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.

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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.

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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.

What would Bertrand Russell say?

Snow geese in the Skagit Valley

Snow geese in the Skagit Valley

April already? Before I go any further, I want you to know that I have fulfilled all but one of my New Year’s resolutions. I started and maintained a diet. I had a mammogram. I had a colonoscopy for Pete’s sake and, as icing on the cake, a CT scan and ultrasound to boot. And, I wrote my last installment of this blog on January 31, which is pretty much February, so technically two months, not three, have elapsed. But there’s no escaping the fact that I didn’t fulfill the resolution to write this blog once a month.

I didn’t think anyone but me had noticed, but then my friend Peggy said something. Peggy is one of those super-involved, super-organized people, who does a million things, including writing a weekly column for our neighborhood newspaper. Peggy is from New England. She’s one of those pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no whining kind of people. Recently, Peggy successfully lobbied the producers of the David Letterman show to allow her 80 year-old mother a spot in the studio audience before Dave rides off into the sunset. Peggy started a new organization to combat the out-of-control development in our neighborhood. Peggy gets shit done. I have disappointed Peggy and for that I am truly sorry.

Seen on a dry, 60 degree Seattle day. Was Boston selling off its surplus signs?

Seen on a dry, 60 degree Seattle day. Was Boston selling off its surplus signs?

In my defense, we have been living through what I think of as the winter of our discontent. This is not weather-related for, here in the Seattle area where we like to ski, this winter the big complaint was not enough snow, unlike the concerns of our friends back East.

Our discontent has been lifestyle-related — a knock-you-for-a-loop potential change that sent us scurrying to California contemplating a move.

In February, the principal of Daughter #2’s middle school, about to embark on a sabbatical, sent this quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell out to families: “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Do a little sleuthing and you’ll discover that Bertrand Russell had a lot of provocative things to say. I suspect  (and have since confirmed) that Daughter #1 would appreciate this quote: “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” As the mother of two teenagers, I feel compelled to beg to differ. (And I highly recommend you read this evocative description of the sea change that happens when you raise teens.)

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But the quote about not taking things for granted, well, we lived and breathed that quote. Jeff had a job offer in California. Our family pendulum swung from “there’s no way we’re moving” to “maybe we could have a better house and better weather (we hadn’t considered California’s drought) and escape all the Seattle construction and traffic.” The next thing you know, we were on a plane to check things out. It was, I might add, the day after my colonoscopy. I’d kept myself busy during the fasting and prep periods by researching real estate and schools. Jeff was incredulous that I would choose to have a colonoscopy during such a stressful time, but that’s how I roll. Not a lot of people would say this, but I can honestly say that the colonoscopy was the high point of my week.

During the White Food Diet I was required to follow prior to the fast and cleanse, I indulged in two items of note: French toast made with King’s Hawaiian Sweetbread — a family favorite introduced to us years ago by my mother after many sojourns visiting my brother and family at their Maui home — and labneh, basically strained Greek yoghurt which is great as a spread for pita bread, especially if you garnish it with za’atar and sumac. This after a few weeks of very controlled, mostly vegetarian, mostly Ottolenghi eating, which was my way of controlling my life, which seemed to be spiraling out of control.  “Mom is starving us,” my daughters complained to their father, who was out of town. “She only makes spicy rabbit food.”

The post-colonoscopy meal washed down with a sense of humor.

The post-colonoscopy meal washed down with a sense of humor.

And then, just like that it was over. The White Food Diet, the fast, the colonoscopy, the California possibility and winter. We came home, back to our lives, a few new condominiums that had sprung up across the street from us seemingly overnight, and to spring.

spring

Though I appreciate it more now that I’m older, spring has always been my least favorite season. It confuses me and makes me nervous. Unlike summer, which has a devil-may- care feel to it, accompanied by margaritas and guacamole, spring has expectations that I don’t feel I can meet. It always takes me a while to find my footing in spring and this one has had many false starts.

That’s where the Corpse Reviver #2s come in.

corpse reviver

 

Jeff and I were introduced to them a little over a week ago, courtesy of our classy friends G and C, and they have given shape to spring. Last weekend, I whipped up some Corpse Revivers and I cooked, reveling in lemons and herbs and asparagus and fava beans and all of the lighter, sharper flavors that, like spring and the sunshine that comes with it, bring life into focus.

The snow is beginning to clear in the East, in our minds, in our lives.

Bertrand Russell spoke of his personal vision — to allow moments of insight to provide wisdom during mundane times. Spring is a little like that, providing a sneak peak of clarity just when you need it most.

Anacortes