Friday, December 14, 2012

Comfort Me with Apples and Christmas Gruel

Ok, it's not really gruel.  But thanks to Charles Dickens, gruel has a distinct holiday edge over other cereals.

There is a quintessential scene in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol...never mind, who am I kidding - all the scenes in A Christmas Carol are quintessential.  However, when Scrooge is visited by the deceased Jacob Marley, he is interrupted in eating his evening gruel.  It is often overlooked that Mr. Scrooge has stopped at an inn for his evening meal on the way home.  The gruel is just a midnight snack of sorts.

It seems reasonable to assume that in the usual spirit of Christmastime this inn served up the kinds of things seen in the breakroom of my office recently.  While it probably wasn't buckeye bars, turtle bars, spinach dip, and hot turkey sandwiches, I am sure the theme was the same.  Heavy, hearty, high on sugar, high on sodium and excessive.

There comes a time in these holy days when we all need a little gruel.

Of course, I don't literally mean gruel (gross).  I mean quinoa with milk and maple syrup.

While I do enjoy cooking quinoa with rice and mushrooms in beef broth, I especially love it cooked in milk.  I've seen this referred to as "breakfast quinoa," but I eat it for dinner or as a snack more than I do for breakfast.  Mostly because breakfast for me is coffee and digestive biscuits at work.  But also because hot quinoa - high in fiber and protein - makes a really satisfying meal when you are feeling a little food-weary.  And let's be honest - 'tis the season for food weariness.

There is no rocket science to breakfast quinoa.

For one serving, rinse 1/2 cup of quinoa.  Heat quinoa and 1 cup of milk in a saucepan over medium heat until it boils.

When it boils, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Stir in 2 T of maple syrup.  Or brown sugar.  Or stevia.  Cook for another 8-10 minutes until quinoa is soft.  Not all the milk will be absorbed.  Add more sweetener if desired.


Avoid ghosts.

And here is where I try to be serious and introspective and tell you that this recent move has been so, so hard for me.  It's troublesome to talk about, because truthfully it has been a complex process of a few extremes and many subtleties.  I worry that if I talk about the extreme difficulties, I risk negating the extreme positives and losing the subtleties altogether.

There have been inconveniences - developing an allergy to some of our furniture, developing an allergy to the carpet in the new house, waking up with multiple bug bites, losing heat, losing hot water, not having kitchen lights, and vacuuming ants out of the walls.  One morning I opened my eyes and told Matt that I loved him.  He said, "I don't want to alarm you, but there is a spider on your face."

There have been some highlights - our Halloween party, making brownies with my sisters, and the sense of being home.

Perhaps the most significant facet of all, is the support and love of our friends.  I am learning to redefine friendship.  I've heard that in adversity you learn who your true friends are.  I think we've always known who our true friends are - what we are learning now is how very "true" they are.

Our friends have let me call them at all hours in tears.  They have put aside their own comforts to help us with ours.  They have unpacked with us, they have painted with us, they have prayed with us.  And they have given us some wonderful advice.

Proverbs likens a word fitly spoken to apples of gold.  While I have no wish to improve on the wisest man to ever live, I have to say that for me in recent days words fitly spoken have been like breakfast quinoa.

When I am most weary - when I feel like I will never again find that sense of calm and control - what has been most helpful and wholesome for me has been the good advice of a loving friend.  What I am realizing is this: in order to give the best advice, you have to understand the person you are advising; and to really understand, you have to listen.

I've been reminded to take deep breaths.  To take it one day at a time.  To examine and adjust my expectations but not give up on my vision.  And friends who have had to live with more courage than I have reminded me, "It will get better."

It is dark when I get home in the evenings.  I plug in the colored lights on the Christmas tree and curl up on the couch with my bowl of quinoa, hot milk and maple syrup.  The cereal is soft and crunchy, warm and sweet.  I take a deep breath and thank God that we're not alone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Country Living and Cocoa Brownies

I have this secret standard in blogging.  It is this: as long as the time between posts is less than a month, than I am still a regular blogger.  Tomorrow would mark one month, so here I am typing whatever comes into my head.

Right now my head is filled with thoughts of brownies:

 The first time I made these brownies, my sister Rebekah was visiting from Atlanta for the weekend.   We took our pug Henry and her new puppy Sherlock into the pasture to run around.  Sherlock is about half as tall as the grass, and could only get from place to place by hopping.  We would scoop him up and carry him, but he wanted nothing to do with that.  He would twist and turn until we'd put him back down in the dry, yellow grass.  Then he'd hop away from us, the only thing visible above the grass was the occasional glimpse of his silky black ears flopping up and down.

When we met up with my sister Sarah and her boyfriend Michael for brunch, somehow the conversation turned to brownies.  Both Sarah and I agreed we could really go for some.

"Actually..."  Rebekah rummaged around in her purse and proudly held up a Ziploc bag of two brownies.

This is just one more example of how Rebekah is awesome.  I mean, she has brownies in her purse!

We decided to continue our day out at the farm.  Rebekah told me she'd pick up frozen custard and a movie, if I would go ahead and make fresh brownies.  I found a cocoa powder brownie recipe from Smitten Kitchen and figured it had to be good.

It took only a little more time and no more effort than putting together a brownie mix.  Within 30 minutes, I was pulling them dark and steaming out of the oven.  Smitten Kitchen had said to let them completely cool, but Rebekah and Sarah poo-pooed that notion, and dug in with spoons.

We sat in the living room, looking out over the pasture where the now sleepy dogs had played and eating brownies from pools of melted custard.

This move has been difficult.  There were the nights of trying to cook with a flashlight.  The mornings I woke up covered in rashes and bumps (who knows what was going on there).  The night Matt and I spent three hours cleaning up a shattered fish tank from off the floor of an unfamiliar house.

But it has been wonderful too.  Doing it together.  Doing it with the help of our friends - friends who have surprised and humbled us with their unconditional love and sacrificial giving (hence, no more cooking with a flashlight).

Sitting in the sun-drenched living room with three of the people I love best, I realized that it was what I've wanted since I left Michigan seven years ago.  I'd missed the views and the peace of the country.  There is a nonchalance and wholesomeness to farm living that is slowly working its way into our days.

We are finding our new normal.  It is earlier bedtimes and earlier mornings.  It is views of our land and not an office park.  It is the sound of chickens and dogs instead of traffic and emergency vehicles.  It is just right.

And as I take my turn stealing a sliver of brownie so hot it burns my mouth, I look out over our tree-lined driveway and savor the feeling of being home.

Beware: these brownies are a cinch to make and even easier to eat.

Cocoa Brownies
Originally from Alice Medrich

10 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 325.  Line a 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper (or foil).  In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, cook butter, sugar  cocoa powder and salt stirring occasionally until the butter is melted and the batter is hot.  Smitten Kitchen suggests a double boiler, but I have had no problems with a heavy saucepan - just don't let your sugar burn.  The mixture will be gritty.  Remove from heat and allow to cool until it is warm.  Stir in the vanilla.  Add the eggs one at a time and stir until the batter is smooth and shiny.  Stir in flour until blended.  Beat with 40 strokes.  Pour into prepared pan and bake on the bottom third of the oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with just a few brownie crumbs hanging on.  Let cool completely (or eat lustily out of the pan with your sisters).
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