This fall, I had kind of a breakdown.
That sounds melodramatic, I know, but I’m pretty sure it’s the correct word for what I experienced: breakdown as in things no longer working, as in a sudden onset of intense, uncontrollable, and never-before-experienced anxiety and sadness. Mid-October to mid-January was a very tough period of time for me, scary and exhausting and surreal. With the help of Jill, my friends, my counselor, and a psychiatrist, I am relieved and grateful to say that I made it to the other side.
Surviving a breakdown is like getting the world’s loudest existential wake-up call. The absence of pain is a tremendous feeling, and I came out of it knowing one thing for certain; I never want to do this ever, ever again. So then came the task of figuring out how to keep that promise to myself.
The more I looked, the more it became clear to me that my old identity was no longer working; thirty years of goal-oriented living and it was time to reevaluate who I was, what I cared about, and how I approached my daily life. Everything was up for grabs, which totally terrified me. What if I was something other than a constant parade of comparisons and achievements? Who was I underneath all of that?
Figuring out these things doesn’t happen all at once. I’ve learned that I don’t have to have to make all of my decisions right this minute; I am planning less and less these days, in fact. At the most, I think a few days ahead, finding meaning, worth, and value in each day instead of anticipating some future point where everything will magically come together and I’ll have my life figured out and lined up neat and pretty.
As I spend more and more time on this side of my breakdown, I find there is, in fact, something quite freeing about doing things very, very differently than I did before. Freeing to let go of old models and expectations, freeing to give myself permission to relate to myself and my life in a new way.
It turns out that the pieces I thought made me who I am, the things I was holding onto so tightly, the pieces I was so attached to and so convinced I would fall apart without—none of those are really me. And they aren’t the things that everyone else in my life saw as being me all along. Turns out what they love is something else altogether, an essential part that can’t be screwed up, even when I am kind of a mess.
It turns out that I can take a container of hummus that I did not make myself to book club and it won’t upset the balance of the universe. It turns out that who I really am is enough.
It’s a brave new world, my friends, and I’m glad to be in it.
FRIED RICE WITH BANH-MI STYLE MEATBALLS
Fried rice is one of my favorite weeknight dishes; like a frittata, it’s a great way to use up leftovers without feeling like you’re, well, eating leftovers. A few months ago, I tried this method for making good fried rice great, and I’ve been following its instructions ever since. The directions may seem extensive, but it’s really just a matter of being prepared ahead of time—having everything chopped and ready to go so that you don’t have to pause once you get your pan (or wok) hot.
This time, instead of cooking meat as part of the rice, I made banh-mi style pork meatballs separately and then incorporated them into the rice. You could also use these meatballs to make homemade banh mi (mmm!) or serve them over noodles instead of rice. They are very flavorful and freeze well, too!
for the meatballs:
1 lb. ground pork
½ of a small or ¼ of a large onion, diced
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
½ jalapeno, minced
1 ½ T minced ginger
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T corn or potato starch
1 T fish sauce
1 tsp. soy sauce
a few squirts of sriracha (optional)
Combine the above ingredients, preferably with your hands. Form meatballs of whatever size you choose (I went for 1 ½ inches in diameter). You can complete this step in advance and refrigerate the meatballs, covered, until ready to cook.
When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, heat your oven to 350°. Cover a deep, heavy-bottomed pan with a layer of oil—I use canola, with a small amount of sesame oil for flavor—and heat the oil until shimmering. Pan-fry the meatballs in batches, turning them to brown on all sides. Place the browned meatballs on foil-lined baking sheets and cook in the oven for an addition 10-12 minutes, until cooked through.
for the fried rice:
I used what we had on hand around the house—feel free to substitute any vegetables hanging out in your fridge.
3 cups cold, leftover rice
2 leeks, washed and cut into thin half-moons
~1 cup sugar snap peas, trimmed and diced
1 red bell pepper. diced
handful of crimini mushrooms, diced
2 eggs, beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 inches ginger, minced
1-2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
fish sauce (to taste)
handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
Cook the egg first. Heat about a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until hot. When it’s ready, pour in the beaten egg and stir it constantly until fluffy and cooked. Turn out into a large bowl and wipe out your pan.
Add another tablespoon of oil and let it get shimmery before adding the raw, non-aromatic vegetables (bell pepper, peas, mushrooms). Toss them around until they are tender but still crisp—I like to err on the side of undercooked, because they’ll ultimately be added back to the pan at the end and receive a bit more heat. Turn the cooked veggies out into the bowl with the egg.
Add another splash of oil to the pan and get it hot again. If using meatballs or another fully-cooked meat, just toss it around in the pan to get it nice and hot (and to render some of the flavor out into the pan). If you are using raw meat, fully cook it before adding it to bowl with the already-cooked egg.
Pour in a few more tablespoons of oil to the pan and wait until it shimmers. Add the leeks and sauté until they begin to soften; then toss in the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring regularly, until very aromatic and just beginning to brown.
Next, add the rice all at once, breaking up any large clumps and tossing it around in the hot oil. Stir fry until the rice starts to look dry and the individual grains separate. Season with a pinch or two of salt.
Now, turn the contents of the egg-vegetable-meat bowl into the hot pan. Stir gently to combine, then make a well in the center of the pan and add the liquid seasonings—rice wine vinegar, soy, and a few shakes of fish sauce. Incorporate the bubbling liquid into the rice, stirring and tossing everything until the rice looks dry again.
Remove your pan from the hot burner and top with chopped basil. Serve hot.
On this Valentine’s Day, I’m so excited to share a guest post from my friend Tami. She and I attended the same high school in Memphis, and I’ve always admired her sense of humor, willingness to speak her mind, and entrepreneurial spirit. Plus, her strawberry cupcake recipe is a winner; I tested it this weekend and, for someone who doesn’t normally even like strawberry cake, managed to eat two cupcakes by myself. When I took the leftovers to work (to prevent myself from eating them ALL), they promptly disappeared and my colleagues raved. Thanks, Tami! –Nishta
Having spent the majority of my life in the South, I understand the importance of a good strawberry cake recipe. This caused much stress as I worked on perfecting my recipes for TamiCakes. In my mind, every strawberry cupcake or cake should taste as good as the slices of strawberry cake that I would devour at Bogie’s Deli on Mendenhall as an after school snack in high school. If I couldn’t get the same joy from eating my own strawberry cake as I did whenever I visited home, then the recipe was no good.
For months, I could not find a good recipe. I tried frozen strawberries, strawberry jello, strawberry yogurt, strawberry jam, and nothing worked. Whenever someone would order the Mia X (named for the first lady of No-Limit Records, a Southern music powerhouse during my teenage years), I would cringe, because I did not look forward to the outcome. Eventually, I unofficially removed the Mia X from my menu while I worked out the recipe.
One day while browsing through recipes online, I came across this recipe. The recipe called for frozen strawberries, but I switched it up to fresh strawberries. Fresh is always better in my mind. I also cook the strawberries on the stove and then puree the in the food processor, versus just pureeing them in the food processor without cooking them. The flavor, to me, is much better with these alterations. I top the cupcakes with my cream cheese icing instead of strawberry icing. I love strawberry on strawberry, but using cream cheese allows you to savor the flavor of the cake.
For me, this is a perfect strawberry cupcake recipe. A lot of strawberry cake recipes don’t translate well to cupcakes, but this makes the most delicious little bites. They’re even good enough to sit on top of the Bogie’s lunch counter.
STRAWBERRY CUPCAKES WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
Yields 18-24 cupcakes
Note: This recipe yielded only 16 cupcakes for me, but I used large muffin tins and filled them quite full. Since I didn’t have any red food coloring on hand, the cupcakes you see here are more of a pale pink. And finally, my piping skills are not what Tami’s are; despite my inability to make these cupcakes look fancy, they still tasted fabulous!
for the cake:
2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 ½ cups granulated white sugar
2 ¾ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup pureed strawberries (from approximately 1 lb. strawberries)
4 large egg whites
1/3 cup milk
4 -5 drops of red food coloring (optional)
for the frosting:
1 package cream cheese, softened
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 cups confectioner’s sugar (I prefer two cups, since I’m not a fan of super-sweet icing)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.
2. Dice strawberries and place in skillet, covered with water.
3. Place over medium heat and bring to boil.
4. Reduce heat and allow mixture to simmer for about 3 – 4 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and strain. Reserve juice for another use.
6. Puree cooked strawberries in food processor, set aside.
7. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; set aside.
8. In an electric mixer, blend butter with strawberry puree.
9. Add flour mixture and blend until light and fluffy.
10. In another bowl, whisk together egg whites, milk and food coloring.
11. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and blend until completely mixed.
12. Fill cupcake liners with 1-inch ice cream scoop.
13. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
14. Let cupcakes cool completely before frosting.
To make the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together until combined. Add the vanilla, then beat in the powdered sugar gradually, pausing to taste as you go until your desired level of sweetness has been reached.
Tami Sawyer is 30, single & loves to bake. TamiCakes is an entrepreneurial foray into her love of baking, which was passed on to her by her Mom & Granny. She resides in the District of Columbia where she maintains an active social & professional life and still finds time for cupcakes!
I’d like to tell you a story about New Orleans, if you don’t mind. But I have a few newsy things to share first:
Recipe Index—I’m so pleased to announce a new feature on the site—a recipe index, where every recipe ever posted is listed, linked to, and divided by category. My hope is that this will make finding specific recipes or just browsing for something that sounds good to eat much easier! You can jump to the index from any page on this site by clicking the link in the site’s header (Many, many thanks to my friend and computer geek Greg—he of sriracha recipe fame—for his help in making this happen.)
Contest—Reader and fellow blogger Jennifer generously nominated Blue Jean Gourmet in the category Best Recipe Blog for The Kitchn’s Homie awards. I’m honored to be included on such a fine list of blogs, and I would be honored to have your vote! Click here and scroll down to find Blue Jean Gourmet.
Now, back to the story. It’s longer than the ones I usually tell here; I’m hoping you won’t mind.
It was a mild, late-December day and Jill and I were sitting on tall stools in a perfectly unmemorable French Quarter bar, behind a rough-hewn, open-air wood counter that faced out into the street. We were drinking beer at 10 a.m., because that’s what you do when you’re in New Orleans (see also: swamp boat and cemetery tours, the best oysters of my life, good music everywhere, and practically unrivaled people watching opportunities).
That was the day Jill told me about Bruno.
When Jill and I met, we both very quickly became certain that we wanted to be in each other’s lives forever. Though people often assume that our other differences—age, race, religion, etc.—must have been difficult to work through, they weren’t. The sticking point for us was children.
Jill is nineteen years older than me, and by the time I came along, she had already made the decision for herself not to have children. Kids were not part of her life plan, but they were a non-negotiable part of mine.
At the same time, I was young (so young) and in no rush to start a family. So we proceeded to build our relationship and let the issue be. “All I can promise you,” Jill told me, “is that I can open myself to having my feelings changed on this. I promise to stay open.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant, and neither did I, but I trusted her, and we had time.
There were moments when I worried—despaired, really—that I would have to leave Jill in order to be a parent. I respected her feelings and the fact that she didn’t want to walk into parenting with anything less than a full commitment; nor did I want to parent with someone who was less than fully committed. But I didn’t want to parent with anyone else but her. And I didn’t know how (or if) we would work this difference out.
One morning, just a few weeks before our trip to New Orleans, Jill had opened up the paper at the kitchen table and read a story about AIDS orphans in Africa. This was around the time that Oprah was doing a lot of work opening schools around the subcontinent and drawing attention to the plight of millions of children who had lost their parents, even all of their adult relatives, to AIDS.
Along with the newspaper story was a picture of a young boy—an orphan—maybe two or three years old, clinging to the white legs of an aid worker whose torso & face were not visible in the shot. All of the boy’s relatives had died. He had no one.
In that moment, and in her re-telling of it in a bar in New Orleans, Jill began to cry—to sob. Were this a story about me, such a detail would not be worth noting, but Jill is not a crier. But this photograph got to her, touched her deeply.
If I, a privileged white woman living in the richest, freest nation in the history of the earth, she thought, can’t stand up and be a parent to this child, who can?
Her heart was cracked wide open.
For several days, without telling anyone, Jill worked to track down the photographer who had taken the picture, in order to track down Bruno. She was fully prepared to fly to Uganda and adopt him.
I listened to this story, twirling my half-full pint glass, not wanting to interrupt, the street before us still quiet for the time being. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was hearing, but I did not want to interrupt, the moment already growing significant, taking on weight.
In doing her research, Jill had discovered that inter-country adoption from Uganda to the U.S. was (at the time) incredibly difficult to pull off; only sixteen total were finalized that year. The process involved long-term residence in Uganda and was barely even feasible for straight, married couples, let alone us. Still moved to act, Jill had instead found and pledged financial support to an African orphanage. And she pledged something else, to me, that day in the French Quarter.
“Let’s adopt,” she said. “We can’t be Bruno’s parents, but we can provide a good home for another child who needs one.”
After that day, we began a very different conversation about having children—no longer dancing delicately around the topic, but moving ever-closer to one vision as we planned, asked questions, and anticipated. To this day, I remain grateful for Jill’s willingness to be open, and humbled by the power that lives have to twist shape.
Now we are proud parents to this beautiful one. He may have been born in Texas, but as far as I’m concerned, he was conceived in New Orleans.
slightly adapted from Simply Recipes, where you will also find instructions for making your own shrimp stock
I’ve had shrimp stock burning a culinary hole in my freezer for a few months now (the result of many a painstakingly saved shell) and this was one very fine use for it. This etouffee disappeared quickly; next time, I’m making a double batch so I can throw some in the freezer.
1 ½-2 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined (reserve shells to make stock)
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ + 1 T flour
2 medium onions, medium dice
2 small green bell peppers, medium dice
3-4 stalks celery, medium dice
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ pints shrimp stock
½ T sweet paprika
½ T garlic powder
1 tsp. celery seed
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
salt & hot sauce (such as Tabasco), to taste
garnish with: chopped green onions
serve over: white rice
First, make sure that your shrimp stock is hot and at the ready—I like to keep mine warm in a saucepan on the stove. You’ll need to add it in a few steps.
Hear this: don’t be intimidated by the roux-making process. I was, and after some patient coaching from Jill, realized that there was no need. All a roux requires is patience and persistence. You can do it!
What’s more, an etouffee doesn’t require the chocolate-dark roux that a gumbo does; you only need to get to caramel-brown for this recipe. To start, heat vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium for a few minutes. Add the flour all at once (it will sputter), whisking thoroughly to get rid of any lumps.
Cook the roux, whisking in a figure eight, until it turns medium-brown. This should take approximately ten minutes. It should look about like a salted caramel sauce.
Add the trinity (onion, bell pepper, & celery) and jalapeno to the roux, tossing to coat all the vegetables. Continue to cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Pour the hot stock in slowly, stirring constantly to encourage it to incorporate. Don’t worry if things look terrible at first—the roux should loosen up after a few minutes. The idea is to add enough stock to make a thick sauce, which should be between a pint and a pint-and-a-half. Add the seasonings and salt to taste, then stir in the shrimp. Cover the pot and turn the heat down to low.
Cook until shrimp are just done (approximately 10 minutes), then remove from heat. Sprinkle with green onions and serve over white rice, with hot sauce to taste.