International Comfort Food

Even though I was not allowed to listen to Pandora during my recent shot in the neck, the Pandora in my head provided a soundtrack. Lying on my stomach, held tilted down, arms immobilized underneath me, all I could think about, as the doctor drew an X to mark the spot where he would inject me (perilously close to my spinal cord), was the Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Luckily, the Pandora in my doctor’s head must have been playing Pat Benatar.  He hit me with his best shot and I am grateful.

Scheduling the shot had been tricky. The doctors warned me I might feel some “discomfort” afterwards and would likely be uncomfortable for a day or two, but everyone stressed the urgency of getting it done.  So I ended up having the procedure just hours before I was supposed to attend an Egyptian cooking class at The Pantry at Delancey.

I told you how much I admired journalist Annia Ciezadlo for dodging gunfire in Beirut to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked.  Discomfort or no discomfort, there was no way I was missing this class.

Words can’t begin to describe what a wonderful antidote it was to the clinical procedure I had endured.  If people resemble food, then teacher Sureyya Gokeri is the best bowl of sweet, spicy noodles you’ve ever tasted.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a comforting cup of sahlab, the warm, cardamom-infused “intimacy drink,” that is sold by street vendors during Middle Eastern winters.  It’s normally thickened with the starchy ground bulb of an orchid ground to powder form, but Sureyya taught us to make a version using cornstarch.

Here are some other highlights from the class:

Muhammara: Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses

Fuliyya: Fava beans with Chard

Pomegranate-Glazed White Fish

Tamar Al Ghiraybah Mamoul: Date-Stuffed Semolina Cookies

And, my favorite new must-have kitchen item:

Mamoul mold

The next morning, I felt more than a little “discomfort,” but had a raging craving for Parsi Eggs, courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey, who, along with Claudia Roden, is one of my favorite cookbook authors.  And as the day wore on, and my headache and neckache intensified, I remembered Sureyya’s sahlab.  I happened to have a box of the instant stuff.

Though not as good as the real deal, it made me feel better.

I spent the rest of that blustery Seattle weekend in bed reading Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder.  Thanks to the pain I was in, and the altered state brought about by my pain medication, I was able to intensely connect with this tale of intrigue in the Amazonian jungle. Without my contact lenses in, I could even pretend that the raccoon cavorting in my next door neighbor’s tree was really a sloth.   

When my mother was dying, I made big pots of congee, which sustained us whenever we could manage to eat.  The Thanksgiving that everyone (except me) had the stomach flu, I soothed them with bowls of chicken donburi.

We eat pho and Armenian Chicken Soup when we have colds, and Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce with onions and butter over pasta when life gets to be too much.

Every culture has its version of comfort food and I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface.

I would love to hear about your favorites.

Sometimes words can be as comforting as food, and sharing stories can be particularly nourishing.  Seattle friends, take note: On Tuesday, March 20, I will be participating in the inaugural Ballard Spoken Word Live Storytelling Event.  

I’m honored to share the stage with my fellow Ballard Writers Collective authors Joshua McNichols, Ingrid Ricks, Peggy Sturdivant and Jay Craig.  They will share ghost stories, tales of love and unexpected friends lost and found, a new way of seeing and a new take on religion.  I’ll be sharing my parenting philosophy:  “The Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother.”

The next morning, I’m having my second epidural steroid shot.  

When my fellow performers express concerns about stage fright, I’m able to share this perspective about performing without notes in front of a live audience:

 “It’s better than a poke in the neck with a sharp needle.”

Here’s how I’ll be finding comfort afterwards:

Sureyya’s Sahlab

makes 4-6 servings

2 T cornstarch

1/2 cup water

4 cups milk

3 T sugar

1/2 t ground cardamom or 2 broken cardamom seeds

1/2 t vanilla or to taste

Claudia Roden’s recipe includes an optional 2 t of rose or orange flower water.  Sureyya mentions vanilla later in the recipe, but the copy I have neglects to give the amount in the ingredients list.

Toppings:

1 t ground cinnamon

1 t nutmeg

2 T chopped pistachios

1 T unsweetened, shredded coconut

Combine cornstarch and 1/2 c water in a small bowl and stir well. Add milk to a saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat.  Stir in cornstarch mixture before milk warms, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps.  Cook over very low heat, stirring continuously, until milk thickens (approximately 10 minutes).  Then, stir in sugar, cardamom, rose or orange blossom water and/or vanilla. Increase heat and let boil for two minutes.

Serve hot or warm in coffee cups. Sureyya, who is originally from Turkey, says her mother refrigerates this and the family eats it like a pudding.

Parsi Spicy Scrambled Eggs (Ekoori)

(from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking)  Serves 4

3 T unsalted butter or vegetable oil or ghee

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 t peeled, finey grated ginger

1/2-1 fresh, hot green chili, finely chopped

1 T finely chopped cilanto

1/8 t ground turmeric

1/2 t ground cumin

1 small tomato, peeled and chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan. Saute onion until soft.  Add ginger, chili, cilantro, turmeric, cumin and tomato.  Cook for 3-4 minutes until tomatoes are soft.  Pour in beaten eggs.  Salt and pepper lightly and scramble to desired consistency.

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.