A Bit Of History & A Little Grain: Spoon Bread

Hello from the other side of the first storms of the season, washing away the stench of smoke and the dust of summertime. Mornings now are frigid and damp, and it’s time for December baking.

Most Californians are familiar with horchata, one of several central-Mexican drinks which both refresh and feed. Horchata is made of ground rice, cinnamon, and sugar in its most basic form. Agua frescas were kind of A Thing back in the day — and instead of a rice-grain drink, central Europeans took water and grain and let it ferment — the addition of that yeast turned it into what historians called liquid bread. It’s interesting how many feed-and-refresh drinks from Mayan times there actually are – an exploratory visit to a tiny Salvadorean pupuseria introduced us recently to atol de elote.

Atol – the Spanish word for kernel – is grated fresh from the elote cob and combined with milk and cinnamon. Sounds a lot like horchata, right? Well, it’s exactly like horchata, in that it is sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet. So sweet. TOO sweet. We ordered it to go with burritos, and — nope. We were expecting something more like a naturally sweet chowder, and we got more of a milkshake carbfest. So, the little take-out cups sat in the fridge until we had a moment to figure out what to do with them.

And then we thought of spoon bread.

If you’re native Californian, spoon bread probably doesn’t automatically occur to you, either, but folks from the Southern U.S. and the East Coast likely think of it more often. (Like, MUCH more often. Did you know that The Linguistic Atlas survey of the middle Atlantic and Southern states collected over 330 terms for cornbreads? We are slightly out of control with this dish, people. Just SLIGHTLY.)

Historically, the world was first formally introduced to the dish in the 1847 cookbook THE CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE, by Sarah Rutledge, with the idea that the dish had evolved from the Algonquian languages’ names for baked cornmeal, suppone, appone, and apan. Awendaw cornbread, named for an Sewee tribal settlement outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is close-ish as a sibling, and probably what Rutledge referred to, but it’s …mostly unlikely, as traditional spoonbread, with its light, soufflé-style structure, is the furthest thing from plain cooked cornmeal. Still, however we got to it, spoonbread exists, and the now cold and gelatinous cups full of fresh corn and milk (some recipes call for corn starch as well) had a destination.

The idea wasn’t for this to set up properly like a cornbread, which could be cut into squares, nor was it to be a the consistency of a hoecake, which relies on the buttered pan and crisp edges to keep the inside creamy and the outside firm. This was much more dense bread pudding than soufflé — but it worked. Should you want to try it yourself, sans the side-trip to having the atol de elote languishing in your fridge in take-out cups, try this:

West Coast Spoonbread: Lightly whip two eggs with three tablespoons of canola oil, 1 tsp of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, and a scant teaspoon of soda. Add this to roughly three cups of corn frehly cut from the cob, and a cup of milk – whether coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk or a full-fat dairy is up to you. Add this slurry to 3/4 cup of finely ground polenta meal and 3/4 cup of AP flour. We added 3/4 cup of rye flour for color and nutrients, but you may substitute with AP, white, or white whole wheat as well. We also added an additional cup of frozen corn kernels just because. Pour into a very well oiled container, and bake for 55 minutes. Expect this spoonbread pudding to puff, and then subside.

Corn bread is the easiest thing in the world to vegan-ify, with plant milk and a couple of flax eggs. We often make it this way, but since we had this dairy-milk slurry, it made sense to just add eggs. This spoonbread is dense, slightly sweet, fresh, corn-y, and delicious, but we’ll be tweaking this a bit as we go on!

Happy December baking to you.

Through All The Tumult And The Strife

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My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Glorious Days of Gratitude to You!

Whatever you name it – Turkey Day, Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving – and whatever it means to you, we hope you have a relaxing and gratitude-filled long weekend. Even if it’s nothing more than a kick-off to Christmas shopping for you – truly, enjoy the time.

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We’ve been told our fruitcake production level is approaching “scary,” but truly, we don’t need a bakery, we swear. These little cakes don’t stay at our house, but tend to feed our community, to good effect. People are a little sweeter, in this time of stress and hurry, and that can only be A Good Thing.

This is the time of year to fling ourselves joyfully into the food of other cultures, acknowledging that this addition to our nation is for what we should be truly grateful. Unmired from the colonial mythos of saintly pilgrims and simple savages (neither saints nor savages in true history), we greet pancit, sushi, and tasty pupusas Salvadoreñas as part of this year’s favorite foods – and lately, we’ve discovered the tragically delicious La Michoacana, with their fruit sorbets of every imaginable flavor. We blame, with love, our friends Yadira and Jose-Luis for this tiny addiction.

And now it’s time for the list — privileges, duly checked, and acknowledged with gratitude:

  • The D&T show, which has been renewed for a 25th season next year,
  • Our snug little abode – which suits us perfectly for now,
  • Improving health outcomes – D’s recovered from metabolic freefall to gain a pound or three. Additionally, after only a year of fiddling with medication, T’s autoimmune disorder has stabilized. While health outcomes can change at a moment’s notice, the trick is finding joy in the now in which everything is just fine,
  • Our work – while D’s job is a lot like playing whack-a-mole some days, one can at least say he is never bored, and he is well-known and appreciated by the people in his company. Though work relationships aren’t the “40 years and gold watch” variety anymore, D has the skill to move in and out of companies, leaving friends behind. On T’s side, the sale of two more books with a new imprint, coming with the threat promise of a multi-city book tour is a gift she’s not going to squander,
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  • The joys of artistry – whether (badly) playing piano, (badly) embroidering, (badly) knitting, or baking (which some of us Can Actually Do), singing in our chamber group, or glue-gunning anything that won’t be still, we’ve had many ways to entertain ourselves and create serenity this past year,
  • The coming rains – at last – which should heal our poor state,
  • Is it odd to have an entire line to be grateful for sleep, and finally getting some? No? Good.

Obviously, there’s more – always more. Gratitude for the public servants who arrive at every tragedy – the “helpers” for whom adults tell children to look, and which every adult should strive to be. We can be grateful for small movements toward the restoration of checks-and-balances within our government. We can be grateful for our communities, in their richness and diversity, for the expansion of our families from blood to choice, for dresses with pockets. The paean runs ever on – how can we keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Echoes of Glasgow

Way back in 2008, we were dealing with a horrible neighbor in Glasgow who felt that he needed to bring the pub party back to his basement flat … beneath us. It was truly awful, and exhausting, dealing with police who wouldn’t take any action, and a pipsqueak of a neighbor who just couldn’t understand that we needed rest, even if he didn’t.

Fast forward to another flat, and 8 years later, when the neighbor upstairs (again in Glasgow) decided to put on an album … and promptly pass out, leaving us to endure horrible bass going all night long.

You can imagine our consternation when the bass started up last night, here in Newark. After a few hours of hoping and waiting, when 10 p.m. rolled around I phoned the police … who asked where we lived … and then told us they’d been getting calls since about 6 p.m. and there was nothing they could do about it.

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Above is a shot taken from our driveway, looking out towards the Dumbarton bridge. We’re perfectly situated for Shoreline Amphitheater to blast the bass all the way across the bay, directly towards us, and for us to have to endure some other city’s lack of noise ordinance. Grr.

-D

Midsummer

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And on the Fourth Day, there were Fireworks. And again on the Fifth Day. And also the Sixth. And then the Eighth. For behold, once begun, no one seemed to be able to figure out how to stop having Fireworks, but we’re about to hunt them down and help them


We are coming up on almost a year living in this little house. We arrived the last day of the month a year ago, to dirt and chaos. This month, we’re sorting closets as if we were moving again, winnowing all of our possessions in the yearly “why do we have so much STUFF!?” fit that T throws.

(But seriously: why do we have so much stuff??)

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Things are still lovely here in beautiful brown Newark. We still get weird bursts of humidity. The light is still way too bright. God’s AC still turns on faithfully at about half two in the afternoon, and the slough still provides us with an astonishing variety of weird smells and odd noises in the middle of the night. (It is disturbing to hear things swimming when one leaves the windows open.) The “bandit cats,” as D one day called raccoons when he couldn’t remember the name for them, continue to be huge and disturbing and stare fixedly at one from eerie, backlit eyes. The crow guard continues to be… nosy, and have taken to moving the patriotic pinwheel some realtor left in our yard from whichever planter we put it in. At least they’ve mostly been leaving the fountain alone…

The newest Wild Kingdom entertainment is that we have ground squirrels undermining the bank in the back of the house and watching hawks pounce and strike at them… and being startled and horrified watching an egret do the same thing. It is NOT nice to watch something with that long of a neck attempt to swallow… Ugh, never mind.
Nature, y’all.

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As delightful as all of that has been, we’ve been a bit restless. Several news agencies reported on the research behind a story run in the Guardian about how $117 thousand a year is “low income” in some places in California, and how ridiculous it all is to struggle so hard to make ends meet. We had hoped to stay in this area long enough to retire, but after our trip to the Netherlands and visiting with friends from other states, we are at long last taking a serious look at other options for a slower life. This doesn’t mean we’re giving up on our various projects. We’re working on media for next year’s season of our chamber group already, finding ourselves somehow involved in helping with graphic and website design. We’re still doing fermentation projects (Fermented green plum pickles = amazing), and not yet giving up our summertime joys of cycling and putzing around the Farmer’s Markets or wherever. We’re giving ourselves ’til August to get serious about thinking, but… the thoughts are already sneaking in.

For so long, we thought we should stay in California because there were more ethnically mixed families here, and some of the more painful, oblivious, and/or overtly malicious interactions one can experience being part of a mixed family were at a minimum here. But, as the world so handily proves these days, racists are everywhere. We may as well just say “forget it,” and take our chances elsewhere.

For a long time, we felt like we couldn’t leave our church community. That’s …changed, and not in a wholly negative way, but we’re in a weird middle ground where we don’t have kids, and find a lot of things are very families-with-kids oriented. We’re in that same weird liminal space that probably a lot of single people get lost in, the This Is Not About You But You’re Welcome To Sit Here Anyway place, which can feel a bit alienating.

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The thing about communities is that they aren’t static, and neither are we, and sometimes, what was a good fit doesn’t remain so. Currently the not-good-fit that many churchy people are experiencing is the cognitive dissonance of religious communities who remain utterly silent in the face of atrocious goings on in the nation. One can grow up on tales of bold apostles and a social justice God, yet see nothing of this echoed in the behaviors of modern day saints. What does one do, when one believes that truth doesn’t just set us free, but speaking our truth can set others free to articulate theirs? There has to be a way to …speak out to lift the burdens of injustice while also respecting a distinct separation of church and state. And so, we join many others who are now wandering to find that new middle ground. It’s something which feels a little risky, but things have already been lost in a very amicable way – so being intentional is probably the best way to go about things. Perhaps one should just take a plunge and let go.

This all feels very adolescent, this itch for risk and change and new challenges. Probably this is the point at which most people would have a baby or something – but we’re late bloomers on every level, as usual. Instead we’ll probably just get matching nose rings and take off for South America or something.

Or, you know, just donate a lot of our stuff and move. Again.

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At D’s office… put up anonymously.

Exit Signs

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You know you’ve been on vacation just that little bit too long when you’re contemplating rearranging the furniture in your rental. When you’ve been there long enough to be grumpy that there aren’t pans for baking, and you begin to start to examine real estate. Usually, one feels like vacations don’t last long enough, and that there’s not enough time to see friends and see the countryside, but this one was just long enough to see both, and wish to either stay forever, or go home.

We got to go out to Gemert to see friends one last time. T. has been challenged by a six year old to say her alphabet and count to an hundred in Dutch, so that’s her new life goal, so she can win a contest she had no idea she was entering (it is already uneven, since this child has Dutch in school, and has a more elastic brain. This is not going to go well). Mr. S. offered to introduce D. to his bosses, should he ever want a job here, and he will hold that lovely thought in stupid meetings where he’s annoyed with his current position. We will both hold the memory of the beautifully green countryside close, as we return home and summer bleaches the hills golden blonde.

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Our last full day was an Event, as the Market was in full swing again, and the organ grinder, of course, was back, playing TV theme songs and Beatles tunes. We ate at a bagel restaurant that had vegetarian options on the menu… as well as… bugs. No, really. For a bagel topping, you can get mealworms and crickets with your cream cheese instead of …jam? It was startling, to say the least… maybe next time. (Or, maybe never?)

After taking a gander at all of the things on offer, we visited an old-fashioned apothecary (for mosquito cures again) and met a New Zealander who has lived in Delft for twenty years – and her accent hasn’t budged a bit. We also met a woman from Edinburgh… who chased us down in the middle of the market because she was nosy enough to want to know why T was carrying a Macsween’s Haggis bag (which we got it in Scotland for groceries). We ran into a group of school kids on a huge scavenger hunt, and snagged our first cherries of the season! All in all, a good ending to a memorable trip.

And, then, of course, our exit flight was delayed, and our connecting hour and a half layover in Keflavik was delayed FIVE EIGHT HOURS. Apparently hurricane season, or something, has thrown storms along the path, and every single flight in this airport is delayed. The people trying to get to Texas have been here for EIGHT TWELVE HOURS, so we can’t complain. Much. Isn’t that always the way it goes? Here’s hoping they’ll announce our gate shortly.

… Happy Travels,

D&T

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A little National Poetry Month

You, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night

You, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe
and know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.

Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.

The wall is builded of your images.

They stand before you hiding you like names.
And when the light within me blazes high
that in my inmost soul I know you by,
the radiance is squandered on their frames.

And then my senses, which too soon grow lame,
exiled from you, must go their homeless ways.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours

Jazz Hands, Buttons & Irony

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A chilly, damp, late winter morning, and already the doves are creating their mindless racket atop the neighbor’s house. The fake owls do absolutely nothing to convince the doves of their ferocity, so they’re nesting next to it. Doves in chorus sound a great deal like chickens volubly remarking upon the laying of an egg, so you know there’s all sorts of raucous nonsense going on. Whoever likened the cooing of doves to something pure and mild clearly never lived anywhere near them. Typical.

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Inasmuch as the time change has thrown us completely – when will someone take seriously the idea to do away with such indignities!! – it is, at least, a sign that this winter of diseases is crawling to a close. If you’ve been one of those who have ridden the coughing carousel, unable to dismount, you have our empathy. Fortunately, after the January/February illness phase, we’ve been healthier, if exhausted. Not so much from dreich, gray skies and the eternal fogbank in which our house sits, but because of … enforced levity. Who knew smiling could be so tiresome? Oh, yes – our comedy show is coming up this weekend, and in this household, we are heartily sick of a.) lines concluding with “fa-la-la-la,” b.) Gilbert and Sullivan, c.) songs ending with “jazz hands” d.) songs containing tubas, e.) kazoos. And did we mention fa-la-las?!

On one hand, we frequently remind ourselves that our director’s insistence that we MEMORIZE such gems is staving off the encroachments of Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, should one keep singing songs with fa-la-las, dementia is practically assured…

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All snark aside, T has had her six month meeting with her doctor regarding her autoimmune, and after numerous blood tests and kidney tests, appears to be as well as medical science can make her just now. Though the grinding grey exhaustion continues, and the medication only ameliorates some of the symptoms, because it is so toxic, we’ve decided to keep it as minimal of a dose as possible. This means that the excessive collagen buildups, which produce thick harpy fingernail/claws continues – but the autoimmune continues to attack the nailbeds, soooo… the nails fall off. Neat, huh? The breakdown of skin also affects hair follicles, so while hair grows quickly, it also fills the brush and dusts the shoulders in a continual silent fall.

…one never imagines oneself as particularly vain until one is female and facing massive hair loss. And then, one discovers, oh, suddenly, painfully, that one is VERY VAIN INDEED.

Life is just full of opportunities to learn one’s limits, is it not? Wouldn’t it have been fun to learn about this limit, oh, never?! But, alas.

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One of T’s more random hobbies has been to take interesting old buttons and, adding them to various clips or jump beads or other findings, make some sort of hair jewelry or brooch or whatnot. It’s something mentally freeing to do whilst listening to podcasts, and has been a convenient means of creating small, handmade gifts for small people… and herself. Knowing T’s predilection for hair jewelry, for her birthday this year, her parents presented her with, among other things, a lovely set of bejeweled combs from Macy’s… the day after she’d hacked five inches from her hair and given up on doing more than wearing a headband.

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” came to mind, both awful and amusing at the same time. T. quietly rewrapped the combs and returned them, not having the heart to mention it to her parents.

Hair comes, and hair goes, and seasons, ever-changing. Fa-la-la-la.

A Mostly Pictorial Panko Lemon Garlic Tofu Recipe

Okay, so some people just HATE tofu. T, who grew up with it from childhood, LOATHED it until at some point in her twenties when… she got over it. It’s … just like any other ingredient, in that it’s a Thing to which you add Other Things and then it has flavor. Of course, meat allegedly has its own flavors even without additions, but that’s the blood, and we’re ignoring that. Meat (sans sangre) is flavorless, just as tofu is flavorless. As an ingredient, tofu is fine, and, even better, is lacking weird stringy bits and wobbly things you don’t want to identify. It’s a perfectly reasonable food, you just have to season it.

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This recipe is adapted from Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken‘s.

We realized that, like most people, we’d fallen into a meal rut, with winter casseroles and heavy, savory things like beans. Our attempt at something piquant and unique was this dish, which is both crunchy and tangy. It turned out surprisingly well, it was (mostly) easy and quick to prepare, and a good use of odds and ends for side dishes and whatnot. And, if you love someone vegan or vegetarian? It’s well worth preparing during this ridiculous Hallmark holiday… celebrating the tang of lemon as an antidote to the saccharine of the holiday. *cough* Or something.

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The marinade calls for two lemons, zest and juice; three cloves of garlic, agave, water, salt, and pepper. T left out the agave, and added a tablespoon of tapenade leftover from something, far more garlic than called for, and then she microwaved the lemons, which made them delightfully juicy. (And messy.) (She also did a frankly terrible job of zesting the lemons, because though frozen lemons preserve their great skin, after defrosting, the lemons are too juicy to work with, and the skin on Meyers especially is too thin and delicate, so, a word to the wise: zest the frozen lemons before defrosting, or better yet, before you freeze them…) It’s said that the tofu can marinate for up to three days in this blend, but we find that if we remove the water its packed in, tofu doesn’t need more than a half hour to marinate. We laid out our tofu chunks on a cookie sheet, stacked the sheets, and weighed them down with a cast-iron skillet. After an hour, we poured off all the water, unstacked the pans, and poured on our marinade. After about twenty minutes, we put the tofu in a series of zip-top bags, all of which proceeded to leak. (ANNOYING.)

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We’d forgotten how much of a chore the multi-step dredging food in flour and panko can be… since we’d not made anything which required these steps in about a year and a half, the last time we made faux crab cakes (squeeze-dried shredded zucchini, panko, Old Bay – tasty). Fortunately, after all the plate-of-flour-and-seasonings, plate-of-wet-binding, messy-sticky-hands thing, we discovered that this tofu dish works nicely baked – and there’s less a chance that your chef will get bored and forget she has something on the stove. Ahem.

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It’s easy to leave dish as vegan, as is, or, if you’re feeling particularly beleaguered that you’re ACTUALLY EATING TOFU and it’s NOT EVEN IN AN ASIAN DISH, you can use an egg whipped with water to make the recipe safely animal-product-y. The flour dredging is a place to layer in the flavors, to give your tofu the taste you prefer. We entirely forgot the nutritional yeast in the breading, but added pretty much everything else, including random herbs not called for, old packets of Parmesan from pizzerias, a sprinkle of Old Bay, even more garlic (because since when is three cloves enough????), and ground cayenne (because: we add it to EVERYTHING). Each time we ran short of the dredging blend, we remade it differently, and T didn’t follow any measurements at all. (It’s a wonder anything she makes ever turns out.) We did a test run of this dish after making something else, just in case, but it’s good enough to serve as a main dish with a couple of sides. The lemon shines through, and the exterior crunch is a nice contrast to the soft tofu insides. (It’s not as soft as it would have been, as firm tofu gets even MORE firm when you’ve a.) frozen it and b.) pressed out all of the water. If you dislike tofu for texture reasons, you might try that.) The recipe inventor finishes this with parsley and sliced lemons, but tonight, we’re going to make a buttery lemon sauce, which will really bring out that lovely tang. Pair this with steamed veg like green beans or asparagus, a lemon-infused rice, or lemon pasta, or savory roasted sprouts.

This was a surprisingly delicious meal, and perfect for the suddenly chilly evening. Here’s to home cooking, and the attractive nuisance that is a bored person in a kitchen.