To be expected

There was little time to prepare this year, but it was to be expected.

Instead of making pedicure or massage appointments, I've booked a cleaning crew and spent a recent lunch break buying semi-gloss paint from Home Depot. I've come home every night for a week and packed a single box of books from the shelf. It feels as though I will never see them again. I wanted to linger and turn through every page, but time would not allow it. 

In little more than a week, my home will be different. My windows, my kitchen, my bedroom. My job is different. My commute is different. I feel different. I'm feeling in my bones Mary Oliver's call, "joy was not made to be a crumb." How at once can you feel so much joy and gratitude, yet muscle through the difficult times? Eating dinner at 8 pm, missing yoga, spending evenings sifting through papers, sorting and sorting and sorting. Being tired, yet being inspired. It's really a wonderful mess, and by the time summer arrives, the normalcy and routine I crave will have taken root, which makes today's uncertainty entirely bearable.

For the past five years, I've kept a ritual of taking my birthday off and treating myself to an indulgent day that usually consists of waking up late, getting a pedicure, taking myself out to lunch, baking something festive, reading a book in my favorite coffee shop (or at the very least, my favorite birthday poem), followed by dinner in the evening with Andrew. With the new job and all, I'm spending this year's birthday at the office, but life is good, and I've been enjoying this special breakfast for several days now. I hope you can try it before the strawberries disappear. 

Steel Cut Oats with Balsamic-Roasted Strawberries

Strawberries, as I've mentioned before, are one of my favorite fruits, and I look forward to them every May. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've eaten fewer farm-fresh strawberries this season than I would like. Luckily, this recipe works splendidly with frozen berries, so you can enjoy it in any season.

Berries adapted from A Thought for Food

1 cup steel cut oats
2 cups whole milk or almond milk
2 cups filtered water
Pinch of salt

For the strawberries
1 10-ounce package organic frozen strawberries
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 teaspoons raw honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heavy cream, for serving

Add oats, milk, and water to a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer 1 minute. Cover and leave on the stove overnight. If you're using frozen berries, this is a good time to put them in the fridge to thaw.

In the morning, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Add the berries to a baking dish and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of vinegar; toss to coat. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the liquid is syrupy.  

While the berries bake, bring the oats to a low simmer and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until any remaining liquid has been absorbed and the oats are creamy and tender. 

While the oats reheat, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, honey, and vanilla in a small saucepan. Boil until liquid has reduced by half and is syrupy. When the strawberries are done baking, pour the sauce over the top and give them a stir. 

Serve oatmeal with a few spoonfuls of strawberry sauce and a dash of heavy cream. Chopped nuts would also be welcome. 


"The Vegetables" by James McMichael + Asparagus Risotto

A couple of years ago, someone asked me what my signature dish was, and without hesitation, I replied with risotto. It surprises me now, because when I first started cooking, risotto was one of my least favorite things to make. I thought all the stirring and waiting wasn't worth my time. I lacked patience. I didn't see the beauty in the process. These are lessons I've learned now, but as a young, inexperienced cook, I didn't find value suspended in the grains of rice, but a pan filled with great risk. Risotto, as you may know, benefits from a good amount of loving attention. If you drift away and let the liquid absorb too much, the rice may stick to the bottom of the pan, or even worse, burn.

Once I warmed to the idea of maintaining constant watch on the stove, I still wasn't confident enough to know risotto's nuances. I wasn't certain if the rice was done, if it needed or less stock, or how much cheese to add. But with time, patience, and practice, comes intuition. Today, I just know when the rice is done. Then, I give the pan a triumphant shake, melt the butter and Parmesan, and whip the rice around with a wooden spoon until it flows like a river over smooth rocks. I always smile when I eat it, too.

"Turkey Pot Pie" by Terry Hertzler + A Pot Pie for Spring

"Time mutates memory."

"Time mutates memory." This truth anchors the final stanza and springs from the page like a kicked ball bouncing into the street before you have a chance to catch it. It serves as a reminder of how memory shapes us, comforts us, and in some cases, angers us, especially when two people remember the same experience very differently.

The poem begins by setting the scene for a date night gone sour, including roses, attending a movie, and eating dinner at a restaurant, but a moment during dinner triggered an argument. By the end of the evening, the flowers were placed in the garbage, never retrieved. The memory had "mutated" in the minds of each person involved. He recalls eating turkey pot pie at Marie Callender's, she insists they ate vegetable soup at Chili's. The poet may know the topic of the argument, but doesn't share it with us, emphasizing that the point of all this is not the subject matter, but how we communicate to each other.