Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I just wanted to make sure this was ok with you

During the few days my mom spent in hospice care, we took turns visiting with her, making runs for food, and sitting quietly with other family members. I was stretched out in a big, ugly chair reading when my brother leaned through the door and said, "Mom wants to talk to you." I gave him a confused look and he responded, "She just needs a minute." He had a crazy look in his eyes and they conveyed a sense of urgency I had never detected in him. When we were kids, he was terrified of being late for school, and because he was the oldest, it was his job to walk my sister and me. To ensure we arrived on time, he ushered us out the door. Justin had urgency in his eyes then too but that day in the hospice was more intense. More pleading.

I crossed the hall and saw that my mother was alert and serene. I put my hand on her forearm, and my fingers rested upon her paper-thin soft skin. That day had been a very good day. Less than 12 hours before, my mom had emerged from hallucinations around 3 am and asked my brother for ice. Justin, who never left the hospice, almost fell out of his chair when she so quickly snapped back to reality.

Later that morning, it was my turn to sit with her. I was wearing a nasty wintergreen short-sleeved sweatshirt from Goodwill. Before drifting off to sleep she said, "You look so nice in that color." A big, genuine smile spread across her face and she looked tired. She was trying so hard to brighten a room with such a gloomy atmosphere. (For the record, I am wearing the sweatshirt now. I have always made unhealthy attachments to old clothes. This one is going to be particularly hard to shake.)

An hour later the mayor of the city came to say hello. I was sitting by my mom’s bedside reading. Or trying to read but doing anything to remove myself from the reality of the situation. I ignored him, not realizing or caring who he was. After an awkward minute of questions and monosyllabic answers, my sister came in the room. She was wearing a beautiful purple shirt and immediately recognized the mayor. Always so gregarious and sweet, Katie's presence relaxed me. "Oh! Mr. Mayor!" she exclaimed. "How nice to see you! How nice of you to come!" My sister’s friendliness quickly swept up my anxiety and the awkwardness hanging in the air.  

After a few minutes, my mom began explaining that if she felt tired, she could ask people to leave. "My doctor said I shouldn't get too excited," she joked. My siblings and I were filing out behind everyone else, and she said sharply, "I didn't excuse you!" She wanted a few minutes alone with her children. She was always in charge.

I am grateful to say that she gave us the opportunity to say anything we needed. I have read a bit about losing a parent and I recognize this opportunity as unique. Some parents whither away over weeks or months, while their loved ones watch in confusion. Before the patient really grasps the severity of their situation, they are too debilitated to pose this question. On the other end of the spectrum, death can move swiftly and not allow this opportunity. Because my mother was an immensely smart woman, she recognized her approaching death and made time for this question.

“Is there anything you want to say or talk about?” she asked. I can’t remember who went first so I’ll deliver this now in birth order. Justin, who is currently getting his PhD in one of the most complex mathematical sciences, thanked our mother for supporting him as she did and always being his biggest fan. Katie, who gave our mother the most number of grey hairs in her teenage years, asked if she was proud of her. I, the daughter who was always described as the quiet one, told her that I’d be ok.

Just a few hours later I was standing next to her with my hand on her forearm and she was proposing another question. Katie sat at the foot of the bed and Justin flanked her other side. She explained about her health condition, as if we hadn't picked it over thoroughly in the other room out of earshot. Her words blurred together. My vision blurred. Someone handed me a tissue. She wanted us to have an understanding of what was happening to her. "I think I'm going to die soon, and I just wanted to make sure this was ok with you."

NO! Of course that's not ok with me! Are you kidding? The only thing that would be ok with me is for you to get your ass out of this bed and make a full recovery. This is stupid. This whole thing is stupid. I don't want you to die. Who am I going to be without you? No, this is not ok with me.

I didn't say any of these crass things. I nodded, unable to do anything else. Doug came in the room and she asked the same question of him. Leaning forward in his chair, he let a pregnant pause hang in the air as he studied the tiles on the floor. “You’re gonna be missed by a lot of people,” he offered in his subtle Midwest way. His brown eyes were shiny and bloodshot and I commended this kind response. In the previous two weeks, Doug hadn’t said much other than, “It just fucking sucks,” and “I’m sorry you’re losing your mother,” before embracing one of us or lighting a cigarette.

When she had spoken to the four of us, she rearranged the blanket on her legs and continued, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen logistically. My legs feel heavy and I know it is time.”

The next morning Justin called me around 5:30 in the morning. Leave it to mom to make sure we were all up before the sun. Less than a mile away, I was the first one to the hospice, and Justin met me at the door. "Maggie, I just wanted to warn you. Mom has already passed,” he explained cautiously. “She died just minutes after we got off the phone."

I nodded and walked down the hall. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye as we walked, unsure if I was in shock and waiting for me to start wailing.

But I didn't. I knew this was eminent and I wasn't ready to cry about it yet. She had granted me the opportunity to say what I needed to say. I wasn’t expecting to watch her cross over to the other side. I didn’t need to say goodbye one last time. The tears would reach me when I would listen to Motown or the Beatles en route to and fro her siblings’ houses, when I’d need an opinion about making a big decision, and when I wish she were having another discussion with me long after the dinner plates had been cleared.

Waiting for Katie to arrive, I sat in the room with the big ugly chair and flipped through a photo album she had made. The front picture was from Mother's Day, when Katie had made her own edible arrangement.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Emeril's Wedgie Salad

1/2 pound blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 large heads iceberg lettuce, cored, washed and patted dry

In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the blue cheese, lemon juice, Worcestershire, hot sauce, salt, and black pepper. Using the back of a fork, mash the mixture together to form a thick paste. Drizzle in the olive oil, stirring continuously with the fork until the mixture is creamy. Add the buttermilk and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Cut the heads of lettuce into 4 wedges each. Spoon about cup of the dressing over each wedge. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Country Breakfast Casserole

You can mix up this egg/sausage/hash brown casserole and chill it overnight. Bake it on a Sunday or holiday morning to serve with fruit and sweet rolls.

12 oz spicy or mild bulk pork sausage
0.5 cup chopped onion
4 cups frozen (now thawed), diced hash brown potatoes
1.5 cups shredded colby jack cheese
3 beaten eggs
1 cup milk
pepper to taste

In a large skillet, cook sausage and onion until no pink remains. Drain.

In an 8 x 8 x 2 inch baking dish (2 quart size), layer potatoes, half of hte cheese, sausage-onion mixture and remaining cheese.

In a bowl combine eggs, milk and pepper. Pour over cheese.

Bake, covered in a 350˚ over for 50-55 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Cut into square. Pass the salsa. Makes 6 servings.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monkey Bread

I cut the recipe in half made mine in cupcakes instead of in a bundt pan. Still delicious!

4 packs refrigerator biscuits (country biscuits), cut into quarters
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1.5 sticks butter
0.5 cups brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350˚.

Cut the uncooked biscuits into quarters. Place them in the bag with the white sugar and 1 tablespoon or cinnamon. Shake to coat and place in sprayed bundt pan.

Melt butter and add brown sugar and remaining cinnamon. Streusel over top.

Bake for 45 minutes and immediately remove from pan by flipping onto a plate.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pistachio Tofu

2 packages of firm tofu, sliced into cutlets or squares
1 quart nondairy milk
0.5 cups of freshly ground flax seed
1 pound salted pistachios, shelled and toasted
1 cup almonds
1/4 cup fresh thyme
1/3 cup chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 cloves garlic, minced
In a food processor, chop almonds until it has the consistency of parmesan cheese. Boil flax seed with 1 cup of water until thick (approx 20 minutes). Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix the boiled flax seeds and milk.

In a food processor, place the pistachios and herbs. Pulse 5 or 6 times until the mixture is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl. Add flour, salt and pepper, and garlic.

Dip tofu in the flax seed/milk combination and coat with pistachio and flour ingredients. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Spinach Balls (Vegan)

4 10 ounce packages of frozen, chopped spinach

4 cups Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing

2 large onions, diced finely

0.5 cups freshly ground flax seeds

1 cup almonds

2 garlic cloves, minced

1.5 cups melted margarine

1 teaspoon thyme

salt & pepper

Boil ground flax seed with 2 cups of water until mixture becomes thick (approx 20 minutes). Chop almonds in a food processor until they have the texture of parmesan cheese.

Cook and drain spinach well. Mix all ingredients together. Chill 2 hours or more. Roll into balls. Freeze until ready to use. When ready to serve, bake 30 minutes until golden.

Spinach Balls

4 10 ounce packages of frozen, chopped spinach

4 cups Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing

2 large onions, diced finely

8 medium eggs

1 cup parmesan cheese

2 garlic cloves, minced

1.5 cups melted butter

1 teaspoon thyme

salt & pepper

Cook and drain spinach well. Mix all ingredients together. Chill 2 hours or more. Roll into balls. Freeze until ready to use. When ready to serve, bake 30 minutes until golden.

Pistachio Chicken

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 shallots , minced
2 blades lemongrass , chopped
3 pieces (1/2-inch) fresh ginger , thinly sliced
1 cup sweet white wine
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
2 tablespoons Chinese black bean chili sauce
1 can (8 ounces) coconut milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter , softened and cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 brind boneless chicken breasts (see brine recipe below)
1 quart buttermilk
1 pound salted pistachios , shelled and toasted
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh thyme
1/3 cup chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Grape seed oil to taste
1 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns

For the sauce: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add the tablespoon of butter, the shallots, lemongrass, ginger slices and wine. Reduce to half. Add the broth, red curry paste and Chinese black bean chili sauce and reduce to half again. Add the coconut milk and reduce to half a third time. Remove from the heat and whisk the bits of butter into the sauce until all the butter has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. If you reheat, do not allow the sauce to boil or the butter will separate. **For the record: I never remember mom making the sauce. Does anyone?**

For the chicken: Remove the chicken from the brine and cut in half. With a meat mallet, pound until 1/4-inch thick and place in a nonreactive bowl. Pour the buttermilk over the chicken, cover, and let sit for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator.

In a food processor, place half of the pistachios, half of the parmesan cheese, and half of the herbs. Pulse 5 or 6 times until the mixture is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat this step with the rest of the pistachios and combine with the other pistachio mixture.

Preheat the oven to 250°.

Place the flour in another bowl and season it with salt and pepper. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and prepare it for assembly. Preheat a large nonstick sauté pan over medium-low heat with a thin coating of grape seed oil. Remove one breast, shake off any excess buttermilk and dust the breast with flour on each side. Dip only one side of the chicken back in the buttermilk and press pistachios onto that side. Repeat that step with all the chicken. Place the chicken in the sauté pan, pistachio side down, and cook for 2–3 minutes. Turn and cook the other side for 2 to 3 minutes. Place in the oven to finish cooking for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove, let rest for 5 minutes and then slice to serve with the Coconut Chile Ginger Sauce.

Brine for Chicken (Makes 1 1/4 cups) 
Place the salt, sugar, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and 2 cups cold water into a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

When brining chicken use a nonreactive pot or plastic container. Completely submerge the poultry in cold water and weigh it down with a plate. Add the brine and cover. Let the chicken sit in the brine for at least two hours, preferably overnight.

Cauliflower and Roasted Garlic Soup

3 heads garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 white onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 heads cauliflower; 3 cored and thinly sliced, 1 broken into small florets
8 sprigs thyme, tied with twine, plus 1 tablespoon chopped
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken stock, plus more to thin, if desired
2 cups heavy cream, plus more to thin, if desired
2 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut off tops of garlic heads. Place each on a piece of parchment-lined aluminum foil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Wrap tightly in foil, and bake until garlic is very soft, about 1 hour. Let cool. Squeeze garlic from peel; set aside. Increase oven to 350 degrees.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add onions; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until soft but not browned. Stir in sliced cauliflower, thyme bundle, and wine. Simmer until wine is reduced by half. Add stock; bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove cover, and simmer until cauliflower is soft, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

Remove thyme and stir in cream and 2 1/2 cups Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in garlic. Puree in batches until smooth. Thin with more stock or cream, if desired. Return to pot; keep warm on low heat.

Heat remaining 1/4 cup olive oil over high heat in a saute pan until almost smoking. Add cauliflower florets, stirring until browned. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer pan to oven and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in thyme, parsley, and remaining 3 tablespoons Parmesan. To serve: Ladle soup into bowls, and garnish with cauliflower florets.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Short Stories Make Me Angry

I love short stories. I love the way writers draw a little piece of a picture, and if they've done a good job, the reader will be able to infer the whole drawing. I relish in the ambivalence this allows for the reader and the creativity needed from the writer.

Over the holidays I picked up a copy of the 2003 edition of the Best American Short Stories, and I am elated to report that I have finally finished it. It took me 10 weeks because the guest editor, Walter Mosley, selected shorts that address the extreme of human emotion. When I read the introduction, I hoped reading stories about death and the grieving process would be a good exercise for me. In some ways it was, I always appreciate knowing that other people have gone through similar experiences, even if it is fiction. Before starting each story, I prepped myself by reading the few paragraphs hidden in the back of the book written by the author about the scope of their story. This usually seemed benign, and I would tear into another short story with high hopes.

Unfortunately, with end of each story I became more sad and frustrated. Written words have always been my best means of communication. For those of you who knew my mother, she didn't leave much room for others to talk, and I grew up as a very quiet and introspective little girl. It was hard for me to envision that in the middle of my book I'd slam it down on the bed next to me and wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to let the kind and altruistic son die. It's ludicrous! Where is the poetic justice? Now this blind, poor father has to continue his life as a shell collector without company. Sometimes I'd gleam a tiny morsel of a lesson but it lasted brief seconds, and it was not worth an hour of reading.

My ire had reached a new level with literature through this book. With the end of each story, I never wanted to start the next but felt hopeful that the new one would make me feel different. When I'd reached the final story, I wasn't looking forward to redemption but now this book became a challenge. It was a battle of wills and I couldn't back down. I had to finish it. I told my Aunt Polly about the contents of these stories, and she agreed that it might be a good opportunity to help me grieve but that I shouldn't be masochistic. As I sat in a nail salon with my head hung over the book in my lap, I read the description of a mother on her deathbed from the vantage point of her two daughters. "Maggie!" my aunt shouted across the room. "What are you reading?" knowing well enough what I was reading. I gave her a solid stare and tried to turn the corners of my mouth up. "You look so sad."

I put the book down for that day, but after a good night's rest I was enjoying an early morning by myself in Starbucks. I feverishly combed through each sentence. It was wrong for the author to describe a woman in such a state while depicting the tension shared between her children. These things are immensely personal. I felt like I was reading about my own mother's death and the stress put on my family. I would never write about them in such a forward way, and it was dragging out all the emotions tied to this event. How could anyone do this? It was torture. Nonetheless, I kept reading, knowing that it would all be over soon enough.

That's when that guy sat down. I'm within paragraphs of closing this book and that guy wearing a brightly colored Dr. Huxtable sweater asked to share my table. Over the course of 5 minutes, I learned that he continually hurts himself seeking adrenaline, he is going through his second divorce (his first wife took his money and children, the second took his heart, but he will fall in love again because he likes to hurt himself), he works third shift at a grocery store, that guy has bunions, and he is 42. He extracted my age and insisted that the difference was comparable to that with his second ex-wife, although she was older. That guy liked being significantly younger than his partner because, well, he liked being a boy toy. That guy giggled, and shrugged his shoulders as he contemplated a younger partner. Somehow I managed to not punch him and made my way to the bagel shop down the street.

I sat as far away from anyone as I could at a table with only one chair. I sipped orange juice and bit into a delicious bagel. As I read tears ran down my cheeks, one hand gripped the edge of my chair and the other squeezed a snotty napkin. My knuckles were white. Air passed through my teeth when I finally closed the book. I jumped up, wet cheeks and all, and ran out of the shop, inadvertently scowling at the other customers.

Now I can put this book on the bookshelf. The feeling that I desired when I read it, that feeling of being free of sadness, the craving to let life continue, has come back to me. Finally.