Keep it Simple

June 7, 2021

“Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone in being alone
Hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home”
~ From “Message in a Bottle” (1979) by the Police

I recently heard “Message in a Bottle” the classic 1979 song by The Police, being reviewed on one of those reaction YouTube channels by a couple of twenty-something twins from Gary, Indiana (who seemed to love it). I had forgotten how much its melody and lyrics could move me and was struck by how appropriate they are to the recent (and current in many places around the world) human experience of the pandemic. No matter how many online visits we had, there was still a profound sense of isolation felt by most of us.

Now that we are beginning to get back to normal life again and sharing experiences and emotions with each other, I’ve been struck by how universal the feelings of anxiety, depression and uncertainty have been.  Most people who have shared these feelings with me assume they are the only ones still shaking off some “pandemic slump”, but I’m guessing that most of us have been silently sending out an emotional “SOS” into the void. We all share more than we realize. We have not been “alone in being alone”.

As we begin to heal and reconnect, it helps to remember the grounding benefits that simple, daily rituals can provide. Those little repetitive actions we take, like stretching every morning upon waking, making the bed, giving thanks before a meal, brushing the cat or walking the dog, can keep us connected to our inner anchor and the earth beneath us. Especially now, as we ramp up our activities and begin to fill out our schedules with new appointments and postponed events, carving out just a few minutes at day’s end to be silent, take a walk, watch the sunset or to do a simple visual meditation can help to keep us steady as we move forward.

Here is a short, simple visualization you can do to center yourself. You only need a few minutes at the end or perhaps beginning of your day:

Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Begin by breathing slowly, deeply, evenly, in and out of the nose if you can, fully filling and fully emptying your lungs.

Now imagine yourself on a clean, sandy beach somewhere lovely. See the soft, gentle waves coming in towards your feet with your inhales, and rolling back to the ocean with your exhales. See yourself holding a small piece of paper and a pen or pencil. There is an empty glass bottle, sealed with a small cork lying on the beach next to you. Write a short message of inspiration or encouragement on the paper that you yourself would like to receive. Roll the piece of paper up and seal it inside the glass bottle. Now imagine yourself tossing this bottle out into the waves. See it slowly and gently being carried out and away by the ocean, moving further away from you with each exhale and finally disappearing beyond the horizon. Finish your visualization asking that someone, somewhere will receive your metaphoric message of hope and cheer and be uplifted by it.

I’m guessing that, after completing that short, simple visual exercise, you will feel just a bit uplifted yourself.

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

~~~~~~~~~

A nice end of day ritual is stopping to enjoy a pause with a refreshing beverage or little bite to eat. I don’t drink alcohol, but I do enjoy a moment to mark the end of the work day with something special. An apertivo does not have to contain alcohol to be sophisticated and interesting. Below is my recipe for Junipurr™, a simple syrup flavored with herbs and spices that recall the flavor of gin, without the the alcohol. I named it after a fave childhood cat of mine, whose name was also inspired by the juniper tree. I’ve also included four recipes for alcohol-free beverages using the delicious syrup, to help you shift your vibe from “still doing” to “all done”, when you want to do so in a more moderate fashion.

Junipurr™
(Juniper Berry Apertivo Syrup)
I based this herb & spice-infused simple syrup on a recipe for bathtub gin. I left out the alcohol and turned the infusion into a simple syrup that can be used to flavor beverages and add a bit of sophistication and intrigue. Below the syrup instructions are four recipes for alcohol-free apertivo-style cocktails. You can find edible dried juniper berries online or in the spice aisle of any well-stocked grocery store.

Ingredients
16 oz/455ml of filtered or spring water
1 teaspoon dried juniper berries
4 cardamom pods (open to use only seeds inside & discard shells)
2 teabags of organic hibiscus tea
A pinch (1/8 tsp/5ml) of ground allspice
1 teaspoon fresh organic lime or grapefruit zest
1 small bay leaf
One 2-3″/6-7cm branch of fresh rosemary (use 1″/2.5cm, if dried)
2 cups natural cane sugar

 

Heat water in a kettle over high heat. While water boils, add juniper berries, cardamom seeds, hibiscus teabags, allspice, zest and bay leaf to a heat-proof glass container that will hold more than 2 cups of liquid. When just boiling, turn off heat and pour water over spices and tea bags. Stir, and let cool to room temperature. Add the rosemary, seal/cover tightly and set aside to rest in a cool, dark place for 24 hours (can put in fridge if weather is hot).

The next day the mixture will have a lovely deep rose color. If you would like a more intense, gin-like flavor, you can crush the juniper berries a bit with the back of a spoon before stirring. Stir well before straining.

Filter the liquid through a mesh strainer or a piece of clean gauze.

To make the syrup, add the filtered infusion to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the sugar and keep stirring until it dissolves completely. Reduce heat to simmer and stir until the mixture is reduced to half of its original volume (10-15 minutes or so). Remove from the heat and allow to cool, uncovered, to room temperature.

Pour cooled mixture into a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Store in refrigerator. It should keep about six months.

You can stir 1-3 teaspoons of the syrup into sparkling water, drizzle over fresh fruit, ice cream or cheesecake or create cocktails, such as the alcohol-free apertivo-style beverages in the recipes below:

Junipurr™ n’ Juice
In a tall glass or goblet, stir 1 tablespoon of the syrup with 2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice. Stir, add ice cubes and top with chilled sparkling water. Garnish with a sliver of grapefruit peel.

Jun and Conscious
In a tall glass or goblet, add 1 tablespoon of Junipurr™ syrup, add ice, top with tonic water and stir to combine. Garnish with lime peel.

Singapore Sane
In a tall glass or goblet, stir 1-2 tablespoons of Junipurr™ syrup with 2 tablespoons tart cherry juice (unsweetened is best). Add ice and top with sparkling water. Garnish with lemon peel.

Italian Sunset
In a tall glass or goblet, stir 1 tablespoon of the Junipurr™ syrup to combine with 2-4 tablespoons blood orange soda. Add ice and top with sparkling water. Garnish with a slice of lemon or orange peel.

 

In-Personally

May 2, 2021

“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward, like everybody else.”
~ Umberto Eco

 

 

There is a Los Angeles Italia Film Festival that annually showcases Italian films at a local theater. As with other events during the past couple of years, pandemic concerns and limitations pushed most of the festival online. Like other adjustments made in these times, changes such as these are often frustrating. In some cases, however, these shifts provide opportunities to enjoy events that one would otherwise have to miss.

That was the case for me and this year’s festival. In previous years I have often had to skip films I wanted to see because work or other commitments prevented me from getting to the theater at the specific time a film was being shown. This year, with most of the offerings available online, I was able to enjoy almost all of the films I was interested in.

In particular, the recent Oscar-nominated live action telling of the classic story by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio, a film an Italian friend called “a masterpiece”, was one of my must-sees. It didn’t disappoint. This version of Pinocchio, starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, is indeed a masterpiece. It is one of the most enchanting, visually stunning and heartbreakingly-beautiful films I have seen in years. It adheres to the story in the original 1883 book more closely than other versions and is therefore much too scary and emotionally intense for young children. However for older children and adults, I highly recommend it. It is available on most streaming platforms. Both Italian with English subtitles and English dubbed versions are available. Here is a trailer:

 

 

The young star of the film, Federico Ielapi (who, like Roberto Benigni, did his own English-language dubbing for the film), was supposed to visit Los Angeles at Oscar time last year, to support the release of the film in the United States. He looked forward to visiting the local amusement parks and other landmarks. This didn’t happen due to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, so he planned to make the trip in 2021. Unfortunately, while there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel in Los Angeles, the pandemic is far from ended around the world and travel is still interrupted. Like the character he played, young Federico is waiting to live out his dreams “in person”.

As more and more Americans and other citizens of the world become vaccinated and we begin to live and love more “in-personally”, both the metaphor of a puppet’s wish to become real and the surreal adventures on his journey to becoming a human boy feel personal.

The recent CDC guidelines on fully-vaccinated persons no longer needing to wear masks when outdoors (unless in crowded scenarios) or indoors when hanging out with other fully vaccinated people have been liberating for me, having reached my “FV Day” not long ago. It’s hard to fully express how uplifting, hopeful and liberating it feels to make this shift.

Recent new lockdowns announced in other countries, and especially the current crisis in India are reminders that COVID-19 has not evaporated. However, re-openings continuing and news of more and more folks being vaccinated and cases going down, at least locally, show that progress is being made.

Pinocchio having finally become a human boy did not mean he would never again make a mistake, quite the contrary, as humankind consistently proves its imperfect nature. But, by gaining patience, perseverance, compassion and humility during his “wooden years”, Pinocchio the boy was able to more richly experience, appreciate and share life with those around him.

 

 

That is my wish for us all, as we begin to move toward that light at the end of the tunnel, and to live and love “in-personally”.

~~~~~~~~~

Farro is a delicious cousin of wheat that’s full of fiber and high in protein and vitamins. It lends a wonderful texture and flavor to Farro Salad (Insalata di farro).

Farro Salad (Insalata di farro)
This salad is easy to make and, if you use quick-cooking farro (available at Trader Joe’s), the preparation time is even shorter.  Take this to a lunch with friends or on a picnic.  It makes a lovely vegetarian dinner or side dish when served warm, but it’s also delicious the next day.

 

About 1 & 3/4 cups uncooked farro
(Trader Joe’s 10 Minute Farro is just shy of this amount)

1 (15oz) can of garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
One clove of garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 shallot, finely chopped (about 2 rounded tablespoons)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup chopped celery hearts (with tender leaves)
1/2 cup slivered, unsalted almonds
A pinch of crumbled dried rosemary

 

Cook farro in salted water according to package directions.  Drain of excess water (use a mesh strainer if you have one).  Stir garbanzo beans into farro while it’s still warm and fluff with a fork.  Season with a little bit of salt and pepper and set aside.

In a large salad bowl, add 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Make a few cuts in the end of the garlic clove and rub into salt all around bottom of bowl.  Add vinegar and shallot; let sit a few minutes.  Whisk in oil until blended, then discard garlic clove.  Season with pepper and more salt, if desired (Parmesan cheese is salty, so be conservative with your salt amount).

Add the cheese, celery, almonds and rosemary.  Add farro and garbanzo mixture.  Toss everything together well.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  You can store leftovers in the fridge; it will be delicious the next day, but make sure to bring salad to room temperature before serving.

Serves 6

 

Spring in My Step

March 29, 2021

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,
And the Spirit of Love fell everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest…
~Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant” 1820

 

 

Several days ago I received a vaccination against COVID-19. The subsequent intense and uncomfortable 24 hours of flu-like side effects, followed by a few days of a minor headache and mild fatigue, were totally worth it, as I look forward to near-future lengthy hugs with friends and loved ones and all the other myriad possibilities that victory over this pandemic will manifest.

Although the actual Spring Equinox was March 20th, today is the first day I am authentically feeling the anticipation of newness, warmth, healing and hope. It’s difficult to put into words all the emotions that are rising up inside of me, ready to bloom as soon as my “fully vaccinated” status date arrives.

How I feel at the moment is best expressed by the short video embedded above. Thanks to Rabbi Jordania Goldberg for sharing this with me. The video was created by TBWA/Paris, an advertising agency in Boulogne-Billancourt, France. The public service ad was produced for the SNCF, the national French railway company, to encourage train use in order to combat climate change. A brief “making of ” video, in French with English subtitles, is below.

Happy Spring!

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

Lighten up as you step into spring with this classic Sicilian salad of Fennel, Orange and Olives.

 

Fennel, Orange and Olive Salad
This light, refreshing salad is surprisingly delicious and satisfying. Easy to assemble, it can be made up to a day ahead. Make sure to choose organic seedless oranges for their flavor and so you can safely use the zest. You can make this right in the serving bowl or pack into small covered mason jars for a picnic. The measurements below will serve two and can easily be doubled or tripled for more guests.

 

1 medium fennel bulb
1-2 organic seedless oranges (1 large or 2 small)
1/4 to 1/3 cup sliced, pitted black olives (about 2 oz)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

 

Zest orange peel onto a piece of plastic wrap and set aside.

Working over a medium to large bowl, cut oranges in half, peel and remove as much of the pith (white part) as possible, discarding the pith and breaking up the orange segments into the bowl. I like to do this process over the bowl so that I don’t lose any of the juice from the oranges. When all the segments are in the bowl, add a generous 1/4 teaspoon of the zest (save any remaining zest for another use).

Rinse fennel bulb under running water and trim off very bottom of stock, discarding outer part of bulb and tough stock parts. Cut the bulb into chunks and slices and add to bowl, reserving some of the fennel fronds for garnish. Add the sliced olives (you can also buy whole olives and slice into bowl).

Mix everything well, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and add salt and pepper to your taste. Mix again thoroughly and taste one more time in case you’d like to add a bit more salt or pepper. Top with reserved fennel fronds and serve. You can also make ahead and chill until serving time. Just toss again before serving.

 

“I’m not a cat”

February 17, 2021

“Nothing like a little judicious levity.”
~ From The Wrong Box, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (1889)

By now, most of you have probably seen the short video of a lawyer accidentally visually represented as a cat during a courtroom hearing via Zoom. Usually, when I come upon an amusing video clip such as this, I enjoy a brief chuckle, followed by numerous “Yes, I’ve seen that; so cute!” replies to the dozens of friends who have laughed at something and want to make sure I don’t miss the latest online hilarity.

This particular clip, however, I never seem to tire of, regardless of  how many times it has been shared with me or featured on a comedy or news program I might be watching. The face of that cat, combined with the gentle frustration in the lawyer’s voice, tugs at my heartstrings in all the right ways and brings a smile to my face, no matter how much pandemic fatigue I may be fighting in a given moment.

Maybe it’s that he comes across as just a regular human, trying to get through this pandemic situation and all of its added complications and frustrations like the rest of us. Perhaps it’s because I happen to have an enormous affection for cats, which makes the plaintive feline version of his face even more sympathetic to me. I’m not sure. I only know that this short little video, which the presiding judge thankfully shared on YouTube, shifts my mood from stressed to serene, from annoyed to amused, from “How am I going to get through another day of this?” to “OK, I guess we are all in this together” within a few seconds.

So, in that spirit, although I’m sure you’ve already seen it multiple times, here is the Cat Lawyer. Hope it brings you a smile, no matter what kind of day you may be having:

~~~~~~~~~

For a bit of delicious levity, try Smokey Skillet Pizza.

Smokey Skillet Pizza
This super-easy homemade pizza is cooked in a frying pan! I used ready-made pizza dough from Trader Joe’s refrigerated section. You could also make your own dough, if you prefer. Frying the dough adds an extra layer of flavor. The smoked mozzarella and simple tomato basil sauce make for a mouth-watering result. If you have left-over dough, fry it up for breakfast the next day and serve it topped with real maple syrup… yum!

 

1 (14.5 oz) can of organic diced tomatoes with juice
(or two cups of diced, fresh hot house or organic in-season tomatoes with juices)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 & 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 or 5 fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin strips
Salt and pepper to taste
1 (16 oz) package of prepared pizza dough
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Olive oil for frying (you’ll want about 1/2 cup for a 10-inch pan)
6 oz smoked mozzarella cheese, grated or sliced thinly
Optional: ground or flaked dried red chile pepper for the table

In a medium bowl, mix tomatoes, garlic, 1 & 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and basil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

On a clean surface, using a little flour, shape and stretch dough into 1 large, 2 small or 4 mini pizza shapes. You want to make the crust on the thin side, so that it will cook all the way through quickly.

Choose a frying pan with a little depth, not like a soup pot, but not flat either.

Cover bottom of pan with a generous layer of oil. Heat oil over medium-high heat until a piece of dough sizzles when dropped in.

Fry one crust at a time. Place in hot oil and cook until the bottom is golden brown. Turn with tongs and a spatula and cook the other side. Remove from hot oil and top one side with cheese. The heat of the crust will begin to melt the cheese. Top this with tomato sauce (sauce goes on top for this version of pizza). Place pizza in toaster oven or under a broiler at 350°F for a minute or two to heat the toppings thoroughly.

Serve immediately.

Serves 2 to 4

 

Loss, Renewal, Hope

January 28, 2021

“I…I’m a new day rising.
I’m a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight.”
~From “Times Like These” by Foo Fighters (One by One, 2002)

 

Just before 2020 became 2021, a friend of over 25 years passed away due to COVID-19. I had just seen him, along with his wife Sharon, less than a month earlier and both seemed fine.

Marshall McKay was a great man. Instrumental in securing economic independence for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, he served ten years as Tribal Chairman. He was the first Indigenous chairman on the board of the Autry Museum of the American West, a founding member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and was appointed to the Native American Heritage Commission. He also served as a member of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (I still have the souvenir pencil he was kind enough to bring me from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris).  You can read more about his many accomplishments and contributions, as well his fascinating personal story in this recent Los Angeles Times article here.

This past year has been a tough one; so much has been lost. Now a new year has arrived. Vaccines are beginning to roll out and hope shines with ever increasing light once again.

Today’s full moon is a reminder that night and light reveal themselves in continuous cycles. Sometimes the darkness seems all-encompassing, but the lack of light is only an appearance. The Sun shines just as brightly, and will always rise again, whether we see the Moon reflecting that light fully, partially or not at all.

“I’m a new day rising…”

The quote that opened this blog post is from a song performed by Foo Fighters during the recent inaugural special Celebrating America. Hosted by Tom Hanks, the program featured some cool musical performances and inspiring appearances by Americans from all walks of life, including former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The evening ended with a truly spectacular fireworks display. I’m including the YouTube of the entire special here, in case you missed it. It’s worth the 90-minute watch time:

When you look up at the Moon tonight, let her remind you of night’s quiet beauty, and thank her for reflecting the Sun’s light, and reminding us that morning is just over the horizon.

~~~~~~~~~

Scrub off the old and prepare for the new, both figuratively and literally.  This Mediterranean Mint Foot Scrub will help you take care of the latter.

Mediterranean Mint Foot Scrub
This invigorating scrub will leave your feet nicely-scented and softer and help to refresh tired legs. The recipe makes plenty of scrub for one person or for two to share. Be sure to use true essential oil of peppermint, not fragrance oil or extract. Plant essential oils may be found at health food stores, Whole Foods markets or online. Also, since this scrub is for use on your skin, the largest organ of your body, be sure to use a lemon or orange that was grown free of pesticides.

1/2 cup organic sugar
1/2 cups fine sea salt
Zest of one lemon or one orange (yellow/orange part only)
3 drops peppermint essential oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a medium bowl, mix all ingredients together thoroughly.

Scoop up a small amount of scrub in your hands and rub well into your feet, lower legs and knees. Give extra attention to the heels and any other rough places (avoid cuts, broken skin or blisters). Rinse off under the shower. The dead skin cells will wash away, leaving your skin smooth and lightly scented with lemon, olive oil and mint. Your shower/tub may be a little slippery from the oil, so be mindful when standing up or stepping out.

Store any leftover scrub in an airtight glass or plastic container.

Use within one week.

 

The Longest Night

December 21, 2020

“I still believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and true love. Don’t even try to tell me different.”
~ Dolly Parton

Happy Winter Solstice!

It’s officially winter, the quiet season. In spite of the vaccine beginning to roll out, we are in the middle of a peak in this pandemic, so harmonizing with the hibernating theme of winter feels appropriate, although somewhat of a challenge with Christmas and the New Year approaching.

Like Dolly Parton declares in the quote above, I always was and still am a firm believer in Santa Claus. Even as a young child I was curious about how things big and small worked. To my mother’s relief, I often answered my own questions about the probable physics or metaphysics of how Santa delivered gifts to children around the world in one night (albeit one of the longest nights). I hypothesized that his reindeer and sleigh somehow flew faster than the speed of light, therefore traveling through time (after all, Einstein had proved this was possible). Our house did not have a chimney, but I informed my mom that Santa had obviously mastered a technology similar to the Star Trek transporter, in order to beam himself from the rooftop into our living room.

I also decided that there must be a “Cataclaws” and (my kitties having been mostly good all year) I would put out stockings for my cats, a tradition that continues to this day in my house.

This year, kids have very 2020 questions about Santa. During a recent Sesame Street Town Hall, a 6-year-old asked Dr. Anthony Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984) if Santa would be able to visit all of our homes, given the pandemic restrictions. Dr. Fauci replied:

“I have to say, I took care of that for you because I was worried you would all be upset. So what I did a little while ago, I took a trip up there to the North Pole. I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself. I measured his level of immunity, and he is good to go. He can come down the chimney; he can leave presents; he can leave, and you have nothing to worry about. Santa Claus is good to go.”

I am assuming that Cataclaws is good to go as well.

Meowy Christmas everyone! And Happy Mew Year!

Since we are all doing things just a little bit differently this year, here are two unique recipes for absolutely delicious cookies to leave Santa Claus: one sweet and one savory. Both Avocado Orange Cookies and Savory Basil Pesto Cookies would be welcome treats for a dessert, un apertivo, a snack and to leave for Santa.

The Sweet One:

Avocado Orange Cookies
Avocado replaces most of the fat in this recipe, making for a softer cookie with a hint of winter orange flavor and the bonus of avocado’s heart-healthy fat. You want a fully ripe, creamy type of avocado, such as Haas for this recipe. Substitute lemon zest for the orange zest to make Avocado Lemon Cookies. Recipe is easily doubled.

 

1 large egg
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 medium, ripe avocado (you will need 1/2 cup smashed pulp)
Zest of 1/2 an orange
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or sunflower seed oil
1 & 1/8 cups All-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Generous dash of ground allspice
Optional:
1/2 cup dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 375°F

In a medium bowl, beat egg with sugar until lightened. Stir in vanilla.

In a separate bowl or on a plate, mash avocado until completely creamy. Add to egg and sugar mixture. Add zest and oil. Stir to mix well.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda salt and allspice. Mix well with a fork.

Add dry ingredients to bowl with wet ingredients and mix well.

Mix in chocolate chips (optional), if using.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and drop dough by rounded tablespoons, about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until edges are light golden brown.

Let stand 2 minutes and move to a wire rack to cool completely (or eat one or two warm, if you can’t wait).

Makes 18 to 20 cookies

 

Savory Basil Pesto Cookies
(Biscotti salati al pesto di basilico)
These savory cookies are perfect to accompany soups, salads or as a little something-something for a snack or apertivo. The avocado replaces the butter in this shortbread-type recipe, making for a digestion-friendly but flavorful treat. You want a fully ripe, creamy type of avocado, such as Haas for this recipe. You can use Parmesan or Pecorino Romano for the cheese here, but I usually use Pecorino for its tangier flavor.

 

1 large egg
1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
1 medium, ripe avocado (you will need 1/2 cup smashed pulp)
Zest of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto
1 & 1/8 cups All-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Optional:
1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts

 

Preheat oven to 375°F

 

In a medium bowl, beat egg with cheese.

In a separate bowl or on a plate, mash avocado until completely creamy. Add to egg and cheese mixture. Stir in lemon zest and pesto. Mix well and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix flour with baking soda and add to bowl with wet ingredients.

Stir in nuts, if using.

Mix with a fork until combined (mixture will be crumbly).

Line a baking sheet with parchment and drop dough by rounded tablespoons. I used a 1 & 1/2 tablespoon measure exact, but if you don’t have that size, a rounded tablespoon works fine. Space cookies about 2 inches apart. Use a fork, pressing down gently into a criss-cross pattern, to flatten slightly.

Bake 12 to 14 minutes, or until edges are light golden brown.

Let stand 2 minutes and move to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 18 to 20 savory cookies

 

Tunnel Vision

December 11, 2020

“Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”
~ Louisa May Alcott

 

 

Recent news of vaccines on the way has brightened the light at the end of the 2020 tunnel, but we are still in the middle of it, and it can seem pretty dark at times.

Jews around the world are in the middle of celebrating Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights. I’m not Jewish, but I find the Hanukkah story a beautiful metaphor for these difficult days: a lamp that held only enough oil to keep it going for one night, but burnt for eight nights, until help, in the form of additional sacred oil, finally arrived. In a sense we are all trying to keep that light in our hearts and spirits going until help, in the form of the vaccine, and its availability to everyone, arrives.

Lately, many evenings, mornings or afternoons, I can feel like whatever keeps me aligned with the light inside is almost depleted. Then a friend will send something that makes me smile or laugh or I will be reminded of someone or something that I love, that lifts my spirits, that reaffirms how fortunate I am, and my inner light shines for one more night.

Many of us have seen our livelihoods reduced or disappear altogether as a result of the pandemic. There is so much need evident for others around us too. It can feel overwhelming.

In addition, we have been separated from each other by necessity for so many months, holiday time only intensifies the need to connect physically; but for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors and the world, we need to maintain our distance and keep that light of patience and hope going for a bit longer.

So the holidays will have to be different this year. It is good for all of us, no matter our faith or belief, to remember times in history when it wasn’t safe for people to be together, for religious reasons or social ones, as they would have wished or as we have become accustomed to doing today. Making adjustments in our expectations for annual traditions is a small price to pay for keeping our fellows safe.

So, in honor of doing things a little differently this year, I will be offering unique recipes for the season. Later this month, I will be a sharing couple of alternative cookies for Santa (one savory!), which I plan to post here at Summer Solstice.

Whether you are celebrating Hanukkah or the idea of some crunchy, not-too-sweet, battered and fried apples as tonight’s comfort food just sounds yummy, I hope you’ll make and enjoy my recipe for Apples Tempura. They are delicious with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. I’ve also included my recipes for Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce and Black Sesame Ice Cream, in case you want to go all in with the concept:

 

Apples Tempura
with Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce
and Black Sesame Ice Cream

Tender apple slices, fried in tempura batter and dusted with a hint of powdered sugar, these not-too-sweet treats are a nice change from apple pie and much quicker to prepare. They make a fun snack, unique dessert or nice bento box treat. This recipe will serve 6-8, but they can be wrapped and reheated in the oven the next day, if your household is smaller. I’ve used Fuji, Gala and Envy apples for this recipe, but you could use whatever you like to use for pie, or have on hand. Keeping your tempura ingredients super-cold, will make for a better result.

Below the Apples Tempura instructions, I’ve included two simple recipes for Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce and Black Sesame Ice Cream, if you would like to dress them up for a special dinner.

For the Apples Tempura you will need:

2 tablespoons honey
3 medium to large apples
1 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
Several dashes of ground cinnamon
Sunflower seed oil, for frying (enough to be 1 inch deep in your pan)
1 large egg
1 cup ice-cold sparkling water
Powdered sugar, for dusting

 

Combine the honey with 1 cup of water inside a plastic zip back or medium bowl (your bag or bowl should be big enough to hold your apple slices).

Peel, core and slice apples about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Soak the slices in the bowl or bag with the honey water for about 30 seconds (this prevents browning). Drain and pat dry completely.

Put 1 cup of the sifted flour in a small bowl and the remaining 1/2 cup onto a plate. Stir a generous dash or two of cinnamon into the flour on the plate.

Heat the oil to 360° in a small, but deep sauce pan or frying pan (a smaller pan will require less oil). If you don’t want to bother with a thermometer, add a single corn kernel to the oil as you begin to heat it. When the kernel pops, remove it and you are ready to fry.

Make the tempura batter while the oil is heating:

In a medium bowl, beat the egg until the yolk and white are just mixed together.

Stir in the ice-cold sparkling water and mix with the beaten egg.

Add the 1 cup of flour to bowl with egg mixture. Mix with a large fork or chopsticks. Do not overmix – some lumps are OK.

Before dipping your slices into the batter, lightly coat each apple slice in the plate with the cinnamon flour, so that all surfaces are coated (this will help the batter to adhere).

Using chopsticks, a spoon or fork, toss floured slices into batter to lightly but thoroughly coat.

When oil is ready, add battered apple slices slowly, so as not to crowd the pan and/or lower the oil temperature. Fry battered slices, turning a few times, until golden.

Remove to drain on paper towels. Continue frying remaining apple slices.

Keep tempura batter cold in fridge between batches.

Dust fried apples generously with powdered sugar, mixed with a few dashes of cinnamon.

Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream or at room temperature as a snack or bento box treat.

You can also get fancy and serve with one or both of these:

Black Sesame Ice Cream with Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce
Black Sesame Ice Cream is a favorite in Japanese Ice Cream shops. This version takes a shortcut by stirring crushed toasted black sesame seeds into prepared vanilla ice cream. 

Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce couldn’t be easier to make. Its secret and subtle saltiness comes from a hint of soy sauce. Black sesame seeds can be found in the spice section or bulk bin of your favorite health food store, gourmet store or Asian market.

Black Sesame Ice Cream

6 tablespoons black sesame seeds
1 quart good-quality vanilla ice cream, softened

Toast sesame seeds in a non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Grind seeds to a powder (but not a paste) using a mortar and pestle, plastic baggy and rolling pin, or clean spice grinder. Stir black sesame powder into softened ice cream.  Return to freezer and freeze until firm. Serve topped with Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce (recipe follows).

Shoyu-Salted Caramel Sauce

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup organic sugar
1 teaspoon organic soy sauce

Combine ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring, and bring to a boil. Let boil two minutes, stirring often. Turn off heat and let cool completely (stir a few more times as mixture cools). Use to top ice cream, sorbet, fruit and cakes.

Makes about 1/4 cup of caramel sauce.

 

On the Breath of Dawn

November 22, 2020

“We are people borne of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown

Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found
And I can breathe
Breathe now”

From the song “Breathe” (2009), album No Line on the Horizon, by U2 Lyrics by Bono

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about the lyrics quoted above. We are all waiting to exhale, or perhaps inhale – to breathe in the fresh air of a healed world.

Autumn is a season in-between summer and winter, in between inhaling and exhaling. We are in-between the end of one presidency and the beginning of another. We are at both the beginning of the holiday season and at the end of the year. We are in the middle of a pandemic, awaiting the time when we can truly walk out, into the sunburst street and sing our hearts out, without worrying about harming ourselves or each other.

This winding down season, symbolized by changing leaves and cooling weather, holds within it the promise of a new year and a new hope just ahead. We may have reasons to sing and celebrate, or give comfort to one another with a hug or a warm hand, but we have to do so safely.

We will soon be past the worst of the collection of chaos that is autumn 2020, but for now, we must make peace with the in-between. This time period reminds me of that tiny space between breaths, between an exhale and the next inhale, where everything is promise and potential; when a beginning is embedded in an ending.

During these often stressful times, it’s a good idea to set aside a few minutes of calm during each day to let yourself breathe: to fully fill your lungs and fully empty them – slowly, deeply, evenly. As you do so, notice the space – perhaps only a second or less – between your exhale and the next inhale. During that moment between your breaths, think or say or see the word “Thank You!”

If you are missing anyone this holiday, have any sadness about the past, worry about the future or you are feeling lack in the present, you may not know exactly what you are being thankful for. Proclaim it anyway. The reasons will eventually reveal themselves.

~~~~~~~~~

Quinoa Stuffed Pumpkins make a stunning side dish for a traditional turkey dinner or the tasty centerpiece of a vegetarian one.

Quinoa Stuffed Pumpkins
These yummy individually-sized pumpkins are baked and stuffed with quinoa and mushrooms. They are special enough to serve as a meatless main course. Instructions for toasting pumpkin seeds are given at the end of the recipe. This recipe serves 3, perfect for a 2020-sized Thanksgiving dinner, but you can double or triple it to serve more people.

 

Roasted pumpkins:
3 small sugar pumpkins (about 4 inches across)
Butter
Salt and pepper

Quinoa filling:
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water (a little less for humid climates)

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
An 8oz container of cremini mushrooms, sliced (about 2 cups sliced)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Scant 1/8 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese

 

Preheat oven to 425°F

Cut out top 1/3 of pumpkin. Set aside. Scrape out seeds and membrane from inside pumpkins. Coat insides with butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Do the same with inside of pumpkin tops. Place pumpkins with their tops on a baking tray and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until inside of pumpkins are tender when pierced with a fork (you may need more baking time if making a double or triple recipe).

Meanwhile, make quinoa stuffing.

Using a mesh strainer, rinse quinoa under cold water and drain it thoroughly.

Place quinoa and water in a large saucepan with tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until all water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). When cooked, quinoa will be soft and a faint ring will appear on the outside of the grain.

While quinoa is cooking, heat butter and olive oil in a separate skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes.

Lower the heat to medium-low and add the garlic, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms have softened. Remove from heat and add the mushrooms to the cooked quinoa. Stir in the cheese.

When pumpkins are done, fill with quinoa stuffing and serve with lids on top or to the side. Let guests know they can eat out the quinoa filling and then scrape up the cooked, seasoned pumpkin flesh with their fork to enjoy as well.

Serves 3

 

To enjoy the pumpkin seeds:
Rinse seeds in a mesh strainer to remove orange membrane. Dry with paper towels and lay out on a clean surface to dry overnight. You can eat them raw or roast them using the following method:

Preheat oven to 375°F

Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds onto a baking sheet in a single layer. Place pumpkin seeds in a bowl, drizzle with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, season with some salt and pepper and stir to coat. Spread seasoned seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 5 to 15 minutes, or until seeds are light brown and crispy.

 

Come Together

October 18, 2020

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen or diminish your light… Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.”
~ John Lewis

Have you voted early in-person, filled out your ballot and mailed it or dropped it at an official drop box?

If you have yet to get that vote in, or if a friend, colleague or loved one still needs encouragement or assistance with voting, here are some online resources to help you vote early and track your ballot:

This voting guide put together by NBC News has state by state information on early in-person and mail-in voting. Scroll down to select your state and view deadlines, rules and procedures for voting. You can also check to see if your state allows you to track a vote-by-mail ballot after dropping off or mailing: Plan Your Vote

This Newsweek article is another resource for information on tracking your mailed or dropped-off ballot: States Where You Can Track Your Mail-In Vote

When We All Vote is another helpful site with voting information for all states plus links to each Secretary of State, where you can find early vote and ballot drop-off locations for your area:
When We All Vote – Vote by Mail info
When We All Vote – Know Your Rights as a Voter

 

Here are some resources for California voters:

You can find California Early Voting locations and ballot drop-off locations by clicking here.

Voter’s Edge is a wonderful non-partisan resource for information on candidates and ballot measures. This site gets better every year. Put in your zip code and a page comes up with where to vote and links for all the ballot info for your specific area. Under Candidates, click on “see list” and all the candidates for every office come up, including judges and other non-partisan races. For each candidate, you can click on topics like “education” or “community experience” to get a feel for their qualifications, world view and sometimes their political tendencies.

The Ballot Measures section is a huge help as well. Click on “see list” and then on each measure/proposition you would like to research. There are nice, very simple explanations of each measure as well as arguments for/against and names of who is supporting or opposing.

Click here for Voter’s Edge site

I’ll leave you with this very good advice from When We All Vote:

“Please Note: While some vote by mail request and return deadlines are close to Election Day, we recommend that you don’t wait. If you plan to vote by mail, request your ballot as soon as possible and return it early either by mail or in-person at a designated drop box or local elections office.”

So, whether you vote early in-person, by mail or by dropping off your ballot at an official location, get that vote in; make your voice heard and honor the right that many around the world have fought for, some have died for and some are still prevented from exercising.

“Our American heritage is threatened as much by our own indifference as it is by the most unscrupulous office or by the most powerful foreign threat. The future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

~~~~~~~~~

Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen are once again using the power of food to help communities, this time on early voting days and election day, to serve nourishing meals to folks who may have to vote on their lunch break or skip dinner or breakfast to wait in line at a polling place. Click here for more info and how to help: Chefs For the Polls

In honor of my favorite Spanish-American chef, here is my recipe for Baked Salmon with Honey and Pimentón – easy to make, delicious to eat and pleasing to serve.

Baked Salmon with Honey and Pimentón
Pimentón (Spanish Smoked Paprika) gives this dish its subtle but distinct flavor. You can find it in any well-stocked spice section or online. Be sure to buy Wild Alaskan Salmon (I prefer the Sockeye variety). Alaskan Salmon are certified sustainable and higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

 

1 lb. Alaskan wild-caught salmon, cut into four pieces
(I recommend Sockeye Salmon for this dish)
1/8 cup (2 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
1/8 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon pimentón (Spanish Smoked Paprika)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
Fresh thyme sprigs, for garnish

 

Preheat oven to 400°F

In a small dish, combine olive oil, lemon juice, honey, pimentón, salt, thyme and pepper.

Rinse the salmon and pat dry. Place the pieces skin side down on a foil-lined, low-rimmed baking pan/sheet. Baste salmon with 2/3 of the sauce.

Bake the salmon for 10 minutes. Check for doneness. Cook a few more minutes, if necessary.

Serve immediately, topped with the remaining sauce and garnished with fresh thyme sprigs.

Serves 2 (double recipe to serve 4)

 

I heard the news, baby

October 7, 2020

“Nature’s music is never over; her silences are pauses, not conclusions.”
~ Mary Webb


My souvenir from the Staples Center, 2007

 

1978 was a memorable year for me. As a freshman in High School, navigating all of the changes and challenges that come with being a teenage girl, music was a source of passion, inspiration and refuge. I would spend hours in my room listening to my favorite albums.

When the band Van Halen released their self-titled debut album, it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Nearly every song became an anthem. “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” was background for some memorable make-out sessions with a high school crush, while “Little Dreamer” felt like it had been written just for me, a young girl whose curiosity and imagination were vehicles for escape from a sometimes less than ideal reality. “Eruption”, Eddie Van Halen’s virtuoso guitar solo track, had to be listened to with eyes closed.

Years later, while I was living in Pasadena, a neighbor of mine who was older than I and recently retired, shared that he had resumed playing the guitar after giving up the instrument as a teenager. When I asked him why he had lost interest in playing as a teen, he corrected my assumption by sharing a story about a local guitar competition he had entered.

My neighbor told me that he grew up determined to be a professional guitarist and played and practiced hours and hours on end so that he could become the best. His developing skill eventually gave him the confidence to enter a local Pasadena guitar competition. He was scheduled to play last and, after hearing the other contestants, he was sure his performance would wow the judges. There was one entrant left to play before him, a small and somewhat awkward kid who was a few years younger than he. The skinny kid got up to play and blew everyone away with his virtuosity. After hearing this younger kid play, my neighbor said he decided that he could never be that brilliant and, right then and there, gave up his dream of playing guitar. The kid’s name was Eddie Van Halen.

Van Halen the band went through many changes over the years, as did I. I can’t say that I’ve loved every iteration of their line-up, nor every song released since since that eponymous debut album; but decades later, those first songs still inspire passion and inspiration.

A concert can be defined, not only as a performance, but also as an agreement in purpose, feeling or action. Ludwig van Beethoven was quoted as saying:

“Music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.”

Thank you, Eddie Van Halen, for reconciling the earthly with the divine through your guitar.

~~~~~~~~~

Zucchini are still in season. These Eggplant Zucchini Panini are the best kind of comfort food: delicious, nutritious and simple to make and serve.

Eggplant and Zucchini Panini
You can also use a panini press or a Foreman-type grill to make these. I use the old-fashioned method, detailed below.

1 small to medium eggplant, washed and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 large or 2 small zucchini, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 or 2 ripe organic tomatoes, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
8 slices of Italian bread or 4 panini rolls, cut in half
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, cut in half
8 oz of smoked mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly
16 to 20 large, fresh, organic basil leaves

 

Brush eggplant slices with olive oil on both sides and sprinkle with salt. Lightly season zucchini and tomato slices with salt and freshly-ground pepper.

Brush one side of each bread slice with olive oil and rub with cut side of a garlic clove.

Divide cheese slices among 4 of the bread slices and place on top of sides with olive oil and garlic.

Grill eggplant slices until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Place hot slices of eggplant on top of cheese.

Grill zucchini 3 to 5 minutes per side. Place cooked zucchini slices over eggplant slices and top with slices of tomato, then basil leaves. Top with remaining bread slices, with the olive oil side facing towards basil leaves.

Working one at a time, carefully place each sandwich in grill pan over medium heat. Weigh sandwich down with a smaller, heavy pan (such as cast iron). Heat sandwich about 1 or 2 minutes and carefully flip over to heat the other side, using smaller pan to press sandwich down. Repeat with remaining sandwiches.

Cut each sandwich in half and serve warm.

Serves 4