Monday, April 30, 2007

Other Points of Vu

Déjà vu. The subtle, recurring confusion between illusion and reality that was characteristic of paramnesia fascinated the chaplain, and he knew a number of things about it. He knew, for example, that it was called paramnesia, and he was interested as well in such corollary optical phenomena as jamais vu, never seen, and presque vu, almost seen. There were terrifying, sudden moment when objects, concepts and even people that the chaplain had lived with almost all of his life inexplicably took on an unfamiliar and irregular aspect that he had never seen before and which made them seem totally strange: jamais vu. And there were moments when he almost saw absolute truth in brilliant flashes of clarity that almost came to him: presque vu.
-Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I have to admit that I've never managed to finish--or even really start--Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Fortunately for me, my high school boyfriend did read it, and he found for us this passage that seemed to so perfectly describe the predicament of being a teenager that we scribbled it in all our notebooks, inside each other's lockers, on the bottoms of our shoes when we were bored in classes, any surface that seemed to call out for words of significance.

High school and the particular anxiety of being a teenager fades after a while, but this quote has stayed with me. I think about it often--probably more often than I realize in my conscious mind. I'm on the bus with my bags piled against my chest and the window fogged and it's warm and I'm tired and I drift a bit only to snap suddenly, terribly awake with my heart hammering and strange faces not looking at me and feeling that the bus is passing these strange buildings too quickly and
for that single moment in time, I know with perfect certainty that I will be lost forever. I think, jamais vu.

Or take this past weekend--I was in Minnesota for a little parental TLC and to celebrate my birthday and proudly watch my brother rule the stage as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On Friday afternoon, my mom and I walked the dog through the Carleton College Arboretum. The sky was so wide and so blue and the dry prairie grass whispered and hushed itself in the spring breeze. We spoke of how we create meaning in our lives, living with uncertainty, and Buddhism. At the top of a hill, we both stopped talking at the same time and heard mourning doves calling to each other in the newly-green trees. I thought, presque vu.

Please. Please. Presque vu. Let me see just a little further. Just a little more clearly. I'm almost there.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

First Signs of Spring

The sun was so shiny this morning that immediately upon waking, I flung open all the windows and opened the back door wide, letting in all the fresh air and sunshine I could. Last November when I was cleaning up my little container garden and making everything tidy for winter, there was one stubborn pot of zinneas and snap dragons that just refused to give in to the cold weather and kept popping out new flowers. I decided to let well enough alone and enjoyed the view of these hardy few blossoms through my kitchen window well into December. It was so cold by that point that I never got around to cleaning the dead stems from the pot.

This morning I decided that I was well past due for this particular task--especially since I need to soon start planning more wee little seedlings--and went at it with gusto. I yanked out the dry brittle stalks and rubbed grains of warm, damp soil between my fingers. Task completed, I was patting the soil dreamily with visions of bounty to come when I noticed a little fleck of green off to one side. Closer inspection revealed one tiny zinnea seedling, an ungerminated leftover from last year who somehow knew it would have a very important role to play on this April morning. I sighed with contentment and said a little prayer in thanks of unexpected beauty. New growth from old growth--I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere, but for now I will simply stroke its leaves with my fingertip and murmur praises in its lime green ears.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Food: Reunited with Old Friends and a Brief Parting

This is a short little post (though like so many of my posts, it will likely ramble on beyond what could technically be called "short") to let you know that I may be a bit sparse with my postings for the next few weeks. There are a lot of things swirling around in my life right now to which I need to give some attention. I just need wait and see what the view is like when the dust settles. In any case, never fear; I will return with tales of what I've been up to and recipes and musings in short order. This blog has become a home to me and you always come back home eventually.

Until then, please content yourself with the following Artifacts of Comfort and Joy. At least they bring comfort and joy to me if only because they wander into my life so rarely these days.

Nutcracker Sweet Tea is hands down one of my favorite teas ever, and believe me, I've tried a lot of teas in my day. I usually find the teas made by Celestial Seasonings to be a bit...'too much.' Too sweet, too pungent, too...zingy. Despite these experiences, I was lured in by the description of black tea with vanilla extract and cinnamon--so many of my favorite flavors.
And indeed, it is a basic traditional black tea smoothed with a subtle taste of vanilla, a pleasing nuttiness, and just a touch of cinnamon. It's also one of the rare times when a beverage tastes just as good as it smells--I could happily sit here typing away and inhaling the scent of this tea for hours, taking little sips when the mood struck. I drink it black, but it would probably be grand with milk. A word of caution, be sure to remove the tea bag after about 5 minutes or the tea gets too bitter.

Since Nutcracker Sweet is from their "Holiday Tea" line, it's only available during the holiday season. Once I fell in love with it, spotting the first boxes in the grocery store became my personal sign that the holiday season had officially begun. A few years back, I realized that if I stocked up right at the end of the season, I could just stretch my boxes through the spring and summer until the next holiday season rolled around. I did this with a bit of trepidation that the magic and delight of this tea would wear off if it became an everyday commodity, but there was nothing to fear. Love knows no holiday season.

Unfortunately, the past two years, these boxes of Nutcracker Sweet have been even m
ore scarce than usual. Last year, I didn't see any being sold in stores until after Christmas and I was barely able to stock enough boxes to last me through April. This year, I didn't see any at all. I'd been toying with the idea of actually going to the Celestial Seasonings website and ordering a case of the tea (Love, folks, this is love) when I spotted two dusty, lonely boxes sitting discarded on the very bottom of the discount shelf last week at my co-op. Last week! As in April. As in not at all close to the holidays. Where these boxes came from and how long they'd been in the stock room, I have no idea (and I don't really want to know). I'd been checking the shelves of this co-op regularly for months (a few other favorite bagged teas of mine have recently disappeared from shelves, but that's another post), and never saw Nutcracker Sweet in stock. You can be sure I grabbed these two right up, went straight home, and brewed myself a fresh cup. Ahh....Love.

And the other week, a second reunion was celebrated in my kitchen when a friend brought back two bricks of Smoked Cheddar Tillamook Cheese from her recent trip to Portland, Oregon. When the Engineer and I lived in Portland,
we put this stuff in EVERYTHING. In fact, I can't think of a single dish we regularly ate that a healthy handful of Smoked Cheddar Cheese wouldn't make better. Eggs? Check. Pizza? Check. Annie's Mac and Cheese? Check. Stale crackers? Double check. Tillamook Cheese is an Oregon icon. It's fun to wander around their website HERE and a stop to wander around their visitor center, licking fresh ice cream and nibbling on squeaky cheese (cheese curds that literally squeak between your teeth when you bite down) was a requisite part of any trip to the Oregon coast. If you're in the area, I highly recommend stopping by.

This smoked cheddar cheese has a sharply cheddar bite and is literally infused with the hardwood smoke for a truly unique cheese experience. Every bite is like sitting around a campfire. These two bricks are literally and figuratively gold! (That's my one Pun o' the Post. I'll quit while I'm ahead with that one.)

And if you manage to get your hands on some Tillamook Smoked Cheddar, one possible manifestation of your riches could be in the form of my For-Real Sandwich Loaf.
My thought behind this loaf was to take the sandwich prep out a sandwich, and just put all the typical sandwich ingredients in the loaf. That way, if I'm crunched for time in the morning because I forgot it was Recycling Day or I fell asleep in the shower completely by accident, I can just cut off a slice and call it lunch.

Dang, I just realized that I never posted my recipe for basic, non-sourdough bread to this blog, which is what I used for this recipe. Oh, well, I'll do an abbreviated version of the recipe here and describe it in detail another time (see what I mean about this post no longer being technically 'short'?!). In any case, if you don't want to use my recipe, or if it's confusing, feel free to use any bread dough you like and just add the cheese, spinach, and sausage when I say to in my instructions. (PS if you don't eat meat, just leave out the sausage and this would make an excellent cheese loaf!)
Summer Sausage Cheese Loaf (a.k.a. For-Real Sandwich Loaf)

For the poolish (starter):

1/2 cup (4 oz) water
1/2 tsp dry yeast
3/4 cup (4 oz) flour

In a medium sized bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water, add the flour, and mix these all together really well--about 100 strokes. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit on your counter overnight or about 12 hours. It will rise and fall, but ultimately it will about double in size and the surface will look really bubbly.

For the bread dough:

2 1/2 cups (20 oz) water
1/2 tsp dry yeast
5-6 cups (26-31 oz) flour
1 Tablespoon sea salt
1-2 cup spinach
3 c cheese, shredded (alternatively, shred half and cut the other half into strips. Add the strips at the same time you add the sausage)
2 10-oz summer sausages (or chorizo, un-cut salami, or any other hard sausage)--cut into long strips

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the poolish and mix until slightly frothy. Add in enough flour until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a few minutes just to bring the dough together. Cover with the upturned bowl and let rest for 10 minutes.

Create a well in the center of the dough and add 1/3 of the salt. Fold the dough on itself and add another 1/3 of the salt. Fold again and add the last of the salt. Knead dough for 10 minutes. Cover with the upturned bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, clean the spinach and cut it into small pieces about the size of your thumb. Steam it slightly (I microwaved it on High for about 30 seconds). You want it wilted, but not complete mush.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes more. As with the salt, add the cheese and spinach in batches and knead until they are evenly spread throughout the dough. The dough will get a bit wet and you might have to add more flour than normal. It's ok if it feels a bit wet, but it shouldn't be sticky or gummy to your hands.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for about two hours or until doubled in size.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface without deflating it. Divide it into two pieces and set aside one piece. Pat the remaining piece into a long rectangle with the shorter end closest to you (in other words, lay the rectangle out like a portrait rather than a landscape image). Lay half of the sausage strips like rungs on a ladder across the width of the dough. Lightly press the strips into the dough. Roll the dough away from you, making sure that the strips stay positioned so that they roll up in a spiral rather than all clumped together. Place loaf in an oiled loaf pan. Repeat with second half of the dough.

Allow dough to rise until the surface of the dough just clears the rim of the loaf pan--about an hour. Preheat the oven to 450-degrees. When the loaves are ready, pat the surface with a bit of flour and cut three diagonal slashes about 1/2 inch deep. Spray the tops with water and put in oven. During the first five minutes of baking, quickly spray water a few times into the interior of the oven and on the surface of the loaves. Bake for 20 minutes and reduce heat to 400-degrees. Bake for another 20 minutes until the surface is a nice caramelized golden color and the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.

Let cool and enjoy! Slices are best when toasted.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Books: Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84

Say it ain't so! Hearing this news this morning made me genuinely sad, an ache beneath my breastbone. I read all his books during those oh-so-tender high school years and really felt like they became a part of who I am now, ya know? His irreverence and sarcasm and quirky perspectives on reality gave me permission, in a sense, to be irreverent and sarcastic and quirky myself. A fundamental part of my spirituality is an idea I first discovered in his book Breakfast of Champions: the belief that at the core, people are unwavering bands of light. Even my use of the term "noodle factory" to refer to the company I work for is not-so-subtly lifted from Kurt Vonnegut's word for libraries. The more I think back on it now, the more I realize how fundamental Vonnegut's books were in shaping the person who I became.

This is kind of like hearing that an old friend has died. Which I suppose is kinda how it is.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Beverage Review: Jones Soda Takes the Turkey

Oh, Jones Soda, how I miss thee! When the Engineer and I were living in Portland, Oregon, we didn't have the luxury of a washer and dryer in our apartment building like we do now. Every week along with all the other unluckies within a five block radius, we participated in a weekly neighborhood pilgrimage to the friendly neighborhood laundromat. For those of you who haven't had this experience or for whom that experience is but a distant memory, let me tell you that there is absolutely nothing romantic about the laundromat: the cracking faux-wood paneling on the walls, the act of inspecting your unmentionables in front of a handful of pajama-clad strangers, the brittle fly carcasses gathered at the bottom of the light fixtures, the gritty yellow lighting itself, the inevitable fight to secure neighboring washers and then again to secure neighboring dryers--and not just any washers and dryers but the 'good' washers and dryers (you come to know which ones those are). And lets not even discuss the bathroom.

Needless to say, Laundry Day was not something that the Engineer and I looked forward to. There were heated "discussions" over whether or not Laundry Day was actually necessary in a given week, complex systems of barter and trade if one or the other of us wanted to opt out of Laundry Day for whatever reason, and incredibly competitive games of rock-paper-scissors over who's turn it was to scour the apartment for spare change. But Jones Soda changed everything.

Jones Soda Co. (link HERE) is a Seattle-based juice and soft drink company famous for their wacky and unexpected flavors like Berry White, D'Peach Mode, Crushed Melon, and Pineapple Upside Down Cake. They're kind of like the Jelly Belly Jelly Beans of the beverage world. Some of their flavors are incredible and some of them really fall flat (like those I discuss below). The imaginative "family" photographs on their labels, the not-your-average-chinese-fortunes under the cap, and under-the-radar marketing campaign make this the soft drink of choice for Northwest hipsters. (I also want to note that as of January 2007, Jones Soda is switching their juice and soda lines from using high fructose corn syrup to pure cane syrup, an incredibly laudable endeavor. Read about it HERE.)

And one fine spring day, the Engineer and I discovered that the dingy convenience store next to the dingy laundromat was actually a mecca for all our favorite Jones Soda flavors. It became a ritual for us to arrive at the laundromat, stake out claims on washers, get the washers going, stake out claims on one of the folding tables, snag two folding chairs, and then send an emissary next door with our leftover pocket change. We would clink bottles, settle in with books and trashy magazines and knitting, and not speak until the spin-cycle was complete. Laundry Day was still a chore, for certain, but Jones Soda, you certainly took the edge off.

Except for a few national chains like Panera and Target, Jones Soda isn't widely distributed out of the Northwest, so I've been a bit deprived. Perhaps this is what led me to impulsively purchase the Jones Soda 2006 Holiday Pack when I spotted it with the post-Christmas sale items at Target when I was home over Christmas. Yes, I purchased it despite the fact that there were a suspicious number of 2006 Holiday Packs still available, and they were all in the back of the bottom shelf in the deepest hidden corner of the store. And I purchased it despite the fact that the 2006 Holiday Pack was on the "What Not To Buy Me For Christmas" list put out by the Restaurant Guys. I even purchased it despite my own better judgment. Like I said, I had been Jones Soda deprived for several years. And I was rilly buying it for my brother, another Jones Junkie. (Really.) And it was $5. And how awful could turkey flavored soda be, anyways?

My little bro doling out the 'tastings'

Here's the rundown of the sodas in the pack:
Turkey and Gravy Soda
Sweet Potato Soda
Dinner Roll Soda
Pea Soda
Antacid Flavored Soda

There was just something so charmingly Willy Wonka about this whole endeavor. We decided to taste the sodas in the order they are arranged in the box because it seemed to make sense in terms of taste-progression. Up first, Turkey and Gravy Soda!

Verdict: horrible. Apparently turkey and gravy flavored soda can be pretty awful. It really did taste like turkey and gravy. Except carbonated. It was gross. We soldiered through the other flavors, willing to believe that there must be ONE of them that tasted good. The sweet potato had the most potential, but again. It turns out that liquid carbonated sweet potato with a hint of marshmallow is pretty disgusting.

Here's a play-by-play of my mother enjoying her final liquid refreshment "antacid" in this five-course tasting menu:

Hmmm...antacid. It's pink. It's bubbly. Could be good.
She's thinking about it...
She's going for it...
Um, yeah. Again, antacid? Not a good flavor for soda.

The final verdict on these Wacky Fun Holiday Packs? Buy them only when they're on a gag gift...knowing that you really will be gagging. Fun for the whole family!

On the other hand, if you see any other flavors of Jones Soda, don't let the Holiday Pack deter you. Snap them up and give them a try! (Barry White is my hands down favorite.)