Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Sounds of Goats

Some people have fetishes or obsessions that might seem slightly reasonable: shoes, Japanese women in cartoons and maybe even expensive cars imported by appointment. Me, I like ears. I've always liked ears and can even tell you it's not the shape of ears as much as thinking about all that happens inside of them. As if each of us posses not just one, but two black holes that are somehow connected to our inner selves. Or something like that.

What impresses me the most with ear usage are people who can hear perfect pitch. My grandmother, Anita, could be sitting at least 50 yards away while I was practicing the piano (as quietly as I could mind you for fear of her) and yell out if I was flat or sharp. I think it was her savant trait that she was never too shy to show off, well maybe not show off as much as make sure you were aware of it. Sure enough, she'd be listening to a radio program and tell you when someone was off, correct them by humming it correctly and then go back to listening. Just like that. Correct it and move on.

I cannot say I inherited anything remotely close to Anita's skill, but I 'd like to think in the handing down of genes, I share Anita's short stature and at least her attention to sound, minus the savant category. Musically, I never really showed much promise, I think Moonlight Sonata was my peak at the piano and for the clarinet, I think that peaked in eighth grade along with my interest in playing it at all. Despite my stint as the lead singer for a band, "Beige is the Color of Love" yes, that was in the 90's where we'd play songs like "My Mother's Broken Vase" I cannot say I've ever remotely excelled in music.

Despite all these attempts, I would like to think I could get myself out of a real sonnet bind if I needed too, Italian or Shakespearean. And like having the ability to hear perfect pitch, it's a skill rarely used for anything employable other than teaching. But really, let's face it, sonnet binds are quite rare if at all real. As you might imagine, I am completely making up "sonnet binds" in order to give myself some kind of credit for something.

What I do know is I can look at pictures of the Trevi Fountain, but it is the sound of an Italian ambulance or the scent of chestnuts even people yelling over each other in Italian, water running on concrete and falling onto cobblestones at night that make me miss Rome. You have to experience the sounds of a place to gather details that have an intimate connection to memory. And smells, well, that just takes you further into the black hole of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is something I associate with sounds as much as scent. This past week my mother, who recently purchased two goats, was talking to me on the phone and in the back ground I could hear her little baby kids talking back to her. It was all it took and suddenly I could smell the acid scent of their hair, see their beady black eyes and suddenly, I was back at the goat ranch.

Like my short stint as a lead singer, I once milked goats for a short period of time. Just one summer on a ranch in Southern Oregon. The plot isn't important behind the story of why I was there as much as how much I learned about goats. From milking them, to feeding baby goats with bottles to even learning their sounds and personalities. Goats are not pets. They are people dressed in fur suits with big ears. Yes, as you might imagine it, I was fascinated with their ears and with their sounds.

I will refrain from tangents or stories about the ranch at this moment. But what I do want to share is a poem. I know it is not a sonnet, but at least it is a poem about goats, for my mother, who's listened to my endless stories and rants and would bring home stethoscopes from work so I could practice listening. Enjoy.

Growing Up with Goats

The summer I chased a ghost out in a field
of cornflower blue, I learned to milk
a goat. No machine to rely on, just hands
finally not too small. And the ghost, or boy
more suited to Steinbeck, is nothing
but a backdrop to a barn full of ears
alert to all the wind sounds of goats.
Rough purr munching chip up to sky,
a rush of waves in a full stomach
giving all they have made in a day
back to hands above a glass jar.
When empty, goats want nothing to do
with you. They don't even want to look
at you, which is when I started to think
of my mother, when I started to be grateful
for my mother who has given all she has made
back, even when I just ate and left.
Sitting alone in a barn on the Oregon coast
with night shutting down sounds. Ghosts
silenced. The goats just keep eating. Stars turn up
their lights and the milky moon smiles
back with blue eyes, like you. You, so full.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beets, The Back Story

Last night's picnic is today's rain. But I'd like to think of rain as the back story of spring. Behind all the blooms of cherries and scents of lilac are gray days of pressed clouds. Without days like today, our green would not be as vibrant. Thus is true for the beet or beetroot (to hopefully broaden our audience here) who sit long under ground and then rise to be unearthed in muted tones and once roasted--bleed all over your plate and fingers. The phoenixed root vegetable.

Beta vulgaris, the common beet, has an interesting history or back story as I like to imagine it. The first recorded history found beets along the Mediterranean in Europe and Northern Africa. And like most food, it spread thanks to violence, riots and a rise in popularity during war when roads were shut and people had to eat what grew in the ground--wild in their backyard. Yes, even our cozy chestnut folks, we can give thanks to Alexander's army storing them and throwing out their shells as a trail to mark their conquests. The beet, as you might imagine, have a far less glamorous past or story.

The Romans were the first to eat the actual root. Previously, just the greens were eaten by the Greeks and used for medicinal purposes--digestive benefits mostly. Conquering Europe was just part of the Romans claim to fame really as much as it was spreading the notion that the common beet root was edible. But perhaps my favorite back story lies in a wanna be Roman, Napoleon, who opened a school directly for the study and uses of beets--mainly for its sugar. And as you might have guessed it, the Napoleonic Wars helped for beet notoriety when sugar cane was no longer being shipped to France via England, something needed to be done.

Yet some could argue that beets have another history, quieter and with even less pomp. The common beet grew in monasteries and in peasant farms all across Europe and thrived in sandy soiled Poland where is grew wild. Borscht has kept Poles and Russian warm and fed since the 14th century. Somehow I see the beet living more in the flat fields of Poland then the gardens of Babylon.

Regardless of which back story you want to believe, beets certainly leave an impression even if it is the day after--as my plate above shows. Their modest shy appearance somewhat bulbous-ugly become poppy-pretty on a plate. Please don't limit your love for beets as a mere winter vegetable roasted in a pot pie. Think winter's white is summer's bloomed red. So in honor of the Romans who weren't too proud to eat the bulbs, here's a salad maybe even Napoleon would have eaten somewhere taking a break from conquering half of Europe. Enjoy.

Roasted Beets & Orange Caprese

6 beets, washed, roasted & sliced 1/4"-thick
2 oranges, supreme
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4"-thick
3 tablespoons fresh mint, chiffonade
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, drizzled
Balsamic Vinaigrette, drizzled
1 tablespoon orange zest

1. Wash and trim beet greens. Wrap in foil, individually, and roast in the oven at 400 for one hour.
2. Let beets cool for ten minutes, then peel and slice them. Reserve.
3. Supreme an orange is really just cutting the peel and pith with a knife and then segmenting each section.
4. Chiffonade the mint, here's to pay homage to Napoleon. Chiffonade simple means ribbons. Remove the mint leaves from stem. Lay each leaf on top of one another, roll like a cigar and then with an knife or scissors, cut into thin ribbon-like pieces.
5. Arrange on a plate: first beet slice, orange supreme, mint.
6. This also looks good as a tower, as my friend-chef Benjamin Freemole, who will soon be famous (trust me), tells me, "the higher the tower, the more expensive it will look."
7. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and end with a garnish of orange zest.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Elephant, Tulip & Chickens

There seems to be few things in this world that you can title without tripping on metaphor. It might be why I like how children decide on names. For example, a friend of mine has a son who is two and named their four chickens, grandma, snake, pumpkin and river. As if all that he knew, either good or bad, could be explained in those birds--which too often as adults we don't even see as birds, but eggs, pastoral, a Sunday meal, soup stock, compost.

Most days my head wakes long before my body, but I try to sometimes remind myself to name what I see, to catalog the concrete-wood floor, robe, teeth, water and peppermint. I feel lucky currently because this naming game is easy with what I see each morning from my window--elephant, tulip and chickens. The elephant I unearthed out of the Tiber, the tulip was picked by my husband and the chickens are a strange but playful reminder of daily living. A trilogy of sorts. But here I am getting metaphorical. Let's go back to naming things and being present.

Presently, I am approaching another birthday. I tend to be, if possible, more contemplative around birthdays as if they are some personal "new year" or time for resolution and reflection. So in times like these, I do what any almost sane person would do to avoid the usual malaise of aging, I make chocolate mousse.
See, here I am being grateful for having chickens because good eggs make good mousse. Mousse interestingly enough translates as froth or foam in French and if you have fresh farm eggs, your frothed chocolate might even be French worthy. Maybe.

Thankfully, I have both chickens and a simple recipe , which only has five ingredients. Thanks to my mother via the Grand Rapid Press, I'd love to think this recipe came from some dutiful Dutch lady diligent in not just her perfectly placed blond bobbed hair, but also in making a perfectly bouffanted mousse. But what I like even more about this mousse is the fact that my mother would make this dessert at random, if she had extra egg whites or just because she wanted to use her fancy green glasses. I recall opening the fridge as a child and looking for some snack say after school on a Tuesday and there I would see five green glasses filled with a shadowy richness. I recall just staring at them and naming each glass slowly: chocolate mousse.

And maybe that's why I have wanted to make this treat, not for showmanship, but some dessert during a weekday night to pause a moment. It is another reason I love this mousse, served in a tiny bowl or glass, each person just stares and I think hopes each spoonful doesn't disappear as if naming the experience with their spoon: delicious.

This chocolate mousse is certainly birthday worthy, but I like to carry on the tradition of the modest cook, who just happens to have too many egg whites? Enjoy.

The Modest Chocolate Mousse

6 ounces chocolate (I like to use a mix of dark and semi-sweet)
3 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 eggs, separated

1. In a double boiler, melt chocolate. (Be sure to not get any boiling water into your chocolate)
2. Using a wooden spoon, stir chocolate until smooth.
3. Add cold water and blend well, then add sugar and incorporate until smooth.
4. Remove chocolate off boiling water and add vanilla. Be sure to blend well and let chocolate mixture cool slightly, about three minutes.
5. Beat in egg yolks, one at at time, into chocolate mixture. After you add each yolk, stir chocolate until smooth.
6. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into chocolate. Be sure to do this in batches to not have any streaks of white.
7. Place in ramekins, champagne glasses or heck, even jelly jars would do in the fridge for at least two hours.
8. Serve with fresh whipped cream, fruit, mint leaves or just plain.

Yields about five to six champagne glasses