Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2’s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.

My Three Sons

” I have mountains to look at, stars at night to gaze at and it’s so dark that you can see every star in the sky. Also, the people here… everyone wants to help each other.”

“When I arrived here, nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me and associated anything besides the connotations of being American. It’s like someone just hit the ‘reset’ button on my life, and I get to build a name for myself from scratch again. It’s a great feeling to know that anything people think of me before they get to know me comes from questionable stereotypes and nothing else.” 

“Best of all, we got to experience life under a philosophy that’s different from today’s norm. Rather than “keeping up with the Kardashians” and constantly working more in order to buy more, our hosts worked comfortably with what they had. As a result they’ve ended up with a beautiful home, two grounded and fun-loving sons, and best of all, the time to appreciate it. “

Three young men that I have known since birth are on extended forays in Afghanistan, France and New Zealand.  These sojourners — a soldier, a “sheap traveler” and a student — are sharing their impressions of the world, and their place in it, via Facebook and blogs.

(To be fair, the insights about appreciating what you have were written by the sheap traveler’s girlfriend and travel companion.  He’s lucky to be sharing his life and this adventure with such a grounded, healthy “shiny” young woman).

More than thirty years ago, I launched myself into the world.  There was no Internet back then, and therefore no Facebook and blogs, and the only way to share one’s impressions was via tissue paper- thin aerogrammes. It usually took two weeks for them to reach their destination and two additional weeks to receive a reply.

By the time the response arrived, you might have forgotten what had inspired you to write in the first place, having moved on to new experiences and corresponding new emotions.

I like this real time communication.  Yesterday I chatted on Facebook with my sweet, strong nephew A, who is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan.  He regularly Skypes with his wife, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and I imagine it is a great comfort to them to know that he feels safe and happy under the stars and that the previous night he shared a delicious meal with his Italian friends.  Rather than feel isolated, A can participate in home life and share the sweet mix of pumpkin patches, soccer games, doggy love and memories of good food with the people he loves.

I had to laugh when I read K’s accounts of student life in France.  Not much has changed since I attended a lycee in 1978.  His blog reminds me of the highs and lows I felt each day, as I, too, struggled with stereotypes and the reserve of the French students at my school.

I spent a second year attending college in France in the company of E’s parents.   Reading his stories of living and working in New Zealand on the cheap brings back memories of sleeping in parks and youth hostels, drinking inexpensive red wine and taking endless train trips throughout Europe.

E did a stint living and working in New York, so he’s experienced one version of “grown-up” life.  Now he’s seeing contrasting views of what a satisfying life can be. I can’t wait to find out what he decides for himself.

A few weeks ago, when the Canadians were here, Jeff pulled out his journals from his 1990 Everest trek.

That’s where he met S, aka “Cheesehead” (we’re not talking about Wisconsin here.  Jeff says this is the term used in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s to describe Canadians who crossed the border in search of dairy products).

More than twenty years later, we laughed as Jeff read us his impressions of S and tales of their adventures together in Nepal.  Twenty years and two very different life paths, yet we marveled after the Canadians left, that Jeff and S still feel a sense of connection and of shared values, as well as a mutual acknowledgement that their international experiences  shaped the way they chose to live their lives.

I’ve been reliving my own first tentative steps into the world as I put the finishing touches on the cover and interior design of my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small, which should be out by the end of next month (stay tuned for details).

I know of what I speak when I tell these young men that their lives will be forever changed by their international forays.

“Kids, today,” one generation is fond of sighing about the next.

Judging from the tales from abroad I’ve been reading, I’d say, the kids are alright.  They are scaling mountains.  They are making informed choices about their values.  They are not sheep.

If my two daughters  explore the world and show as much insight, sensitivity and open-mindedness  as my three spiritual sons, I will have fulfilled my most important goal as a parent.  Their parents should be very proud of them.  I know I am.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of cooking going in in our house because we are still adjusting to a busier schedule.  One night, tired of quesadillas and pasta, I vowed to make the Garum Factory’s Roast Chicken with Muhammara, but was thwarted by a Justin Bieber-related incident that it took most of the night to resolve (this time it’s personal, Bieber!).  A few nights later I did make that blissful chicken and the night after that, I used the stock I’d made from the chicken carcass to make one of my favorite standby soups, Ezogelin Corbasi, Turkish Red Lentil, Bulgur and Mint Soup.  Recipes for this soup abound. I used the recipe from Turquoise, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book about their culinary travels in Turkey.  Here’s a link to the recipe.

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

Lentils are one of those ancient foods that provide sustenance all around the world.  May these young men continue to find sustenance and broadened perspectives  through the people they meet and the meals they share.

More Cooking With Sureyya or… It Takes a Village

I know what you want.

You want uncomplicated blog entries about food with a few recipes thrown in, rather than musings about art and architecture and the paths we choose in life.  Unless, of course, there are recipes.  Turns out, Frank Lloyd Wright is not an SEO-friendly tag.  Chicago-style hot dogs probably is.

I’m going to give you what my readership statistics tell me you want, but I’m going to sneak in my favorite blog ingredient – food for thought.

Just over a year ago, we were in Turkey as an early celebration of my 50th birthday.  Everything about the trip — the months of planning and anticipation, the experience itself and the months-long afterglow exceeded my expectations.

We stopped in Paris en route, a city I hadn’t been to since I was a student at the American College in Paris in 1979.

The food is just as good.

That’s where my Slice of Mid-Life gravatar came from.

And the city is just as beautiful.

But instead of an international array of backpackers with “No Nukes” patches in various languages sewn onto their backpacks, as there were in my day,

there is an international array of break dancers who perform at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Turkey is a special place with warm, wonderful people.  There is something special about their food.

Could it be the ingredients?

So now that I’m back home, I jump at every opportunity to relive that trip and to cook and eat Turkish food and take classes from the wonderful Sureyya Gokeri, whom I’ve told you about before.

During last month’s class, we learned how to prepare a Turkish wedding feast.

The menu:

Yogurt-infused Turkish wedding soup

Maklube (Upside-down Spicy Pilaf with Lamb and Vegetables)

Dag Salatasi (Mountain Salad with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses)

Ispanakli Borek (Phyllo pastry with Spinach and Feta)

It melts in your mouth.

Kerevizli Yogurt (Celery Root and Yogurt Dip with Garlic) and

Gul Tatlisi (Rose Dessert)

While we were cooking, Sureyya regaled us with stories of village life.  On wedding and other feast days, women gather early in the morning to cook and while they do so, they talk.  The same thing happens within the Turkish community of Seattle and, I’d venture to guess, within Turkish and other tightly-knit communities around the world.  Even though they don’t cook (though they are intimately involved with lamb procurement and slaughter), the men talk too.

I’m sure it’s not all Borek in the Sky and that talk sometimes turns to gossip which sometimes turns to passing judgment about someone’s soggy baklava, their choice of spouse or their political opinions. A lot of that is probably going on in Greece right now.

But the thing about cooking together and celebrating together is that, whatever your differences, these are shared, face-to-face experiences.

Much has been written about the Internet, our faceless global village, and its power to connect as well as to alienate.  It seems that every time I read an intriguing opinion piece online, I also read several vitriolic and often anonymous responses to that opinion.

I know I’m not alone in lamenting how uncivil public discourse has become and how closed we’ve become to the ideas and experiences of others.  I recently wrote an article about it and received several favorable responses and a few uncivil, anonymous ones too.

So, since I know you like recipes, and since I believe you catch more flies with rose water- infused syrup than with vinegar (except perhaps, Balsamic), here’s Sureyya’s sweet ending to a community gathering.  You can find more recipes on her website.

 Gul Tatlisi (Rose Dessert)

3 cups water

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 capful rose water (optional)

In a deep saucepan, boil sugar and water for 20 minutes on medium heat.  Add lemon juice and boil for two more minutes.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Pastry:

1 egg

1/2 cup yogurt

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup semolina

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 teaspoon orange zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 to 4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.  Mix all ingredients except flour, baking power and walnuts in a bowl.  Add baking powder and flour a little at a time. Sureyya says you’ll know you’ve used enough flour when the dough is as soft as an earlobe,

Roll out half the dough to 1/4 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface, making sure it does not stick.  Cut out two-inch circles.  Lay four circles overlapping each other.  Roll the circles together and cut them in the middle to make two “roses.”  Put a walnut piece in the middle of each rose.

Place the roses on a greased tray (or use parchment) 1/2 inch apart.  Bake for 30-35 minutes until they are browned.  As soon as you remove the tray from the oven, our the syrup over the roses and set aside for 20 minutes.  The, turn roses over to evenly absorb syrup.  Ideally, the roses should soak in the syrup for two to three hours.

Finally, as a former Jersey girl, I got a kick out of the following article and I hope you do too.  But be forewarned.  There are some snarky comments afterwards.

Me, Bruce and a Colonoscopy

Pain in the Neck

It’s 6:30 on a Friday morning and daughter #1 and I are sniping at each other.  I want to be sure she has everything she needs for the ski bus she will take from school to Snoqualmie Summit later in the afternoon.  Skis, poles, boots, helmet, gear bag and food are all piled up by our front door, just as they are every Friday morning.  But this morning, I am bitchier than usual and daughter #1 is rolling her eyes and refusing to go through the checklist with me, though we both remember her maiden ski bus trip last year, when we packed everything except the ski boots, an omission she did not discover until she was on the mountain, ready to go.

I am bitchy because I haven’t slept for the past several nights, due to a pain in my neck.  I’d like daughter #1, who is 13 and can’t always control herself, to stop being a pain in the bleep and cut me some slack.  It doesn’t happen and we part on unfriendly terms.

Later, after I have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, pumped full of steroids and set up with a physical therapy regimen, I will have the foresight to send her a text apologizing for my bitchiness.

Still later, when she has been strapped to a backboard and rushed down the mountain in an ambulance, I will look at her texted response to my apology:  “I’m sorry I was a whiny schmuck.”   Me: “I’m glad you’re my whiny schmuck  :).”  Her:  :).

The next day we are walking companionably together in stiff-necked glory, me, whacked out on steroids and pain meds and a muscle relaxant, her, a little sore and just beginning to realize what might have been.

She tells me she dreaded making the call to us that night, knowing we would be upset.  I tell her how helpless we felt because we weren’t there to comfort her and about the confusion of receiving several truncated calls from the ski patrol, her ski instructor and a chaperone who happened to be a doctor, trying to piece together what had happened and assess her situation.  She’d fallen and somersaulted, landing on her back, while learning mogul safety, but had managed to ski herself down the mountain (good sign) before realizing she felt dizzy (bad sign).  As a precaution, she was strapped to a backboard and it was determined that she should be taken by ambulance to the emergency room.  The experts deliberated over which one, and we reacted to each possibility: the one nearest our house (good sign), the one at Seattle’s largest trauma hospital (bad sign), and finally, the one closest to the mountain (good sign).

She tells me what it was like to be immobilized on her back in a screaming ambulance, crying, with no one but an awkward EMT to comfort her with small talk.

I tell her about rushing to the hospital, a 45 minute drive from our house, with her pajama-clad frightened younger sister in tow.  On the way, something smashed into our windshield, aimed at my heart.  “Have we been shot????” Jeff was rattled by the sudden impact.  Indeed, there is a bullet-like hole on the outside of the glass and it seems hard to believe it could have come from a rock.

By 11:00 p.m., backboard just a memory,

we are at a drive-through Krispy Kreme at a strip-mall in Issaquah laughing at the strangeness of our situation and allowing the first waves of relief to sink in, along with the sugar.

Though I am unable to turn my head toward the backseat to smile, we agree that this was the mother of all gazumps.

Daughter #2 suggests I can bog about this.  I feel a twinge of guilt over what we may be turning into.

The pharmacist calmly explained all the possible side effects of my meds.  My friend Diane, a nurse, puts it in plainer terms.  “You’re going to be bloated and bitchy and miserable.”  I already feel that way 11 days of each month, thanks to my perimenopausal PMS, which is kind of like PMS on steroids and which I have learned to manage with exercise, smoked salmon, red wine and my private reserve of dark chocolate.

I keep it on a special shelf in the freezer.

Now that I am experiencing perimenopausal PMS and am on steroids, I realize that my previous forays into moodiness were a walk in the park compared to this new dimension of craziness.  I have never suffered from chronic depression, nor have I ever taken anti-depressants.  I have a new-found empathy for those who do.

My funny family is able to make light of Mom’s ‘roid rage and Daughter #1 buys me some Doublemint gum to cool me down. But, though I stop taking the muscle relaxants after the first one, and limit the pain meds to just one at bedtime, my consciousness is altered, like a mid-life follower of Timothy Leary, though I drive a minivan instead of a magic bus.

I take a four-mile walk on a glorious sunshiny day and my iPod astutely shuffles to Katrina and the Wave to help cheer me up.

It doesn’t work.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the intensity of feeling one experiences in middle school, when the mountains can seem more beautiful than they ever have before

yet you question your place in this world.  I have a new-found empathy for those who feel these extremes and also have to navigate the intricate social dynamics of the school lunchroom.

As the pain lessens and the meds wind down, I am regaining enough healthy perspective to understand that we dodged a number of bullets.  That fateful Friday would have been the 17th birthday of my friend Beth’s son Ian. There was a madman with a gun terrorizing a neighborhood to our north, where residents were advised to stay home behind locked doors.  There was an accident at our Sunday Farmers Market, resulting in the serious injury of a baby. I think the moon was full.

Our insurance will pay to get the windshield fixed. Daughter #1 is planning to go skiing again on Friday and I’ll be up and running again in no time. Over the years, we will re-tell the story of Daughter #1’s ambulance adventure when she comes home from college for the holidays or whenever we pass a drive-through Krispy Kreme kiosk.

In the grand scheme of things, I am grateful that in the end, this turned out to be nothing more than a pain in the neck.

Though many things can cause them, herniated discs can also be a by-product of aging. I’m grateful to my Facebook friends who stuck their necks out for me by sharing their stories and favorite remedies.  Thanks to Nancy Schatz Alton, a member of the Ballard Writers Collective and co-author of The Healthy Back Book, which jump-started my efforts to take charge of my own recovery.  Thanks to Christina Wilsdon, witty writer and animal aficionado, for suggesting Treat Your Own Neck, by Robin MacKenzie.  Thanks to my neighbor Shannon for the nightly laser treatments, to Diane for the frankness and the heating pad, and to Liz and Paul for the promise of a rotisserie chicken and cookies.

In addition to drugs, physical therapy and ergonomic office arrangements, everyone agreed that dark chocolate has charms to soothe the savage beast.   Some kindred spirits also felt that the pair of pink shoes I’ve been ogling would certainly have profound therapeutic benefits.

Finally, I haven’t felt much like eating because of the water retention, and have felt even less like cooking, which, if you know me, you know signals that my stars (not just my neck) are out of alignment.  But this morning, while thinking about anti-inflammatory, all-around good for you foods, I remembered this wonderful salad from the cookbook Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey by Greg and Lucy Malouf.  Afiyet Olsun! (Turkish for enjoy your meal)

Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Salad

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted for 5-10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  After cooling, pour the nuts into a towel and rub well to remove skin.  Then coarsely chop

1/2 cup pitted green olives, washed and coarsely chopped

1/4 unsalted shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

2 small shallots, peeled and finely diced

1 red serrano chile, seeded and finely diced

1Tablespoon shredded flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 Tablespoon olive oil

I Tablespoon walnut oil

splash of pomegranate molasses

juice of 1/2 lemon

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss gently.  Let stand five minutes before serving so flavors can meld.