Vegan Slow Cooker Baked Beans

My love affair with baked beans began as a child, well before I understood–or cared–about the connection between food and health. I just liked them because they tasted good. Simultaneously sweet and savory, a necessary accompaniment to grilled burgers and chips, the tastes of summertime.

As a kid lucky enough to be given free rein in the kitchen from age eight or so, I used to make them from a can of Campbell’s pork & beans, which I poured into a square Pyrex baking dish before carefully picking out every trace of the white salt pork and adding ketchup, mustard, and brown sugar. This concoction, a classic “recipe” comprised of various processed foods, was baked at 350 for about an hour, until it was bubbling, brown, edges starting to caramelize. It was so delicious that sometimes I made it even without burgers, using it as dip for chips.

Later, as an adult, I discovered Bush’s baked beans. Full of sugar and all kinds of savory spices, they, too, are delicious. And I will definitely eat them in a pinch. But I’d rather not. I’d rather make my own. So, yesterday, I did. baked beans version one

I’ve actually made baked beans from scratch before, a little over ten years ago. The rehearsal dinner for my wedding was a big bbq at my oldest sister’s house. One of her friends smoked a pork butt, and my sister made a bunch of other awesome food. She drew the line at baked beans, though. Which was reasonable. We could have bought canned beans, of course. But I was trying to save money. Plus I wanted it to be special. And vegetarian. I was on my own.

Back then, the first time I made baked beans from scratch, I came up with something good after weeks spent scouring the internet and making several test batches. My former husband was a great test subject, enthusiastic and appreciative, but unafraid to say when something wasn’t right. In the end, what I made was spicy and rich and perfectly cooked. But I kept no record. Which is just as well, maybe. After all, that was another lifetime. I’m moving forward as this new and improved version of myself, alone. There’s plenty of good from my past that I’m taking with me into this new life. But the baked beans that I made for my wedding party? Like the paint choices in my condo, which I seriously loved, there are some things that should be left behind.

So. Starting over. Yesterday morning, I sat down over coffee and thought about what I wanted to achieve. I realized that my goal was simple: a vegan slow cooker version of baked beans without any refined sugar products. After looking at several recipes, I settled on three from these cookbooks: How To Cook Everything VegetarianMark Bittman; Southern Sides, Fred Thompson; and Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman.

All of the original recipes I looked at contain at least one refined sugar product (molasses, brown sugar, ketchup), two out of three call for chicken broth, and Fred Thompson’s drool-inducing recipe includes bacon. But I was undaunted, in part because of Mark Bittman’s directness about the absence of bacon being a problem, which he resolves by using kombu. As he says right at the start of his recipe, “[i]t’s tough to find a vegetarian version of baked beans with bacon, with that creamy texture and delicate balance of sweet and smoky flavors. Enter kelp, also known as kombu…. Kelp contains a natural acid that tenderizes the beans as the seaweed itself melts away, leaving behind a luxurious sauce with complex flavor.”

Armed with this promise from the trusted Mr. Bittman, as well as various other tips and ideas from the two other recipes, I got started. And I was happy, chopping onions to Jeff Buckley and  singing along with the New Pornographers while I sauteed the onions and watched the tomato paste begin to caramelize. By the time I finished and left to go about my day, I was totally excited, anticipating the aroma that would fill my apartment when I got home, eager to test what could only be the best beans ever.

But no. I’m sorry to say that even today, after the flavors have had a chance to develop, the end result is almost pallid,  lacking in character and borderline mushy from the baking soda. On the upside, I’m pretty sure the baking soda cut the cooking time considerably. I used older grocery store beans that were not presoaked, yet the dish took less than six hours, start to finish. And these beans are not a complete failure. They taste fine and are quite healthy. I think they would be terrific for kids. But they are not special. Not what I’m looking for. Work remains to be done. More research. Testing. For now, here’s what I did in round one.

2-1/2 c. navy beans
1 5″ piece of kombu
1 dried red chili
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. tomato paste
1/2 c. maple syrup
1/4 c. brewed coffee
2 t. dried mustard
3 springs thyme
pinch of baking soda
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T. apple cider vinegar

1. Pick over the beans and discard any that are seriously discolored or broken. Rinse, drain, and place in the insert of your slow cooker.  Crumble the chili into the beans, add the kombu, and cover with 1-1/2 or 2 inches of filtered water. Cover and turn the heat to high.

2. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and saute for 5-7 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the garlic, stirring, for another minute. Then add the tomato paste and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until deeply aromatic and shiny. Add about 1/4 cup of water, stirring to get any stuck parts off the bottom of the pan, and add to the beans together with the remaining ingredients except salt. Turn the heat to low and cook for 4-6 hours. Add the vinegar and salt to taste (I used about 1-1/2 teaspoons).  Turn off the heat and let the beans cool for a bit so the salt can sink in. Serve with chips.

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Kale salad with black eyed peas, strawberries, honey vinegar, and thyme

Summer finally made its way to Chicago. This means mornings full of blue sky and bright sun, long walks to my garden, lunch and occasional evenings with friends in Millennium Park, super moonlit nights, tank tops, skirts, dresses, sandals, and what seems like an endless round of late night weekend fireworks, at least in my neighborhood.  I love all but that last bit. It’s easy to be happy, relaxed.

The downside, at least for me, is that I’m not motivated in the same way I am in winter. For example, I haven’t really been cooking, at least not anything worth reporting. Which means I haven’t had anything to write about. So I was super excited last week, when this photo Black eyed peas calciumpopped up on my newsfeed in Facebook. I was on the el, on my way to work after the daily walk to water my garden. It was hot and humid, finally summer, and I had just eaten ripe strawberries straight off the vine. While I’m not sure I would have made the connection under any other circumstances, at that moment my first thought when I saw the photo was how to incorporate strawberries. And, unexpectedly, black eyed peas sounded good.

It was unexpected because despite my Southern heritage, I don’t really like black eyed peas. I want to. And I even have some in my bean cupboard. (Yes. I now have a dedicated bean cupboard.) So, as I imagined this salad, I mentally went through my food inventory, thinking about what I had either at home or in the garden. I remembered this incredible honey vinegar that my best friend brought me from Utah (http://www.slideridge.com/), which is so special and unique that I haven’t known quite what to do with it. That would be perfect with strawberries, yes! And maybe thyme? Maybe. Of course, I wouldn’t know for sure until I tried it, but in theory the idea sounded fantastic. So I scribbled in down in a notebook and committed to experiment this weekend, top priority.

Cut to today, Sunday. A more responsible, together person, someone more like my former self, would spend the day unpacking the boxes of crystal and china that litter the dining room. That person would probably also finish painting the bedroom. While simultaneously making food for the week ahead. And, to be fair, probably dancing around the kitchen while listening to something awesome. Maybe that version of myself will be back in the winter. But this now me, this relaxed, summer version of myself? I’m spending a day of leisure, some cooking plus hours of sitting on the couch, writing while listening to birdsong in the trees outside my living room windows. I don’t need china or crystal anytime soon. And it’s okay that the dining room is still full of unpacked boxes, that I have not yet hung art, and that the bedroom paint job remains only half complete. I am the only one I have to please. This is a revelation.

black eyed pea saladSadly, there is no corresponding revelation of taste sensation. I so wanted to write a glowing review about my experiment, to prove that my inspiration was well-founded. But no. It isn’t so. I mean, the salad good. But I’m not going to make it for a dinner party, or insist that friends at work tomorrow try a bite. And that’s okay. Because, as I reminded myself when deciding to go ahead and post, to not worry about making it perfect right now, this blog is supposed to be about the process, not the end result. And the process is not meant to be perfect on the first try. Or at least that’s my positive self speak of the day

The upside of this salad, the reason why I’ll definitely keep trying, is that it’s a perfect dish for summer. First, it’s super healthy. Second, everyone I know can eat this, as it’s vegan, gluten and dairy free. Third, the black eyed peas cook quickly with almost no need to attend, which means there’s almost no time spent over a hot stove. Fourth, all of the components can be made ahead. Finally, the ingredient list is super versatile; next time I may substitute plums for strawberries. And I will definitely add nuts. Almonds, probably, although I also think pecans might be nice. So, even though this first try wasn’t a roaring success, I’m quite pleased with the outcome of the experiment.

1 c. dried black eyed peas, rinsed
1/2 t. ground cardamon
1 dried chili pepper, crumbled
1 bunch Lacinato kale, stemmed and thinly sliced
1 c. ripe strawberries, hulled* and sliced
a few springs of thyme
1 T. walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil
2 T. honey vinegar (if you don’t have honey vinegar, substitute a fruity vinegar or sherry vinegar, then add 1 t. honey)
salt

1. Place the beans in a medium pot with the cardamon and chili pepper. Cover with about an inch of fresh, cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about an hour, or until tender. Black eyed peas cook quickly and, if cooked too long, will fall apart. So check them every 15 minutes or so. Also check the water level, topping off as needed to make sure they’re covered. When the peas are tender, add 1/2 t. salt. Then cool to room temperature in cooking liquid.

2. Whisk the oil and vinegar (plus honey, if using) together in a large bowl. Add the kale, tossing to coat.

To serve, plate the kale and top with strawberries and thyme. If you aren’t serving right away, or will only be eating a portion or two, refrigerate the kale and peas separately. Add the strawberries and thyme when you’re ready to serve.

*To hull strawberries, hold the berry in one hand. hulled strawberryWith the other hand, point the paring knife at a slight angle alongside the hull. Turn the strawberry so the knife cuts around the hull. Then pluck it out. You lose almost none of the fruit. Although I didn’t manage a photo of the process, here’s a shot of the end result.

Dryland bean farming and five national parks

Amazing as it is, in Dove Creek, Colorado, the “self-proclaimed Pinto Bean Capital of the Wophoto 9rld,” there are bean farmers who practice “dryland” farming, which means that they don’t use any form of irrigation. Despite the fact that they are farming in the desert. This blows my mind. In a good way.

I stopped in Dove Creek during my whirlwind National Park tour, on the way from Moab, Utah, to Cortez, Colorado. The quote is from a magazine article, The Ballad of the Drylander, which I picked up at the Adobe Milling Company. (http://www.anasazibeans.com/).

The Adobe Mphoto 3illing Company processes and sells beans grown by the very same dryland bean farmers who are featured in the article. I wasn’t able to talk to any farmers. But, from what I gathered in a brief conversation with a couple of people who work at the Adobe Milling Company, the farmers put the bean pods into a silo. The beans then go through some additional process to separate the seeds (edible part of the bean) from the pod. Finally, the beans pass through a chute and are packaged for sale.

From the looks of things, the bulk of Adobe Milling Company’s business is mail order. But they alsphoto 13o have a store. Where they sell many varieties of beans. Also many varieties of hot sauce, which I heard are delicious. But, since I had to fly home, I limited myself to beans. Many beans. Specifically, Anasazi, Colorado River, Mortgage Lifter, Pink Eye, Pinto, and Zuni beans. Of course pinto beans are readily available without being imported from Colorado, but I couldn’t come home from the Pinto Bean Capital of the World without some pinto beans. Right? That would have been crazy. At least if you’re me. No. For me, the only sane move was to bring home as many beans as I could fit in my suitcase. Which turned out to be a lot.

So far, I’ve cooked just one variety, the Colorado River beans. Great as they were, the folks at Adobe Milling Company didn’t have any advice beyond telling me that none of the beans I bought (except the Mortgage Lifters) needed to be soaked prior to cooking. These beans are fresh, you see. But I found some useful information at this site (http://consciouscookery.vpweb.com/Heirloom-Heritage-Beans.html), where I learned that Colorado River beans are also known as “Mayflower” beans. Apparently they’re very good for baked beans. However, I decided to use them for vegetarian chili. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/07/slow-cooker-vegetarian-chili-adapted-from-the-gourmet-vegetarian-slow-cooker-by-lynn-alley/)

I’m delighted to report that the experiment was a total success. Acting on the advice of the woman who sold them to me, I did not soak the smallish beans, yet they held their shape perfectly after 10 hours of slow cooking.

Eager as I am to start cooking the rest of the beans, it may be a while before I get around to it. Between work, trying to settle into my new apartment, finalizing the upcoming program on prison reform, and trying to generate material with my improv ensemble, I haven’t had any creative inspiration for beans lately. And I’m trying to be okay with that. Trying to trust that it will come when the time is right. Breathe.

The funny thing is that most of the time I know everything will work out as it should. Yet, there are those moments when I fall back into old patterns, fretting and fuming, spinning myself into a mass of anxiety and nerves, so worried about what I’m not doing that I can’t do anything.

For example, pretty much every day since I returned from my vacation I intended to write this post. I wanted to write about Dove Creek, and dryland farming. But I also wanted to write about what a wonderful time I had on vacation, spending time with my best friend and seeing what I believe may be the most beautiful part of our country. Now that I’ve gotten the first bit down, I’ll tell you about the rest of the trip, even though it isn’t about beans. Because I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t want to hear about a trip to five national parks. They’re stunning.

Mesa Arch, CanyonlandsWe started at Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah. (http://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm) This is one of Beth’s photos, of (and through) Mesa Arch.

The next day, we went to Arches National Park (http://www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm), where Beth and I embarked on our first real hike of the trip, a three-mile walk to Delicate Arch. Delicate Arch 2The hike wasn’t difficult, but it was hot–91 degrees! So worth it, though.  And we befriended a very nice man, a retired professor from Germany. He was in excellent physical condition. Nonetheless, the fact that we kept pace with him is probably telling.

After the hike to Delicate, we drove to Colorado, for the visit to Bean Country and to visit Mesa Verde National Park. (http://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htmCliff Palace Here’s a shot of the largest of the cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace. Apparently the ancestral Puebloans built and then abandoned this city within three generations. There’s plenty of speculation about why they left (probably drought, although Beth and I hypothesized that it was just too damn cold down there), but no one really knows. It’s a  great mystery. Cliff Palace 1

While we didn’t get to spend as much time in Mesa Verde as I would have liked, this may have been my favorite of the parks we visited. Our original goal was to spend some time in the park that afternoon and then return in the morning. Unfortunately, however, the park closes at 5. So we didn’t get to see as much as we’d hoped. But I will go back to Mesa Verde one day when I have more time. It is a special place.

The next stop, and the place we spent the most time, was Zion National Park. (http://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm) This is Beth’s favorite place, which she was eager to share with me. And I can see why. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Angel's LandingThe plan for our first full day in Zion was to hike Angel’s Landing, which Beth and her husband climbed earlier this year. Here’s a shot she got on this trip. Gorgeous. Yes? And terrifying. After reading about the hike in one of their guidebooks, I was nervous. “Not recommended for those afraid of heights,” the book said. It sounded scary. But I’m not afraid of heights. Not really. And I didn’t want to miss out on something so spectacular. So we went.

If possible, the reality was even more remarkably awe-inspiring than the photos. Yet, sadly, my anxiety was justified. As it turns out, I am afraid of heights. At least this kind. In the beginning I was fine. Beth going up to Angel's LandingBut when we reached this point, I was literally shaking, with sweaty hands. It was awful. Truly. Can you imagine trying to hold onto a metal chain with sweaty hands, trying to stay grounded while your entire body is trembling? I’m absolutely certain that if I’d known what it would feel like, I wouldn’t have gone. Not that it’s over, though, Ichains‘m so, so glad that I did.

At one point, when we reached the first plateau after the chains, I wanted to turn back. Or at least part of me did. We stopped and sat down while I worked it out. It is perhaps an understatement to say that Beth isn’t always the most patient person in the world. At that moment, though, mid-way through this climb, when it mattered, she waited patiently, without judgment, emanating unconditional love and support, while I worked through my terror.

At first I was just breathing. Then, next thing you know, I was sobbing. Fear manifested as tears. This lasted maybe 5 full minutes. After which I was still afraid but ready to go on. view from the top of Angel's Landing

Here’s a view from the top, where I sat next to this very brave tree and peered over the edge. I still can’t quite believe how beautiful it is. That said, to me, the accomplishment was not getting to the top in order to take this photo.

The accomplishment was the fact that I kept going, that I overcBeth going down from Angel's Landingame my fear and kept going. One step at a time. Because I knew that if I turned back, I would regret it. Always. And because Beth was there, believing that I would be okay. So we finished.

My reward was that contrary to my fears, the way down was much easier. It doesn’t look it, though, does it? Just seeing the photo right now makes me a little nervous

The next day, our last full day, was pure pleasure. We hiked The Narrowsthe Narrows, a slot canyon where you hike in the river. It’s hard, as you are walking on boulders through fast-running, ice-cold water.

Beth in the narrows 2But it’s quite remarkably beautiful. And so much fun!!! At least, as long as you have the right gear. Some people were hiking in shorts and tennis shoes. But we rented boots, pants, sticks, and a drypack from Zion Adventure Company. (http://www.zionadventures.com/zion-narrows/). The boots and pants made lifemore hoodoos at Bryce comfortable. And the stick is essential. On the final day of our trip, as we headed home, we  drove to Bryce Canyon. It was cold and kind’ve rainy. So we didn’t do any hiking. Instead, it was a classic American tour of observation points. You can see a lot of hoodoos from the side of the road!! They’re amazing. As was everything. I still can’t quite believe this stuff exists, that you can simply get in your car and drive to these places, that we humans got it together enough to preserve such wonder for ourselves and future generations. It restores my faith in us, at least temporarily. Indeed, being immersed in such splendor makes me almost believe in the notion of God. At the same time, though, I find myself even less tolerant of the notion of religion. With all of this to worship, what need have we of churches?

This morning, back in Chicago, when I was lying in my bed, I finally felt ready to write this post. It was raining. Which sparked a connection between my life right now and the idea of dryland farming. Because yesterday I finally planted some seeds in my garden plot. (http://www.petersongarden.org/) Now, because it’s raining, while I may go by the garden today, I don’t have to. Nature is watering for me. Unlike the farmers in Dove Creek, I am not dependent upon the rain for my water. At least not in the same immediate sense. But I feel the connection. It is good.

Slow cooked ragu with pork ribs and white beans

kitchenThis is my next to last day in the condo I’ve lived in for the past ten years. Here’s the partially dismantled kitchen, with my beloved, giant refrigerator/freezer. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I bought the condo just before we married, which makes the move complicated and fraught with feeling. So many hopes and dreams are bound up in this place. At first I found myself incapable of packing, paralyzed. Thankfully my friends rescued me. Now, the day before my move, I’m still not ready. But I will be.

Last weekend, while we were packing, one of my friends recounted the David Sedaris story about his brief stint working for a small moving company. When they showed up for a job, the movers found the client in the kitchen, cooking pasta, having packed absolutely nothing. Ha! So funny. So not any of us, we laughed. We continued packing, my friends efficiently, me sporadically, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would be ready when the movers arrived. But later that night, after my friends had gone home, I started thinking about that story, this time empathizing with that girl.

Until then, I’m not sure I was capable of empathy in this situation. I’ve always been a person who does what needs doing.  Absolutely not the person who lies around waiting for someone else to take care of her, oblivious. Cooking pasta while your belongings remain strewn about your apartment? That would never be me. Because such behavior would be inconsiderate, rude, wasteful. Crazy. I definitely have my crazy side, but historically it has never manifested as an inability to act. At least not in my adult life.

No. My crazy has always been too much action. When in doubt, do, that’s my motto.

Until now.

Now, suddenly, when faced with this huge change, one that I’ve known about for months, I’ve somehow emerged into this new form in which I’m incapable of acting on my own, without help. It’s absolutely terrifying. Yet, in some strange way, also liberating. Because, somehow, I’ve learned to ask for and accept help from people other than my family. Which is kind’ve amazing. It is a gift of intimacy and friendship that before now I’ve mostly seen only from the giving side. Yet receiving is just as important. It allows for others to express their generosity, their love.

On my way to recognizing this gift of receiving, I started to see that maybe the girl in David Sedaris’s story refused to pack her belongings not because she was lazy, or selfish, or inconsiderate, but because she was simply incapable of doing what she was supposed to do. I saw that because I could see it in myself. I didn’t know where to start with packing. And then I felt guilty. So I used avoidance techniques like television. Or sleep. Until my friends came over and saved me. Then, after they left, I felt capable of taking on surmountable tasks. Familiar, known tasks that I can control, things that I know how to start and finish them, by yourself. I understand this now because that morning, once I decided to cook, I lost the lethargy, felt like myself, relatively calm and in control. The contrast was illuminating.

I started by looking in the freezer. Most of what was left–various flours and other dried goods–can be moved. But I still had the ribs from my hog butchering adventure in February, as well as pork stock that I made from the rib roast. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) I had initially planned to do something with just the ribs. But, while I’ve never made ribs and white beans before, I had seen recipes. And it seemed like the most practical option: and easy, nutritious (if not exactly healthy), one-pot meal that I could eat all week.

In normal circumstances, this is the point where I would spend some time with my cookbook collection. I’m old-fashioned like that. I love nothing better than to lie in bed, reading about food, and then fall asleep daydreaming about individual recipes, food combinations, and menus. This time, though,  I had no cookbooks, because they were the first things to get packed. And I didn’t really have a lot of time, because I’ve been weirdly exhausted. So, after a quick online search to get a general idea, I decided to wing it.

ragu with pork ribs and white beansWhat I wound up with is not at all what I planned. It far too much tomato for a one-pot meal. But what I wound up with is a terrific ragu sauce over pasta, hearty and satisfying. I will definitely make it again. Here’s what I did.

1 lb. pork ribs, cut into 3-rib sections
1 c. dried white beans (I’m using navy beans, but any white beans will be fine), soaked overnight
1 sm. onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, diced
3 c. chicken or pork broth
1/2 c. red wine (optional–I had some in the freezer)
2 T. tomato paste
1 28-oz can crushed (or diced) tomatoes
1-3 T. olive oil
1 thumb-sized piece of kombu (sea vegetable, for digestion)
pasta

1. Drain and rinse the beans. Transfer to the slow cooker.

2. Rinse and dry the ribs. Season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 T. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the ribs until brown, 3-5 minutes on each side. Transfer to the slow cooker, on top of the beans.

3. Add additional olive oil to the skillet if necessary. Saute the onions for 2-3 minutes, then add the carrots, celery, and garlic. Saute for another3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste. Saute for another minute or two, stirring. Then add 1/2 cup of red wine or broth, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any browned bits, and turn the heat to a boil. Cook for 1 minute and then transfer the mixture to the slow cooker. Add the tomatoes and remaining broth, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Fish out the bones and the kombu, and salt to taste.

4. Boil pasta, drain, and top with freshly ground pepper and grated Parmesan cheese.

Vegan cassoulet from 29 Palms Inn

This past weekend I finally visited southern California, a place I’ve avoided for a very long time. Initially, when the first of many friends moved to L.A., I didn’t want to visit. Because I was certain I would hate it. Then, when I broke down and planned a trip, things didn’t work out because of the Rodney King riots, which resulted in LAX being closed the day I was to arrive.

Joshua TreeOver the years, as more and more friends moved out west, I have spent time in Northern California, which I love, and Seattle, a place I would eventually like to call home. Yet my affection for these other west coast cities, livable places full of air and space and nature, somehow only hardened my conviction that L.A. was not for me.

Eventually, that belief became part of my identity. I was a person who disliked L.A. Until recently, during my reevaluation of, well, everything. At some point in the last few months I realized that my beliefs about L.A. were based on nonsense, a vestige of old, unhealthy patterns. I’ve never been there. I don’t know what I think. There are people I love in L.A. It’s sunny. There are gorgeous beaches. Matador Beach, MalibuAnd the food is supposed to be great. So I booked a ticket. And I’m posting after spending a long weekend there. I didn’t fall in love with the city. But I liked it just fine. And the nature that surrounds the city is amazing. I will definitely return.

Although my first trip was pretty quick, I managed to pack a whole lot in. On the first day, I went to Matador Beach, in Malibu. I would say that the beauty is indescribable. Except I have photos. So you can see for yourself. Matador Beach, Malibu 2Stunning, right? The photos don’t catch the sound, though, which was mesmerizing. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, a soft background noise that lulls you, gently invites you to come into the water, this sound took over from the outside, strong and assertive, crawling inside my mind, body, until I was empty of everything except the rythmic beat. I laid on the sand for an hour or so, absorbed by sound of ocean hitting rock, over and over, taking over thought and leaving room only for being. There was no need for me to go anywhere or do anything. It was like a gong bath. But more visceral.

Unfortunately, the only dark spot of the entire weekend followed directly after that marvelous experience. When we left the beach, planning to head home and then go out, my friend Maria and I got caught up in the fabled L.A. traffic. It’s so, so much worse than I imagined. Because at the time I had not yet seen Chris Burden’s Metropolis II. (http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/metropolis-ii) Metropolis IIArt does indeed reflect life. Within the first ten minutes of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, all of my pride at newly acquired ability to breathe through anger and irritation was shown up as nothing but veneer.  I managed to stay calm, did not become moody or difficult. But it took tremendous effort, leaving me with nothing much left to give. That meant we wound up staying home Saturday night instead of heading out to the bbq we’d been invited to. I wanted to go. I just didn’t want to drive. Or have to make an effort with people I didn’t know. It was sad. And, Maria assured me, completely typical. This was L.A.

On the upside, the earlyMaria 2 night at home made it super easy to get up the next day. The plan was to go to yoga and then to another friend’s house for a bbq. I was both excited and nervous. Excited because I’d never been to one of Maria’s classes. (http://www.yogaworks.com/en/Locations/California%20-%20South/Los%20Angeles/LarchmontVillage-CFY.aspx?tab=teachers&staff_id={FB54B179-3A37-484E-A64C-B90400C00383}) Nervous because I’ve never practiced Ashtanga. She assured me there was nothing to be nervous about, though. Which turned out to be true.

In addition to being a great friend, Maria (pictured left, in Joshua Tree) is a wonderful teacher, calm and thoughtful, pushing each of us to make the effort, to give everything without getting lost in struggle. This is an image of her that we shot in Joshua Tree. So gorgeous! I still am not a convert. The rigor and discipline of Ashtanga don’t draw me in. But I admire it. And I am no longer afraid.

After class, we made a quick stop at Whole Foods in Pasadena, where I nerded out on the bulk section of heirloom beans. Then we headed to East L.A. for another friend’s bbq. What followed was about 30 hours of pure joy with people I absolutely love.

First, we spent a few hours at the hostess’s awesome house, eating, drinking, laughing, and listening to music.Me and David It was perfect. My joy is apparent in this photo. Yes? But, at some point, we disbanded that part of the day. It was time to leave for Joshua Tree. The drive was delightful, full of more laughing and talking and reveling in friend love. The four of us hadn’t been together in 12 years, so there was a whole lot of catching up to do. Before I knew it we arrived at our hotel, the 29 Palms Inn (http://www.29palmsinn.com/). We checked in and then headed to the restaurant for dinner. I’d heard mixed reviews, so wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was hoping for the best. After all, they had their own farm. How bad could it be?

desert cassouletCassoulet isn’t something one typically associates with the desert. Or Southern California. But in addition to white beans, the menu promised garlic, greens, and tomatoes from the garden. Which sounded great after the bison burger and various forms of carbohydrates and dairy I’d eaten for lunch. When I overheard the table next to us ask for the recipe, I knew it was for me. And I was not disappointed. This reimagined version of cassoulet was fresh, vibrant, and deeply satisfying. So I, too, asked for the recipe. Here’s what the chef told me to do.

Heat some olive oil in a large skillet over fairly high heat. Saute garlic and shallots. Add fresh greens, whatever is in season (the chef used Swiss chard), halved cherry tomatoes, basil, oregano, marjoram, and a healthy amount of salt. Saute, stirring, for a few minutes, until everything is carmelized. Then add cooked white beans and about two cups of white wine. Cook for about ten minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half. Serve with toasted bread.

Because I have not yet had a chance to try this recipe, I’m not sure what to tell you about the amounts. And I probably won’t for a little while. Because I just found out that I have to find an apartment, pack up the condo where I’ve lived for the past ten years, and move, all in the next two weeks. Which will not permit much time for cooking or, probably, blogging. But I look forward to trying this cassoulet soon, once I’m settled in my new place, what and wherever that is. If you get around to it before I do, please let me know!

seed dreams

Beans are seeds. This isn’t something I ordinarily think about, much less dwell on. But it’s been on my mind since last Saturday morning’s Forrest yoga class with Anne Paulsen.  (http://yoganne.wordpress.com/)  Because while I always leave yoga feeling richer, more ready and willing to face life with equanimity and confidence, this class was particularly special. And even though I’m not at all religious, it seems appropriate to  write about it today, Easter, a day that symbolizes rebirth.

In celebration/recognition of the Spring equinox, Anne started last Saturday’s class by suggesting that we envision a seed of something we want to build in our lives. I, of course, immediately summoned the image of a bean, specifically an Ayocote Negro bean. black runner beansGlossy, dense, and full of possibility. As I held the image of this bean, this seed, in my mind, I focused on my breath, listening as Anne guided us through planting the seed in our bodies, watering it with our breath, and nurturing it with love.

I followed my breath as it moved, creating space, until I found the right spot within my body. I planted my seed in the open space I found inside my hips. Then, periodically throughout the practice, I returned, watering the seed with my breath. My intention was to plant the seed of authentic expression, not in any one specific form, but for my life. To stop trying to be what I think I’m supposed to be for others. To stop judging myself by some imagined yardstick held by others. To be myself. Whatever, whoever that is.

Since last week, I’ve experienced my usual mix of ups and downs, at moments feeling full of hope and optimism, at other times fairly certain that my life is an absolute disaster. Yet there’s been a difference. It’s subtle, and still very young, but I feel a sense of trust that was not there before. I first noticed it last Saturday night, during my second date with the much younger man. I enjoyed his company. He was smart and funny and interesting and interested and sweet. But there was no connection. My heart did not sing. So, at the end of the night, I thanked him and said goodbye, without any uncertainty or regret.

I noticed this new trust in myself again on Monday morning, when I woke early enough to go to Jen Shin’s 6:30 am Forrest class. (http://yoganowchicago.wpengine.com/teachers/?trainer_id=100000299) Like Anne, Jen is an intuitive, generous, wise teacher whose heart is wide open and full of love. Jen’s class is a space entirely without judgment. By the end of class, I found myself letting go, releasing in a way that traditionally has not come easily to me. Another shoot emerging from the seed.

Tuesdays and Thursdays I am lucky enough to practice with the remarkable Gwen Mihaljevich. (http://www.evilstrength.com/) Gwen’s style is much more abstract than either Anne or Jen, yet no less powerful. I do not remember what we did on Tuesday. On Thursday, though, the focus was on learning how to give ourselves what we need, how to be our own support so that we do not need to feed off of others. Which sounds obvious. Yet isn’t. It’s a goal. And a practice.

Yesterday, Saturday, I arrived to Anne’s class late, something that I abhor. In the past I might have abandoned class rather than be late, worried about disturbing others or that the teacher might not like me. On this day, however, I managed to overcome those self-imposed limitations, knowing that I am almost never late, that I would do my best to enter quietly, and that Anne would not judge me but that even if she did, it was not up to me to decide or control her thoughts or opinion about who or what I am.

When I entered the room and laid down my mat, Anne was talking about kindness. She suggested that we feel into the space in our body that felt content, at ease. If that was difficult, we should feel for any area that had some sense of open space. Breathe into it. Allow the space to spread.  So often we focus on what is hard, trying to melt, soften, change. Today, instead, we would focus on what felt good and easy, already soft. Celebrate what is. This, Anne suggested, was the path to rewiring from a place of negative self-judgment to a place of love and acceptance. Focus on what feels good. Be easy.

Today, Easter, I’m starting my rewiring project by focusing on everything I have that’s good as is. I’m cooking, of course, because it’s Sunday and I need food for the week ahead. But I’m not making anything new. So I’m not blogging about food today. And, although since childhood I’ve always celebrated Easter by sharing food and love with either family or, in my adult years, large groups of friends, this year I decided to stay home, alone, to take care of myself. To feed myself love. Breathe in gratitude. Celebrate this new life of mine, as it is, now. This moment is good. And that is enough.

Farinata (chickpea pancake)

This morning, for the first time in over a week, I woke up feeling well rested. I suppose I’m finally used to stupid Daylight Savings Time. But it’s more than that. I feel like I’m back. First, I’m writing about beans again after what feels like a long time not. And second, more importantly, I’m cooking beans again. Which feels good. Not only because I want to write about beans. I want to get back to a bean-centric diet. It is important. Because both my body and my mind work and feel better when I eat mostly beans.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I have not been writing much about or cooking many beans, I’ve still been eating plenty. My freezer is always stocked with a selection of bean-based dishes. But for a little while there the balance shifted. Meat became not quite the center, but probably a quarter of my diet. I felt heavy. Full. Weighed down and not creative. Then I caught the flu.

My physical recovery from what was a very mild flu was fast. But the mental and emotional effect lingered. I was maybe a little depressed. Not a lot. But enough that I found myself suddenly snappish and irritable, rising quickly to anger over the smallest thing. Forgetting about gratitude. Deflecting my emotions. Getting stuck in my head. It was awful. And I realized that this used to be my norm. Which was both sobering and incredibly exciting.

In realizing that this state of rising quickly to anger, feeling ungrateful, and being stuck in my head used to be my norm, I recognized how much I’ve grown and changed for the better in the past few years. And especially in the past few months. Somehow, having my life fall apart has made everything make sense. I’ve learned how to make myself happy, how to manufacture my own source of joy.

Honestly, I think it’s mostly because of yoga. But the time I spend doing improv, writing, cooking, and eating certainly doesn’t hurt. Especially eating. Because of all these things, eating is the only one that I do several times a day, no matter what. After all, if you don’t eat, you die. And my body is especially tricky in that if I don’t feed it pretty much constantly, I faint. So it’s a good thing that this basic requirement for life also provides (or should provide) such rich pleasure. Which brings me to the ostensible subject of today’s somewhat rambling, positive self-help-speakish post. Farinata!

farinataAccording to Wikipedia, farinata, which is also called socca and cecina, “is a sort of thin, unleavened pancake or crêpe of chickpea flour originating in Genoa and later a typical food of the Ligurian Sea coast, from Nice to Pisa.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farinata) I first heard of it a couple of years ago when I read Skye Gyngell’s My Favorite Ingredients. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781580080507-2) Unlike Gyngell, I have not yet dreamt of farinata, but I am with her in loving this delicious chickpea pancake. It is delicious. Also healthy, quick, easy, and adaptable

I’ve tried several different recipes, including the one in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780764524837-0), but I like Gyngell’s the best. My version is hers in every way except the cooking method: Gyngell starts things off on the stove, whereas mine is cooked entirely in the oven. Here’s my recipe.

1-3/4 c. chickpea flour
1 t. sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
3 or 4 rosemary sprigs, leaves only, chopped
1 c. sparkling water
1 T. olive oil
Dolcelatte cheese, for serving (omit to make vegan)

1. Place 1 T. olive oil in a well-seasoned, 12-inch, cast-iron skillet. Put the skillet in the oven and preheat to 425.

2. Mix the flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl, forming a well in the center. Whisk in the olive oil, rosemary, and sparkling water. Let the batter rest for 20 minutes.

farinata with kale salad3. Remove the skillet from the oven and transfer the batter. Bake for 17-20 minutes, or until lightly brown and firm. Flip on to a plate.

To serve, cut in wedges and, if you wish, top with crumbled Dolcelatte (blue) or other cheese. Today I had this with a side of kale salad, minus the cheese and almonds. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/30/kale-salad/). It was terrific. Enjoy!