Laundry, Labneh and Lablabi

laundryThough it may be more satisfying when life imitates art, a person can derive a certain amount of pleasure when the equation goes the other way.

Art imitated life in a big way last month the night I returned home from a day that began at 4:30 a.m. and culminated in me having my gallbladder removed. There was the surgery prep, the surgery itself, of which I blissfully remember nothing, and the day spent in the hospital doing my utmost to pee out the copious fluids retained by my body so that I could go home.

Herman

They say hospitals are the great equalizer and it’s true that once you shed your clothes, don your scrubs and present your arm to have blood drawn, you could be anybody. Looking around the waiting room in the pre-dawn hours, I detected no racial, age or socio- economic divides. Those of us slated to go under the knife sat nervously surrounded by our loved ones, who looked even more nervous than we did. When the nurse called the name of the African-American mother sitting nearby in the waiting room, whose husband had chosen that minute to run back down to the parking garage, we shared a knowing look. What was she supposed to do with her son, old enough to sit by himself for a few minutes, but perhaps nervous that his mom was having surgery?

Later, I heard that woman cracking jokes in the anesthesia corral, a jolly circular set-up where we pre-opees sat behind curtains meeting our surgeons and anesthesiologists, donning our lunch lady-like surgical caps and getting our IV portals installed, amidst the cheerful banter between staff and patients.

anesthesiologist

I’d been told that surgeons are not known for their bedside manner, and in fact, what you really want is someone with nerves of steel, not a good personality. But, having never had surgery before,  I wanted a surgeon with a stellar reputation who I’d also be comfortable with. Selecting Mr. Right gave me a taste of what online dating must be like, but with much higher stakes. I  wanted my surgeon to be interested in more than just my body; I wanted him to think of me as a person. (I’ve since been advised that it’s better for surgeons to have laser focus on the job at hand, rather than getting distracted thinking about the person they are cutting open).

Must love dogs

Must love dogs

My post-surgery hospital roommate was a well-bred woman of a certain age in the midst of what she called a “clusterfuck.” A planned procedure, for which she had fasted, had been postponed and now she was trapped hungrily alone in the hospital with no idea when her test would be conducted. “They overbooked the operating rooms,” she complained to a friend on the phone, adding, “with gallbladder surgeries.” Had the woman been younger, this would have been the perfect opportunity for her to use the “vocal fry,” the new female speech phenomenon that’s currently getting lots of attention.

“I’m dying for an iced latte,” we heard her lament to her friend, “but they won’t let me leave my room to go get one.” Despite her gallbladder-inspired resentment, we decided to be the bigger people. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing,” Jeff said gallantly, pulling away the curtain that divided us. “I’d be happy to buy you a latte.”

As the day wore on and her latte kicked in, she was cheering me on every time I attempted to pee. When finally, I’d produced enough liquid to earn my release and was triumphantly getting dressed, she spied my trusty old black Dansko sandals, which I’ve learned over the years inspire cult-like loyalty, “I have those sandals! I love them!

danskos

Women’s shoes, another great equalizer

Exhausted after a long day and loopy on medication, I returned home to test-drive my gallbladder-free digestive system with blueberry pancakes, while watching Orange is the New Black, which does a great job of illustrating prison as a great equalizer. And that, my friends, is when I laughed so hard my incisions ached, my abdominal muscles ached, everything ached but I kept on laughing anyway.

SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T YET FINISHED SEASON 3: What are the odds that the night you return home from gallbladder surgery, you’ll watch an episode featuring a back story about the illegal trading of bear gallbladders on the Chinese black market? What are the odds that the concluding scene of the show would feature a scene in which henchmen, having beaten someone to a bloody pulp, would turn to their mistress and ask, ” What else should we do to him?”

chang gallbladder

Needless to say, I appreciated my deft and gentle surgeon, who really does have a nice personality, though when I told him about this funny coincidence at my post-op visit, he said “I’m not familiar with that show.” Barring any complications, he told me we would not be seeing each other again.

rose

In the weeks before the surgery, I’d delighted in cooking Lebanese dishes from Maureen Abood’s book Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, my pre-surgery present to myself. Can a person ever have too many Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes or too much Butter Lettuce with Walnut Vinaigrette?  I think not.

Home recuperating in a post-op haze during the first of Seattle’s summer heat waves, I wanted to take the opportunity to cook. Dork that I am, I’ve long been looking forward to a block of unfettered time so that I could make labneh, which is basically just Greek yogurt strained so that the whey is removed, yielding what some refer to as cheese and others call dip. It really doesn’t take much attention, just time.

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Maureen Abood has a recipe in her book, which goes into some detail about the different methods of straining yogurt, yielding different consistencies and products. David Lebovitz has one too and so does Food 52. I made a hybrid of the three, though omitted the lemon juice suggested by Food 52. The whey accumulating in the bottom of the bowl as the yogurt strained made a good conversation piece.

Jeff and I had recently been to a Seattle restaurant with great outdoor seating (a rarity here). When he ordered a whiskey sour, he was told somewhat pretentiously we thought, that instead of the usual egg whites you find in deluxe whiskey sours (that’s not the way our indomitable Auntie Julia taught us to make them), the restaurant made theirs with whey leftover from their homemade yogurt. He decided to have a beer instead. When it arrived, I pointed to the substantial head of foam floating on top and suggested it was revenge whey. 

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While I had time on my hands, I also decided to make Lablabi, from a Wall Street Journal article I’ve been saving for the past four years. It was nurturing and good, but made me contemplate the road not taken. Recipe horder that I am, why hadn’t I been smart enough to come up with the idea of writing a weekly food blog featuring recipes I’d clipped from newspapers and magazines, like that smart and now famous Wednesday Chef?

The rest of the time I did laundry, my favorite chore, in a fruitless attempt to help Daughter #2 deal with her “floordrobe” and lay in the hammock reading.

I knew my recuperation was over the night I had to jump into the intrepid, indestructible old minivan to rescue Jeff, whose newer, fancier ride had conked out.  And just like that, life returned to normal.

In the wake of the broken foot and the gallbladder liberation, I’m feeling kind of like that minivan these days. My foot hurts, my side tweaks and… (you Jimmy Buffett fans can fill in the blank).  But as I get back into the swing of things and try to figure out what kind of exercise I can do, I’m fully confident I’ll be roaring again soon.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It just goes to show you, it's always something.

It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I remember the exact moment our luck changed. We were sitting in a Michigan airport getting ready to return home to Seattle when I learned that Paseo, the Cuban sandwich place located across the street from the beach near our house, was closing. Paseo signified everything that was right about Ballard, the neighborhood we’ve lived in for 20 years. I’ve written and ranted about the changes underway in Ballard and, more recently, about the changes brewing in our lives. When you have things that anchor you, like a pink shack with garlicky aioli-slathered pork sandwiches or a trustworthy drug store to buy lice supplies, school supplies, shampoo, chocolate and even wine (sadly, now knocked down to make way for a “mixed use” retail/condo behemoth), you can feel enveloped in a bubble of invulnerability. The destruction of those icons made my invulnerability bubble-wrap begin to pop, bubble by bubble.

The minor fender bender that occurred on the way to school/work left me grateful it was no big deal, but still a little shaky because I don’t, as a rule of thumb, have car accidents. Ditto the news that I had suffered a stress fracture in my foot, because I have never broken a bone.

So much for early morning boot camp.

So much for early morning boot camp.

But I rolled with everything, stylishly rocking the one shoe/one boot look for over a month and adapting each time a curve ball came my way. When Zayn Malik left One Direction,  I dealt with it better than some.

On a business trip to Chicago, I learned to tolerate lap swimming, thanks to the hotel’s 1929-era pool. Once home, I reveled in the fact that, instead of rising at 5:30 for boot camp, I could sleep in till 6:15 and hit my local (less fancy) pool at the end of the morning rush.

pool I made Yotam Ottolenghi’s carrot, apple and pecan muffins and I waited for a sign that this run of bad luck was coming to an end. muffinsThe first hopeful sign came in the form of  a package from my Chicago hotel. As proof that my stars were definitely out of alignment, I had discovered on my flight home that I’d left a drawer full of clean underwear and workout stuff in my hotel room. I do not, as a rule of thumb, usually leave anything behind when I travel (except for a black sweater coat left in a Grenada taxi. I blame my daughters for that). This was a fixable problem, and I jumped into action to get my items returned to me, convinced that when the package arrived, our luck would change. underwear Then, a setback. Daughter #1’s iPhone was stolen at a concert, to her perhaps the worst of all the mishaps that had befallen us. Heretofore, concerts were the ultimate bonding experience. Her faith in humanity was shaken. Worse, she couldn’t listen to music. headphones But a week later, we got great, life-changing news and we started celebrating. But then, unexpected, unwelcome life-changing (though to a far lesser extent) news came calling. So much for my attempts at pattern recognition. The latest news is that I’ve been advised to have my gallbladder removed because of a small growth that had been detected during the series of tests that followed my colonoscopy.

Among the random things I remember learning in school, such as that Taiwan used to be called Formosa and that guano is bat dung, I have a strong memory of learning about the four cardinal humors. The ancient Greeks believed that temperament was derived from the presence of bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An imbalance of any of these could influence a person’s personality and their health. temperaments Blood was associated with a sanguine personality. Phlegm could make a person apathetic or phlegmatic. Black bile was associated with melancholy and yellow bile was associated with anger, aggression and gall. If you’re like me up until a few days ago, you probably don’t even know what the gallbladder does. Like the spleen, the gallbladder is one of those under-the-radar organs that rarely gets mentioned. Its main function is to store bile, a substance that helps the body absorb fat.

The words gall and bile don’t carry positive connotations, as they are associated with boldness (in a pushy, nervy sort of way) and bitterness. Personally, I prefer the Chinese interpretation of the gallbladder and its functions. The Chinese associate the gall bladder with courage, bravery and heroism. According to one ancient Chinese theory of medicine, not only does the gallbladder play a role in digestion, but also in decision-making.

Beyond my fears of the surgery itself, I worried. Would removing my gallbladder upset my four cardinal humors? Would it make it difficult for me to digest fat and other foods? gall bladder meme I’ve learned that cholecystectomy, or removal of the gall bladder, is the most common surgery. And, in a twist on the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, in which something you just learned about seems to suddenly crop up everywhere, in the past few days, it seems that everyone I talk to is either missing a gallbladder or knows someone who is. Chances are, if you are a woman reading this, and a mid-life woman to boot, you don’t have a gallbladder either.

Or, as Jeff’s cousin Deb, a research scientist whom I greatly admire and who cuts right to the chase said, “Some of my favorite people have no gall bladders.”

no gall bladder club

Apparently, penguins have enormous gall bladders, but lots of animals don’t have them at all.

The night after I got my gallbladder news, I went out for dinner with friends, one of whom, I learned, is gallbladder-free. It didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying a divine meal of Muscadet, oysters, crispy sardines, cucumber salad and asparagus. I noticed she didn’t touch the pate, but that apparently had nothing to do with her lack of a gallbladder. Good sign.

Daughter #2, whose heart is in the right place, has decided we need to have a fatty foods party before my surgery. I suggested we should make an emergency trip to Paris for a cheese tasting. She’s in.

Last night,  I wanted to cook, something I haven’t done much of lately, but which always returns my four cardinal humors to their correct balance.

Jan Brady meme I ignored my usual impulse to cook something Mediterranean and decided to make khao soi, a rich, Northern Thai curry that reminded me of my early days with Jeff (we met in Asia). Our cooking and eating lives together began with Asian food, before we migrated to Mexican flavors and later, I veered off into Mediterranean, Turkish and Spanish territory.

Jeff’s been with me through thick and thin. He’s famous for giving the kind of unromantic presents that endure (though his sister was furious when he gave me a toothbrush holder. Turns out, I needed one). It’s true, I appreciate my Soda Stream fizzy water maker more than the iPad that I wanted for Christmas that year. And I love my mortar and pestle.

I hadn’t gone on a treasure hunt for ingredients for a long time and that was fun. And it felt cathartic to grind the spices, shrimp paste, chiles, shallots and garlic to make the paste for the khao soi. pestle Shit happens and the writer in me realizes it’s all in the interpretation. This one six-month series of unfortunate events is just that, and is far eclipsed by the many six-month great runs we’ve had together. However, I did find it galling that at a particularly low point, Facebook chose to show me a picture of what we were during last year around this time — making merry in Seville. Maybe next year, when I have no gallbladder, that kind of thing won’t bother me.

Jeff is a physicist at heart and he might scoff at my attempts to find meaning through pattern recognition or chaos theory. But, I bet that if I asked him, Stephen Hawking might give me hope that when Paseo, or something like it, returns to Ballard (I’ve seen hopeful signs at the pink shack), I’ll be able to eat rich pork sandwiches slathered in garlic aioli with no problem.

Stephen Hawking gives reassuring news

I used the khao soi recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook. Pok Pok is the wonderful Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon (and now, I think also New York) that is an essential stop if you visit that city (make sure to order the chicken wings). The cookbook is a commitment, with several recipes advising you to begin preparation weeks in advance. I chose khao soi because it was relatively quick, but we still didn’t eat till 9 p.m., which taxed everyone’s gall bladders. Here’s a somewhat simpler recipe to try.