Friday, January 31, 2014

An Irish Oatmeal Blessing

I recently experienced a little bit of food Nirvana in a place I never would have expected: The Au Bon Pain that’s located in the lobby of Boston Children’s Hospital.

It was Friday morning, and I’d been holed up in my daughter, Chloe’s, hospital room for days, barely leaving her side since she had major spinal cord surgery on Tuesday. 

A quiet was blanketing the hospital; it was the kind of calm, still, hush that comes with early morning snowfall. Outside, a winter storm was busy dumping more than a foot of snow on the city. For once, Chloe was sleeping soundly. For once, no nurse was hurrying into the room to take her temperature or give her morphine. 

And for the first time in days, I found myself unafraid. It had been such a long three days of Chloe being miserable, sick, feverish, in pain, sleeping fitfully, panicking and calling for me if I strayed too far from her bedside. I’d even been sleeping next to her in her hospital bed. But Chloe had finally turned a corner, and seemed to be getting better. And now, I was awake, and it was white-out quiet. Was I the only person awake in the hospital? In the whole, snowy city? 

My husband slept on a pull-out bed; the snowstorm had closed his office for the day. I got out of bed, and Chloe stayed asleep. I tiptoed around, and Chloe stayed asleep. I touched things gingerly like they would break in my hands, and Chloe stayed asleep. I could’ve clomped around like an elephant: She was absolutely, positively, mouth-hanging-open asleep.  

It was about 6:45 am. Did I dare leave the room to get a coffee and breakfast at Au Bon Pain in the lobby? I roused Brian enough to tell him where I was going. Then I grabbed my wallet, cell phone, glasses, and a thick novel, and practically ran out of the room. I stabbed the elevator button with nervous excitement. 

Escape to pastry heaven
Downstairs, bundled-up doctors and nurses arrived in heavy, snow-dusted coats and hats for their 7:00 am shifts. The floor was wet from snow being tracked inside, and puddles formed where people stood for too long, like in front of the coffee carafes at Au Bon Pain. 

I loaded a tray with freshly squeezed orange juice; a flaky, sweet-cheese croissant; a cup of French roast coffee; and a steaming bowl of steel-cut Irish oatmeal topped with brown sugar and a drizzle of maple syrup. I nestled myself into a booth with my decadent breakfast, snuggled into my sweatshirt, and got lost in my novel. I had made an escape into a warm, sweet-smelling world of pastry and coffee. I felt safe, calm, and content. And somehow, all of those feelings were concentrated into that bowl of nutty, steel-cut Irish oatmeal. It was hearty but sweet, nourishing but delicious. So warm and satisfying, and exactly what I was craving. I’ve never had a food match a feeling so closely. 

I told Brian to call me when Chloe woke up, and expected my cell phone to ring at any second. But it never did. I stayed downstairs reading and savoring my breakfast for almost two hours. When I finally finished my coffee and closed my book, I felt as refreshed as if I’d just woken up from a long, satisfying sleep.

Oatmeal made from Irish steel-cut oats isn’t like a typical bowl of oatmeal. The more familiar oats that come in paper packets or cardboard drums are rolled oats, and the oatmeal that they produce is either gluey and gloppy or watery and loose, but always an icky gray color. Irish oats look and taste more like barley, but without barley's sort of sad, tree-bark flavor. Irish oats come in a tin, and there’s only one way to cook them: Slowly. In fact the “quick” cooking method involves soaking them overnight. 

But slowly doesn’t mean difficult. Irish oats are cooked in a four-to-one ratio of water to oats; boil the water with a pinch of salt; add the oats and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally; add a bit more water if they look thirsty along the way. Eat them immediately or refrigerate for tomorrow morning (loosen them with a little milk, and they reheat beautifully in the microwave). To serve, top with anything: Dried fruit, granola, maple syrup, a sprinkling of brown sugar, slivered nuts, a splash of cream or buttermilk (a traditional topping). They’re creamy and nutty, and have a satisfying little pop when you chew them. Curled up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and bowl of warm Irish oatmeal? I can’t think of a better winter morning.

May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm on your face
And rains fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again
May god hold you in the palm of his hand

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stress baking: A primer

Some people stress-eat. Some stress-drink. Others stress-exercise. I have been known to do all three (I might be lying about doing one of them. Guess which).

But when the shit really hits the fan, I have my own crazy way of dealing with stress. I make ludicrously elaborate baked goods and care packages.

This particular coping mechanism seems to be triggered by surgery. It started in July of 2009 when the weather was hot, I was two days away from a scheduled C-section, and my feet had swelled out of every pair of shoes on earth, including a couple of huge, borrowed men’s flip-flops.

It was at this terribly uncomfortable time in my life that my dear friend, Robin, was also about to go under the knife for appendicitis, so I “sprang” (as much as a 500-weeks pregnant person can “spring”) into action. I waddled my two-bills body to the nearest liquor store and bought a bottle of Robin’s favorite Patrรณn tequila, a stack of trashy magazines, and some high-calorie treats, and put them together into a care package.
Then I had a baby and forgot to mail the package, so my mom mailed it for me.
Flash-forward a few years, and said baby is now four years old. My husband, Brian, is having surgery on his ankle, so naturally I signed up to make something for a PTA bake sale on the same day. It’s just day surgery, so I bake in the handful of hours between kissing him goodbye in front of the hospital and picking him up in his drugged-out, post-surgical haze.
Instead of baking something easy and low-stress, like cookies from store-bought dough, I insist on making Martha Stewart’s pumpkin-cream cheese whoopie pies, complete with homemade filling. I take it all a step further by individually bagging each pie in professional-looking plastic baked-goods bags, twisting them closed with pretty gold ties, and tagging them with lovely computer-printed labels that I painstakingly designed myself.
A few months later, it’s the eve of my four-year-old daughter’s spinal cord surgery, and I have a choice. I can either curl up, wailing and dry-heaving, on the bathroom floor in worried anticipation or make homemade marshmallows and graham crackers for s’mores gift boxes.
I choose the latter. Using the fabulous “Made From Scratch” cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen, I whip homemade marshmallows out of gelatin and sugar syrup, and bake homemade graham crackers in less than an hour.
Incidentally, people look at me like I have a third eye when they hear that you can make graham crackers at home. They’re worth the (very little) effort that goes into them. The hardest part about making them was finding graham flour; which is to say, it's not hard at all, since graham flour is stocked at my local grocery store with other alternate flours, like rice flour. Making homemade graham crackers is no more difficult than making your own cookies; it’s actually quite the same process as making pie dough. But unlike cookies, pie dough, or even yeast bread, homemade crackers seem to be something that people just abandoned once they became mass produced. Seriously, the homemade ones are soooo much better. (Although it turns out that Chloe doesn’t like graham crackers of any kind. She handed back the homemade one after one bite, and rejected ones that the nurses offered her as one of her first post-surgical foods. She later claimed to also dislike the word “graham.”)
But I digress. After cutting the marshmallows and graham crackers into their respective rectangles, I wrapped a stack of each in cellophane and nestled the packages into tins along with a bar of organic, stone-ground Taza Chocolate from the nearby Taza Chocolate Factory in Somerville, Massachusetts. I put thoughtful notes into each package for the two food editors that I intended to send them to. I affixed a cute little sticker that reads, "Toast (a marshmallow) to 2014."

Then my daughter had surgery, and I forgot to mail the packages.

Days later, my daughter is still in the hospital, and I'm operating on little more than stress and French Roast coffee. I dispatch my husband to the UPS store to mail the s’mores packages, forgetting that I had addressed the cards inside them to two different people. And of course, he inadvertently mailed each of the otherwise-identical packages to the wrong person. Sigh.
But really, the process of making these foods and gift packages was so much more important to me than the final outcome (although getting them to the right editor would have been nice). These projects allowed me to concentrate all my energy on a complicated task. I wasn’t pacing around the house waiting for the nurse to call after Brian got out of surgery, or wailing and dry-heaving on the bathroom floor the night before I let someone cut open my baby’s back. Instead I was rushing to bake, bag, and tag as many whoopie pies as possible in a few hours. I was worrying that the edges of my graham crackers were coming out a little too brown.

Worrying about my husband and daughter would come later. So would the pacing and the tears. But at least I had homemade whoopie pies and s'mores fixin's to stress-eat along the way.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mama the Moonshiner

A bottle of moonshine has been sitting on top of my refrigerator since early July. I’m supposed to drink it and write about it. But I’m afraid!

My stepmother’s mom, Sue, has long regaled me with stories of the jake-legged men of her Kentucky girlhood, guys whose hobbled gait gave them away as moonshiners, thanks to improperly distilled hooch’s delightful tendency to partially paralyze those who indulge.

The moonshine in my house is sold in stores, not mountain shacks. I know it won’t paralyze me. And very strictly speaking, it’s not really moonshine at all, because by the traditional definition, moonshine is illegal. And this shiz is totally legal.

But semantics aside, moonshine—un-aged, white whisky—is having a may-jah cultural moment (Exhibit A: The shirtless, toothless charmers of the Discovery Channel show, Moonshiners). After all, hipsters are already obsessed with drinking stuff out of Mason jars and sporting unkempt facial hair, so why not go whole hog and get them to knock back some moonshine, too?

That’s why when someone from Bone Spirits asked if she could give me a bottle of Fitch’s Goat Moonshine to sample and review, I truly did want to give it a try. I figured I already have lots of Mason jars rattling around the house, not to mention a chin hair that’s showing up with alarming regularity. I might just fit into the whole moonshine scene.

So I said “yes” to the sweet lady from Bone Spirits, and the moonshine arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks later. The glass bottle had a pretty, innocent-looking white ribbon tied around its neck that promised, “I’m friendly. I won’t kill you.” (I bet smallpox blankets looked pretty cozy at first, too. Ha! Joking!)

That was in July. Now it's January, and that bottle of moonshine is still sitting on top of my fridge, collecting dust. Who am I kidding? I turn into a loud-talker after single glass of wine, confess my darkest secrets after two, and barf after three. I’m no moonshiner.

But my four-year-old had spinal cord surgery on New Year’s Eve, so I guess if there was ever a time when mama needed a shot of white lightning, it’s probably now.

I wait for my husband to get home before taking the plunge.

NOTE TO SPOUSES: If your woman is standing at the ready with a bottle of moonshine and an empty shot glass the second you walk through the door, wait an extra five minutes before putting on your comfy pants and give her a quick backrub. The local authorities will thank you.  

I pull the bottle down from the fridge. I pour it in a shot glass and shudder. It smells like paint thinner, but I soldier on. I swallow about a tablespoon of it and yell and punch the air involuntarily. Yipes! I can trace its hot path all the way down my throat. And yet I’m visited by an inexplicable urge to have another sip. Good golly! One more! It might go down like fire, but sure dang-it, it gets the job done.

Not interested in shooting straight white whisky? Try the Sour Goat cocktail, recipe courtesy of Bone Spirits:

1½ oz. Fitch’s Goat Moonshine
½ oz. fresh squeezed Lime
½ oz. fresh squeezed Lemon
½ oz. fresh squeezed Orange
¾ oz. simple syrup

Shake over ice
Strain and serve on ice