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It’s sort of an awful time of year to read blogs.

Holiday perfection pressure only emphasizes the performative nature of what we bloggers do—curate and arrange the pretty parts of our lives and share them with you in an aesthetically pleasing format.  Here are all of the things you should be baking!  Here are all of the things you should do to avoid gaining weight this season!  Here are all of the holiday traditions you should be cultivating with your kids!  Here are all of the things you should buy for the people in your life to demonstrate your love for them!  Here are all of the books you should have read this year, the photos you should have organized and turned into scrapbooks, the goals you should have met, and on and on and on.  Keep Christmas in your heart but be sure to look good while doing it.

I’ve had several conversations with good friends in the last week or so about attempting to remain balanced and focused this time of year.  In addition to the general cultural pressure to “do” the holidays a certain way, this time of year often brings work-related stress (hi, I should totally be grading right now) and family-related stress (and by “stress,” I mean “drama”), but for those of us who want the holidays to mean something, it can be tricky to figure out just what that is or looks like.  Even—or especially—for those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, as the fulfillment of a promise, it can be hard to hold sight of the center.  For an excellent meditation on this, I highly recommend this thoughtful New York Times commentary from Arthur C. Brooks.  We have a “healthy hunger for nonattachment,” Brooks writes, smartly diagnosing the malaise that many of us feel this time of year.

Shiv picked a book off of his shelf tonight—a pop-up book about animal habitats that was originally mine—and I noticed for the first time my name and “Christmas 1989” written on the front page, in my dad’s handwriting.  It nearly took my breath.  The “most wonderful time of year” is also the time when many of us miss what we miss the most.   

Advent leaves room for these sets of conflicted feelings, which is one of the things I appreciate about it the most (to be fair, I also really love the decorations and the singing.  I really, really love the singing.)  Hymns sung during this season speak of weary eyes and longing hearts, and there’s no shortage of those these days.  To echo what I wrote last week about resisting the easy, lazy, convenient, but inevitably inaccurate answer, I want to say that just because I’m not writing about being angry doesn’t mean I’m not angry anymore.  I am learning, I think, that anger is a lot like grief; you have to give up on the idea that it’s going to go away, that you are ever going to solve it.  Instead, you learn to make room for it in your life, to let it change you, which is what I am trying to do.

I am also trying to be mindful about what I actually want to do when it comes to Christmas and festivities and food and celebrations and presents, versus what I feel like I ought to do.  Shiv helped me make some treats this weekend, which we have and will continue to gift to various special people in his/our life.  We have friends coming over in a few days to help us decorate our tree, and  I’m planning to repeat a very boozy and successful eggnog experiment from last year.  I ordered a ham for Christmas, and I’m thinking about doing a leek bread pudding alongside, but Shiv doesn’t have any special Christmas pajamas or even Christmas outfits (gasp!), and there’s no wreath on our front door, and we haven’t put the stockings out yet, but you know what?  Baby Jesus gonna get born without any help from me.

HOLIDAY LINKS:

I made a big batch of this kumquat marmalade a few weeks ago when our neighbors offered to let us harvest their backyard tree; I’m including jars of it in the gift bags we’re giving Shiv’s teachers.

Also going in those gift bags are these not-much-to-look-at but crazy-delicious walnut shortbread cookies from Mario Batali.  My friend Peggy’s husband, Doug, brings these to events all the time and they always disappear quickly.

These burnt-sugar espresso shortbreads that Tim posted at Lottie & Doof are totally worth the trouble.  I also want to try the beautiful rosewater shortbread cookies that Heidi posted on 101 Cookbooks.  Are you sensing a theme?  I really love shortbread.  

This is the crazy-good eggnog we served last year.  This is a Pinterest board with every cookie I’ve ever posted, plus a few other fun homemade gift-able-things like Chex Mix and homemade Irish cream.

Last but not least, to set the record straight, I did make turkey pot pie last week; I just didn’t write about it.  I used this recipe, tweaking it a little bit (white wine instead of sherry, fresh onions & carrots instead of frozen), and it was delicious.  I love anything with a biscuit crust, and this recipe would work just as well with chicken.

Wishing y’all some merry mixed in with everything else.  xoxo—Nishta

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Archives / FULL ARCHIVES
 
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I CAN’T BREATHE

December 4, 2014

I don’t know what to say.  I was planning to blog about turkey pot pie this week, but my God, who the fuck cares about turkey pot pie when we are living inside of, as my friend Mark put it, some kind of midnight?  How can I write about re-purposing Thanksgiving leftovers when I am so unspeakably angry that I don’t know how to think about anything else besides Eric Garner, gasping for breath on that New York sidewalk?  About how I live inside of and am implicit within a system that makes it possible for the man who killed him to walk free, without having to face trial?  About how mind-boggling it is that so many people I know don’t seem to give a shit?  About how profoundly grateful I am that my son cannot yet read the news?  About how Jill turned to me last night in bed and said “I would say we should move, but I don’t know where to.”  And I said, “No, we have to stay.  We have to stay and fight.”

For many years, I was accused of being a Pollyanna: optimistic to a fault.  I grew up inside a lot of privilege, protected for many years from most of life’s truly awful things.  Those things existed for me in a mainly theoretical way, in the way of a kid who read a lot, and empathized a lot, and cried a lot, but who didn’t have much more than feelings at stake.  I cared and despaired and I went about my life.

Much as I liked to think I wasn’t naïve, I certainly was.  And I’m probably not alone in saying that it was grad school that disabused me of my self-conception as a worldly and sophisticated person.  I went straight from undergrad to an MFA program and quickly became aware—was made aware, by some brutally honest workshop critiques—of my tendency to wrap things up into nice, neat little bows: pat endings & pretty morals, easy answers and “everything’s going to be okay.”

I was also, no surprise, someone who avoided conflict like the plague; I liked being liked, even (especially) on the page.  Unconsciously, I suppose, I didn’t want to upset anyone—I didn’t want to tell unpleasant tales.  Or if I did, I wanted them to have hopeful endings.

Except now, looking back, I think that I have been guilty of confusing hope with wishful thinking, a distinction beautifully meditated on in this post by Debra Dean Murphy.  I am learning, in these heavy days, that my desire to focus on the positive comes with a price.  When I tidy up endings, I do violence by sawing off and discarding the pieces that do not fit.  When we prefer to post the heart-warming photo of the tearful young, black protestor embracing the white police officer, we draw our attention away from the deeper issues and fool ourselves into thinking they can be solved with a bunch of hugs and fuzzy feelings.

“We must acknowledge—with eyes and minds wide open—the world as it is if we want to change it,” Charles Blow wrote in his column this morning.  “Reality doesn’t bend under the weight of wishes.  Truth doesn’t grow dim because we squint.”

I feel like a woman with new sight, and that sight comes with a heavy burden, a burden I know many others have carried long before me, and long before that.  I do not yet know what to do with this sight except for to keep looking, and listening, and asking questions, and resisting the easy answers.  For once, I am not seeking succor or balm.  I believe these wounds need to fester, need to be made visible and brought into the light for a while yet, before they can heal.

 

all images in this post courtesy Amanda Raney

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BUTTERNUT SQUASH CARBONARA

November 13, 2014

Today is the day that a robot landed on a comet because a team of human beings did intense work calculating how to get it there, and then a million things went right, and then it did.

This is why I am not going to write a whole post about why I haven’t posted here in over a month.  I got sick, I was busy, whatever—it’s not interesting and it profoundly does not matter in the scheme of things.

Here’s something that matters—last Friday, Jill and Shiv and I were dancing around in the back yard after dinner.  It’s so dark so early these days, so Jill made a fire and the three of us were being loopy and goofy in that end-of-the-week sort of way.  Somehow, we started to sing in faux opera style, which Shiv thought was great.  He started interpretive dancing and asking for “more ooo-ooo music!” so we came inside and broke the Sabbath so that I could pull up a video of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” with the New York Philharmonic circa 1980.

Our kid sat, enraptured, watching one of the greatest opera singers of all time sing one of the most beautiful arias of all time.  When the video was over, without any prompting from us, he pushed the “play” button to watch it again.  And again.  And again.  He sat in my lap, perfectly still (a rareity) and watched that video half-a-dozen times.  I swear I could feel his soul grow.

It’s just so insane to me, the grace that brought this being into my life and that has entrusted me with his care.  It’s crazy humbling and so much fun, watching him figure out who he is and what he wants from the world.

I am teaching Whitman right now, among other things, and I love him so much it makes me delirious.  I’m sure my students think I am a madwoman, raving and pacing around the classroom about the brilliance of this old bearded dead dude.  But he is one of the pole stars by which I have guided myself all these years, and to whom I hope my son will someday refer.  His work is, for me, like a sacred text, words I can return to over and over again throughout my life, drawing more meaning with each reading.

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

We read these lines now and they feel so conventional to us, so expected and cliché that it’s difficult to convey fully the truly radical nature of Whitman’s thought within his time.  When Leaves of Grass was first published, reviewers called it “vile” and suggested that the author of such work ought to be flogged in the streets; that is how offensive his notions of equality, of egalitarianism, of the importance of the body in all of its functions, of the beauty of the ordinary day, moment, experience.

A new and unexpected friendship, a student who takes the poetry-writing assignment seriously when you totally thought he wouldn’t, the generosity and graciousness of strangers, a little boy who calls you “Mama” when it still sometimes catches your breath that anyone does.

No shortage of things to be thankful for here.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH CARBONARA

barely adapted from Bon Appetit

I made this a few weeks ago and only have the one iPhone picture to show for it, but man it was good.  Much as I love pasta with tomato sauce, it’s nice to take a break from that and do something different.  Shiv is pretty well obsessed with “noo noos” (noodles), so every other week or so, I try to give the people what they want.

There are a handful of steps here, but none of them are hard.  I was able to pull this together on a weeknight whil Jill was teaching a class and it was just me & Shiv home, so that speaks well for its doability.  Also, if you want to plan ahead, you can make the butternut squash puree ahead of time—it should keep in the fridge for a few days.

Because we had about a half a container of baby greens wilting in the fridge, I folded them in at the end of the cooking process (right after taking the picture above) and they added both a nice color contrast as well as a note of bitter to play against the sweetness of the squash.  I’d do it again.

ingredients:

4 oz. pancetta, chopped

small handful fresh sage leaves, whole

3 cups peeled, seeded, & cubed butternut squash (half inch cubes or somewhere thereabouts)*

1 small onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 cups chicken broth

1 lb. pasta of your choice—I used pappardelle; original recipe calls for fettucine or linguine

olive oil

salt & pepper

to serve: Pecorino or Parmesan or the hard, salty cheese of your choice

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Cook the pancetta until it is crisp, stirring occasionally.  Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a small bowl.  Add more oil to the skillet if needed and quick-fry the sage leaves for just a minute or two until they are crisp, then transfer to the same bowl as the pancetta.

In the same skillet that you just cooked the pancetta & sage in (delicious flavor in there!), cook the squash, onion, and garlic over medium heat.  Stir occasionally until the onion is translucent, then add the broth.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until the squash is soft and the liquid has reduced considerably, about 15-20 minutes.

Allow the squash to cool a bit, then use an immersion blender to blend until smooth.  (Alternately, you can transfer to a conventional blender, but if you do this, you will need to let the squash cool a bit longer first.)  Taste and season the mixture with salt & pepper.

Cook your pasta until al dente—you will be cooking it a bit more in the next step, so don’t over-cook it now!  Drain the pasta and reserve about a half cup of cooking liquid.  In the same old big skillet, combine the pasta, squash puree, and ¼ cup of the cooking liquid and cook over medium heat, tossing everything around until the sauce coats the pasta.  (Add more cooking liquid as needed to thin the sauce.)  This step should only take a few minutes.

Remove from heat and crumbled the pancetta and sage over the skillet, plus a generous amount of cheese!

*I usually advocate saving money & prepping your own vegetables, but butternut squash is the exception; those things are a damn pain to peel & break down.  I am a big fan of the Costco pack of prepped squash!

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OF APPLES & ATONEMENT

October 9, 2014

I swear I have been writing, y’all, just not around here.

Here are two new pieces, if you’re interested in checking them out:

Ritual, Love and Community: A 21st Century Family’s Mundan Ceremony [The Aerogram]

My Non-Christian Best Friend [Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Page]

I have also been thinking about atonement: ‘tis the season.  Because both Hinduism and Judaism use a modified lunar calendar, our holidays tend to align, which is how I found myself at school last week, fasting for my holiday (Navratri) on the same day that our school community prepared for the observance of Yom Kippur, also a fasting holiday.

If you didn’t grow up inside of a tradition that includes fasting, the practice may well seem strange, absurd, and out-dated.  And I get that; it’s an odd thing, in this very comfortable, twenty-first century life full of glossy magazines and hyper-documented eating, to tell someone that you’re not eating, on purpose, for no other reason than that your ancient religious tradition tells you to.

Of course, that’s not actually the only reason.  All of us, even the most devout among us, pick and choose our practice to some extent; I mean, I eat beef but I still call myself a Hindu.  Why fast, then, when it is so inconvenient, so disruptive, so uncomfortable?

Because that’s exactly what I need: interruption, inconvenience, to spend a little time feeling uncomfortable.  Not only is it a reminder of what a terrible luxury it is to be able to abstain from food out of choice (and not due to, say, lack of access or money), but also it is a reminder of my very human, human nature.  I am greedy, vain, and proud; I spend most days walking around the world as a bundle of wants, fulfilling one desire after the next.  All too often, I let my body lead, making choices that satisfy in the moment, but not long term.  I forget to care for my other components: body, mind, heart.  More importantly, and more damagingly, I fail to minister to those components in others.

That is why I fast—as a reminder.  Of my own frailty, my own failings, not to wallow in guilt and regret but to renew my desire to do better, to stay focused, to live with intention.  And, as always, to never take for granted the astounding grace that allows me to live this life, for whatever time I may have.

Last week, as I stood around inside a period of reflection and abstention, and my Jewish students and colleagues prepared to enter the same space, we joined together in the Avinu Malkeinu, the traditional Hebrew prayer of repentance.  But instead of reciting the words, our Head of School invited us to stand, close our eyes, and sing out just the melody, a capella, as a congregation.

It was one of those moments that the description of which will never do justice—an accumulation of meaning and feeling , a palpable presence of the sacred—it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

That same day, before I broke my fast with my family, we sang our traditional hymns in Sanskrit, words that Shiv is beginning to try and mimic, the ones that I hope will help build his sense of the sacred.  And when he is old enough—eleven or twelve, say—I hope that he will choose to fast along with me, to make time for the inconvenient and the uncomfortable, and the gifts that they bring.

APPLE RECIPES

I was ready for apples.  After my annual voluptuous romp with summertime fruit, I find myself wanting a bit more restraint, a bit of regularity, some dependable but not overwhelming sweetness.  Enter: apple season.  Apples are delicious, relatively cheap, and travel well in the bottom of my purse, the latter of which is basically my #1 criteria for snackability.  If among fall taste preferences, there’s an apple camp and a pumpkin camp, I am firmly in the apple camp.  APPLES FOREVER.

Also turns out that I love making things with apples, too.  Behold this whole host of recipes from the archives:

homemade applesauce

apple-baked oatmeal

apple-pear crostada

apple tart

apple-sour cream muffins

(apple) cider sidecars 

Plus, these bonus recipes from around the internet that I made & enjoyed but failed to photograph:

chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake with apples [Food 52]

Teddie’s apple cake, as adapted by my friend Jess* [Sweet Amandine]

*I have made this several times, most recently for Rosh Hashanah a few weeks ago, and it takes well to a little futzing.  This last time, I swapped the cinnamon for ground cardamom, stirred in some rum along with the vanilla, and played with the flours—a little buckwheat did something really nice to the already nutty flavor.  The cake was equally good as dessert, with some whipped cream, as it was for breakfast, with a smear of cream cheese or apple butter.

Do you have a favorite, go-to apple recipe?  Please share it!  I plan to be baking apple things for many more months to come.