thoroughly as possible, and set a mesh strainer on top of the bowl.

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2. Warm the milk, sugar, and salt in the same saucepan. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

3. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the chocolate mixture until smooth, then stir in the vanilla. Stir until cool over an ice bath.

4. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator (at least overnight – the longer the better), then add the bourbon and freeze in your ice cream maker according to  the manufacturer’s instructions. If the cold mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.

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Fresh Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

So easy and so fresh. Using Greek style yogurt (I get it from Trader Joe’s), makes it even creamier and gives a smoother taste.

Ingredients: 1 pound +, of fresh strawberries, rinsed and hulled, 2/3 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons of vodka or kirsch, 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Slice the strawberries into small pieces. Toss in a bowl with the sugar and vodka, stirring until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, stirring every so often.

2. Puree the strawberries and their liquid with the yogurt and lemon juice in a blender, food processor or bowl using a hand processor. Blend until smooth. If you wish, press the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove seeds (I always do this).

3. Refrigerate for at least one hour and freeze in your ice cream maker. I often leave it in the fridge overnight to make sure it is really really cold before freezing.