Arugula Dijon Salad with Figs and Pistachios

Every spring, when the ground brings new life and the trees turn every shade of green, I think of Julius.

spring

Julius and I met in grad school. He wore silver-rimmed spectacles, ironed business shirts and dress pants and a neatly trimmed reddish-brown beard that was quickly going gray. He came to class with his work I.D. still on his shirt pocket and a bag or briefcase carrying his books and papers in his hand. When he spoke, you’d hear an accent, betraying the Eastern European setting from which he’d come, but, he told me, he and his wife had lived in America quite a while. The first class we took together was a Travel Writing course. It was a workshop class, meaning we’d turn in copies of our assignments to each other and then discuss them, as a class, together. I’d write short, sweet pieces about places like the Wisconsin Northwoods; he’d write long, flowering tales about dining with locals in Morocco.

spring in nashville

One October, walking from the fluorescent lights and metal chairs of our night class out into the crisp, cool air of Chicago fall, I told Julius how autumn was my favorite season.

“Do you feel this air?” I asked him as we walked side by side, breathing in deep for emphasis. “I mean, is there anything better? I wish it were fall all year.” I might have talked about pumpkins and apple-picking and Halloween.

“Yes, it’s nice,” this man, 15 or 20 years my senior, responded, almost as if to appease a child, with none of my enthusiasm.

“And I bet you didn’t know this,” I began, my volume increasing and my words coming fast. I was about to share with him a rehearsed party anecdote, a standby that, at the time, was finding its way into any conversation I had about the colors of fall, sort of the way I’m always jumpy today to tell people that dislike for cilantro is a genetic trait. “When leaves turn colors each fall,” I said to him, “they’re actually shedding a layer, revealing the true colors that were always there, underneath. People think the leaves are turning but really they’re just showing what they always were, down in there, but we couldn’t see it! How amazing is that? ”

I waited for his elation and surprise, for him to join me in proclaiming fall’s glory. Instead came counter argument.

spring greens

“Actually, that’s sort of how I feel about spring!” he said to me, his eyes growing wide as his volume raised to match mine. “All the green! The emeralds, the pale greens, the yellow greens! Everything becomes so alive!”

arugula salad | foodloveswriting

I hate to say it, but I think at that moment, walking with Julius to our cars in a dark parking lot, I saw spring for the first time.

arugula salad | foodloveswriting

I was thinking about that conversation, some seven years ago or so now, last week, when Tim and I walked through the park on a 70-something-degree day in Nashville April. There were white buds on branches, pink flowers on trees, leaves of all different shapes and sizes sprouting along a lazy creek.

blueskies

The sky was fiercely blue—bluer than the bluejay we’ve seen around our house lately, bluer than the ocean hitting white sands—and the smell of grass was in the air. I was thinking about it when we brought home bags of greens from the grocery store and set plates of arugula on our table for dinner one night, streaming sunlight falling on the table.

arugula salad | foodloveswriting

There’s a verse in the Psalms that exclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” and another in the New Testament that rejoices, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

This spring, with salads like this arugula one, that’s what I’m thinking about: the wonder of a created world with ordered seasons, the kind we can count on to come, and how noticing them, while walking parks and while eating dinner, makes me rejoice.

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Einkorn Cannoli Cupcakes

Cannoli Cupcake | FoodLovesWriting.com

When I was a kid, my parents would dart around the house in the final moments before company arrived, lighting candles, cleaning bathrooms, setting appetizers out just right. You could feel the energy in the air in those almost-game-time minutes—a sort of nervous, happy energy—something greater than the sound of my mom’s boom box playing its background harps or violins. When the doorbell rang, my dad would rush to the door, opening it proudly, beaming, welcoming guests inside as he took their coats and greeted them, motioning my brother and me to come say hi. Then, my mom would emerge from the kitchen, winded but obviously delighted at whatever was in her hands, prompting oohs and ahs and questions from the ones who’d been invited to come. Each one meal and its accompanying conversation would take two or three—maybe four or five with particularly talkative friends—hours before dishes were being cleared and the food getting wrapped up and people’s coats being pulled back out to usher them to their cars. But, as any host could tell you, its planning began long before, sometimes as much as a month ahead of time. Long before the good china was on the dining room table, I’d see my mom jotting down a potential menu and shopping list; I’d be around when she tested recipes before deciding to serve them to company; I’d be there the week of the dinner, when my parents talked about what they were making and at what time guests would arrive.

As an adult myself, I’ve followed my parents’ footsteps, often clumsily, feeling my way from the early days of solo hosting (where, once, my guest and I continued working on the uncooked chicken together after she arrived), to my current stage of couple hosting (where Tim and I tag-team the process).

Over time, I’ve grown more confident. Having one person for dinner isn’t stressful; having two is usually okay; but, last weekend, when we hosted Tim’s entire family for an early celebration of Easter and the annual April birthdays (of which, in his family, there are four), and we had ten people at our table more than once, I have to admit the experience felt completely new.

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just what you need

chocolate truffles

OK. Next time I say I want to make bread pudding, taken from some random Web site I’ve never heard of before, just so I can use up my loaf of bread that hardened two days after I bought it?

Stop me.

If you do, I might be able to write a better post than this one, in which I will just tell you that, Yes, I did in fact spend a disproportionate amount of time tonight caramelizing sugar and softening bread cubes to layer with a creamy custard in a tube pan that would then, tragically, leak all over and around the oven liner, meaning not only that the bread pudding was a disaster but so was the kitchen and myself.

And, Yes, also, after I did all this, I would still head up to my computer, flicking on its glowing screen and gentle humming sound, just because, even at almost 11 PM, I’d know I’d planned to sit down and write something interesting about the dark chocolate truffles I made for Carrie’s and Alicia’s birthday presents, and, by gosh, that stupid bread pudding wasn’t going to stop me.

Tell me you’ve had nights like this?

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this right now

cream of pistachio

Morning, and the kitchen is quiet, with sunlight streaming across the sink and onto the wood floors, and I pour coffee, grab my lunch, take my keys from the little basket by the door. There will be 20 minutes at least, between me and the office, along expressways of commuters, and I will look at them, talking on their phones, singing with their radios, glancing at their watches, before I park and walk inside, up stairs to my desk, to begin the work day, to talk with my coworkers and double-check spellings at Merriam-Webster and watch the geese fly past my window and onto the roof.

5:30, and I’m getting in my car, like I’ve done so many times, and I’m stopping by the train station, like I do every day, and I’m walking in my front door, and I’m eating dinner, again. It’s spring here—when did spring come? Weren’t we just talking about fall and winter and how I hated the snow? The light lasts longer now, and the days are warmer, rainy. I take it all, eagerly, greedily, like it will never end.

You know, I’m only 26—I find myself throwing the only in there more and more, the way it’s inserted into excuses from guilty children like, I only skipped one homework assignment or I only said that because the other kids did. But as much as I know we are guaranteed nothing, in terms of time, in terms of living, I also know 26 is, usually, not a lot of life to have lived and, usually, it’s not enough time to warrant strong opinions or heavy reminiscing. But I do: I look at the moments around me—the way the grass looks when it’s wet, shiny with dew and fragrant with summer; how my mom makes me laugh when she does, when her mouth closes and her nose widens and her eyes slant, just slightly, as her body shakes, like her mother’s did; the kindness someone shows you when he carries in your bags, so you don’t have to—and I think, I am living this.

This, right here—the morning coffee and the conversation and the drive home in daylight to a cozy evening with a book and blankets—this is life, and it’s a gift, and I am living this.

pistachios

Sunday night, for my brother, I made this soup.

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for a loud-laughing, card-playing caterer, on her 95th

the wedding cake from my caterer grandma

I’m not going to tell you I miss her. That’s what everyone says. I’m just going to tell you I think about her sometimes, like each year when I smell my first fresh spring lilac, heady with sweetness like the big bushes in her backyard that she’d pick from to make corsages on Mothers’ Day; in summer, when the tomato plants grow big, their leaves overwhelming the wiring around them and huge, red fruits forming on the branches; at night, when I can’t fall asleep, and I watch the shadows from the windows dance across the wall, just the way they did in Grandma’s room, when we slept with the window open, a street light’s beam extending across her ceiling.

I also think about my grandma on days like today, her birthday. If she had lived, she would have been 95. And I think about her, mostly, when I bake.

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