Pink Pig

The inspiration for this post originally came from our recent Diecinueve de Mayo party.  Every year, on or around Cinco de Mayo, we throw a big party. The margaritas are the main attraction, but the potluck Mexican feast is also a pretty big draw. Some years, I’ve stayed up late into the night making tamales or charring chiles for complex moles.

Many of our friends exhibit a similar culinary dedication.  Leftovers are few and far between.

Our Cinco de Mayo party originated sixteen years ago as a “Ballard Ain’t So Bad” party.  We had recently bought a 1912-era house in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood then mocked for its Scandinavian roots and bad drivers.  On “Almost Live,” a Seattle late night live comedy show, Ballard was routinely the butt of jokes because of its uncoolness.  Now, it seems like Ballard is featured in the Sunday New York Times Travel Section every couple of months. Among other charms, it has quite the restaurant scene.  When we first moved here, the only culinary attraction (apart from an incongruous Indian restaurant, which is still going strong) was the number of places you could buy lutefisk. Sadly, one by one they have all disappeared, though you can still get a good Kringle at Larsen’s Bakery.

I wanted to throw a party because I was new to Seattle.  I’ve told you before how challenging making friends here can be.  I figured a big party would be a great way to jumpstart my efforts and a theme would make for a great ice-breaker. People still remember the black-and-white party and the New Jersey party I threw in Bangkok and the Aretha Franklin party I hosted in stuffy Washington, DC.

So I invited everybody I knew, and made my very first trip to Costco, where I bought the largest bag of tortilla chips I have ever seen.

The party was “different,” people said, and then admitted in that low-key Seattle way that they had liked it. Seattlites, especially those whose roots run deep here, are not known for co-mingling friends or bringing new people into their inner circles. I considered the party a success.

Still, the real social ice-breaker was having kids.  We made friends with the parents at our kids’ pre-school and and they began coming to our annual party.  Because of Ballard’s growing popularity, the party needed a new theme.  We found inspiration while camping at the Columbia River Gorge one Memorial Day weekend.  We were awakened early by our toddlers and were surprised to see the childless couple in the site next to us awake as well, when they could have remained snuggled up in their sleeping bags.  They were zesting limes which would marinate in lime juice all day for the margaritas they planned to drink that night after an unfettered day of windsurfing.

When the kids graduated from pre-school and everyone scattered to different elementary schools, I worried that we would lose touch with our friends.  But the party became a way to maintain those friendships and bring new friends together with old ones. Very un-Seattle, but it worked.

Years passed and before I knew it, I was the one with the established social circle, unable to invite everyone I knew or wanted to get to know better to our Cinco de Mayo party, because my house wasn’t big enough. The party wasn’t an ice-breaker anymore.  It was just part of our life.

I took a relaxed approach to cooking this year and made Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatecan dish of pork shoulder marinated in a paste of achiote seed and sour Seville orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked for hours. I used Diana Kennedy’s recipe from her classic book The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

Cover of "The Essential Cuisines of Mexic...

Cover via Amazon

It was easy, it was succulent, it was comfort food.

May turned into June and, as I sorted pictures for Daughter #2′s fifth-grade yearbook, I marveled at how quickly the years had gone by, and got a bit weepy at the prospect of once again leaving a school we’ve been associated with for the past eight years and saying goodbye to so many good friends. To add salt to the wound, over a period of five weeks, each of our daughters seemed to age five years, which left Jeff and me scratching our heads in bittersweet bewilderment.

It’s a good thing we have Kobe.

He came home unexpectedly a week ago and it has been like turning back the clock.  A nine-week old puppy isn’t that much different from a nine-week old baby, except that this time I’m appreciating every moment, because I know it is fleeting.

That first night, Jeff and I found ourselves alone with him, while our girls were off at a carnival, and a sweet flood of memories washed over me.  Snuggled up inside of Jeff’s jacket pocket, Kobe looked as warm and contented as our babies had and later, when the two of us got on the floor shouting “Pink Pig!,” as we taught him to fetch a squeaky toy, I remembered how much I love Jeff as a father.

So for Father’s Day, though short on sleep, I decided to make Jeff a special meal to commemorate the slow, sweet development of our family life together and Cochinita Pibil seemed like just the thing.  We ate it in our backyard with a Paloma cocktail, as our puppy discovered the world around him and our girls prepared to go even further afield.

I was inspired to make Cochinita Pibil because during our recent trip to Chicago, we ate it at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill restaurant.  At O’Hare airport, before boarding our return flight home, we were thrilled to find a Frontera Grill kiosk and purchased Cochinita Pibil sandwiches for the flight home.  They were delicious, and rather aromatic.  I hope our fellow travelers didn’t mind.  Here’s the Rick Bayless recipe.

Fruits and Nuts and Flakes and Seeds and Teenagers

I’ve realized for a few weeks that it is high time I wrote a post about food and I’d been planning one about the satisfactions of slow-cooked pork and slowly-developed friendships  (Be forewarned, I’m also planning a post about mid-life belly fat).

But ideas have a way of taking root, like seedlings, and, based on my consumption of late, and particularly this week, I feel compelled to tell you about the way I am eating now.  The comedian Gallagher once said:  “California is like a bowl of granola.  What ain’t fruits and nuts is flakes.” In addition to dried fruits, nuts and flakes (coconut flakes, that is) I’ve been eating lots of oats and seeds and therefore have been spending a lot of time in the bulk section of the grocery store.

So I think I’ll do what the smart bloggers do: write the post about slow-cooked pork and save it for a week when I’m busy or uninspired.  This week, because seeds are on my mind, in my cupboard and in my ever-expanding middle-aged belly, I’ll tell you about them instead.

In February I mentioned that I had started making granola, and not very originally linked to a recipe I found on Orangette, which was originally posted on Food 52 and which has also been mentioned by David Lebovitz.  Everyone loves Early Bird Foods granola. I make it every few weeks and it’s become Jeff’s and my favorite weekday breakfast.  I like the way making this granola makes me feel, the way it makes the house smell and the routine of it.  I like the illusion of control granola gives me, which is not how I felt about it when I ate it during the years I lived in Northern California, a flakier time in my life.

Early June in Seattle can sometimes be like November in Seattle and it was so this week.  I was seeking comfort food and remembered Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of poached eggs atop sauteed peppers, onions and tomatoes, which I had made on Easter morning.  I got the recipe from Yottam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty and shortly after that, saw a different recipe for Shakshuka from Gail Simmons in Food and Wine magazine.  Trolling around the Internet this week, I found several variations of Shakshuka, including one recipe a devotee said was head and shoulders above the rest because of the addition of Hawaj.  Though I consider myself pretty savvy about international cuisine and the ingredients of the world, I had never heard of Hawaj.  It turns out it is a Yemeni spice blend, favored by Yemeni Jews.  I had fun reading about it in Claudia Roden‘s The Book of Jewish Food and then I decided to make it so I could add it to my Shakshuka. It really did elevate the quality of the dish.  Here’s the recipe I used, though Hawaj, like most spice blends, lends itself to individual interpretation.

Jeff called, as he often does during his sloggy long commute home, to see what was going on.  There had been a fair amount of adolescent drama, which had worn me down, and I think he was surprised, after telling me about his day and traffic woes, to hear that in my head, I wasn’t in my Seattle kitchen making dinner, I was in Yemen making Hawaj (There is some precedence for this.  I survived the baby and toddler years through culinary expeditions.  You’ll be able to read about it when my book comes out). He arrived home to find me catatonically smashing coriander seeds with my mortar and pestle and wisely did not judge me for my choice of distraction.  I wish I could say that I had been as non-judgmental when I found him staring catatonically at a basketball game on TV several nights this week in response to the “energy” in our household.

Our adolescents are wearing us down.  It’s the end of the school year, daughter #2, just finishing up fifth grade, has a sentimental case of “senioritis.”  Suddenly she’s best friends with all of her classmates, who will soon scatter to different middle schools.  Even the boys are nice. There are skate parties and trampoline parties and luncheons and barbeques and the dreaded FLASH (Family Living and Sexual Health) class.

Daughter #1 has been taking end-of-year tests, sending endless texts and has recently discovered Skype.  Remember how your mother admonished you not to tie up the phone line when you were a teenager?   “You just saw your friends a half-hour ago, why do you have to call them?”  That’s how I sound when I complain about Skype and D#1′s dominance of the computer.  Apparently she, too, will be taking FLASH, the seventh grade version, and I feel for the poor teachers who have to present this material to her randy middle school peers.

Unlike Everyone Else, who seems to have migrated away from Facebook towards Pinterest, I haven’t yet succumbed, fearing yet another Internet time suck.  Instead, I keep food magazines and recipes that interest me in a pile on top of my microwave and once in a while I actually go through them.  For months this pile has included a recipe for Dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice blend that I learned about from the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  If you haven’t already, you should check out the Garum Factory.  In addition to its intriguing recipes, Ken Rivard is a marvelous writer (I keep telling him he should write history books) and his wife, acclaimed chef Jody Adams, offers useful, down-to-earth techniques by sharing her own recipe trials and errors with honesty and humor.

By mid-week the intensity level in the house was really beginning to get to us (Jeff and I even resorted to using our friend D’s technique of taming the females in his household: “Everybody calm the f**k down!”  If you’ve heard of my Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother, you’ll know that this approach particularly resonates with me).

“That’s it, I’m making Dukkah!” I vowed.

I’ve learned that asking a teenager to shell nuts or fava beans is an excellent way to, in the words of Van Morrison, get down to what is really real.  D #1 dutifully shelled pistachios for the Dukkah and we had a calm, pleasant, enlightening chat before she disappeared to Skype her friends.  Jeff came home and, once again, did not judge when he saw that I had been pretending to be in Egypt.   That night, instead of watching basketball, he and I caught up on Season 7 of Weeds.

The next morning, as I ate steel cut oats with Dukkah sprinkled on top, D #1 confronted us about the hypocrisy of us watching Weeds, especially since the night before, over Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Dukkah, we had been probing for information about the drug scene at her school  (We were saved by the trademark family sense of humor.  D #1, knowing of my own struggles to fit in as a PTA mom, could see the humor in one secretly becoming a big-time drug dealer, yet still attending PTA meetings).

Middle school.  How will I survive having two kids in middle school next year?  Luckily, so many cultures have their own blends of spices and of nuts and seeds that I should be able to spend the next few years working through my frustrations.

Mother’s little helper

In fact, I like to amuse myself by imagining that Ras-el-hanout, Zaatar, Garum masala, Paanch phoran, Muesli and even Lowry’s seasoned salt were developed by weary mothers of adolescents, much as soccer, basketball, football and petanque were developed by men desperate to get out of the house.

There is growing number of Middle Eastern comedians, who delve into careful, but spot-on humor about their cultures.  I’m sure eventually one of them will follow Gallagher’s lead and remark that the region is like a spice blend.  Take the seeds of dissent, mixed with several dashes of courage and yes, a few nuts, and sweeten them with the taste of freedom.

Related links:

Pushing the Envelope Through Stand-Up Comedy

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

Yes, There are Comics in Qatar

I‘ve been on a technology tear lately, building a website and formatting an E-book.  On my to-do list is an overhaul of this blog, featuring a recipe page.  Stay tuned.