Sunday, November 20, 2011

dealing with it

I have had a

totally. insane. week.

I knew coming into it it was going to be a very BUSY week, due to work.  I am normally part-time but since my direct supervisor is in Thailand on holiday and it is the busiest week of the year for our food bank and food banks in general, I was expected to work full time and step into her (frighteningly capable) shoes.

I was planning a very low key weekend prior to the serious feat of organization that was coordinating deliveries for holiday meals, extra food for extra days, extra donations, packing responsibilities, working with volunteers, blah blah blah, work work work. That didn’t actually happen.

Instead, after a rather disconcerting visit with my grandmother in which she woke up and looked me in the eye but uttered no words, I heard from my dad and his family that she was no longer accepting food and drink and wasn’t expected to last more than a few days.

That turned out to be one day. Expecting Sunday to go to my grandmother’s room and spend time with my family and all deal with her imminent passing, instead I got a phone call from my aunt that it had already happened.

I”d already made baked goods for the family bonding day I’d envisioned… so not knowing what else to do, I brought them.

Autumn Glory Muffins, which contain green tomatoes.

They are inarguably green.


Which, I mean, IS my favorite color.


And pretty tasty. My aunt said it “kind of tastes like a bran muffin… Yeah, Ileana, these are pretty weird.” But my dad ate two, hahahaha.

Things stayed relatively calm until 6 am Wednesday, which was 5 am in New Orleans, where my sister goes to college. She rang to announce that despite being treated with intravenous fluids, Tylenol, and Phenergen the previous day for what her campus health service had diagnosed as a stomach flu exacerbated by stress, she had woken up with a fever and horrible abdominal pain. My mom told her to go to the hospital.

A few hours of uncertain diagnosis later, a CT scan confirmed that she had appendicitis and needed surgery imminently.

Thus my Wednesday afternoon was spent frantically trying to book my mother a flight the week before Thanksgiving while she frantically tried to wrap things up at work to get to New Orleans. A word to the wise: don’t try to use Expedia when you’re trying to find a flight in less than eight hours. They post those flights but don’t actually let you book those flights, as the useless customer service representative being paid some god-awful wage in a developing country informed me when I called them.

But make it she did. And it’s sort of a relief to have a task to distract yourself and help someone out.

I buckled down and gritted my teeth through the rest of the busy week. Holiday deliveries actually went very smoothly and I was proud of the work I did.

And so Saturday arrived.

I woke up after some mediocre sleep despite having taken Nyquil the previous evening. Cheered myself up with a trip to the farmer’s market, mentally planning recipes to nourish my recovering sister and I’m sure exhausted mom upon their return.

Later in the day, I headed out to be with my dad’s family. Lacking any religious background, they decided to do a simple tea at her friend’s home as a memorial for my grandmother.

I brought the best banana bread in the world (in my recipes tab!) and let it be noted that you can cut down sugar to 1/2 a cup, make half the flour white-whole-wheat, and sub ground flax for 1/3 of the oil and it is equally delicious.

And spending time together was nice.


Life is what it is. When it rains, it pours.

Things coming in are mixed- what looked like progress yesterday seemed to go backwards today when my poor sister had to go back on morphine because her pain was so awful.

Flights are up in the air (hah look at me being punny), who knows what Thanksgiving will look like.

If you are lucky, in these situations, you feel grateful. You feel grateful for the people to whom you are close (even if not we are not geographically so). You realize that money, jobs, plans, are just not that important; and when the big stuff happens all you want is for the people you love to be all right. You want to tell them you love them and you want to help them however you can.

For example, my mom is on a bit of a mission: she’s been making daily trips to a juice bar down the street from the hospital to try and find something to entice my sister, who’s still on a liquid diet. (Thus far, they’ve all made her feel sicker :( Ugh, my poor sis. Being nauseous is the worst).

On that walk, my mom passes a pet store where there are three adorable black and white kittens in the front window. Her mission (and yo: if there is anyone who happens to know a guy at the pet store near Ochsner Baptist Hospital, you let me know!) is to get some adorable kittens in to cheer up my sister.

When I’m stressed I tend to reread books I love; one of my favorites is Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl. She was previously the editor of Gourmet and is a wonderful cook and writer. Her book reminds me of how integral cooking and food can be to someone’s life.

It’s how you nourish the people you love, it’s how you nourish yourself, it’s one of nature’s most simple coping mechanisms (as evidenced by my need to eat large quantities of chocolate chips and pecans with the latest less-than-stellar update from the hospital).

So last night my boyfriend, whom I love, came over, and I cooked.

It tasted great. We talked. It’ll all be okay.

Being in the period 40 days before Christmas (known as Advent), my church has entered a meatless fasting period. But I still wanted comfort food.

What is more comforting than gravy?! So vegetarian (actually vegan, as is this whole recipe) gravy, which I began by sauteeing mushrooms, onions, and garlic…


Reconstituting dried shiitake mushrooms to make a broth…


Thickening with flour…


And enriching with seasonings to make a rich gravy.


Meanwhile, some unphotogenic ingredients whirred together in my food processor to make a shockingly tasty and easy-to-work-with meat substitute.


I was initially suspicious that this would cook properly, since it was QUITE sticky. But I scooped it with a cookie scoop (one of my favorite kitchen tools! But a spoon would certainly work too, though I recommend spraying it with cooking spray).  

I then cooked up cookie-sized scoops of the mix on my griddle, flipping them around for even browning on all sides. They actually were INCREDIBLY easy to work with and told me when they were ready for me to flip them :D


And voila! Tofu “meatballs”! Don’t they look bizarrely real?!


Though you certain won’t fool anyone into thinking this is meat, I didn’t consider that the point of this recipe when I made it. What I wanted was just to make something yummy, filling, and comforting, which I did. The meatballs have a great flavor from the garlic and parsley; a nice texture from the almonds, some of which stayed in little chunks that make for an unexpected and pleasant crunch; and a nice meatiness from the tofu and soy sauce.

And the gravy was great. Gravy is always great. And this is guiltless gravy!

I genuinely love cooking for Steve; he has such appreciation for when I get a little eccentric and creative in my food experiments. I am also pleased that I’ve figured out that I can send him away from my dinner table full! It just takes some extra carbs.

This particular evening, I took a cue from my mother (and her mother) and cooked him up some orzo in browned butter. Not as good as theirs, but is brown butter ever bad?


Adding to the adorability of fake “meatballs”, I also made some fake “spaghetti” out of spaghetti squash.

Along with a simple but lovely salad of farmer’s market greens with a simple parsley vinaigrette.


In the week’s final tragedy, I knew that my immune system would prefer if I did NOT enjoy a glass of wine with this beautiful meal. But, I slept for nine blissful Nyquil-induced hours last night and am cautiously optimistic this cold may not turn full blown. So… it was worth it.

Anyway, this meal was pretty great on its own.


Tofu “Meatballs” with Mushroom “Gravy”

3 T or so dried shiitake mushrooms (or other dried mushrooms; or just use more fresh mushrooms and use vegetable broth instead of mushroom broth)
1 cup or so boiling water
1 fresh mushroom
1/6 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tsp. oil
1 T or so flour
2 or 3 T ketchup
1 tsp or so Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tsp or so balsamic vinegar

Cover dried mushrooms with hot water to rehydrate mushrooms and make a mushroom “broth” In a food processor, blend fresh mushroom, onion, and garlic until finely minced. Meanwhile, preheat a small frying pan to medium heat. Put oil in pan, and stir and fry mushroom, onion, and garlic mixture until browned and fragrant. You may need to add the mushroom broth to prevent veggies from sticking and burning. When veggies are fragrant, add the flour and toss around until it is absorbed into the veggies and no longer visibly white and raw. Then add the mushroom “broth” and mushrooms, as well as the ketchup. Let the mixture cook until it has reached your desired thickness. Then add the mustard and vinegar to taste (adjusting flavors as you wish), and keep warm to serve over the meatballs.

7 oz or so silken tofu, pressed by wrapping it in a clean kitchen towel and putting a heavy pot or cookbook on top of it for an hour or so
¼ cup (1 oz) almonds, toasted
½ tsp garlic powder
2 tsp. mushroom soy sauce
1/4 cup oats
¼ cup parsley leaves
1tsp. dried onion

Blend ingredients in a food processor (just rinse it out from before!) until smooth. Using a cookie scoop or a spoon (grease either with cooking spray to make scooping easier), scoop spoonfuls of the mixture onto a nonstick griddle preheated to medium high (or a nonstick frying pan, or a frying pan with oil in it; this recipe is pretty flexible). Cook, turning frequently, until “meatballs” are warmed through and brown on all sides. Serve with gravy.

Enjoy this comfort food with someone you love, and count your blessings!


1 comment:

Steven Alexander Heathcliff Basil Bert said...

Happy Thanksgiving! I've never had your mother's or grandmother's orzo, but it must be able to satisfy the Duke Gourmandy, because yours was so spankin' goooooood. You should know that your tofu meatballs have been added to my list of Ileana specialties (aka Hall of Flave) comprised namely of mango dahl, corncakes, bacon carbonara, and baklava.