May 17, 2011

Keeping Your Appetite for Life

(reposted from my "lost in the black hole" web site: still a favorite book that I recommend)

Paula Butturini's memoir Keeping the FeastReading Paula's Butturini's Keeping The Feast put food on my mind.  Butturini peppered this memoir of her years in the news capitols of Europe with daily trips to street markets and the meals that resulted.  Her descriptions of her father’s polenta-making and husband John’s risotto, in addition to the repasts she prepared, read like a cookbook.   No matter that she included not a single recipe, she made me feel like I could whip up a quick pesto while a chicken roasts for dinner guests.
I want my cooking to be like Butturini’s, to be a time of energetic preparation that precedes family gathering at the table.  That is the way I grew up.  I can't remember eating a childhood meal alone.  Our family of six sat in appointed places and passed the dishes clockwisemeat, potatoes, vegetable, salad, always fresh bread.
We remained at the table beyond cleaning our plates to finish conversations awaited all day.  Mealtime talk covered the day in our family business, from which customers were dealing for a tractor to who paid an overdue account (details private to our kitchen).  Dad led analyses of the news headlines, answering our questions about why and how.  School occurrences, if warranted, got their attention, too.
That pattern of family meals continued in my home as our daughters grew up, but for the past decade I’ve broken the nourishing routine.  Not because I quit believing in the worth of good cooking and companionable meals, but because I’ve grown weary. 
I wanted to fix healthy dishes that filled and satisfied and that loaded me up with all the right nutrients.  Three times a day I went to my kitchen and symbolically tied on an apron, stood between open refrigerator doors, stared at the eggplant or zucchini and yellow squash, the green beans wilting in the plastic bag from the market, and pictured the plate all that bounty could make.  Then energy flagged.  I pulled out the “bag o’salad,”  chopped a cucumber and cheese, threw in cherry tomatoes, and doused all with bottled vinaigrette.  Quick and effortless won again.
This routine started when I began living alone after my husband’s death.  Resisting junk food but settling for uninspiring meals that, every few weeks, left me hungry for real dishes.
Recently all has changed.  My daughter and I decided to combine households.  We chose my house and furniture, but she maintained her routines.  That meant youthful exuberance and her customized cookbook.  She pours through its clipped recipes, insisting on trying all new ones each week.  Successes move to the permanent collection; less than stellar concoctions are summarily trashed.  Our shopping lists read fresh, whole, and for the most part organic.  Preparation may take an hour of chopping, pureeing, sauteing, and roasting, which cuts into my vegging time in front of the TV.
At first, unless guilt drove me to the kitchen to help, I puttered at the other end of the house until I heard sounds that meant a meal was ready.  Grudgingly, I have admitted that her menus rise above my salads and restaurant doggie bags.  I now join her at my own cutting board.  We perform a dance in our galley kitchen, do-si-doing around each other to adjust the heat under a skillet, to check an ingredient on the recipe du jour, to sip a wine chosen for the menu, all the while chatting about our day.
Fresh VegetablesRecently a colleague asked how to make the vegetable dish I had taken to a carry-in supper.  The question delighted me because I hadn’t been sure anyone would care about roasted vegetables seasoned with only a few herbs and olive oil instead of mushroom soup cream sauce.  By the time I shared the simple directions, I felt enlivened in a way that eluded me in my quick salad days.  Paula Butturini defined the vitality I’m noticing in the truth she penned.  More than delicious food results from gathering in the kitchen to poach a fish or stir a fresh marinara sauce.  In Butturinis words, “Cooking is part of keeping an appetite for life.”
Tomorrow, when forecasted threatening weather sets in, instead of opening a can of soup, I will saute an ancho chile with onions and green pepper then add leftover chicken and stock.  While it’s simmering, I may throw in those wilted carrots from the back of the fridge.  Parsley, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime will finish a soup guaranteed to make dinner around our table more pleasant than the winds outside.