Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yes We Did

To call it "historic" is a cliche. But it's historic. I know that personally, I feel that for the first time in decades, I can say that I am proud to be an American. A friend of mine wrote to me the day before the election, and this is what he said:

A lot is made of the fact that Obama is black. But, if there was ever a man who is not defined by race, ethnicity, nationality or any other labels it is Obama. On the one hand, he is a man entirely unto himself. On the other hand, I can think of no man who more represents the entirety of Humanity. We should be thankful, not just because of the historical significance of a “black man” becoming president. We should be thankful to be witness to what will become of one of the great men of history calmly stepping up to the enormous challenges of his time. I truly believe that this is a man who, in the annals of history, will stand shoulder to shoulder with Lincoln, FDR and Winston Churchill. I don’t remember which cabinet member it was who stood at Lincoln’s deathbed and said, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” But, the same will be said about Obama. Around the world, the poor, the disenfranchised, the minorities deprived of full human rights, Africans, Asians,
Europeans, Latinos, any people in any land who are denied hope are saying “Yes we can. Yes we can! ” He hasn’t even taken the oath of office, and already he is affecting the world. I read a news piece this morning that anonymous sources in the Israeli government told members of the press that they wanted to be out of Gaza before Obama’s inauguration. Yes, he belongs to the ages, and the age that claims him as its own, will be in large part defined by him.

I don’t know how I will feel about the US in the future, but I do feel that at least it now has possibilities. Time will tell if it has the ability to seize those possibilities and transform them into reality. But one thing is certain. The man who takes the oath of office for President of The United States tomorrow is not just the best of the candidates who ran for that office. He is the one man in the world that that office needs right now.

And that poem? I felt that it captured the feelings of the moment.Praise song for the day. by Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other,
catching each others' eyes or not,
about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise.
All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din,
each one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem,
darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky;
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words,
words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed;
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone
and then others who said,
"I need to see what's on the other side;
I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe;
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce,
built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle;
praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love,
love beyond marital, filial, national.
Love that casts a widening pool of light.
Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Winter Soup, A winter poem

This has been a strange winter. I drove to New Mexico for the holidays, because unlike most southern Californians, when the calendar reads “December”, I want it to be cold.Perhaps because I grew up on the east coast, I have a thing about seasons.When I was a kid I used to love watching the maple tree in the front of the house turn red each fall.It was the first tree in the neighborhood to do so – usually in the very beginning of September, and its flaming color stood out against all the other trees, which were still wrapped in their summer green. Here in San Diego, trees don’t even begin to think of changing color until sometime in November.This year I think it was near the end of November.

Fortunately for me, gas prices had gone down, so the drive to and from New Mexico was pretty easy. It was well past the time when the aspen trees glitter with gold. It was snow time, when the world turns white and silent. And it is that silence which is central to the gift that winter brings. The silence which comes from the world being blanketed in snow, when the loudest sound you might possibly hear (or not) is that of a distant woodpecker working on a tree, is the perfect antidote to the cell phone-radio-car horn-jet plane-cement mixer crazy world we think of as real life.

Driving back from the higher altitudes and descending into the lower coastal regions, I knew the temperatures would be warmer, but the nights have been cool and the daytime temperatures have made it possible to wear a sweater or light jacket and feel comfortable. Now all of that is changing. They are predicting that the temperatures will go up to around 80 degrees inland.80 degrees???That’s obscene! This is January! This is National Soup Month – or so it should be. This is when we should be wearing layers of clothes, and burrowing in at night with a good book and a bold soup.

So I decided that I would ignore the temperatures and go by the calendar. After all, no matter what the temperature is, they day/night cycle still speaks of winter. We are past the solstice – past the shortest day of the year, but it isn’t palpable yet. So the nights are still long, and my books are a little thicker than the ones I generally read in summer. I have a longer time in bed to read at night, after all. I’m currently reading “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth – a vast, engaging Indian saga, perfect for long winter nights.

And the perfect soup? I found it on a blog I recently discovered called What I Like. I liked the title of the blog – simple and open ended. And when I read the recipe for the soup, it made me feel warm like a pair of woolen socks. It’s way simple to make, and of course I couldn’t possibly follow the recipe exactly. I’ll give it to you as written, and then I’ll explain my variations on the theme.

Turkish Style Chicken And Leek Soup With Yogurt, Mint and Rice

Serves 4-6

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 medium onion
2 large leeks
3 stalks celery
1 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup long-grain rice
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups whole milk plain yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon dried mint
Pinch of cayenne pepper or hot paprika

1) Place chicken in a pot large enough just to contain it. Add water to cover by 1/2 inch. Add one teaspoon salt. Boil over high heat. Skim any foam from the surface, turn the heat to very low, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove pot from heat and let stand, covered, for 30 minutes.

2) Meanwhile, quarter and slice the onion. Trim and discard the dark green tops, and discard the leathery outer layer from the leeks. Slice through each leek vertically and was them well, making sure you get all of the dirt out from between the leaves. Slice them crossways into thin half rounds. Wash and thinly slice celery.

3) Choose a heavy bottomed soup pot, preferably 4-6 quarts, and add the olive oil. Warm it over medium-low heat, and then add the vegetables. Stir to coat with oil, then cover the pan and cook, checking vegetables and stirring frequently, until meltingly tender, about 10 minutes.

4) Remove chicken from pot and let cool. Add cooking liquid and the rice (if using Asian rice, be sure to rinse first) to the vegetables along with the additional 4 cups of broth, and cook for about 30 minutes, tasting for salt and adding it, along with pepper, as needed. Meanwhile, shred the chicken. Add the chicken shreds to the pot once the rice is cooked.

5) In a medium-sized pot, mix together the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of cold water. Add the egg yolks and yogurt. Bring slowly to a simmer, stirring constantly in ONE direction. When the mixture is thickened, add it to the soup. The soup can now be served.

6) In a small frying pan, melt the butter. When the foam has subsided, add the dried mint and cayenne pepper. Fry for a few seconds, until fragrant. Garnish each serving with a drizzle of the mint butter (I personally just mix it with the rest of the soup...I don't even have a dining table so feel a bit ridiculous garnishing things).

Note: This soup is great reheated the next day, but don't boil it or the egg mixture may separate and curdle.
Kitchen Notes:

On a practical level, I only had one small container of yogurt, but I did have some buttermilk. I used a 50-50 mixture of the two, and I loved the tang it gave. Didn’t have cayenne, but I got pretty bold with my Hungarian paprika and that worked fine. Also, I didn't shred the chicken, I chunked it, as I prefer having something to sink my teeth into.

This soup, as written, is a soup of comfort. It's the kind of soup you'd want to have when it's January and you're coming down with "IT". But as I ate it, I realized that this was a variation of one of my favorite soups - Avgolemono - that Greek comfort soup with egg and lemon. So if you've actually got "IT", don't have yogurt or mint but have lemon instead, don't be shy. The acid of the buttermilk and yogurt can easily be replaced by the acid of the lemon. You can also substitute dill for the mint if that's what you've got. And this recipe definitely needs salt and pepper. I used a liberal sprinkling of kosher salt out of habit.

And here is a poem for winter:


by William Carlos Williams

years of anger following
hours that float idly down —
the blizzard
drifts its weight
deeper and deeper for three days
or sixty years, eh? Then
the sun! a clutter of
yellow and blue flakes —
Hairy looking trees stand out
in long alleys
over a wild solitude.
The man turns and there —
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.