Last night’s dinner left me in particularly good spirits. I defrosted garlic and lemon marinated pork shoulder pieces left over from several days ago when I prepared Souvlaki. Even though the weather is at its most glamorous here in Southern California, I wanted a hearty, saucy dish. Husband was clearly relieved when he found out that he would not be dispatched to the store and volunteered to make me a cocktail. Impersonating Julia Child, I prepared a rustic, flavorful pork paprikash and for the first time in my life made pasta from scratch. No box. No pasta machine. Just me, a wooden rolling pin, and a pizza cutter. Completely old school. The Beasties ate several strands of raw dough while the water was boiling, meeting with my incredulous glances. I have obvioulsy forgotten how wonderful uncooked pasta could taste.
Everybody loved the heart-warming paprikash, but my pappardelle stole the show and made me regret not making the full amount. I do not own a pasta machine and rolling out the dough was quite a workout. Besides, I made the mistake of using my tiny counter top and quickly ran out of space. Next time I am going to follow the example of every self-respecting old country housewife and utilize our dining room table. Still, in the end, I was immeasurably proud when I dished out irregularly shaped, glistening, pale-yellow ribbons of pasta and topped them with flavorful, rich pork ragout. One more notch on my cutting board.
After checking on the Beasties, making sure they were blissfully asleep and erasing the image of the clothes strewn all over the floor by quickly turning off the light, I leisurely assumed my favorite position on the love seat, opened my soon-to-be-sent-for-repairs laptop, and started on my evening routine of connecting with the world. Pretty soon I was alone, Husband far gone into the land of dreams. I love absence of sound after the day filled with noise. I was feeling at peace with the universe, energized and ready to start another blog post, eager to be hypnotized by the arrhythmical staccato of typing.
The TV was muted, bathing the room in a wave of light. So it was not the sound that diverted my attention. From the corner of my eye I subconsciously detected a change in the regular programming of the local channel. I stared, transfixed, at the unrelenting wave of muddy water pushing ahead the matchboxes that were cars and houses, advancing on the immaculately arranged patchwork of fields, annihilating the world of man in its unpredictable and unstoppable advance. I switched to CNN and the horrifying images continued to roll on the screen.
I have never been to Japan and I do not personally know any Japanese people. But I knew that tsunami was devouring shiny new bicycles and favorite ragged stuffed animals, late grandmother’s slightly battered frying pans and state of the art rice cookers, old photo albums and hard drives full of digital images of snaggletoothed grandkids. I knew the water was hiding shards of broken glasses saved from a wedding, a ripped report card showing straight Kanji As, an already muddy crimson cocktail dress bought for the party on Saturday, an old, much loved book slowly losing its pages. I saw in my mind painstakingly planted gardens turned into a salty marsh, and my heart cramped with sorrow. I thought of these things as I tried not to think of the lives that produced them, washed away on that merciless wave.
I stayed awake until late at night, unable to pull away from the images on the screen. Oh, how I wished that the leading story was another Lindsey Lohan drug bust or Charlie Sheen interview. But the only thing I saw was utter destruction, hour after hour. I finally fell asleep, tortured and drained.
I did not want to get up when the shrill 5:30a.m. alarm went off. I went to work tired and subdued, but determined to dig out every ounce of cheer I could muster. Our new manager greeted me with the biggest smile and a pot of really strong coffee. We have worked together only a few days, and the only personal thing I know about him is that he cuts his own hair. I wanted to know him better and I asked questions, small talk, chit-chat, nothing probing. Still smiling, he told me that he was staying with his grandmother in order to take care of her and his ten-year-old sister while their mother was in the hospital battling lung cancer and lymphoma. She never smoked and it was a surprise… I don’t know Andy and I don’t know his mother. But thinking of that little girl worrying if her mother was ever coming back from the hospital brought me to tears. He was trying to be brave and I certainly was not going to bring him down. So I smiled too.
A couple of hours later, a regular customer came in dressed in a bright turquoise shirt. She gave me a hug and whispered in my ear that her husband had passed away several days before. I had always seen them together and admired the way they treated each other, teasing and joking, but never maliciously. They were both grey and wrinkled, although she carried her years more vainly. She said that she was taking it in stride, but that she missed him. She smiled, but her blue eyes were sad and the tears were pooling around the edges. I did not know him well. But I knew they were leaning on one another, supportive and loving. And I knew that her heart hurt, feeling cut in two, abandoned and alone. She patted me on the shoulder and smiled. I smiled too.
When I came home, I wanted my children close to me. Our family has been through a lot in the last few years, but we still have each other. I know that I take a lot of my life for granted. But I know that nothing in life is granted. Life as we know it can be destroyed in ten minutes, or a week, or a month. All we have is now, to cling to, to cherish, to appreciate. Tomorrow is promised to no one.
I needed food solid enough to cling to in this wave of darkness. My pork paprikash with home-made pappardelle would have been perfect, but it was long gone. So I turned to silky, bright orange, sunny, and luscious butternut squash soup, simple and unpretentious, but strong and assertive enough to offer a respite from the harsh world. I won’t pretend that I follow the seasons or weather forecast when planning a meal. I cook according to my heart and the only guides are my emotions. Or my children’s. Or Husband’s. Today I needed sustenance with the power to keep me smiling in spite of the ugliness that shows its face once in a while. I needed a ray of sunshine to dispel the clouds and keep the murky wave we all feel even from here, from taking me too far away.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis; original recipe foodtv.com)
- 1 butternut squash, about 3 lbs
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the squash in half and clean the seeds. Place on the baking sheet, cut side down, and add ¼ water. Roast for 45 minutes, or until done. Cool and scrape the meat away from the skin.
Heat the butter and oil in a pot and melt together over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the sage. Continue to boil until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add the squash pulp and heat for another minute or two. Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender, blend the mixture until smooth and thick. Season with salt and pepper, to taste and garnish with pumpkin seeds. Keep the soup warm over low heat.