Sometimes I reminisce over the fancy-free days that included carbs and pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A time when I piled my plate high with mashed potatoes and lapped up the buttery bits with a charred piece of steak. I loved the streaks potatoes make, and how the butter eddies in pockets around your plate.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS.
Whenever I wax nostalgic to this degree, I remind myself of how GOOD I feel now. How I’m no longer plagued with itch. How I can eat food without fearing it. How I bolt out of bed instead of needing a forklift to carry my drowsy body into the shower. Last night I had dinner with a new friend, and I couldn’t help but say that the way I eat now, the journey that I’m on, affects everything in my life.
That being said, my food coach has tasked me with more food diversity because maybe I love chickpeas a little too much. This week I’m feasting on sprouts, snap peas, sugar peas, superfoods, and scores of vegetables I rarely eat, and I’m also making dishes with beans I’ve previously ignored. Case in point: the cannellini bean.
You have to know that I waited a good minute before I took a bite of this because I was worried that it would be a BAD FACIMILE OF THE BRILLIANT MASHED POTATO ORIGINAL. And while there are elements of my old beloved, the flavor here is clearly on its own. The bean mash is filling so you need less of it (my tower reduced to a minor moat), and somehow paired perfectly with this delicious salad (below), rendering my lunch strange, nourishing and filling.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from the Hemsley & Hemsley Coobook: The Art of Eating Well
2 tsp olive oil or ghee
1 garlic clove, diced
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme
1 15oz can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 tsp lemon juice
Sea salt + black pepper
Heat the oil or ghee on low heat and gently fry the garlic and herbs for 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the beans and 6 tbsp. of water to the pan, and stir to combine for 2 minutes over high heat. At this point, much of the water should be thickened. Add the salt, pepper and lemon juice, and turn off the heat.
Using a vegetable masher (I prefer my Vitamix or food processor), mash until creamy.
The gift of girlfriends. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, how I’m privileged to have a group of women in my life who encourage me to be my truest, sometimes most awkward, self. All of my close friends have a singular trait in common: they’re strong. When you think of strong you might think of Popeye, fuerte, or image a pile of weights of incalculable size being flung into the air. The women I know are greater than the sum of their parts. Their strength isn’t about the thing they can lift, rather it’s about the way they can hold and what they can bear. They’re builders. Two of my closest friends are building a company from scratch, while another is reinventing one. Another creates single-page stories using an illustration and the words find themselves in the spaces between the lines–she writes about the tough stuff, and in a single page she can rip your beating heart out of your chest and scotch-tape it back together again. Some of my friends don’t even know their own strength. How the pace and depth of their breath doesn’t change even as the octaves of their children’s voices climb. Some are patient, some are funny, others are a little crazy (I like it that way), but when I’m with them, I’m my best self. They demand it and nourish it.
Friendships, for me, have always been tricky. For over three decades of my life, I craved the companionship of a single person. The face of this person might shift over the years: he wears a flight jacket and sings Taylor Dane (we are 12); she is Filipina and we write letters from across the country when she moves away (we are 10); she has curls that flounce and she thinks the world is about ski trips, Nautica jackets and what money can buy. We watch Heathers in an apartment that will undergo inspections and violate state health laws for all the filth. But she, she, is impeccable. She is the definition of beautiful with those pink cheeks and eyes the color of certain seas (we are teenagers); She is a lover of Pink Floyd and nudity and we run on a beach naked before I realize my body is covered in burns from the sun. She is the antithesis of me and everyone tells us this. She’s an English major who writes long letters and lies to her family and I’m a finance major who writes short stories in the dark because story-writing doesn’t make you money. She will become someone who lies, so much so she gets lost in the stories she tells and she will never forgive me for having another friend (we are in college). This friend is blonde, hails from Connecticut and has a family I’ve only read about in books. We are funny, heavy drinkers, and serious about the business of being serious. From her and her family, I learn how to become a woman (in the absence of not having a present and sane mother). From them I’m Republican for a few years. From them, I’m Christian for many. We are friends to this day and while we are no longer a pair, while politics is a subject we don’t discuss, and while she is a devoted mother and wife and I sometimes don’t know what I am, we are still close. Ours is perhaps, as I think about this now, the only friendship that has endured half my life (we are 20, we are 30, we are 38/39). Within that time though, I form an unhealthy attachment to a woman who is also a writer, also a fellow addict, also a connoisseur of the dark, also a reader of books and “the right movies,” and our friendship spans many years and ends quietly, abruptly, and the only way I can think of her now is in positive terms because although she excised me from her life (had I been a barnacle? Had we both been?) I’m grateful for much of our friendship (we are late 20s, early 30s). That friendship taught me that I don’t need one physical, breathing person constantly by my side, I need many. I need legions, teams, beautiful, strong people who may take a week to respond to my email but will run, take cabs, fly to my doorstep if I really needed them.
So thank you, S, for the gift of your leaving. I mean that kindly and sincerely because I would’ve remained with a slight variation of me. I wouldn’t have friends who challenge me, uplift me, correct me, teach me, and love me in the small, wonderful ways that they do.
I think about this today, as I bake these cookies for a dear friend, because I have 11 women in my life who are so different from one another (some of whom don’t even know any of the other 10) and from me but they all are strong. I say this because I’m nearly 39 and I don’t know if I’ve things figured out just yet. Or do things need to be figured out at all?
I ate one of my friend’s cookies and I text her this, to which she responds, I hope so. Knowing you, you probably made dozens. I retort, 20.
I know that right now that this year has been greater than the previous five. That I’m healthy, strong, writing good stuff, making mistakes and quietly learning from them, and living on less so I can see more of the world. And I have friends who calm me down when I demand a single personal statement. I need the facts and the maths and the certainty, to which many of my friends remind me that there are few certainties, and if this time, this time right now, is good, roll with that.
Roll with that…
INGREDIENTS: Slightly adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook
1 cup almond meal
1/4 cup coconut flour
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1/4 cup vegan chocolate chips (Sara used cacao nibs)
1/2 cup shredded toasted unsweetened coconut
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup coconut palm sugar
3 tbsp coconut oil, melted
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, stir together almond meal, coconut and tapioca flours, dark chocolate chips, coconut, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg until it’s a pale yellow color, and it’s doubled in volume.
Whisk in the slightly cooled coconut oil and vanilla. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and mix on low until the ingredients have just combined.
Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls, place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (the original recipe said to nix this and ALL of my cookies clung to the pan, so forget that noise) with 1-1/2 inch space in between each. Press down slightly to flatten a bit. Bake until edges begin to brown, 7-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool before serving.
I’m at the point in the game where I have to consider meal diversity. Candidly, I’m a creature of habit (translation: addict), and I tend to gravitate to the same sort of foods, which are healthy, easy to make and in my repertoire. The notion of creating an abundance of variety is exhausting, especially when I’m in an office for most of the week and my schedule is random for the remainder of the week.
However, after meeting with my food coach yesterday, and presenting yet another jetlag-ravaged food journal rife with CHICKPEAS, kale, and chicken, I realize that I’m in a rut. And while you may see some beautiful dishes on this space–case in point: this beef ragu + zucchini noodle dish–much of my weekday meals are a rinse, lather, repeat. That soup I made last week? It was lunch for three days. And while it’s okay to repeat meals, variation is key so your body doesn’t become accustomed to what you feed it. Apparently, I need to be a magician and pull rabbits out of hats and flash wands every few days in order to maintain my health, weight loss, and more importantly, expand the foods in my diet.
So over the next two weeks, I’m following what Dana calls “The Body Project.” Essentially, I won’t be relying on my morning smoothie every day, rather I’ll introduce eggs, chia puddings and other new dishes in the morning mix. The amount of greens in my diet will be substantial, and I’m adding in bean sprouts, snow peas, snap peas, harissa, cress, and new juices (carrot blitzed with almond milk). Superfoods such as pomegranate seeds, Brazilian nuts, seeds, and mint are finding their way into my diet. I’ll let you know how it goes. The good news is that I’ve learned that you crave what you eat. Many people have lamented that I can no longer have pizza (unless it’s with a cauliflower crust, and no, no, I don’t want that, thankyouverymuch), pasta, bread or cheese, and to be honest, I don’t really crave them anymore. Sure, I have the occasional ache when I walk by a bakery and just SMELL EVERYTHING, but it leaves as it comes, and in this way, I’m sort of reminded of my relationship with alcohol. While I sometimes miss my glass of sancerre, I no longer need it. Those cravings have been replaced by the goodness in my diet.
I mean, when I came home from Spain I NEEDED cruciferous greens because my body had become so used to eating it that it missed it. And who misses kale?
I also talked to Dana about weight loss. So far, I’ve lost 20 pounds and I mentioned that I think I only need a set number to get me back to the weight I was four years ago. More than that made me feel uncomfortable because I want to eat the foods I enjoy–re-introducing carbs beyond my twice-weekly splurges, and desserts–and I don’t honestly want to be too thin. I know that may sound shocking because we’re taught, practically programmed, to believe in the cult of thin, but I’d rather have muscle, strength and a bit of fat because I feel right and I’ll age more gracefully. And yes, I have to start thinking about age as I’ll turn 39 this year. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I want to feel me in my skin beyond a number.
At the end of my weight goal, I’ll share the before + afters, details, and tips learned. Yet, I’ve also made another important decision–I plan to eat this way (and adding back the random bowl of pasta when I can have it in 7 months time) for the rest of my life. I’ve energy all day, my skin glows and I’m focused, attentive and present, and I can’t help but think that what I put in my body, my house, affects me in more ways than a numerical one.
To that end, this dish is part of that diversity. Who knew I’d be one of those weirdos who gets a SPIRALIZER? However, mixed with the beef, the zucchini noodles, while clearly NOT PASTA (I mean, come on), were though a lovely accompaniment to the hearty beef.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Hemsley & Hemsley. Serves 4 people
1 lb ground sirloin + 1 sweet sausage, casing removed
2-3 tablespoons of vegan butter or olive oil
1 large onion + 2 shallots, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 28oz can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 cup vegetable stock*
1 cup of red wine**
2 large carrots
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1 tsp nutmeg
4 large zucchinis
Recipe Notes *I know it’s logical to use chicken or beef stock, but I really love the sharp celery and other veggies that mix with the beef here.
**I used a Rioja, but a full-bodied cabernet is also a fave. If you’re sober and are sensitive about having alcohol in your home (totally get it), I would just add another cup of stock and another tablespoon of tomato paste). I’m cool with cooking with alcohol and reds tend to last in the cupboard than whites in the fridge (good for having friends over).
Heat 2 tablespoons of vegan butter (I use Earth Balance and love it) or olive oil, and fry the onions/shallots on a low heat until softened, not browned, then add the garlic, basil and any other herbs that you choose. Add the extra tablespoon of butter or oil if needed.
Increase the heat and add the ground sirloin/sausage to the pan and brown, using a wooden spatula to break it up as you go. Pour in the red wine to deglaze the pan, then the tomatoes, paste and broth. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and then reduce to a gentle simmer for 1 ½ hours until rich and thickened, stirring occasionally. I left this cook for 3.5 hours, and added a little more wine (or stock if you’re nixing alcohol, though note that the alcohol cooks out in the heat) if the sauce is too thick for your taste.
Ten minutes before the end of cooking, add the grated carrots and season with nutmeg, sea salt and a good grind of pepper.
Meanwhile, use a spiralizer/julienne peeler on the zucchini. Or use a vegetable peeler and then a knife to slice the courgette strips into spaghetti type strands.
Wilt the zucchini using a little butter and water in a pan. Or, to be more authentic in your service and to save time and washing up, just run some of the sauce hot from the stove through your spirals and the heat and salt in the sauce will soften them.
Check the seasoning and serve on top of a pile of zucchini spaghetti with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to serve.
Since I was a child, I believed in the power of books; they had the propensity to save, to whisk me away from the world in which I lived and plant me temporarily somewhere else. Immersed in a stack of books, I could fall deliriously in, imagine myself in different lives, countries, and taking on the shape and voices of different people. While that sounds slightly schizophrenic, it was magical for a child who also found that she understood the world through writing about it. Through reading and living there was the writing. Always the writing. I grew up reading poems, Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew when I was a small, and then when I was 11/12, I started mixing those books with Salinger and Cheever, more sophisticated poems (Frost, Browning–even though I didn’t know what they meant, I loved the melodic rhythm of the words). When I was a teenager, I carried a bookbag of extra books to school–I wasn’t popular, at all–and I spent the days between classes and lonely lunches, reading. Often I was bored by my AP English reading lists because I’d read those books already, and sometimes didn’t agree with my teacher’s interpretation. I liked Cheever’s Bullet Park when everyone else called it a failure, and ever since then, I read only literary fiction.
All other books were like gnats, annoying distractions. I mean, I ran a very prestigious non-fiction series at KGB Bar years ago, and I struggled, even then, finding the books, save the memoirs, interesting.
Until a few years ago when I realized I’d been missing out on SO MUCH. My myopic view toward books started to work against me as a writer. I only exposed myself to the books I wanted to write, rather than challenging myself by reading authors who had stories to tell but didn’t always rely on language as a device to tell them. I started reading more non-fiction (I tend to like biographies, industry exposes, and anything with a story as opposed to books that center around the theoretical), YA fiction (OMG, YA HAS BEEN SO AMAZING OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS!), graphic novels (I tended to drift to ones relating to food), and food/travel essays. All of these books, styles and approaches started to infuse my fiction with a lot more light. The challenge with writers (as opposed to general readers) is that we’re covert sleuths. We look at books from two perspectives: the enjoyment we get from reading a good story, and then the vivisection, the how did he/she do this? We break apart, we dissect, we analyze. I actually ripped apart a book and started moving the pages around to understand how a non-fiction author structured her book in hopes that it could help my own experimental fiction novel. Crazy, right?
When I went to Spain I carted four books with me, two of which I left behind because I didn’t enjoy them at all. Ironically, I left the literary/experimental fiction behind, and found myself comforted by reading Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. The book isn’t new, and I found it on someone’s stoop, but while I found the history of United Fruit, and its social, political and economic effects on Central America, and America, powerful. The company was often called “the octopus,” and that image was palpable as a writer. Thinking about how one entity can find its way into so many lives and change them, damage them. Oddly, reading this and going back to editing my novel felt natural, whereas picking up two of the lit books I brought felt distracting, annoying, filled with language tricks. If anything, it made me go back and see if I was annoying readers with too many tricks.
If you love (and I mean, LOVE) fresh bread, red wine, cured sausage, seafood and cheese, you will hole up in your AirBNB apartment in Spain and never leave. You will slice into your chorizo and lap up all the spice and grease happily with a chunk of warm bread. You will worship at the altar of the mollusk and you will eat cheese into the gloaming. Or until you pass out, whichever comes first.
However, if you don’t drink, can’t consume gluten or dairy for fear of a full-body hive blitzkrieg, and the idea of fondling a crustacean gives you vertigo, Spain can be challenging. While I was away I didn’t bother with a food diary because you people didn’t even want to know the amount of sausage and patatas bravas I managed to Dyson in one sitting. You don’t want to know that my meals were a rinse, lather, repeat, because everything, everything, contains gluten. That fried eggplant with drizzled honey? Flash-fried with flour. Ah, that’s why I broke out in hives! The salad that I thought would satiate arrives on a childlike plate, and the greens are actually nearly white because cruciferous greens are not as abundant in Spain. While it was easy to stockpile food in Barcelona (and La Boqueria provided ample offerings in terms of vegetables), Granada was a real challenge. I’m sure eating gluten + dairy free can be done, however, it requires research and preparation. You can’t just walk around, fancy-free, without analyzing the menu, without alerting your server that you have an allergy to gluten and dairy, and inquiring, este tiene gluten?
Because EVERYTHING CONTAINS GLUTEN.
The other day I was reading Twitter and a woman upbraided a group of women who inquired whether there was gluten in a dip. The woman tweeted about rolling her eyes, and perhaps a few months ago I would have done the same, however, now I know what it’s like (unfortunately so) to treat every meal like it’s a miniature inquisition because gluten isn’t just about BREAD, it’s a thickener, a binder; gluten delivers perfect texture and heft to a sauce, marinade or dip. Plus, it’s cheaper. And while wheat processing in the EU is markedly different than the Food, Inc. of the U.S. (wheat in the EU is a smaller protein, less abrasive to your system), it still creates an inflammation for someone like me who can’t chow down on roasted bread slathered with Spanish olive oil and crushed tomato (a breakfast staple in Spain, one which made me weep with all my bread-adoring envy). Gluten is in soy sauces, ketchups, beef stocks, off-the-shelf salad dressings, even in gluten-free rolled oats, and you’ve got to be a food-label sleuth in ensuring that your meal won’t make you sick to the point where you feel as if your appendix might burst, which is how I used to feel when I overdosed on gluten and dairy on the regular.
Lucky for me, I love pork, most vegetables, potatoes and rice, but after two weeks of a restricted diet, I started to actually crave vegetables. Since veg constitutes about 80% of my daily diet, I actually ached for cruciferous greens. I didn’t want pasta or pizza or bread–I actually desired brussels sprouts and roasted cauliflower. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s this:
1. Do your research: Before you leave, make a list of restaurants that specialize in gf/df or vegan/vegetarian food. I didn’t do this in advance and I’m a moron because of it. Even though I can’t have gluten or dairy for another seven months, for the rest of my life I have to be cognizant of my intake. I can’t ever go back to how I used to eat, so I’ve decided to make my life easier and live gluten/df 95% of the time. Going forward, I’m making it a point to consult travel magazines, blogs, WIKI pages and other resources so I have a handful of restaurants/food markets that will keep me sane during my trip. Next month I’m going to Thailand, and while everything thinks that this is easy, breezy, I have two words in response: soy sauce.
2. Rent an AirBNB, if you can: Having the ability to make breakfast (eggs every day, friends!) and dinner in an apartment saved a lot on my budget and gave me some sanity in terms of meal balance. Most supermarkets in the EU will show items that are gluten-free or dairy-free, which is awesome. Food shopping was a cinch, and I found that nut milks were pretty abundant in Spain. In advance of my trip, I asked my hosts if they could provide me with a blender so I can make my morning smoothies and protein shakes to offset the egg situation.
3. Learn how to talk about your allergies in the country in which you plan to visit: My Spanish is pretty decent, but I made sure that I learned how to correctly address my allergies in the Spanish. Most countries in the EU know about food allergies, although I didn’t even bother saying that I have a sensitivity, which would create a host of confusing questions. When in doubt, I went extreme and said I had celiac because most people in the food industry know what that means. Not only did I explain my situation up-front, but I asked about the ingredients (and how the meal is prepared) in my dish, even if I didn’t think they had gluten or dairy based on the description. I mean, do those eggplant slices look like they touched flour? Clearly I was wrong, assumed that they were safe, and paid for it in hives later than evening. Thank god I’m not celiac.
4. Bring back-up snacks: While I fervently believe that you should always eat local food, I’m finding that it’s easier to bring a bunch of bars and pre-made snacks, especially when traveling to smaller airports. I know it doesn’t seem right, but I need to plan for everything.
Now I’m back, chowing on all the veg a woman can get her hands on, and I have exciting news to report: my itch is nearly GONE and I’m at the twenty-pound weight loss mark. I couldn’t be more thrilled, humbled and excited for this marked shift in the way that I eat.
Just when I thought I found the perfect soup recipe, there’s always another. Another cookbook, another season rife with fresh produce at the market, and today I think I’ve discovered my favorite soup to date. This version, adapted from the Hemsley + Hemsley The Art of Eating Well cookbook (the gift that keeps on giving, my health conscious-minded folk. Thank YOU, Jamie, for the tip-off.) has everything you could possibly desire in an autumn soup: squash (I used avocado squash, which was a rare find at the market and butternut) and pounds of sweet orange tomatoes. Naturally, I added my buckwheat groats to give the soup some depth, heft and texture, and my recent travels to Spain have got me obsessed with chorizo, so I fried up some sausage and scattered the sliced links on top of my soup. I also love this soup because it keeps well in the fridge–perfect for packing meals for the work-week.
This week is my first week back at work and my regular routine. Pray for a woman enduring jet lag!
INGREDIENTS: Adapted from The Art of Eating Well (Serves 6) For the soup
1 pound of butternut squash, cut in fat cubes
2 pounds of avocado squash, cut in fat cubes (note: avocado squash is not the same thing as avocados)
3 pounds of fresh tomatoes (used tinned San Marzano if tomatoes aren’t in season), rough dice
1 large yellow onion + 3 large shallots, rough chop
1/2 garlic bulb
1 tbsp olive oil + Salt/pepper to season the veggies
2 tbsp coconut oil
4 tsp of lemon basil (I found this at the market, but you can use rosemary, thyme, basil or sage), rough chop
4 cups of low-sodium vegetable stock
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
a pan-fried (or roasted) chorizo link per person
Sea salt, black pepper and a little fresh herbs for the finish
For the groats
1 cup of buckwheat groats
2 cups of vegetable stock
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Add all of your veggies (flesh side up), garlic, onions and shallots to a large roasting tray. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt + pepper. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the squash is tender.
Gently heat the coconut oil in a large pot and add the basil. Fry for a few minutes in low heat as you try not to burn your hands squeezing the garlic out of their skins. You’ll need 6 cloves. The rest you can use in vinaigrettes and perhaps some toast for you privileged GLUTEN-EATING FOLK. Add the contents of your tray to the pot, along with the garlic cloves and the vegetable stock. Cover and simmer the soup for 20 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, add the groats + stock to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes until the water is nearly absorbed. Fry up some chorizo links in a large saucepan. I like all my meat charred so I tend to start the chorizo when I start the groats. However, roll with it. Don’t have timing drama. This is cooking, not baking, which is such a blissful change of pace.
Add the soup to a high-powered blender (or use an immersion blender), and blitz until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, add the cooked groats, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. The soup will thicken. Ladle out soup into bowls, add the chunks of chorizo, olive oil, salt, pepper and basil for garnish. EAT THE FUCK OUT OF THIS.
Or you can be like me and package it up for the week!
When you have jet lag, you might stand in your kitchen and experience vertigo over the thought of making soup. You might lie on your couch, catatonic, watching old Katie Holmes movies. You might read a heady book on the history of the banana republics and United Fruit or wander food markets in a daze. You might watch The Shining, as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it instead of the 1,564th time.
Jet lag is real, friends, and yesterday was comical and exhausting. The idea of cooking a complicated meal was unimaginable, and I stared at the greens in my fridge and wanted to go to sleep. The afternoon wasn’t as daunting as was the evening, when I wanted to crawl under the covers at 7pm and fall asleep. Thankfully, I made it until 9pm.
For dinner, I made this huge smoothie (it’s made for two), shoved some chorizo in my mouth and tumbled to bed. Today I plan to summon the strength for a CFE class and making my lunch for the work week. Pray for a woman.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Oh She Glows Cookbook, modified slightly
2 cups almond milk
6-8 pitted dates
2 tbsp cacao
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup ripe avocado
2 tsp unsweetened coconut flakes
6-8 ice cubes
Add all of the ingredients to a high-powered blender or Vitamix and blitz until smooth. Serves two, or you can be a jetlagged imitation of me and drink the whole lot of it and pass out at 9pm.
Although I loved my two weeks in Spain, nothing compares to home. Nothing compares to a hot shower on a cool night, the feel of your sheets between your toes, and the kitchen I’ll never take for granted again. Andalusian food was everything I expected it to be: simple, fresh ingredients perfectly prepared, but it was challenging dining out. Nearly every item on most menus contained either gluten, dairy, yeast, fish, or scores of other foods of which I had a sensitivity. Dining out required a plan and most days I subsisted on beef, chorizo, delicious cuts of Iberian ham, flash-fried eggplant drizzled with molasses or honey, and patas fritas. Having an AirBNB rental to come home to was a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to eat all the vegetables lacking from my diet during the day.
I actually found myself craving cauliflower and kale. It’s true what they say–when you eat wholesome food, you crave wholesome food. I no longer miss the carbs on which I once subsisted, although I did have an pang while seeing my tour guide slather olive oil and tomatoes on his morning roll. But the desire left as quickly as it arrived, and I didn’t want another fried potato, rather I wanted a heaping pile of greens with roasted chickpeas. While it was much easier cooking in Barcelona (the produce from the Boqueria was incredible, diverse and plentiful), Granada posed a challenge. The climate doesn’t offer a lot of variety in terms of vegetables, and I found myself pining for home, even amidst all the incredible grandeur of the cathedrals, all the Andalusian beauty.
Yesterday, I arrived home, jetlagged. Me being me, I had to unpack, clean and sort my mail within the first two hours of being home. And you can’t understand how it felt to feast on a HUGE bowl of salad last night. Also, the Hemsley sisters’ book, The Art of Eating Well, arrived, and I can’t wait to dive into it this weekend. Lots of veg, lots of color and goodness.
Until then, I’ll be content staring at these fritters I made a month ago, and the fact that I’m finally hitting the gym after a two-week break. Yikes!
1 ear of local, GMO-free corn, shucked, kernels removed with a large knife down the sides of the corn
1 zucchini, grated
3 tbsp mixed sweet bell peppers, cubed
1 tbsp chives, minced
1/4 cup basil, chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup)
1 tbsp of olive oil
Combine all the ingredients, except for the olive oil, in a bowl and allow to rest for ten minutes. In a large skillet on medium heat, add the olive oil. Using an ice cream scoop, dollop and slightly flatten the fritters, making sure you don’t crowd the pan. Cook for 4-6 minutes on one side until brown, flip, and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately with your favorite dressing/dipping sauce. I used this leftover creamy parsley dressing.
For someone who no longer believes in god, I’ve been spending time in many places of worship. You have to know that for the great portion of my life, I wanted so desperately to believe that a god was real, omnipotent, that I would be among the flock that will inevitable be warmed by his presence in the afterlife. I wanted to be believe in an afterlife, because the idea that our bodies would be cindered and ashed, or withered to bone felt unbearable, lonely. That first punch of air, that great push out in eighty, ninety years time (if we’re one of the lucky ones) becomes a crawl, an acquiesce, a slumbering home to the darkness from which we’d come. And to think that the bookend of this one life is only black felt wrong.
For seventeen years I sold myself on a god even when logic (and my heart) was telling me otherwise. When I think about it now, it makes sense why I cleaved so much to a figure that was a blanket, an embrace, a warmth I desperately needed after losing my mother. Having just graduated college, I was on the precipice of a new life but when I turned around there was no one really behind me. There was only me. So maybe I needed that blanket, that cold comfort that carries you through the night because I wanted to feel loved, protected, and cared for in the larger sense of the word care.
I often think of the body of a house and our world as the country to which it belongs. I spent the greater part of my life rebuilding my house, which had fallen to blight, disrepair, ruined by drink, grief, and fear of being truly vulnerable. I did this privately, slowly, laying down brick by brick, and over time, as I outfitted my house with furniture and shutters, I saw houses sprout up around me. I saw hands waving out of open windows. I felt the tickle and warm embrace of the gardens. Blooms that broke ground and started to grow. I no longer cared about having volume, rather I thought about personal velocity. A party was no longer a failure if sixty people didn’t show up. A short story wasn’t a mess because the “right” people didn’t talk about it. And being with people just to have someone to sleep next to in your bed, no longer sated me. I said to myself that I would rather be alone for the right reasons then with someone for the wrong ones. I became confident, quiet, pensive, and present for myself and relationships with people. I traveled more, read more, became more curious, and started to question everything I thought I knew.
And I started to see the world unravel around me, and the magnitude of hate and inequality, and for me, all signs pointed back to religion–how man had managed to pervert and interpret the teachings of god as justification for segregation (gays are suddenly an other, rather as human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity). How women were second rate because of the fact that they were born women and the word said it so. How simple, fallible creatures think they know the whole of the world, regardless of whether a god has a hand in controlling it. Suddenly, there are groups of people who feel chosen while others are considered other, and death, that once great equalizer, suddenly becomes this frightening place where people are banished to burn and suffer because they chose not to believe.
All of this is a very abbreviated summary of what I’ve been thinking about privately over the past two years. While I believe in a spiritual life, while I can marvel at wonder and man’s propensity to create great art, I no longer believe in a single man (or being) who will usher me into the afterlife.
So you’d think that I wouldn’t spend the great deal of my holiday in churches and mosques, however, as an artist, I was rendered speechless over their magnitude of devotion, and how it can drive greatness in man. Yesterday, someone told me that in Islam man cannot create perfection because the only perfection is god. There is always a flaw in a painting, or a millimeter misstep in a mosaic, and I didn’t interpret this line as something limiting, rather I thought it a celebration of being flawed. We live in a society that has morphed into something strange in its obsession for curation, order and perfection. Everyone is desperate to architect the idea of a perfect life–that image of sunglasses perched on a gleaming silver laptop. The body, and all exteriors, preened to perfection. The bruise of a lip on a coffee cup. How we relentlessly edit, delete, refine, re-edit, publish, course-correct–and I want so much for imperfection, for fuck-ups, for people wearing their flaws on their skin as a badge of honor. I don’t want all this whitewashing because suddenly you become the pure definition of the color white, which is the absolute absence of all color. I rather you be like Anthony Bourdain, flawed, raw, strange, bringing all of his passions into one place and redefining his art by not succumbing to being what a food writer should be.
Today I stood in The Cordoba Cathedral centered in a mosque (Madinat al-Zahra), the creation of which found its origins in a King’s ego, how the reconquesting of the city should reflect the Cross. But in this flaw (and all the ones that have come before), as you see in the pictures, comes great artistic juxtaposition and awe-inspiring beauty.
I don’t believe in perfect. I believe in the remarkable nature of our flaws and people who love and respect beyond borders and books. Visiting places of worship didn’t feel odd as someone who doesn’t believe, rather it gave me faith in man and his ability to perpetually ferret out the light even in the midst of darkness.
I haven’t fully reconciled my feelings toward faith, but I’m open and eager to learn and love.
I’m Type A in so many aspects of my life with the exception of travel and writing. I don’t plan; I don’t have a grand design. Rather, I simply go where the takes me and I play my hand as it lays. Doing so has created such an incredible sense of balance in my life, and has allowed me to artistically and mentally go to places I would never have imagined going. Allowing my novel to unveil itself, in degrees, has allowed me to create a story of which I’m truly proud–using techniques in language and line that have created this sort of nesting doll effect when it comes to my novel. Independently, every layer is wholly satisfying, but when they merge it’s this magical symphony that I’ve composed that sometimes shocks me.
The same goes with travel. I used to plan everything to the letter, and I never fully enjoyed my holidays, or allowed to go off itinerary. Deviations were unacceptable, and I think about how many opportunities or moments I’ve lost simply because I’ve an obsessive need to control.
Over the past few years, I’ve loosely planned my trips (air, hotel or AirBNB, and a short list of places worth seeing/chowing), and my experiences have allowed me to befriend extraordinary people and understand a country in a more fundamental and richer way. So when folks told me that The Alhambra was a must-visit, I only half-listened, told myself that I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I arrived in Spain and realized that visiting this site is like getting into the Pentagon. I spent hours trawling websites for information and tickets, and I nearly gave up hope until a local travel agency told me to try Ticketmaster, and boom, a tour was booked.
I’m glad I breathed through all of the logistics involved in procuring tickets, waking before daylight and making the trek, because The Alhambra not only gave me trespass to a wealth of information about Islamic architecture and fundamentals of the Koran, but it allowed me to admire a fusion of architecture (Roman: Doric/Ionic/Naves and Islamic: minarets, the impossibility of creating perfection as only Allah is perfect) and a deeper understanding of the origins of many Spanish words are rooted in Arabic. I can’t explain it, but there’s something wholly simplistic (not meant in the pejorative) about Islamic architecture in design, but the layers of meaning are complex, fluid and powerful. In the Palace, a simple line is written over and over on the walls: There is no victor but Allah. The calligraphy is entertwined with images of vegetation (in reverence of a kingdom meant to be Paradise) and geometric shapes, as images are not allowed in Islam.
After four hours wandering the palaces, gardens and medina of this sprawling site, I spent the rest of the day in the city, in the brief rain, and came home to revise two chapters of my novel. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an awakening (and education) in the morning yielded creativity in the evening…
How to Buy Tickets to the Alhambra: You can either plot your trip months in advance by purchasing tickets directly from the Alhambra website, or you can live your life like a person (as my friend Amber has been prone to say) and purchase a terrific tour, complete with an Alhambra guide, on Ticketmaster. If you simply want to roll out of bed and live your life all laissez-faire, very few people know that Ticketmaster has a hidden kiosk (beyond the entrance Pavilion, across from the cafe), where you can purchase same-day tickets, albeit with a few Euros tacked on to the normal 14 EUR price. Or you can wait in the Odyssean line (the queue when I arrived at SEVEN A.M. was monstrous) as tickets are routinely set aside for tourists, students and seniors who aren’t able to pre-order online.
How to Get to the Alhambra: If you love a good walk, the Alhambra is a 35 minute walk for those on the opposite side of town (read: me). It’s a quick, lovely walk from Plaza Nueva (although I’m not sure I’d walk to do it in the dark as you’re winding your way up the hills to the entrance gate, even though Granada is quite safe), or you can get a bus at Calle Pavaneras, which takes you to the Alhambra (bus tickets are 1.2 EUR). If you prefer a taxi, you can phone at 011-1-958280654, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you’d better take one at the roundabout of Avenida Constitución, the one with the Spanish flag. I speak decent Spanish, but combined with the early morning call, the terse, rapid barking from the dispatcher, I’d only advise this option if you actually can carry on a conversation in Spanish. This isn’t a se habla ingles kind of party. Apparently, I did something right since a taxi was outside my door within 10 minutes. And if you’re obviously staying at a hotel, tra la la, your problems are all solved by dialing the concierge.