The glorious, pert toadstools sat in their wooden crate with irresistible allure. Spots of soil coyly speckled their feet, and the caps, taut and proud, gleamed up at me. I had to have them. Cepes, baby brown portobello, shiitake, white button. Delicate, seasonal delights that deserve the utmost care in preparation.
A bunched-up square of kitchen paper swipes off grit. The caps are sliced generously and set aside to meet their buttery fate. The stems, roughly chopped and reserved for tomorrow’s mushroom velouté soup.
I turn my attention to the sidekick: my first attempt at potato gnocchi. 2 boiled potatoes worm their way through my food mill. Tines of a fork distribute a pinch of salt, snowdrifts of parmesan, one beaten egg, and just enough flour to bring the dough together. Pillowy soft and satiny, texture of the dough feels gorgeous under my fingertips. I set a large pot to boil generously salted water.
Next door, butter hisses, and in goes minced garlic to start the symphony of aroma. The sliced caps tumble in with a gentle sprinkling of salt. Their meaty juices release into the pan, the smell is glorious; a steam treatment, good for the pores. Once the liquid dissipates and a rich brown fond develops at the bottom of the pan, stir in a bit of broth. When it simmers, I add a generous glog of cream, a damn good scrape of fresh nutmeg, ground black pepper and coriander seed: the warm earthiness of the spices will make the dish even more savory. Finish with a generous sprinkling of parmesan and stir in baby spinach, set aside to receive my gnocchi.
I roll out my tube of dough, cut into tiny pillows, and run them over the back of a fork. My gnocchi resemble irregular projectiles, but no matter. Dropped into the water, they swim aimlessly for just under a minute, until they puff slightly and bob to the surface. About 15 seconds after each ladleful rises, they are spooned straight into the creamy mushroom sauce. More finely grated parmesan to finish.
At first bite, F and I are in bliss. Soft, tender gnocchi are enrobed in the unctuous, rich sauce. Umami, brown and savory. The earthy warm fragrance of my dish marries with the crisp evening air and musky odor of leaves once again underfoot.
This is the glorious bounty of autumn.
A wild strawberry plucked from a vine in the garden, savored as I pass through on my way to work.
A finger of amber rum in the afternoon out on my terrace, with my feet up on the table.
A midnight homemade kebab and fries, a decadent treat. We sing “cheers” as we toast our meaty, saucy sandwiches together, and dip crisp fresh fries into mayonnaise and ketchup. Sinfully, deviously improper. The naughtiness of a midnight pig-out session, once in a blue moon. Not good for the heart, but good for the soul.
The pleasure on our friends’ faces as they taste my cooking; it was well worth adding that extra pat of butter, for a luxurious creamy texture.
A warm bowl of my butternut squash soup on a brisk morning, dusted with a pinch of cumin, fleur de sel, snipped fresh chives. Finishing with a dollop of cream gives an unctuous touch to a hearty lunch, creating an appetizing presentation.
The finishing touch: a gesture for pure pleasure, a reward for being human. Celebrating the artful, deliberate stimulation of our innate sensory pleasures. Indulgence that makes life deliciously beautiful.
As for the resulting light padding that these transgressions produce in the thigh-booty-stomach tri-zone area: I’ll walk it off later.
Breakfast in bed on a weekday: A gloriously sloth gesture. Unabashed hedonism at its finest. Be it only a slice of toast and hot coffee, no matter. Simplicity is preferred. Makes the mundane seductive. Overindulgent.
Tonight, I’m back in the kitchen. Today’s mission: risotto from leftovers. I’ve got a half-package of lardons (unsmoked matchsticks of bacon), one slightly manky onion, a couple handfuls of salad greens, and a few lonely frozen asparagus spears, languishing in the freezer.
First, fill up my stock pot with some fresh water. Throw in a couple stock cubes; it’s not as good as stock from scratch, but they ain’t bad. (Hey, I’m a working woman. Who’s got time to simmer stock during the week?) To give a more homemade flavor, I toss in 5 whole peppercorns, a crushed clove of garlic, and the ends of the onion and shallot I’ve just chopped. Let it steep while I get to my risotto.
In a pan, I start by browning my lardons, rendering out that delicious pork fat. Once they look tantalizing enough to eat, I remove them from the pan. On the way, one of those little guys may have accidentally fallen into my mouth. Oops. Add a touch of olive oil. In go one small minced red onion and a few garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Sizzle until fragrant, then in with my rice. Keep that pan moving, stir that rice around until those grains start to gleam. Now comes my favorite part: deglaze with the last glugs in a bottle of white wine. The whoosh is satisfying, and while the pan is simmering, I’m scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Oh, what lovely flavor!
Now comes the process of lovingly ladling my stock into the rice, then stirring. One ladleful after another, I’m imbuing this mixture with flavor, and feeding those grains of rice until they puff up. Partway through, I add my secret ingredient: a damn good scrape of nutmeg.
Add my chopped asparagus spears and lardons, finish the rice.
The finale: a tablespoon of crème fraîche for that unctuous mouth feel, and two generous handfuls of peppery rocket. If I had chives, I’d snip some of those bad boys over the top.
I serve up two heaping bowlfuls; F is wide-eyed like a little boy in anticipation; the aromas from the kitchen have gotten him salivating. To add heat, we sprinkle Espelette pepper over the top, and dig in.
A lovely moment of kitchen alchemy, a moment to myself during the week.
Sometimes, things start to feel lackluster, and one day blends unremarkably into another. I’m on auto-pilot, and the urge to complain comes about more frequently than I’d like. My head is filled with cotton, and the outside world looks bland and uninviting.
Ennui: a feeling of dissatisfaction and bored, weary listlessness due to a lack of excitement and stimulation. Also associated with cynicism, world-weariness, and self-indulgence. I’m so deep, man. I’ve got a bad case of ennui. It’s a French word, look it up.
Ugh. I’m giving myself douche chills. I can’t stand myself when I feel this way. In order to combat this feeling of stagnation and boredom, I pull out my mental list. I pare things down, take a deep breath, and try to look at myself, now. What is special about this moment? Is there something I can indulge in, to appreciate my world and bring things into color and focus?
This morning, while shaking off the remnants of a nightmare, I poured myself a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. I hadn’t tasted these babies since I was a kid, and the silly monkey on the box called out to me at the grocery store earlier this week. In the gray quiet shadows of the morning, I curled up onto my couch with my bowl of sugary nostalgia, and chowed down. Something lifted in my heart, and I felt a nice warmth there. Sure, I’m shirking my healthy-living promise to myself; but sometimes, a guilty pleasure is just what you need. Every chocolatey morsel of goodness brought a new idea to mind.
I recommend everyone make themselves a list. You might be surprised at how small a gesture it takes to show yourself a little loving compassion.
For me, it could be…
The nostalgic crunch of breakfast cereal
A piece of whole-grain bread topped with a chunk of sharp English cheddar
Gliding my new gorgeous Micron pen across the smooth paper in my new notebook
Caressing the pages of a new journal, deciding what its purpose shall be
Burning a stick of incense I’ve been saving from Japan
Admiring a rare sight here: the frosted white treetops on a frigid morning
Brushing through my hair, adding oil to make it shine
Painting my nails clear in an effort to stop biting them
Pouring myself a finger of Cuban rum at the end of a 6-day work week
Wearing an outfit that makes me feel like my final form
Quenching my thirst with a large, perfectly cool glass of water
Looking up a new subject to learn about (at the moment: 18th century cooking and re-enacting)
Walking through the garden, smelling the herbs
Planning an upcoming trip or outing
I’m talking about self-care: doing things because they make you feel good, and for no other reason. I’ve made a list, and when things start to look gray and I need a pick-me-up, I refer to my list of comforts.
Now, on this gray Sunday afternoon shrouded in fog, I’m off to another one of my comforts: gathering around the table with family, and enjoying a meal. Today’s meal: pot-au-feu. Please excuse me while I run off to stuff my face as an act of self-kindness.
Self-care: Doing something just because it makes you happy, and for no other reason. Give yourself the privilege of finding joy in a simple moment. Recharge the spirit. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast. Take a hot shower and wash your hair. Wear a pair of comfy socks. Hug an animal. Write a letter to someone you love. Drink a glass of water. Enjoy a cup of coffee that’s JUST how you like it. Take a deep breath.
Me, I cook.
I love preparing fresh herbs and spices. Crushing red peppercorns for a shallot cream sauce to be served over fish. Grinding fresh nutmeg into buttery mushrooms. Grating cinnamon into an Indian-inspired simmering dish. Plucking a fresh bay leaf, snipping sprigs of thyme for a hearty chicken soup. Cutting the ends off a bunch of fresh cilantro for THE essential Puerto Rican seasoning, sofrito. Infusing annato seeds in warm oil to extract their vibrant color: the rich saffron red swirling into the yellow oil is a lovely sight. Adding a teaspoon of this rich orange-colored infusion will keep your pasteles from sticking to the parchment (or, if you’re going traditional, your banana leaf). I feel like an alchemist of flavor in my laboratory. This is my moment of bliss.
Yesterday’s act: bake cookies and share them with friends.
Gool ol’ peanut butter cookies: signature criss-cross top, crisp buttery exterior, soft inside. It’s very satisfying to stir into the smooth butter, and hear the gentle grinding of the sugar as you swirl through the complementary colors. The sound is what makes this experience so sensually authentic. Crack in an egg, and watch it resist incorporation into the gritty butter mixture. Oh, you little scamp, you… Coax it in with a sprinkle of flour. Roll bits of cookie dough around in your hands to make a small ball, the size of a king marble. Tines of a fork imprint the cookie to form a hashtag. Cookies bake until they puff slightly in the middle, and turn golden brown on the sides. 10 whole minutes of anticipation and mouthwatering. Cool until mouthburn can safely be avoided. Devour. Share. Enjoy. Repeat.
It’s my day today. I’m taking off, all alone, to have an adventure in another city.
I get on the train while the sky is still black. It slowly fades to blue, then pale yellow when I step off the train at my destination. The morning is spent poking around the quiet walkways, before shops even open.
It’s lunchtime. There’s an inviting café that serves tapas, and my stomach is starting to rumble. I sit in the back, surrounded by funky art: psychedelic cartoon faces wink at me while I consider the menu, which is written in chalk on a large piece of slate.
I choose a mild Catalan saucisson, with sardine rillettes, a creamy fish spread that I enjoy on crusty brown bread. Last, the server brings out hot spinach puffs in flaky pastry, served with lamb’s lettuce (mâche) and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve got a glass of beautifully robust red wine to enjoy with it. The meal is deeply satisfying, and there is nothing to distract me from savoring each tasty morsel.
After, I continue walking through town, getting lost in small side streets, following no particular direction. I appreciate the care and attention each shopkeeper has put into their window display. Light, texture, color, and movement are all incorporated to attract and delight the passersby. I make my way to the central square, where the Christmas market is in full effect. Artisan truffle products stand next to gleaming handmade jewelry and leather-bound journals. Now this is a market.
I order myself a cup of vin chaud and rest it on a barrel to take out my notebook. The hot spiced red wine goes down smoothly and sweetly, and I’m absorbing the scene. Above my head are pine garlands, clusters of gold ornaments, and twinkling lights. The carousel with grinding pipe organ music is a fine backdrop to the squealing delight of children.
The sun is so brilliant, my eyes start to water as I make my way back to the train station. Stamp my ticket, step up from the platform onto the small local train that will bring me back home.
I ease into a seat next to the window. A group of teenage girls giggles into the car, bringing along a typhoon of pink sparkles and flowers. They speak unintelligibly fast about some incoherent, yet apparently highly important, subject. I am unmoving in the midst of this thick fog of unbridled youthful female naïveté. It’s almost painfully resonant and familiar.
In a flurry of hair flips, they disappear at the next station. In their place, a woman about my mother’s age gets on. She quietly sits in the seat facing me with a journal and a book about food, puts on some sunglasses, and gazes out the window.
This local train is pulling us through endless green fields, sensuously illuminated in the golden sun. The trees are bare, except for the clusters of mistletoe that are suspended in their spindly branches like Christmas ornaments. The sunlight is so warm and inviting, one could easily imagine it was spring or summer.
I’m brought back to a childhood memory: visiting a relative’s house in the summer, and running around the seemingly endless back yard. There were no obstructions, nothing between me, the grass, the hot sun, and boundless lightness within myself. That is the feeling I want to go back to. The source of life. Pure joy, safety, warmth, freedom, possibility.
I notice my reflection in the glass. I’m smiling to myself. The woman’s reflection is just next to it, facing mine like a time-lapse mirror.
Later that evening, F and I are around the fireplace at our friends’ house. The wind outside thumps at the windows, but we’re cozy and safe inside. We’re toasting with some bubbly, and just enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a day of quiet fulfillment and loving kindness. My heart and soul are full to bursting, and I am overcome. I smile into my glass of bubbly, and my eyes well up. Where I’ve been, where I might be tomorrow, are not my concern.
I am living Now, which is just where I belong.