21 September 2014

This Child Who is My Mirror

This child who is my mirror
Reflecting starlight and suns
Brighter than mine
Who am I to comprehend her?

Double helix uncoiled, split
Heart beating in two places
Daughter's shadow has more grace
Than my substance, I fear

To make her laugh
Is grace for a lifetime
See her smiling
Is a thousand suns

Warmth and light, radiance,
In her coltish presence
My heart a sunflower
Ringing like a bell

20 September 2014

The Gravity of Gravlax

Gravlax 2, 19 September 2014

My physical location often dictates what in the world I will eat, but it does not always coincide with where in the world I want to eat. The boon companion to my peripatetic imagination is a stomach that likes to wander, and is very catholic in its spheres of interest. The idea of a dish will lodge itself in my head without apparent reason. The belly does not rest until it feeds upon that dish. Such is the case of gravlax. It was showing up in my dreams.

For those unfamiliar with gravlax, it is a cured fish preparation of Scandinavian origin. The traditional (and most common) fish is salmon, and the typical curing mix is salt, sugar and dill. Other typical additions are black pepper and aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled spirit flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. In no uncertain terms, gravlax is not the first food that comes to mind when compared to my ancestry and what I typically eat. 

Although, I suppose that somewhere in my bloodline there might be some Nordic genes laying about, DNA echoes shouted out from the Vikings who raided and traded in Ireland so long ago. Interesting to contemplate, and could explain much about my psyche.

But I digress. It is gravlax what held my imagination, so it is gravlax to discuss. In my penchant for whirlwind obsessions, I decided that this time that I would make my own gravlax at home. It requires little hardware and some kitchen basics. Of course, no fixation would be complete without some research. I happily spent some spare time digging up recipes and comparing what I found with what my belly likes to eat.

The root of the cure is salt, sugar and dill. The next flourish is black pepper, ground, or in my case, cracked. Other embellishments were the aforementioned aquavit, caraway seeds, and even fennel seeds. But one spice that really caught my tongue was juniper berries. They are not your everyday seasoning, no doubt. As my current culinary fortunes run, I had a bag of juniper berries stashed in my spice cabinet, apparently just waiting for such a moment to spring into action.

My desire for gravlax intersected with a spur of the moment grocery run, wherein I picked up a fine-looking coho salmon fillet, skinned, of two pounds. I mixed up some salt and sugar, broke out the dill and cracked black pepper, then smacked a palmful of juniper berries with a rolling pin. That act of mild brutality lightly crushed the juniper without pulverizing it. This in turn would add some nice aromatics and flavors to the salmon. The downside was that the rolling pin smelled a bit like a tumbler full of gin.

So rubbing the fillet with the juniper, adding a heavy layer of dill, then blanketing (and I mean blanketing) the fish with the salt/sugar mix, I realized I had no aquavit. Admittedly, the cure would work just fine without the liquor, but the idea of it being in the mix I found fascinating. A quick trip to the liquor cabinet showed that indeed there was no aquavit, but I did have a small amount of single-malt scotch remaining in one bottle.

DING! Imagine a huge light bulb going off over my head. It took almost no time for my brain and my belly to decide that the smokiness of the whisky would be a great match for salmon. So, out of the bottle and sprinkled on the fish. I cut the fillet in half, turned it into a big salmon sandwich, then wrapped it up tight in plastic wrap. The slab went into a plastic tub. I placed a half-full box of kosher salt on top to properly press it together, then placed the tub in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

Chef note: I should point out that the salmon used was as fresh as I could get, thoroughly rinsed and patted dry before curing. Work surfaces were sanitized and knives were carefully cleaned before and after use. The cure does a great job of killing off the nasty bugs, but cleanliness and freshness and paramount. 

Then I waited. During that time I flipped the salmon over about every twelve hours to ensure even distribution of the cure and the liquid it produces. The liquid is a good sign, and is also why the salmon should be placed in a vessel with a rim. 

Three days and then the grand reveal! The salmon was unwrapped. The liquid was somewhat pungent, but did not have that tell-tale "bad fish" aroma of something gone wrong. The cure had turned into a thick, slightly gritty paste on the fish but was easily washed off under cool water. It looked good, smelled interesting.

I laid it on the cutting board to trim off a piece. I hesitated briefly, then decided I had invested a fair amount of time and money in this project so qualms be damned I was not going to let it go to waste. I hoped sincerely it would taste good.

Hallelujah, boys and girls, it did taste good. Salty to be sure, but also sweetly aromatic from the sugar, pepper, dill and juniper. The single malt was there hovering in the background. Concentrate on too hard and it would disappear, but let it go and it would come back to pad lightly around the warmth of the hearth.

Finishing the third slice I began to wonder if I was out of my gourd for wanting to try something like this at home. All the fears and worries about bacteria and parasites and non-professional kitchens crowded into my head, momentarily throwing me off my feed. I hesitated again, knife in hand, twitching slightly above the fillet.

"In for a penny, in for a pound" cried my buccaneer soul. The knife went down. The fourth slice came off. The belly would not be denied, brothers and sisters, nor would the soul. The gravlax was delicious.

05 September 2014

Comfort Food for Plague Years

The universe has a reputation as a cruel and heartless place. Well deserved by most reasonable measures, measures highlighted by the cascade of disturbing news that washes over our daily lives. There is no escaping it, it seems. Horrifying words, images, and sounds burst forth from the screens of whatever electronic device is the weapon of choice in front of our scratched and bleeding senses.

Plague. War. Civil unrest. Even the perhaps lesser evil of data theft, private lives smeared across the ether in a toxic blur of titillation. Everything becomes pornography now, because the trend is think that having an impulse to consume grants the right to consume whatever it is the appetite wants. All because the access is supposedly granted because the victims deserved it and should not have put it "out there" in public.

The fundamental flaw with that line of consumption is that the victims (that is the correct word) do not choose to become violently ill, get murdered by rockets, or be shot for the sake of public display. No one expects their private stuff to get stolen (and data classifies as 'stuff') when they have taken reasonable precautions to keep the stuff from those who do not have permission to possess it.

No one blames the depositors for a bank heist that cleans out the safe deposit boxes. No one blames a kid who gets shredded by shrapnel because he was in the wrong place. No one with any common decency, that is.

All of this has weighed heavily on my mind in recent weeks. From the shooting of Michael Brown to the Russian tanks in Ukraine to the nasty virus eating up West Africa, the plague of bad news has been inescapable. Partly my fault, I know, because I listen to a lot of news while driving in my car.

But partly, it is due to the sheer volume of nastiness going on in the world. The funk thickened today, gelling around my psyche like smothering epoxy. Escape was necessary. The path was an unlikely one, paved as it was with two cans of tuna fish and a bag of egg noodles. Somewhere out on the road today, I did not see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, but my back brain conspired with my belly to convince me I wanted tuna noodle casserole for dinner. It was a stroke of culinary genius.

I had not eaten homemade tuna noodle casserole in decades. The genesis of the idea burbled up in that little kitchen I fancy takes up some space in my brain. In there a slightly frazzled chef hunched over a butcher block table, scribbling ideas in a tattered ledger about what appeasements will be made to the maw that growls under his stained jacket. Today it was the memory of some oddments in the pantry that inspired this jaunt back to food from my youth, food that I had given no consideration except mild scorn and bemusement on the rare occasion when its name would arise in conversation.

Yet today it made perfect sense. I had the tuna and the noodles. A quick trip to the grocery store for milk, celery, peas, and mushrooms took care of the rest. Done with my work for the day, I stood and the kitchen and commenced meditation. Make no mistake, that is what this dish was all about. Cooking, centering, breathing. So simple, so clear, and so far away from the misery outside the walls that I ceased thinking about bad news.

It is important to note that this was mostly from scratch. I had no desire to shortcut the process by getting a box of pre-made "helper", or a tub of something from the local grocery. I wanted to build this thing, tweaking it to meet my needs and wants. Any grace to be gained would have been lost if all I did was rip open the box, pour it in a pan and set it in the oven. There would have been nothing learned. My mind would not have settled. My breathing would not have slowed. I made it the way it asked of me, and it was completely satisfying. This is all I ask of comfort food in the plague years.

23 August 2014

The Little Boy Who Mattered

The little boy was found on a beach, naked, alone and sick. So sick he just sat there and panted. He was surrounded by a group of onlookers, none of whom wanted to take him home. To touch him could mean signing one's own death warrant. No one wanted to risk it.

To live in a poor part of town in the capital of a country, Liberia, that by many measures is also poor, is perhaps difficulty enough to forge a life. To be placed in a "holding" facility because you are sick, that is doubly difficult. To know that the "holding" facility is not really a care facility, it is to get you off the streets because no one knows what to do with you, is an exercise in cruelty.

It was a miracle and a mystery that the little boy, ten years old by local accounts, managed to get out of the facility the night before it was attacked by an agitated mob who forced a number of the victims to flee the facility. The little boy ended up on the beach where he was found last Wednesday, and witnessed by a pair of photographers covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He had no clothes. He was deathly ill. No one wanted to touch him. 

Someone brought the little boy some clothes, but he was so weak he could not get the shirt over his head. The photographers gave some local women pairs of latex gloves, and the women helped the boy get the shirt on. But still, no one knew what to do with him. Understandably, they did not want to risk catching Ebola, assuming that was the affliction upon the boy.

Later, he was somehow moved to a nearby alleyway. He lay upon a sheet of cast-off cardboard, crumpled in a heap. So ill he could not move. People apparently walked by, eyeing the boy, but for a long time no one moved to help. Under the circumstances, maybe they felt all had been done that could be done.

The boy lay dying. One of the photographers, David Gilkey, took the boy's picture, later saying that the situation was an "evil Catch-22". A better phrase perhaps cannot be found to describe what they witnessed there in that alley. People want to help but they don't know what to do. They do not want to risk getting sick themselves.

By some turn of events, a neighbor took the boy to a local hospital where they had some facility to care for a person sick with Ebola. Fortune turned slightly. There was word that the boy was improving, news that was of no small import in a region so hard hit by a modern plague. Maybe the universe was not such a hard case after all.

But we know different. On August 21st the other photographer, John Moore, spoke with the boy's aunt. She herself and her children were checking into a clinic because they suspected they had contracted the Ebola virus. She told the photographer that the little boy had died of Ebola, as had his mother before him. An unsurprising outcome given the circumstances, we tell ourselves and shrug. 

I told myself the same thing. I could not insulate myself from the effects. I heard the news while driving down the highway in air-conditioned comfort, thousands of miles away from a lonely and sick little boy who died because no one could do enough. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, choking down the lump in my throat. It is not hard to imagine that he perhaps had no one to mourn his passing. I did not curse the universe, because I know better. I know the futility of such endeavors from direct experience of the worst it has to offer. 

Later, I saw the picture of him in the alley. He had on the red shirt someone had brought him. He was sick, so sick, and I hope he did not die alone. His name was Saah Exco, and he was a little boy who mattered.