Thursday, May 27, 2010

What to Preserve Now: Rhubarb - The Sweetest Vegetable

Rhubarb Oat Bars, recipe to follow

Although usually associated with desserts, rhubarb is actually a vegetable - one related to sorrel, a tangy green that I wrote about here. I love to watch rhubarb melt from hard fibrous chunks to velvety, pink-tinged mush. I also appreciate its ability to pair with both sweet and savory dishes whether as tart counterpoint to pork or duck, or as an accompaniment to its fairer and fruitier spring partner, the strawberry.

Given its versatility, be sure to put some up before it disappears. I preserve my rhubarb in two ways: in the freezer and as marmalade. At the start of this series, I talked about my Rhubarb-Grapefruit Marmalade, click here for the recipe.

Three Methods for Freezing Rhubarb

1. Trim and cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Pack in airtight bags or containers and freeze.

2. Trim and cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Cook with granulated sugar (4 stalks to 1/4 cup sugar) until soft. Cool and then pack in airtight bags or containers and freeze.

3. You can also freeze rhubarb after cooking sous vide, a process I described here. Seal it and cook at 140 F degrees for 45 minutes or until soft. Cool and freeze in the sealed bag.

You can use frozen rhubarb to sweeten up your winter in custards, pies, ice creams, and beverages (I love a mint-rhubarb cooler).

Rhubarb-Oat Bars
Serves 8 generously

1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour, scooped and leveled
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour, scooped and leveled
¼ cup cornstarch, scooped and leveled
2 tablespoons wheat germ, raw or toasted
½ teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large stalks of rhubarb, sliced ½-inch thick
Juice and zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup honey
1 sprig of rosemary, tied up in a cheesecloth bundle
½ cup rolled oats
5 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
5 tablespoons butter, softened slightly

Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment. Preheat the oven to 350° F. In a medium bowl, mix together flours, cornstarch, wheat germ, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar for about 1 minute. Add vanilla extract and mix for 30 seconds. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Press the dough into the pan. Score lightly into 1-inch by 2 ¼-inch fingers. Bake for approximately 15 minutes or until crust is firm to the touch. Cool slightly.

While the crust is baking, make the rhubarb filling. Pour the orange juice over the rhubarb in a medium saucepan. Scoop in honey and add rosemary. Cook until the rhubarb has broken down and the mixture has thickened, approximately 15 minutes. Remove the cheesecloth bundle.

When the crust has cooled slightly, spread the rhubarb over it.

In a small bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, and salt. Cut in the butter using your fingers, until the mixture just holds together. Sprinkle it over the rhubarb. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the topping is golden about 15-20 minutes.

Let cool. Using the edges of the parchment, remove from the pan to a cutting board and cut into slices.

Rhubarb-Red Wine Sauce
4 servings

This was a delicious accompaniment to sole coated in a pecan-flour breading. I bet it would also pretty great on roast pork or duck.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
3 rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup red wine
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and rhubarb and cook for a few minutes. Pour vinegar, maple syrup, and red wine over the rhubarb and add grated ginger. Cook until the rhubarb is softened and the liquid is reduced, approximately 15 minutes. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and whisk in 1 one piece at a time. Season with salt and pepper.

The Trash to Table Challenge: Oatmeal Pancakes


Through Purple Asparagus, I encounter many different perspectives on how children should eat. I've met parents who consider Doritos and fruit punch to be a healthy snack. On the other end of the spectrum, I've come across members of the food police - like the woman who actually suggested that feeding a child cereal for breakfast was akin to child neglect.

It's probably pretty clear that I'm somewhere in the middle between these extremes. While I try to cook most of my families meal from scratch, I do take some shortcuts especially at breakfast time. While scrambled eggs, french toast, and yogurt with fresh fruit are part of the little locavore's AM rotation so is cereal and instant oatmeal.

Thor's a fan of Nature's Path brand instant oatmeal, which comes in individual packets. They're convenient and tasty but just a bit too big for his 6 year old stature. Most mornings he eats about 3/4 of a packet - too little to save, too much to throw out. In keeping with the Trash to Table challenge,I transformed his leftovers into delicious Oatmeal Pancakes that fed him well for two more days. Waste gone, two more breakfasts in the roation. Score!

All you parents out there, 'fess up. What shortcuts do you take? I promise, I won't tell and contrary to the food police, DCFS has knocked on my door yet, so I think you'll be safe.

Oatmeal Pancakes
Serves 2

1/3-1/2 cup cooked instant oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1/4-1/3 cup buttermilk
all-purpose flour to thicken

Mix all ingredients until they reach the consistency of pancake batter, soft and foldable. Cook in a non-stick saute pan with a pat of butter until lightly browned. Flip and repeat. Serve with maple syrup or jam.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Farmers' Market Cure for Picky Eaters

Blessed is the parent whose child skips the picky eating stage.

I had prematurely counted myself among this kind when my 1½ half year old son was happily chomping down whatever I’d place in front of him. Never would I have to suffer through the kids’ menus, the freezer packs of chicken nuggets, the plates of plain buttered noodles. I was convinced that we were somehow different. How wrong I was.

To read more, click here to enter the Dupage Mamas site.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Trash to Table Challenge: Transforming Trimmings, Scraps and Leftovers into Delicious Dinners

There are lots of hateful statistics: the percentage of American kids overweight or obese, the unemployment rate of Detroit, or the U.S. market share held by just a handful of meat producers. But there’s one statistic that I despise over all others. Here in America, on average, we squander as much as 30 percent of post production food. This waste occurs during processing and transport; at supermarkets and restaurants; and of course in kitchens, both commercial and home. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this waste is a misuse of the water and inputs used to produce the food and results in the creation of methane gas as organic matter decays in our landfills.

We can do our part to reduce our personal contribution to this waste. First and foremost, by making better choices in our buying habits whether that be supporting restaurants that don’t over serve us or participating in CSAs so that farmers’ can produce what they’ll sell and minimize over production. But the biggest personal change that we can make is in our own kitchens.

Once upon a time, we knew how to be frugal. When food was dear, our ancestors at the hearth used every usable part of the plants and animals that they brought into their kitchens. Then food became cheap and time dear, and we all became wasteful. With the exception of the most careful among us, we’re all guilty of it to some extent.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I want to issue a challenge to myself and to you readers. Let’s rethink our garbage can and compost bin as the last resort. Got herb stems? Throw them inside a chicken that you’re roasting. Got vegetable scraps, make stock. Think strategically about your menus. I’m going to start posting my successful creations and recipes made with trimmings, scraps, and leftovers and I welcome you to do the same. To start, I’ll share with you my recipe for Mushroom Braised Beef, which I made with the leftover Mushroom Broth that used up a bagful of frozen mushroom stems. Together, perhaps we can make a dent in reducing that hateful stat.


Mushroom Braised Beef
6 servings

2 tablespoon all purpose flour
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 beef chuck roast
1 tablespoon butter
1 large leek, trimmed and sliced (save trimmings for stock)
1 carrot, sliced (save trimmings for stock)
1 celery, sliced
1 thyme sprig
1 parsley sprig
1 bay leaf
2 cups mushroom stock
2 cups beef broth
½ pound crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Mix together flour, salt, and pepper to taste in a shallow bowl. Coat the roast with the flour mixture. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a Dutch oven or slow cooker insert over medium-high heat. Brown the beef on all sides. Remove to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium, add butter and cook leek, carrot, and celery until softened. Pour in the mushroom stock, broth, and add thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Cook over low heat or on the slow cooker for several hours, between 4 and 6 hours or until very tender. Remove the meat to a bowl and refrigerate. Strain the sauce into another bowl and refrigerate overnight. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a sauté pan and cook ½ of the mushrooms. Repeat with remaining ½. Remove the fat at the top, reserving a tablespoon. Heat the tablespoon in a medium saucepan and add flour stirring until the flour is lightly browned. Whisk in sauce until it thickens. Add the beef and sauteed mushrooms and cook until heated through. Serve on mashed potatoes, turnips, or noodles.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

White House Garden Cookbook

I'm so pleased to have been included in the newly published White House Garden Cookbook with my recipe for Blueberry-Buckwheat Pancakes. To purchase the book AND support Purple Asparagus, click here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Great Green Goods

Oots! Lunch Box

A few months ago, the International Housewares Show gave me a free pass to their Chicago. Although I twittered my slog through the aisles full of gleaming pots and bright appliances, between conferences, writing projects, and school programs, I've been too busy to write a full-scale post on my visit. Only by playing hooky from an event this evening will I be able to cross this off my to-do list.

Anyone who's been to one of these shows can attest to how overwhelming and exhausting they can be. No matter how good your plan of attack may seem to be, it's never enough to conquer the cavernous hall and endless aisles. Even if you can't boast to have seen it all, you can sense trends especially in your microcosm of industry.

So what did I see? Lots of silicone and a surprising number of pressure cookers. I saw much fewer kids' cooking tools than I expected or had hoped for. I did, however, find some pretty cool legitimately green products. Here were my favorites:

Lifefactory Silicone Covered Glass Bottles:

Offered in three sizes (22, 9 and 4 ounce), the bottles are glass with a wide mouthes that can be fitted with a nipple. The bright colored liners are free of plastic and 100% non-toxic.

On a similar note, Oots! offers adorable BPA-free and phthlalate-free polypropylene plastic-free lunch boxes. Stylish and roomy, even the coolest of kids would be proud to tote this around.

Fabrikators Scrubbing Gloves

Potato gloves and seafood gloves are a clean, effective way to get your ingredients scrubbed.

Goodbye Detergent!

This cleaning product from Japan, is made from recycled corn cobs and peach pits. Reusable up to 6 monthes, the spaghetti scrubs can be used to clean pans and vegetables without soap.

The Laundry Pod

Great for small apartments, college kids, or long boat trips, the laundry pod is compact enough to fit under a sink and uses zero electricity.


My very favorite booth was the Danish-owned Scanpan. Their cookware is induction-compatible - its ceramic-titanium, PFOA-free interior is non-stick and safe for metal utensils. Scanpan is not cheap, but it's a great product.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What To Preserve Now, Part I: Ramps

Friend and reader Christy Levy made an excellent suggestion in response to my Taste of Summer, which was to include on this site a preservation guide. To give the lady what she wants, I'm going to start a regular feature What To Preserve Now, in which I'll provide suggestions on what market products you should be putting up now, whether by freezing, pickling or drying.

Today's ingredient is the ramp, the Midwest's stinky food mascot, darling of chefs, and allium lovers. The ramp's time is short so preserve it to enjoy its pungency year round. To learn more about the ramp, read this 2009 post on The Local Beet.


The simplest way to save the ramp is to freeze it. Trim the little hairy end and but off the long green strands (you can use these in this recipe for Ramp and Bacon Tart, just increase the greens and omit the bulbs). Heat a medium pot of salted water to boiling. Drop the ramps into the water and cook for 2 minutes. Drain and cool. Seal in airtight containers and freeze.


Pickled Ramps
1 pint

3 bunches of ramps, trimmed and cooked as described in the previous recipe
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dill seeds
1 clove
1 bay leaf

Sterilize a pint size canning jar. I did it by submerging it in a large glass bowl filled with water, microwaving the whole mess for 15 minutes. While sterilizing your jar, heat the vinegar, sugar, salt, dill, clove, and bay leaf in a small pan over medium high heat until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 3 minutes. Pack the hot jar with the ramps. Pour the brine over them. Soak the jar's lid and ring in the hot water for 1 minute. Seal the jar. Keep the jar at room temperature until opened. I plan to let my ramps set for a few days before using.

Pickled ramps are delicious on burgers and in salads.

My Marvelous Mother of May: Soft Boiled Eggs

Dear Mom,

Culling out a single food memory from my childhood would be impossible as there are so very many, so here is my open thank you letter to you.

Thank you for our family field trips to farm stands on the east end of Long Island. At the time, I had no idea how important it was for me to see real food in its natural state.

Thank you for being a gracious and creative hostess. I couldn't possibly remember all of your parties, but some of my best memories are of making and serving dinner by candlelight for a Colonial Williamsburg dinner, clambakes, and cocktail hours that lasted several on the boat. But of course, I'd be remiss in not recalling your very popular, annual survival party - an outdoor event on New Year's Day. Yes, you served too much food and people drank too much. But the laughter that you inspired will ring forever in my ears.

Thank you for taking risks. What were you thinking when you taught a group of 4th graders to make croissants for a French class project with no oven. (Oh, yeah, I would probably do something so silly these days).

Thank you for your willingness to experiment. While you'd never touch a roll of sushi, you exposed me to so many different cuisines as a kid - I remember the fondue pot, the wok, the crepe pan, and of course your famous krumkakers filled with sweetened whipped cream.

Thank you for showing me the importance of family dinner. While I may forgo the candles that you set out, we continue this tradition every night, one that keeps our family strong.

Thank you for not being perfect, for the occasional Dorito, coke and McDonald's visit. Although you made what we may now consider mistakes, it's comforting to know that if you get all the big stuff right, things will probably turn out okay.

Thank you for birthday cakes, raucous parties, cooking lessons, nourishment and nutrition, and of course for soft-boiled eggs.

I'm pretty certain that I have ever pulled out an egg cup in my own home. I've scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, omeletted, fried, even coddled, but never made myself a soft-boiled egg with sliced buttered toast like you served me on a many a cold morning before school. Thank you for that memory, so simple, so unspoiled and yet so profound.

Thank you most of all for being my mom.



Soft-Boiled Eggs
Do I really to give a recipe for this? Probably. Because many people weren't lucky enough to have a mom like mine to show them the ropes in the kitchen.

3 eggs

Bring a pot just large enough to hold the eggs filled with water to a hard boil. Add the eggs and cook between 3 and 4 minutes or until done to your preference. Cut of about a 1/4-inch of the egg's top with a serrated knife. Serve with thinly sliced buttered toast.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Susan and the Sweet Pea: Creamy Tomato Sauce on Angel Hair with Basil


I've known Susan pretty much forever. Certainly, she was a figure in my life before I started dating her son (the first time) and clearly, she'll be part of it long after he and I broke up (the second time).

Susan and my mom met when they were both in the Junior League of our small Long Island town. I had as much familiarity with her as any elementary school kid has with her mother's acquaintances. And even though Susan's son (my ex) and her daughter from her first marriage went to a private school and I the public school, I know that we ran into each others in some circles - at the library, park, or yaght club (a fancy name for a rickety old Victorian with a pool and a dock).

If I recall correctly, Susan's son, Jack, transferred to the public school in junior high. While I don't think we were ever in the same class, he and I had some passing familiarity. At some point, he began to tease me mercilessly and I realized that he had a crush on me. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the beginning of my last year of high school after I'd had my heart broken by my first love that he and I began to date.

Now clearly Jack and I had a connection as we dated not just once as teenagers, but then again as divorcees. Nevertheless, I cannot underestimate the influence that Susan had on the existence of our relationship. For some reason, Susan had a soft spot for me. I know that Jack's pursuit of me was encouraged. And once, he had me, she welcomed me to the family with open arms, donning me Sweet Pea.

By this time, Susan had remarried Richard and with him had a third child Kaitlin. The blended family moved to a large Victorian built in the early 20th century,assembled from a kit ordered from Sears & Roebuck. Richard adored her, bringing flowers every Friday evening. Unsurprisingly, as Susan was hard to resist.

Susan was a hot ticket. Although she'd had her struggles with weight, she was a sight to see in her late 30's. She was gorgeous, vivacious, yet down to earth. She had European friends and entertained deliciously and lugubriously. Even her divorce was glamorous. Her ex-husband was a pilot who followed in the footsteps of his father, a test pilot who palled around with Chuck Yaeger while they both broke the boundaries of modern aviation. As a young woman, I was dazzled by her.

Susan is a both a force and a free spirit. She gets what she wants but does so in a meandering way. While there are few people more open-minded, she knows what she likes and sticks to it. As an example, while Susan was a terrific cook and gourmet, she loved her 7-11 coffee. Jack once bought her a beautiful, expensive coffee makers, which she demurely shunned in favor of her styrofoam cups of thin brown coffee. She can also be fiery and temperamental. There's always the story of her walking through the drug-infested neighborhood north of our town tipsy from Rusty Nails wearing her full length fur after fighting with Richard. He trailed her in the Volvo going 5 miles an hour.

But it's her generosity of spirit that I love best. Susan's door to the Ocean Avenue house was always open both figuratively and literally. It remained open to me after Jack and I drifted apart with a few months of dating long distance in college. For years, I would simply arrive on Christmas after my family's holiday celebration had ended. At first, I felt awkward ringing the bell, but within in a few years, I was simply an expected guest, no RSVP necessary. That is until the second break up, which wasn't so gracious, culminating in a custody battle over a fondue pot. (I won). Susan and I didn't speak again until Facebook surfaced allowing us to reconnect after many years, a new husband and a little locavore.

I still recall the precise moment when I realized that Susan and I had something special. At the time, it seemed so simple, even mundane, but it's a memory that has grown in intensity in part because of its ability to tap into my sense of taste. I popped in to visit Jack on a sunny summer Saturday about a month before I left for college. He was out, but Susan had just made an early dinner that she offered to share. We ate outside in a secluded area of the porch that hugged the perimeter of the home's front. My taste buds still have instant recall for that dish - silky, rich, perfect August tomatoes punctuated with basil, glazing the delicate angel hair pasta that was so in vogue in the late 1980s. It was probably so routine for Susan that she won't remember it. But for me, it was a lesson in the beauty of opening your heart and home, a tradition that I carry on.

This recipe is a very rough approximation of the sauce that Susan made. Given that fresh, local tomatoes are months away, I tried it with last year's tomato puree from Tomato Mountain giving it a touch of richness with heavy cream.

Creamy Tomato Sauce with Basil and Angel Hair Pasta

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced shallot or green garlic
2 cups tomato puree
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 pound angel hair pasta, cooked
2 tablespoons basil, cut into chiffonade

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the shallot or garlic and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Pour in tomato puree and cook for ten minutes or until reduced slightly approximately 20 minutes. Add cream and cook for an additional minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the angel hair pasta and garnish with chiffonade.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Taste of Summer: Peach-Proscecco Ice Pops

Summer? Have I gone daft?

No, I have not lost my mind. Here in Illinois, I haven't seen a locally grown strawberry, much less a peach. We're lucky to have had an early crop of asparagus and a steady supply of spring greens. Stone fruits are a distant wish.

Nevertheless, my son and I enjoyed a deliciously delectable Peach-Prosecco Ice Pop yesterday, a perfect end to our first 80+ degree day.

Since September these peaches have rested on the top shelf of my freezer, next to some musroom stock, and chicken bones. Whirred together with their poaching liquid, they filled my new Zoku ice pop maker. Seven minute later, we anxiously pried them out of the indents - perfectly frozen half ovals of peach heaven.

Unless you too happen to have a stash of poached peaches in your freezer, you won't be able to make this recipe. It is, however, a reminder that the time to preserve is now. We all get so giddy when the markets open hoping to forget the dark days of winter. Doing this, we miss valuable time to restock our freezer and larder.

To get you started here's a terrific recipe for rhubarb, a nice bridge between winter and spring. It's a good accompaniment to smoked duck or as a topping for vanilla-scented scones.

Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade
Makes 8 + half-pint jars

Adaped from The Hay Day Cookbook

1 ½ pounds rhubarb, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large pink grapefruits
3 cups granulated sugar

Put the rhubarb in a non-reactive bowl. Zest the grapefruit over the bowl. Halve them and squeeze the juice. Strain the juice and pour over the rhubarb. Add sugar and leave at room temperature overnight. Transfer the mixture to a medium size saucepan and bring it to a boil. While waiting for the mixture to come to a boil, sterilize the canning jars. Cook the rhubarb mixture, stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat to high and cook until the temperature of the mixture reaches 224º F degrees. Make sure you stir often or the mixture will scorch. Pour the marmalade into the hot, sterilized jars. Seal and let cool without letting the jars touch.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Walk on the Wild Side with Crescent Dragonwagon: Nettle Pesto and a Blog Giveaway

I just returned from Portland, Twitter hashtag PDX. There for the annual conference of IACP (short for International Association of Culinary Professionals), over the course of a week long stay, I listened to fascinating discussions, ate and drank like a queen, and lurked among the culinary glitterati.

During it, I learned many things, among them:

· Ruth Reichl is indeed as impressive in person as she portrays herself in books. (We had the pleasure of sitting two seats down from her in the teensy-weensy Le Pigeon).
· That Michael Ruhlman is quite the fiery one, talking about sex and calling "bull shit" on Karen Page during a panel discussion.
· After seeing the trailer park neighborhoods of food trucks offering inexpensive, high quality foods of almost every ethnicity, Chicago desperately needs to change its regulation of mobile food operations.

Of the many lessons, however, it was the one that I hadn’t given much thought to at the time that stuck with me most.

But first, some background.

If I had to use a word to describe my demeanor these days, it would be beleaguered. Not too long ago, I wrote about My Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Month – March. While things aren’t as bleak these days, there’s one aspect of my life that has remained at stasis – the professional which has suffered a set of setbacks giving my self-esteem a right hook to the gut.

Now I admit, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t have much to complain about. My domestic life on most days could be described as blissful and I would never trade that for any amount of money or professional success. However, I’m probably not unusual in this, when one slice of my life goes to shit, it takes its toll on the others. My outlook turns myopic and I forget to appreciate what I have.

These tough days have led me to question life choices, which cannot be undone, consuming me with regret and melancholy. Even worse, these difficulties have unearthed in me a quality that I despise. The green-eyed monster of envy has clawed up to the surface, contaminating my thoughts. Successes of my competitors and even of my friends have filled me with a jealous panic.

Given this, I guess there’s a certain poetic justice that the woman who set me on the path out of my self-imposed confinement chose to self-identify with a dragon.
I flew in late Tuesday night so that I could make it to the next day’s roundtable sessions – an opportunity to mix with agents and food editors, the gatekeepers of the industry. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t given that much thought to my morning selection. And truth be told, given that my husband Mike was travelling with me (sadly, our vacations coincide with conferences), I wasn’t entirely sure that I wouldn’t pay hooky that morning. But when I picked up my registration packet, I saw that I signed up for a writing workshop with famed vegetarian, Crescent Dragonwagon. I figured anyone who named herself that had to be at least entertaining.

And she is. With hair the color and shape of a candle’s flame, she reminded me a bit of a skinnier and less petulant Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus. For those readers who didn’t grow up in the era of stop-motion animation, Heat Miser’s torch song went like this:

I'm Mister Green Christmas
I'm Mister Sun
I'm Mister Heat Blister
I'm Mister Hundred and One
They call me Heat Miser,
What ever I touch
Starts to melt in my clutch
I'm too much!

We went through a series of writing exercises, my favorite involving a russet potato with a green scanner label. She got us talking and walking with juices flowing. The workshop was surprisingly high energy for the ordinarily solitary task of writing.

Yet, it was the quiet moments, two to be exact, that affected me most.

I’m not sure how the first even came up. Perhaps it was from a discussion of block, an inevitable topic in a room full of writers. Maybe it was inspired by the feeling of inadequacy about one’s work – an emotion that surely even the most seasoned of authors endures from time to time. Ms. Dragonwagon’s answer? A single word: “Soften.”

Now, I have more than a passing familiarity with the tenants of Zen Buddhism. During the darkest days of my life, the unraveling of my first marriage, these helped me negotiate an uneasy truce between self-loathing and self-acceptance. It’s thus unsurprising that this seemingly simple Zen-like solution would resonate with me.

It was, however, the second quiet moment, which brought this advice home. Ms. Dragonwagon first marriage ended as well, but in a much more abrupt manner – her husband died after he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle. It gave me pause and then made me think.

These two moments continue to reverberate and I’ve thought of them often since my return from PDX. It reminded me that we all suffer through life’s tragedies, difficulties, and indignities. The true mettle of our character is displayed in how we react to them.

The experience reminded me of another writer whose impact on me was powerful and profound. A self-described Indian from the Black Hills of South Dakota, Jack Kreitzer was my poetry instructor at a writing camp I attended as a teenager. I adored his poems, poured over them – many I can still recite by heart. But there’s one line that I loved best: “There’s dignity in risk.” It became the mantra of my emotional life for many years. In fact, I’m not positive I would have ever left my unhappy marriage without those words silently ringing in my head. I did and the risk’s reward was meeting and marrying my soul mate.

So this post is the first in a new series of risks. I am neither entirely comfortable displaying this level of raw emotion in my public writing nor am I used to writing about painful events contemporaneously. But with the red-haired dragon and the gentle Indian at my back, I move forward. Perhaps I’ll fall flat on my face or perhaps I’ll learn new things about myself during these challenging times.

It is also the first in a series of posts entitled, The Marvelous Mothers of May, in which I plan to celebrate the impact certain women have had on my life. Some of these women are mothers, some have simply been spiritual mothers to me. And of course, one of them is my own mother. I was inspired to write this by yet a third writer Kim Severson, whose book: Spoonfed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is a wonderful read. Thor has pulled a number out of this T-ball hat, the poster whose post in this series corresponds with that number will win my gently used copy of Spoonfed. The winner will be announced next Wednesday.

Stinging Nettle Pesto
Makes approximately 3 cups

I couldn’t think of a better recipe to include in a post about a famous vegetarian who inspired me to take a risk. Especially when I took a considerable risk and when making and eating it. Usually, nettles need to be cooked to neutralize their stinging quality before they are handled or eaten. I did not do this, but instead trusted the whirring of my food processor blade would do it for me. The risk’s reward was the pesto’s grassy, nutty flavor – spring in a mouthful.

1 bunch nettles, rinsed stems removed carefully holding them with tongs
½ cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts (appropriately I used ones bought during my trip to the Willamette Valley)
1 bunch of green garlic, rinsed and trimmed
Approximately ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil (I eyeballed this, using only as much as needed to get the mixture to pesto consistency)
3 tablespoon freshly grated pecorino (Prairie Fruits Farm makes a delicious one)
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. The pesto is terrific on warm pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese.
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