Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Revealer of Beauty

I am a treasure.
Beautiful, even where tarnished.
A multifaceted jewel refracting the light of God. 
Uniquely setting the world ablaze.

You are a treasure.
Beautiful, even where tarnished.
A multifaceted jewel refracting the light of God.
Uniquely setting the world ablaze.

Certain people call forth our beauty.
Reveal and polish our faces.
Dig up our treasure where all we could see was dirt.
Without their revealing we are diminished.

The Lawyer, the Valet, the Busboy, the Doctor.
All beautiful.
And at every encounter I have three choices.
To not see their beauty because I do not see them, only their function.
To tarnish them with words, attitudes and judgments.
To leave them more beautiful than when I arrived.

I am a tarnished treasure
I am a revealer of beauty.
We all are.

Together we can polish the world. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Peter, Paul and Julie and Julia!

I first read the book Julie and Julia long before the movie appeared. I remember lying on a hotel bed in Seattle giggling over the chapter about euthanizing lobsters. I became interested in the Boeuf Bourguignon at the time but forgot about it until the movie came out. After watching the movie I printed out the recipe and decided that I would make it, but lost the printout when I moved house and the idea slipped into oblivion until a few weeks ago.

Knowing that some of the best cooking experiences are shared I called my culinary pal Paul and asked him to cook along with me.

Remove rind, and cut bacon into lardons. Simmer rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1 1/2 quarts of water. Drain and dry. Preheat oven to 450 degrees

First problem, locating a 6 oz chunk of bacon for making lardons. Paul and I went to Revival Market in town and told them what we were doing and they presented us with a vacuum packed packet of lardons. There was slightly more than the recipe called for, but everything is better with extra bacon right? Second problem. The rind was all cut together in the lardons and would have taken forever for us to trim each piece. Never mind, into the pot it went to simmer....we weren't sure why we were simmering (and Julie Powell thinks this step is superfluous) but into the water it went, and quickly the kitchen smelled yummy.

Saute the bacon in the oil over a moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set casserole aside. Reheat until fat is almost smoking before you saute the beef.

Third problem. We didn't notice that although you simmer the bacon lardons and the rind, when it comes time to saute it you only saute the bacon and not the rind. Ours was still attached. Oh well on we go.

Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Saute it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.

Behold the beef!

3lbs of either rump pot roast, chunk pot roast, top round or bottom round. Again, not cuts that were easily available. We talked with the helpful butcher at Revival market and he gave us a wonderful slab of prime cow.

I carefully took a ruler to make sure that the cubes were 2-inch cubes as specified by Julia in the recipe. They looked huge! This was far larger than most cubes of meat that you would put in a casserole. Never mind we thought we will get on YouTube and check the video of Julia Child teaching the dish to confirm.

Fourth Problem. There are many videos of people making Julia Child's recipe on YouTube, but none of them were Julia so we were unable to check with the source. After some frantic Internet searching we eventually located a clip of her that was hosted on a Russian Internet site...I'm kind of afraid what viruses my computer may have picked up, but we were determined to cook like Julia and not even the Cyrillic language would deter us!

Browning cubes of beef that large took forever but when mixed together with the bacon the aroma was wonderful and the dish was beginning to take shape.

While I tried to avoid splattering myself with hot bacon fat and oil. Paul masterfully wielded a knife over the vegetables. Only 1 onion and 1 carrot go in the pot. An amount that seemed remarkably small.

In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the sauteing fat. 

Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for 4 minutes. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove casserole, and turn oven down to 325 degrees.

Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bullion so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.

Fifth Problem. Julia's recipe may have been revolutionary at the time for its level of detail, but by today's standards it is frustratingly vague. It was difficult to tell at what point the vegetables were added to the beef and bacon. Should this be before the addition of the flour and the 4 minute bake or afterwards. As the only pot Julia mentions in her instructions is the fireproof casserole we assumed before, but it was at this stage we panicked because the recipe said add the rind, and of course it had been in there all along. Ooops!

Sixth Problem. Well this time more of a curious puzzlement. The casserole is covered in the oven, and yet Julia instructs us to regulate the heat so the liquid simmers very slowly. Not the easiest of tasks. We debated about putting an oven thermometer into the fluid but that would have left the pot slightly uncovered causing more fluid to evaporate, plus we weren't very sure what the correct temperature for simmering a fluid of wine and broth was. We settled for checking it about every 30 minutes.

At this stage in the recipe you would think that you could put up your feet and finish the rest of the bottle of wine you have just opened, but no! Julia Child has us use our time by preparing Champignons Sautes Au Beurre and Oignons Glaces A Brun so that when the casserole has finished you can mix it all together.

Place the skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as you see that the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their saute the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat. 

Toss the shallots or green onions with the mushrooms. Saute over moderate heat for 2 minutes. 

Seventh Problem. Hang on a second Julia. Do I finish sauteing the mushrooms first or do I add the shallots 2 minutes before they are ready? Solution. Get Paul to deal with the mushrooms while I work on the pearl onions...oh and if I remember it correctly I think we omitted the shallot as the recipe said it was optional :)

Julia calls for 18-24 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter. Determined to be as authentic as possible we scorned the prospect of frozen peeled pearl onions and purchased fresh. Bad idea. They took forever to peel!

When butter and oil are bubbling in the skillet, add the onions and saute over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as easily as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly.

Having delegated the mushrooms to Paul, I figured I had better tackle the onions. The process was actually fairly simple though they were harder than imagined to get browned on all sides.

Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet.  

Oh yes, we also made the bouquet garni ourselves. Our dedication to this recipe is getting ludicrous.

Eighth Problem - Well less of a problem, more like a mistake due to fatigue. Julia's recipe here calls for 1/2 cup of brown stock, or red wine. We had some of both left so we figured we would add both, but instead of adding 1/4 cup of each we inadvertently added 1/2 cup of each, doubling the amount of fluid! When we realized what we had done we just removed the cover from the onions early and prayed that the extra fluid would simmer off.

And now...back to the oven.

Two and a half hours had definitely reduced the amount of fluid in the casserole and the smell was incredible. If I had written the recipe I would have just stirred the onions and the mushrooms into the casserole and served it....Julia gets a little finicky here in my opinion, but, we were determined to do whatever she said.

When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.

Skim fat off sauce.

Ninth Problem. I never realized how many problems can be caused by 4 little words. You'll notice that after much debate we had already deviated by using a colander instead of a sieve. I didn't have a sieve large enough to tackle the contents of the pot. We thought about lining the colander with muslin, but fatigue was getting to us so we just dumped and strained. That left us with a pan of yummy sauce that I was supposed to skim the fat off. Not the easiest trick. Now would have been a great time to pull out a fancy gravy separator, but I didn't own one. I tried scooping with a spoon. I thought of sucking up fat with a turkey baster but in the end we decided fat equaled flavor and we would just have to deal with it.

Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few vegetables of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables.

That sauce, even with the globules of fat glistening in the light of the camera flash tasted incredible.

All the recipe needed was to be plated with some boiled potatoes.

Tenth Problem. Even though we had picked up some potatoes at the store we realized when we were unpacking that we never purchased any. We had a brief window of time while the onions and mushrooms were cooked and before the stew was due out of the oven to run to the local ghetto H.E.B. to pick some up. Their potatoes were not particularly wonderful, but I didn't care by this time.

We quickly brought them home, boiled them and then drenched them with melted butter.

It tasted incredible and was very rich. Would I make it again? Probably not as their must be easier ways to make what is really just a fancy beef stew. As a matter of curiosity I looked at the Cook's Illustrated version of Boeuf Bourguignon and it was so complex it made Julia's look like the recipe for a ham sandwich.

Cooking your way through the two Cook's Illustrated Cookbooks? Now there would be a challenge!!!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Experiences and Formulas

Three brothers who lived alone in an isolated valley, heard a tale from a wandering hermit about a cave where you could sit and talk with God.

The oldest brother made the journey first. On the way he encountered a large tree limb blocking the path. He was unsure how to proceed but eventually he managed to pull the limb to one side and journey on. 

A week later when he returned he spoke to his brothers about the wonder of being in God's presence.

The middle brother decided that he would make the journey to the cave so he asked his older brother for advice. "If you reach an obstacle in the road know that God will give you the strength to move it to one side" he was told.

As the middle brother hiked to the cave he discovered the path was blocked by a fallen tree. He remembered what his brother had said and he grabbed the tree and pulled. He prayed loudly 'God, give me the strength to move this obstacle!'.
Nothing happened.

He began to fear that his faith was useless as the tree trunk would not move. He sank into despair and and leaned back against the trunk and sobbed. When he finished crying he noticed that the limbs of the tree had broken during the fall, and the remnants stuck out from the trunk like a ladder. He was able to climb over the trunk and continue his journey to the cave.

A week later he returned and spoke to his bothers about the wonder of being in God's presence.

The younger brother decided he would make the journey to the cave so he asked his middle brother for advice.
"If you reach an obstacle in the road know that God will give you the strength to climb over it" he was told.

As the younger brother hiked to the cave he discovered the path was blocked by a sleeping mountain lion. Remembering what his middle brother had said he carefully began to clamber over the lion. The lion awoke with a snarl and tried to bite the brother. Fortunately he was able to grab a low tree limb and pull himself to safety. Eventually the lion gave up trying to reach him and wandered away and he was able to continue his journey to the cave.

About a year later the hermit wandered back through the valley and came across the three brothers. He asked them to tell of the journeys.

The oldest brother spoke of the tree limb.

The middle brother spoke of the log.

The youngest brother spoke of the mountain lion.

The hermit looked at the three brothers and said "Oh my sons, you will encounter many obstacles in your journey towards God. Always remember that everyone's journey is different. Their obstacles may not be your obstacles, and their solutions, are not your solutions."

The spiritual life can be overwhelming and confusing. I go through seasons where God is closer than my next breath, and other times where I feel like an Atheist in all but name. I find it helpful to read other people's journeys, but there is a danger. Like the brothers in the story I think I can turn other's experiences into formulas to help me past my own spiritual roadblocks. If it worked for them, then it will work for me.

I would even argue that some Christian Bestsellers and sermons derive from this premise.

This can be dangerous.

As the Psalmist laments the destruction of Jerusalem in Psalm 137 he cries out 'Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks'. I do not know if the psalmist is expressing an experience or giving voice to a desire, but this is not a formula for spiritual blessing.

Jabez prays in 1 Chronicles 4:10 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' I'm glad I was not Jabez' next door neighbor as that would mean my territory was diminished. Just because God answered Jabez' prayer does not mean God will answer you in the same way if you use the same words.

I believe there are common experiences in our spiritual journeys, but there is not a one size fits all mentality to spiritual development. We all grow uniquely because we all are unique. God relates to everyone of us as individuals.

I berated myself for years before I understood this. I heard many talks on how a morning Quiet Time was vital to spiritual health. I've never been able to focus on God early in the morning, and reading the bible and prayer after just waking up usually sent me back to sleep....but I tried. I tried because this was the formula for spiritual growth and that was something I longed for.

God works beyond our formulas and preconceptions.
Despite our incomplete theologies and limited understandings.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Waiting in Caves

Elijah had been having a rough time.

He appears on the scene telling Israel that there is going to be a serious drought in the land, not a message that will endear you to the populous. He camps out by a river and the full range of dietary needs is limited to what ravens can carry. Not exactly the most sanitary of waitstaff. He lives with a widow for a while where they have an abundant supply of oil and flour, the same meal every day.

He gets to confront the King and they have a mountain top throw down that ends with fire falling from Heaven and a massacre of 450 prophets.

He outruns a chariot (and a heavy wind and rain storm) over a distance of approximately 25 miles - no easy feat, especially on his diet with limited nutrition and then receives news that the Queen has issued a death warrant for him so he goes camp out back in the wilderness again. He feels depressed and wishes to die.

An angel shows up and gives him some cake (see Angel food cake is biblical!) and some water and then the angel commands him to walk 40 days across the wilderness and climb a mountain all on the strength of that meal!

Finally, sitting in a cave on Mount Horeb he is told to 'Stand on the Mountain for the Lord is about to pass by.'

First comes a mighty wind so strong that it splits mountains and breaks rocks. Elijah had outrun a rain and windstorm sent by God, but this time time is not present in the storm.

Next comes a mighty earthquake. Elijah is standing on the mountain where Moses received the 10 commandments. When that event happened there was thunder, lightening, earthquake and fire. But this time God is not present in the earthquake.

Next comes a burst of fire. Elijah had seen fire fall from heaven as a sign of God's power, but this time God is not present in the fire.

Elijah has been waiting, and all the ways that God normally 'shows up' have happened, but God was not in any of them.

Finally silence descends, and in a way that Elijah does not expect, God speaks into the waiting place.

To wait without expectation of how God will answer can be the hardest waiting of all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Playing Dice with God

God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time. ~ From Good Omens by Terry Pratchett

I've been thinking about prayer a lot recently. A small group I am in was reflecting on the story of the Persistent Widow.  A Widow requires justice about a matter with a third party, but the judge in the case appears reluctant to respond to her. Eventually she wears the judge down with her continual pestering and so he grants her request. Jesus tells the parable so that the disciples would learn to always pray and not give up. (verse 1).

I can remember in my early twenties being drawn to this parable. I was praying for something to happen and my prayer times turned into me pestering and bullying God at nearly every opportunity. I remember the praying,  but I cannot remember what it was I was praying for. All I have as a reminder is a curious hand scrawled note at the bottom of the page that says 'What she wanted was right in the eyes of God/the Judge.'

Prayer is complicated. At times I beg, plead and cajole. I sound more like a petulant child than a faithful follower, and sometimes it feels like I am rolling dice.

Imagine that for God to answer a prayer you have to roll pips totaling 11 with a handful of dice.

With a single traditional 6 sided die it is of course impossible.

That's what prayer felt like some of the time to me. I'm throwing the die but the heavens were silent. Consequently I started studying writings on prayer, and learning new techniques. Suddenly it felt like I had added another die into my throws.

With two 6 sided dice, the probability of rolling an 11 is 5.56%

 It happens often enough to keep me rolling, but rarely enough that it isn't a foregone conclusion. So I upped my game even more. I can remember attending Concerts of Prayer and All Night Prayer Vigils. Another die added.

With three 6 sided dice, the probability of rolling an 11 is 12.5%

Pray longer. Pray harder. Pray in the Spirit. Pray in Tongues. Pray with Liturgy. Pray with meditation. Pray in groans that words cannot express (I once heard of a church offering a workshop on how to 'Groan in the Spirit'!!!)

You would think that as you add more dice the odds get better and better, but that is not the case.

With four 6 sided dice, the probability of rolling an 11 is 8.02%
With five 6 sided dice, the probability of rolling an 11 is 2.64%
With six 6 sided dice, the probability of rolling an 11 is 0.54%

No matter how much time I spent in Prayer and Worship, in Missions and Service. I could not influence prayer in my favor. Long nights of prayer over tear stained pillows couldn't produce results. It made me very fatalistic. God has determined what God will do, and praying won't change it.

Then I read bible passages like Genesis 18:20-32 where Abraham bargains with God over whether Sodom should be destroyed or Exodus 32: 7-14 where Moses persuades God not to destroy the Israelites over the Golden Calf incident.These passages make me hopeful, and frustrated. I can't comprehend being in a conversation with God let alone having the temerity to argue...and win.

(We could of course get into a lengthy discussion here on Free Will and Calvinism etc...but let's not)

The word 'Prayer' comes from the Latin word 'Precari' which means to beg. The Hebrew word l'hitpallel which we translate as prayer has quite a different meaning however. The word pallel means to judge, clarify, differentiate or decide. The word is in the Reflexive Tense which means the subject acts upon his/herself.

Prayer in this mindset is a reflective mindset. It opens me up to examine my attitudes and assumptions. To reflect on the prayers I offer to God and to seek out what is behind them. Why am I praying for the outcomes that I am? To hold the answers that I expect to see from God loosely.

To not be so caught up in wanting to roll an 11 that I fail to see that a roll of 7 is better for me....

...or better yet, to put away the dice completely and enjoy God's presence without the need to play games.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Roasted Tomato Pasta Sauce

So good!
(from Cook's Illustrated)

2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil (divided)
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 lbs vine ripened tomatoes (about 8 medium)
6 medium garlic cloves (peeled)
1 medium onion (peeled and cut into 1/2 inch rounds)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1-2 teaspoons sugar (as needed)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil.
Salt and pepper

A rimmed baking sheet
A rack that fits in the baking sheet
Food processor

1) Cut the tomatoes pole to pole, and using a spoon removed the core and the seeds.

2) Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 475F

3) In a large bowl combine the tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of the oil, thyme, red pepper flakes, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

4) Toss the tomatoes, garlic and onion into the paste mixture until everything is well coated.

5) Line the baking sheet with foil and then place the rack on top of it. Place a 4" square of foil in the middle of the rack and put the onions and garlic on it. Place the tomatoes, cut side down around the outside.

6) Place in the oven and roast until the vegetables are soft and the tomatoes are well charred, 45 to 55 minutes (Mine were actually done after 35 minutes - so watch carefully)

7) Put the garlic and onion into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

8) Add the tomatoes, vinegar and remaining tablespoon of oil. Pulse until broken down but still slightly lumpy. 

9) Scrape down the bowl and season with salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

10) Stir in the basil.

The recipe makes enough sauce for 1lb of penne or ziti pasta.

It tastes great as it is. I have also made the sauce in advance and added to it some bell peppers and chicken that I have sauteed. Mushrooms would be great too (there again I add mushrooms to almost everything!)

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Morris Dancing and May Dances

My brother is a Morris Dancer. This is a great introduction to the Morris tradition.