April 29, 2009

Black Cherry and Thyme Jelly from the Red Dimension

I heard a knock at the door. No, not a knock--more like the rasp of a brush against a snare drum. It was the sound of 10 cats licking the 10 toes of an infant. Of 10 baby bats sucking obsessively at a peach. Yes, this sound was more tongue than fist. A hiss. A feather tickling your wrist. Eyelashes against a pillow.

I opened the door, and in swarmed a red cloud dusted with silver. Had I not been wearing my cowboy boots, this cloud would have, no doubt, knocked me over. This red was alive--but not "alive" in the same way that you and I and all 7 billion of us are alive. No, this red was life. It carried the lives of everything living and everything that has lived. It exhaled a Jurassic breath and inhaled a Cambrian sigh. In its blur and static I could hear the patient shifting of tectonic plates. I heard the fluttering of aquatic tails in shallow waters. I heard reptilian roars and insectual hums and the skeletal barking of dogs. The first fire. The first human yawn. I heard all of this, and I felt it, too.

As this cloud swirled and pulsated around my ankles and calves, I felt the way people feel after waking up from a dream where they are falling off the side of a cliff. Except I didn't want to wake up. I wanted to fall and fall and fall. I wanted this cloud to take me in and send me flailing into the universe like a curly-headed crab nebula. I wanted this thing to take me out of time and body and aluminum siding completely. I was willing to sacrifice everything to keep falling out into a sky of black holes.

"Thank you for opening the door," the cloud whispered as it wound its way around my thighs and waist. It was both cumulus and the deep inhale of a black hole--at once both a sprawl and a contraction. A small town on the verge of greatness. Her velocity, something I felt more than witnessed, moved in all directions at once. It sent my skirt into a flowering halo about my waist. My shirt began to unthread itself as it circled its way around my torso and chest and neck. The beads of my necklace tore from the chain and ricocheted off the walls like BBs or catapulting squirrel teeth. My hair sprayed outward like the branches of an ancient tree. Black cherries sprouted from the tip of each curl.

This cloud made every part of me move and grow and redden. My ears extended into great rouge satellites while, simultaneously, they grew inward like ruby snails. I heard, at once, the red electricity of my brain. It sounded like a thousand eels winding around the peach of their beginning.

My lips and skin and fingertips and toes bouqueted into red carnations; their roots flowered into me, tasting and licking and tickling the grapefruit layer beneath my skin.

The scent of cherry pie and cherry candy and cherry lip balm suddenly filled my nostrils. Like a dog, I could smell each scent individually: the pie, the candy, the balm. Then, as if someone flipped on a switch in my cerebral cortex, every distinction of fragrance blurred and I could only smell "red." No longer was there pastry, candy, or lip gloss--there was only red, and, oddly enough, I could smell it. I could smell the color red.

This synaesthetic transformation occurred not only to my sense of smell, but to my other senses as well. Suddenly, all that I could see, feel, smell, hear, and taste was Red. I felt like I had been thrown into a universe of red jelly and was clumsily slicking toward the heart of it. The red cloud, sighing now as it took over every part of my apartment & soul, had somehow opened up a new dimension and thrown me into it. In this new dimension there were no jobs, cats or cell phones. Nor were there any blogs. (Yikes!) Heck, people didn't even exist in this realm! All that existed was Red--all shades of Red.

I sensed that this world, this Red dimension, was the world from which the red cloud was born. No, it was more than that--this new dimension was the birthplace of Red. All things Red came from this realm. But why did this cloud choose me to be the witness of this crimson genesis? So I asked it, and this was its response:

"Do not be afraid, girl. Give yourself to Red, and you will be rewarded."

Give myself to red? Huh? What does that even mean? And does that really answer my question?

"Do not resist. Turn off your brain. Slide into it."

Not knowing what any of this meant, I tried doing what the voice of the red cloud had ordered. I allowed my body to go limp, closed my eyes, and switched off my thoughts. For a moment, I felt as if I no longer existed. I could feel every coral molecule of my body fluttering like a fruit fly, trying hard to stay aligned with the others in the flock. Slowly, though, each molecule dissolved into the red surroundings, and I (or at least my physical form) no longer existed.
My body dissolving in the Red Realm

All that remained was thought, and even that was dissolving into cellular pomegranates. So this is what if feels like to be Red, I thought. I was a chunk of coal, ignited. I was the reddest eye of a photograph. I was the lips of the prettiest girl in the class. I understood Red because, at that moment, I became that bloodiest and lipstickiest of colors.

The red cloud witnessed my progress approvingly:

"Good, yes. Very good. Now you know. Mmmm hmmmmm. You are now ready, girl."

As quickly as my body dissolved into Red, my form was reconstituted into human-woman form. First my feet, then my calves-and-knees-and-thighs. The hips next, then the torso-chest-shoulders-and-neck. Finally, the molecules of my head and its bushy, ratty hair vacuumed into themselves, and I was once again a whole human.

A little stunned, I asked the cloud what had just happened. Why was I chosen to witness, uh...whatever I had just witnessed?!

"You were invited to witness the core of Red. We wanted you to understand our place of origin, which, in a sense, is your origin, too. After all, all of you--all humans--survive because of us. Everything inside of you is red--your blood, your heart, your brain, your love, your embarrassment. Oh, yes. We are in all of you. We, those of the Red World, give you life. However, you are on the verge of forgetting us. Each day you dream dreams made of metal and plastic. You speak in pixels. You speak words that are fractions of what you actually mean. You think in decimals and apologies. And when you hug, your arms are like wires stripped of muscle and skin. You are turning away from us."

This message was confusing, especially since I was receiving it from a red cloud. I wasn't quite sure what I was being asked to do. But then my mission was made more clear:

"In your very own kitchen, you have the tools with which to reveal the Red dimension to other humans. By denying the Red World, you deny your Red Blood, which will only distance you from your body and make you ill. Here: takes these ingredients and make something wholly Red."

The cloud whirred through my kitchen, flinging open cupboards and drawers. A jar of cherry juice suddenly appeared on the kitchen counter, as did measuring spoons, bowls, and a bag of sugar.

"Take these, and remake what you just experienced in the Red World. Remind humans that we of the Red World still exist. Remind them that we course through their veins!"

And, with those last words, the cloud tornadoed toward my door like, well, a tornado. In what seemed like one, fluid motion, the door flew open and slammed shut, leaving me standing in the middle of my kitchen without any clothes on. (The cloud unraveled my threads, remember?)

So, I approached my pile of ingredients and set to work on what would be the purest, most gelatinous tribute to the Red World ever created: Black Cherry & Thyme Jelly. (Despite their name, black cherries are really a deep, rich, almost-purple hue of red.) This carmine jelly is velvety, prehistoric, and sophisticated; after all, it represents all life on earth from the beginning of time to infinity. Man, a lot of knowledge can be packed into that lifespan, you know?

Since I'm supposed to spread the word about your ruby-red origins and all, the jelly recipe is outlined for you below. As you prepare it in your own kitchen, think of your veins and your heart and your red, red thoughts. (Then think of all the tasty crepes you'll be able to yield from this sweet batch of jelly!)

Black Cherry and Thyme Jelly
(This recipe is adapted from this site.)

1 cup sugar
1 cup black cherry juice
3 sprigs of thyme
1/2 packet of pectin (a plant-derived gelling agent you can find in most grocery stores near the canning supplies)

1. Bring your black cherry juice to a boil in a large saucepan, and then take it off the heat. Add the sprigs of thyme, stir, and allow flavor to infuse for 30 minutes.

2. Once mixture has cooled, extract the sprigs of thyme, and add the pectin to the juice. Stir until fully combined, and then return the saucepan to the stove. Bring mixture to a boil.

3. When juice is once again at a boil, add sugar and stir continuously until the jelly slithers all snail-like off of your mixing spoon. This took me about 20-25 minutes.

4. Remove from heat, and allow jelly to slightly cool. Pour jelly into jars, and store in the fridge. I didn't mess around with proper sealing and such, which would make this jelly last until the end of time. Instead, I just used small screw-cap glass jars, which should preserve this jelly for a good 2-3 weeks.

April 22, 2009

All is Right in the Head (of Cauliflower)

Oh Moody Kitchen, you were not meant to be abandoned. As I peek my head above my stack of to-be-graded essays, I see you growling at me contemptuously with your pixelated teeth. But, please know this: I still want you madly. I want you like a hungry dog wants an uncooked steak, or like a chipmunk wants an M&M. Really, I do. But you must wait for just a few more days, baby. I’ve gotta get my s**t together first. Before these essays were submitted, I was a real woman—a woman with hopes, dreams, and cauliflowery ambitions. I need to find that woman—that woman I was before this red pen was placed in my hand.

Until my identity is once again exhumed, allow me to share some of my latest cauliflower research with you. As some of you know, cauliflower and I go way back. We were buddies in high school. Cauliflower braided my hair and did my homework, and I ate her head—you know, normal BFF stuff.

Anyhow, my hard-hitting, finger-on-the-pulse research has proven that my awkward, clumsy best friend (who suffered from “other child” syndrome during her formative years—her older sister was, after all, broccoli (that bitch!)) has, through much hardship, become an inspiration to many. Sure, broccoli had thin legs and softer hair, but as cauliflower budded (haha) into a young woman, her brainy (haha) nature proved to be much more seductive. While broccoli lies wilting in the fridge of her past (sucka!), cauliflower matures into deeper constellations of deliciousness.

Here’s what some well-respected people of letters have said of cauliflower’s splendor:

“Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” –Mark Twain (Hmmm…this quote may not work to support my research thesis. *Highlight, right click, DELETE!*) Twain eating a cigar (which is nothing but a cigarette with a college education)

“Come forth with a cauliflower who will plunk herself down beside Him and worry like a white brain.” –Anne Sexton (I like Ms. Sexton’s use of the word “plunk”—yes, yes, that is very caulifloweresque. Unlike insensible Mr. Twain, Ms. Sexton seems to understand the sacred nature of cauliflower. However, I find myself grappling with the same academic dilemma as before: how the hell will I use this as support of my thesis? It ain't exactly logical and scholarly. Save it for the epigraph, you suggest? Perfect! An epigraph is a storage unit for the "useless but beautiful.")

Nothing about Sexton is "plunk"

Sadly, I must put my questionable cauliflower research on hold until I find more logos-driven, pro-cauliflower source information. And until I finish grading my students’ essays. And until I find a way to reconfigure the pieces of my lost identity. Until then, I will be raging against the page with my red pen while munching on the crisp and flowery head of my old best friend: cauliflower.

Here is a simple recipe to hold you over until our next not-quite-sane session. Well, it’s less a recipe and more a pile of random ingredients that, together, make for a tasty, textured meal. This is a cheap, quick-fix meal to make when time becomes an engine that refuses to die.

Getting A-head Brain Food

4-5 cauliflower florets, chopped finely
2 Tbs. horseradish sauce
A few smashed crackers of your preference
Juice of ¼ a lemon
Loads of black pepper and a dash of salt

Toss in bowl, stir, and eat away to your head’s content!

April 14, 2009

Eat Your To-Do List

My Summer To-Do List

When I started my first teaching job after finishing my undergraduate degree, I had the pleasure of working side-by-side with a master To-Do lister. Steve, a teacher of 20 years, was the real deal when it came to managing life via Post-It notes. He came to work each day with not just one To-Do list, but with a whole collection of To-Do lists. These small pieces of paper would be neatly folded and stuffed into his back pocket for safe-keeping.

Steve's lists seemed to break from chronological time and enter the cosmological, the eternal. How could one person complete that many tasks per day? The challenge seemed impossible to my lazy, 22-year-old self. No one could conquer that many errands and events and activities in one day without somehow stopping the flow of time--or leaving the temporal plane altogether. No one, that is, except for Steve, armed with his list-making pencil.

Steve's To-Do lists ranged from the short-term (hourly, daily), to the long-term (weekly, monthly, etc.) Throughout the day errands would be marked off with the authoritative line of a pencil, and, without hesitation, new errands and events would be included.

Without a doubt, Steve got things done. And I didn't. Go figure.

Steve's organizational methods seemed somewhat appealing to me, but at the ripe and hippied age of 22, I hesitated to manage my own life in such a manner. I shuddered to think of what these Post-It notes would do to my image. (Is not washing your hair and wearing hole-in-the-knee jeans an image? Maybe. Is it one that should be upheld in the workplace? Probably not, but the 22-year-old version of me paid no mind to values like "professionalism in the workplace." Instead, she lived by this value: "Why the hell not?!")

The 22-year-old me also thought the President was part-lizard, part-alien. As you can see, she was clearly not ready for To-Do lists.

Steve and I worked at a small charter high school south of Tucson. I was an assistant teacher, and Steve was the lead instructor. Aside from occasional visits from case managers and other school administrators, Steve and I were pretty much alone. Well, except for our students--our creative, rambunctious, and, at times, angsty students.

I guess you could say that all 30 of us were alone...in a together sort of way. I mean, this wasn't your traditional busting-at-the-seams high school with cheerleaders and cafeterias and Save the Saguaro clubs and locker-sniffing police dogs. No, this school was small. Very, very small. In fact, the entire school occupied one room (yes, just one room) in a three-room adobe building in the middle of the Sonora Desert.

Yes, the 30 of us were very alone together. And when the occasional dust storm would roll through and turn our entire universe red, we felt like we might be the only people alive in the world. Alive and alone, together.

As a result of this shared isolation, none of us could keep many secrets. We all knew who Margarita was dating. Victor's efforts to win back an old girlfriend went unnoticed by few. And if Veronica was tired of doing work, not a soul was left unawares...mostly because she would sigh, dramatically close her book, then yell, "Uh, I'm tired of doing work!" Nope, nothing in our one-room school remained a secret for long.

As much as I loved these cozy quarters, our own batch of problems arose from time to time. Aside from the normal issues one would expect from enclosing a large group of teenagers in a small room for hours on end, some of the problems--or, I guess you could say my problems--were To-Do list related. Try as I might to ignore Steve's perfect Post-Its, there were days when I just couldn't. The minute I turned away from one pink and perfect list, my eyes would fall upon an even pinker and more perfect list. I felt like "the other child"--the one who is forced to stare for eternity at the "much better child's" Nobel Peace Prize trophy sitting proudly on the mantle of a one-room cabin. Day in day out, she (your humble, disheveled, and hippied "other child") must sit and confront that symbol of "betterness," unable to escape its glare.

One night I decided to take matters into my own hands. If Steve could organize his life with a few strokes of a pencil, then maybe I could, too. So, I went home, and I created my own To-Do list. And I failed at it. Horribly. As much as I want to share with you here some of the goals I listed on that piece of paper, I realize now that I had better not. That list is embarrassing. I have an image to uphold, after all. (Even though I fear it's the same unwashed, hole-in-the-jeans image I struggled to uphold at the age of 22. With a few hints of wrinkles. And cowboy boots instead of soiled tennis shoes. Otherwise, same old pseudo-hippie!)

That first To-Do list was hard. I couldn't come up with any specific and practical tasks in need of completion, so I resorted to the abstract. In other words, my To-Do list became a sort of personal manifesto, wrought with new agey statements like "live free, love free!" and "carry your roots with you!" The page was littered with enthusiasm (as evidenced by the army of exclamation marks), and I'm sure the word "transcendental" probably made a few appearances.

Oh, to be 22 again. No, I wasn't yet ready for To-Do lists at that age. Give a freshly educated 22-year-old the task of developing a To-Do list, and he/she will inevitably turn it into a manifesto. Especially if that 22-year-old graduated with a degree in English.

Surprisingly, though, I now find To-Do lists a little more appealing. In fact, now that I'm a proud card-carrying member of the late-20s demographic, To-Do listing seem pretty necessary. A To-Do list represents logic and structure, a 22-year-old's two worst enemies. But at 28, logic (in small doses) becomes a somewhat cozy idea. It's sort of like a calculator on tax day: you don't really want to use it, but if it wasn't there to support your crappy math skills, you would be left to do battle with the government all alone. In this light, logic is a both a friend and a radical. Logic is a comrade. (Man, I'm getting old!)

Since things are a little chaotic around these parts at the moment--tax preparation, grading, nail-biting, etc.--I thought I'd try my hand at a little Summer To-Do Listing. With Summer Break just 4 weeks away, I find myself full of hope: hope for warmth, relaxation, mimosas, and mangoes. And, when you really think about it, what is a To-Do list but a documentation of our day-t0-day hope? Even if what appears on that list seems a burden at first, we can look forward to the satisfaction of its completion. Once we finish doing the laundry or dying our mustaches--or whatever might appear on our lists--we achieve the freedom to move onto the lists that matter. My lists below fit into this latter category: what to do when the To-Do list has been eradicated!

To do this summer:
1. Buy a silk robe
2. Buy slippers made of feathers
3. Wear silk robe and feather slippers
4. Find a palm tree
5. Drink mimosas under said palm tree while wearing said robe and slippers
6. Uh, what else do you want from me? The list ended at #5, dude.

Hmmm. Okay, here are some more lists...only because you insisted. (Didn't you? Hello?) Let's move on to some food-related To-Do lists. Yay!

To prepare:
1. Lots of stuff with fresh, Carolina-grown berries. Like these:
And these: 2. Green corn tamales
3. Black cherry jelly [check! I completed this while compiling my list. Man, Steve would be proud! I'll be blogging about this yummy concoction soon.]
4. Juices and licuados infused with chiles
5. Cherry corn scones (using Sweet Amandine's recipe)
6. Jewelry tarts (using Hadley Gets Crafty's recipe)
7. Millions of batches of sorbets infused with the likes of thyme, basil, lavender, etc.
8. Red wine (using my brother's awesome wine-making apparatus)
9. Homemade pizza
10. Pickled hot peppers
11. Mole sauce (if I can get my hands on the 7,000 ingredients)
12. As many purple foods as I can handle!
13. Muscadine grape jam
15. Many raw goodies inspired by Bridget at Perpetually Creating

To read:
David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris (which comes out in May!):
2. Finish Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life

To do with friends and family:
1. Cook with Emily, Jack and Hazel before they move to the Old World
2. Bake some mystical bread with Jaime in the New World
3. Feast on some vegan goodness with Estacia in the West
4. Help my brother start up his own bee colony...for the love of honey!!! And beekeeper suits!

Misc. food to-do stuff:
1. Blog, blog, blog away! I hope to catch up on some old posts and develop some new beauties. If you're interested in writing a guest post (please? pretty please?), email me your ideas at themoodykitchen@hotmail.com
2. Take more blurry pictures of grapefruit, like this one:
To waste:
1. Nothing. Not an ounce of this summer shall be wasted.

What are you including in your own culinary To-Do list for the summer? What 3 recipes or experiments do you wish to conquer in these sunniest of months?

April 8, 2009

Shag Carpet Salad

I was born in 1980. This was the year when everyone in the world breathed a sigh of relief and asked, with voices emitting shoulder-padded strength and precision, "What the hell just happened?"

Well, I'll tell you what just happened--the 1970s had just happened. Out of the daze & haze we marched forward into a new decade, struggling to put together the pieces of our civilized selves. This process of "re-civilizing" involved toting around leather briefcases, tucking our jeans delicately into our socks, and ironing.

When the clocks struck midnight on January 1, 1980, everyone suddenly became aware that their walls were painted pea-green and orange, colors they didn't really like at all. They looked at themselves in the mirror and tried hard to remember where the uneven rainbow tattoo on their foreheads had come from. And why did that rainbow consist of only two colors: pea-green and orange? And why was it resting on a deflated lavender cloud?

As if in unison, people all across this great nation began to cringe upon noticing the freaky knick-knacks scattered about their living rooms:

Crocheted clowns?

Pancreatic ashtrays?

Owls floating on magic sticks?

How had American human beings allowed things to get this bad--and this trippy?

In the wake of that strange decade, we were left with something else--something one can only describe as part-jungle/part-freaky. That something was shag carpet, and my childhood home was full of it!

Our shag carpet was a thing of nightmares: mom's high heels would get stuck in it; my toys would get lost in it; stains would never come out of it; dad's spare change was always sucked into it. Many earrings, paperclips, and Barbie shoes fell into the carpet and never returned. If an item dropped from a table to the floor, you might as well consider it lost for good. Little could survive in a field of shag--except more shag.

Like a drunk uncle at an Amish wedding, our shag carpet seemed to suffocate the sober life around it to fuel its own clumsy and tangled ways. Sometimes it felt like our shag was reproducing right before our eyes! It grew up the walls and up the tables and up the legs of my parents. It grew and pulsated and expanded, stretching out the door and into the yard. It sprawled into the cornfield and under the bridges and over the Quaker meeting houses. Last I heard our shag was crossing county lines!

Just as you can't avoid the drunk uncle at a proper Amish wedding, our shag was, likewise, inescapable. Try ignoring it all you want--that's not going to stop it from throwing baby carrots at the groom while incomprehensibly slurring, "Amish, Schmamish! Where's the ranch dressing? And, where am I?"

Our house had two shades of shag: vomit-green and vomit-orange. (What a surprise, eh? It complimented our mustard-yellow & goldleaf wallpaper just beautifully!) When I think back on my childhood, these two shaggy colors come to mind first before any other colors. My memories of childhood seem to crop forth from these vomit-hued fields. And, you know what? Now that I've put about 20 years between myself and that carpet, I find I kind of love it--sort of like a button learns to love the ugly sweater onto which it was sewn. As ratty and nasty as that carpet was, it was also soft and forgiving; even if it did catch hold of your stiletto and toss you bum-first to the floor, at least it gave you a nappy nest upon which to land.

I aptly named the salad below "Shag Carpet Salad" due to its vomit-green and vomit-orange color palette. (Appetizing, eh?)

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this salad at first. Is it delicious? Yes. Does it include some of my favorite vegetables? Mos' def'. Is it pretty enough for a blog? Probably not. But, if there's one thing I've learned from my shag carpet experience, it's that even the ugly and painful things can become pretty when channeled through the processes of memory. And will. A very, very strong will. Even the drunk uncle at an Amish wedding can be pretty in his own goofy and stuttering way. And the baby carrots he's slinging? Absolutely gorgeous!

Shag Carpet Salad
(serves 2-4)

1 large sweet potato, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
10-12 Brussels sprouts, halved
3 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
4-6 cauliflower florets, chopped
juice from half an orange
2-3 tbs. sunflower seeds
salt and pepper to taste

Roasting Your Veggies

1. Toss your cubed sweet potatoes and halved Brussels sprouts into a bowl. Throw in the olive oil, cumin, salt, and pepper, and stir until the potatoes and sprouts are coated. Pour the veggies onto a cookie sheet or large casserole dish, and spread them all out to ensure they roast evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes at 400. You will probably want to flip the veggies once in the middle of roasting.

Preparing Salad

1. Once your sweet potatoes and sprouts have cooled a bit, chop the Brussels halves in half. Spoon these roasted veggies into a large bowl, and then toss in your chopped cauliflower and sunflower seeds. Finally, you can squeeze the juice of 1/2 an orange into the bowl. Stir until combined. Add salt and pepper to taste.

This salad tastes complex and delicious right away, but it's even better after chilling in the fridge overnight. Enjoy these beautiful shag carpet vittles!