Thursday, February 26, 2009

Breakfast and the Power of Beginnings

A new moon appeared this week. The Jewish calendar calls this day Rosh Chodesh, "the beginning of the month." My thoughts turn female.

The moon's mystic qualities are overtly feminine. Cyclical and gestational, the moon waxes and wanes to be reborn each month. In most times and cultures, women have been associated with the moon through ceremony and ritual. In Judaism, Rosh Chodesh is recognized as a women’s holiday dating back to late antiquity.

The new moon also holds the secret of beginnings—how beginnings contain (yet purposely conceal) the entirety of what lies ahead. Beginnings are microcosms: the seed to a tree, the ember to a fire. In a microcosm, we see the meaning of essence, that the nature of the whole is contained in its parts, infinitesimal in size. Like love.

The Jewish calendar is lunar, assigning unique spiritual qualities to the different moons of the year. Each Rosh Chodesh is a microcosm containing the essence of the month to come. The days emerge from it as a child from a womb. For this reason some are careful about the day, knowing it is a tenuous time, fraught with potentiality. The things we begin on Rosh Chodesh can grow into fixed patterns affecting our lives and psyches for the duration of the moon cycle. Like the moon, they grow in strength and potency until they peak. As the moon wanes, they slowly fade until they are gone. With the next new moon comes renewal—a clean slate and the chance to start again.

The moon, women, and beginnings share a commonality to most men: their ways are concealed, inscrutable, shrouded in secrecy.

On the subject of women and beginnings, my thoughts turn to morning, to breakfast—another beginning, another microcosm. Breakfast can be seen as the womb from which our day emerges. Our thoughts at the time, along with the food we eat and the energy it provides, establish the rhythm and pattern of the day to come.

It is important to start the day off right. It is important to have a good breakfast.

Merri and I eat the same breakfast every day: boiled whole oats with diced Granny Smith apple and cinnamon. Coffee. Later, a handful of almonds on the way out the door. These things are the raw materials of my day.

I wake each day to the voice of children. Akiva, the baby, stirs in his crib. Six-year old Zev tugs my foot.

“I’m hungry,” he says.

My mind snaps alert. A thought rises, fades. A significant part of the day’s pattern is immediately established—I will be surrounded by children in need. I teach in two schools each day.

I fix Zev’s breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs (sometimes waffles). A bowl of fruit, usually frozen grapes. A glass of almond milk. Vitamins: a chewable multi, a probiotic, three capsules of fish oil.

Zev sits to eat. I begin preparing my own breakfast. In doing this, another quality of my day is brought into being. As a parent and teacher, each day depends on how delicately I balance the act of placing others’ needs before my own.

Oats simmer over a medium flame on the stove. Bending over a dish, I slice through the apples. Purposeful, deliberate and slow, my knife is a morning prayer. It seeks to penetrate. Soon the apple collapses into a hundred tiny green cubes. When the oats are done cooking, I turn off the flame, stir in the apple and cinnamon.

The pot sits on the stove, delphic steam still rising from within. Looking inside, I hope to see something I can read, some insight into the day ahead amongst the oats and apples. I imagine seeing slight shadows inside the pot coalesce and shift together into imagery I should recognize. The random scattering of apples is not random at all. I know somewhere inside the pot is the pattern to my life, the secret to my days. I see nothing. The heavy padding of feet comes down the hall. Four-year old Sivan enters the kitchen, rubbing her eyes.

"Abba, I have to pee," she says.

Oat reverts to oat, apple subsides to apple. The pot sits on the stove, the air fragrant with the scent of cinnamon.

"Good morning," I say.

Merri arrives in the kitchen carrying the baby and places him in the high chair. Sivan is finished with her breakfast of yogurt mixed dry cereal and now plays in the living room. The baby sits quiet, content. This moment is ours. She gets the bowls. I get the mugs. We eat. She takes oatmeal, coffee with a bit of milk and agave nectar. I take plain oatmeal, black coffee. Our conversation sifts through the lingering emotions and detritus of yesterday. Together, we move forward.

In this way the last and most important pattern is brought into being. My wife and I meet for our meals together during stolen moments at the poles of the day, always by early morning or late at night. Except weekends, rarely do we meet in between. Our breakfast is like the early morning moon, still visible in the pre-dawn sky. She disappears during the day. We reconvene at night.

A Perfect Pot of Porridge

This recipe takes cues from both Cook's Illustrated, who suggest using longer-cooking steel-cut oats and Peter Berley, who suggests soaking the oats overnight in a souring agent, such as yogurt, to promote lactic-acid formation. This ultimately makes the oats easier to digest. The final dish is delicious and creamy with a slight tang: perfect. Steel cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats, but much of the cooking time requires minimal attention.

1 cup steel cut oats
3 1/2 cups spring water
1/4 cup plain full-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh sliced apples, yogurt, or nuts for topping

In heavy saucepan, combine the oats, water, and yogurt. Cover the pan and soak overnight, 8 to 10 hours. This is called FoodVibing the oats.

In the morning, put the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a lively simmer. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the salt and stir lightly with a wooden spoon. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until oats have absorbed most of the water and the porrdige is thick and creamy, 5-7 minutes.

Let the oatmeal stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Serve topped with fresh apple slices, yogurt, or crushed nuts.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on Coconut Milk and Sex

I condition my hair with extra virgin coconut oil. At the end of summer, I buy coconut Surf Wax and smell it all winter. I eat coconut milk in one form or another with almost every lunch and dinner. It's in my lunchtime butternut squash soup (recipe pending). It's in my dinnertime mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes. Lately, me and my wife eat the exact same vegetable side-dish every single night: Coconut Braised Greens. In this way we go through five or six cans of coconut milk every week.

That's a lot of fat.

For years coconut has been derided as unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content. My coconut milk has 10 grams of saturated fat per serving; that's 50% of the daily fat intake. I probably eat 20 grams of fat from coconut milk every day. Anyway. The coconut: unhealthy theory is bunk. Current research shows the fatty acids in coconut, the medium chain triglycerides, do not raise serum cholesterol or contribute to heart disease. Also, coconut is easily digested; it's not deposited as fat in arteries because it is easily metabolized. If you're skeptical or thinking of becoming a fanatic yourself, I suggest reading this thoroughly documented, well-presented article from Dr. Mercola's site. I offer this instead of boring links to studies.

Lately, as the winter enters its most hateful phase (football is over; baseball is yet to begin) I'm relying on visions of summer. The smell of coconut conjures lotion; skimpy bathing suits; an outdoor shower at a crowded beach house: the perfect little spot to steal away for a quickie.

No doubt, coconut is sexy.

Lately, on Saturday evenings, me and my wife make coconut-infused dishes.

Then, sometime after eating, we flop on the couch. We do not watch television. We do not fall asleep. Our place becomes crowded with all the things we do not do. The dishes in the sink. The laundry on the floor. The cellphones, unanswered. We just stay on the couch and pretend it's summer: We're staying in a crowded beach house; the couch is our outdoor shower.

Chicken and Mushrooms in a Lemon Coconut Broth

I've spent all week developing this recipe at home and at work. Then I made it last night for my brother's 40 birthday party. It's freakin' delicious. Serve it over a Perfect Pot of Rice.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, fat trimmed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
16 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms--cremini, shitake, or white button--sliced thin
1 15 ounce can full fat coconut milk
1 teaspoon juice and zest from one fresh lemon
1 garlic clove minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

Dissolve the salt with four cups water in a gallon-size zipper lock bag. Add the chicken breasts and seal the bag, pressing out the extra air. Brine in the refrigerator for one hour.

Remove the chicken breasts from the brine and pat dry with a paper towel. Season with fresh ground pepper.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm one tablespoon olive oil. Add chicken to skillet and sauté until almost cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a cutting board. When cool, slice into thin strips.

Add remaining two tablespoons olive oil to skillet. Add mushrooms and saute. Season lightly with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Saute, stirring frequently, until mushrooms have released and absorbed excess moisture, about 8 minutes. Add coconut milk, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic, and reserved chicken. Simmer until chicken is cooked through. Stir in parsley. Season to taste with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Serve hot.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chocolate Alchemy

Women love me: I make chocolate truffles. I know, this declaration is brash and cocky. It is also irrefutable. The evidence is in the woman’s eyes. She pops the truffle into her mouth. She blinks. She smiles. She's in love, briefly.

Incidentally, men love me too: I make chocolate brownie sundaes. This declaration, too, is irrefutable. The evidence is in the man’s fist. Here’s what happens. He takes a bite. He raises his fist in triumph. He is Montezuma, the Aztec king, re-born.

Montezuma reputedly had an absurd affinity for chocolate. According to reports left by the Spanish conquistadors, he drank as many as 50 cups of chocolate a day. Apparently, he needed the chocolate. Montezuma had hundreds of lovers. Chocolate was his Viagra.

Chocolate is the food of the sensual monster....

Picasso, the monster, reputedly fed his children dinners made entirely of chocolate desserts.

Alchemy is remembered as a medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of a panacea, and the preparation of an elixir of longevity.

Carl Jung, among others, saw alchemy as something more: a symbolic system for spiritual transformation. The great alchemists, he noted, were not really working to transforms metals, but to transform their own souls, from a lead-like state of ignorance to one of golden enlightenment.

The preparation of chocolate can be compared to alchemy: the astringent, bitter and otherwise bland seeds of a tropical tree are transformed into a dense, smooth, and somewhat sweet food, with an unrivaled, complex taste—a golden food.

Chocolate is a transformative food, capable of igniting passion and romance and fervor. When we work with chocolate, we embody Jung’s idea of the ancient alchemists. In this case, the asserted aim of our work is too transmute the raw ingredients into food, but the real aim of our work is to inspire romance and bravado.

I first encountered chocolate bravado in Barcelona; now that I am back in the states I find myself dreaming of a return to that city, to the famous pastry shop, Escriba, where, one morning I saw two gorgeous women sharing a chocolate cake with a beast of a man. The beast was clad in black leather from head to toe. The trio looked as if they were on the tail end of a long night, and they smoked while they ate, purposefully, as if they were battling for a last chance at recognition. It was my first day in Barcelona and it was my first sight of a Catalan. I couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so amazed. Nor could I tear my eyes away from the enormity of the piece of chocolate cake the beast was eating.

He stopped and returned my gaze. Then, with the odd braggadocio of someone who is still drunk, he pointed at my plate and laughed.

I was eating a granola bar.

I was not so interested in chocolate back then.

Still, even then, I had the impression, looking upon this monster in leather, that I was witnessing a stellar engagement—the same engagement that hits me now, every evening, after eating my final meal of the day, when I sit down to eat a truffle, lovingly made, and I sense the absurd affinity that humankind has developed for chocolate, a relationship initiated by an Aztec king and propagated ever since, by kings and lovers alike.

Here's a delicious recipe I recently discovered in the Times: Coconut Hot Chocolate.

Coconut Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate truffles are easy to make; they are also shockingly delicious. Here, I replace the traditional heavy cream with coconut cream, a healthy source of fat and another source of sensual allure. You can also roll the truffles in cocoa powder or chopped nuts, like pistachios.

½ c. coconut milk (coconut milk must be full-fat; try Thai Kitchen's)
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (For truffles, I prefer Chocolove Chocolate; or Endangered Species' Supreme Dark Bar)
1/2 cup dried coconut

Place chopped chocolate in a medium-sized bowl. Create a double boiler by placing bowl over a simmering pot of water. Gently melt the chocolate.

Pour coconut milk into a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, and pour over chocolate. Gently stir until smooth, chocolate is completely melted, and coconut milk is incorporated.

Rest until firm, 1-3 hours.

Place coconut into a bowl. Using a measuring spoon, scoop up 1 teaspoon of chocolate, and quickly roll into a ball about 3/4 inch across. Drop into coconut; roll each truffle to coat.

Let rest until firm, 30 minutes.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.