I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. -Henry David Thoreau (On Walden Pond)
When people find out that my car of choice is a pickup truck, they’re always a little surprised. “You drive a pickup truck? I just don’t see it,” they’ll say, giving me a searching glance. I’ll be the first to admit that somebody who loves pink, feels more comfortable in heels than sneakers and who turns her nose up at beer (at least, most beer) is not a person I would imagine as the pickup driving kind, but there you have it: life is full of such wonderful little surprises. The simple truth about my preference is that I learned to drive in a pickup truck and I learned to love the height; being in a car now seems wrong–lacking somehow. I don’t really drive that often here in California, but, recently, I’ve found myself dreaming of a little pickup truck and either a cabin in the woods (preferably in Maine) or a small house in New Mexico (think Georgia O’Keefe, but without the artistic skills or, even better, Deborah Madison after Greens. If only!).
Beyond the fact that I long ago fell in love with the idea of both Maine and New Mexico (and I’ve since been to the former, but never to the latter), I can’t really say why this is emerging as my fantasy life. I suspect that it’s connected to what I envision as the epitome of simplicity, as well as a means of stepping back from the hectic pace of modern life: being surrounded by natural (relatively untouched) beauty with a small garden in the backyard and a peace and quiet that you just don’t get in graduate school. Yes, naturally, this is connected to my dream of the Great Escape–from the almost frenetic need to publish (or perish) to the emails about grades (yes, they’ve already begun). I often imagine a world in which there were few distractions. I could read and cook to my heart’s content, take long walks… Some of my friends say I would be both miserable and bored in this imaginary life, but I suppose the pickup truck part of the fantasy stems from my knowing that I’d need companionship and civilization sometimes. Even Thoreau, off at Walden Pond, would leave his bucolic existence behind sometimes and go to town.
My escapist dreams were with me almost all this week. Despite my career choice, I can’t say I’ve ever cared all that much for the genre of the academic talk and, during the one on Monday, I found myself a thousand miles away, mainly thinking about what I would make for dinner. Then, on Wednesday, I was feeling the burden of having to perform–i.e. convey knowledge enthusiastically and dynamically (the more I think about it, I did fulfill my childhood dream of becoming an actress; this field just lacks Academy Awards)–at 8 a.m. Although I like my new class a lot and often find teaching to be the best thing about my job, it can also be a really draining experience. So, by the time I packed up my bag and headed to the bus stop in the early afternoon, I was more than ready to leave the academic world behind for a few hours when I got home.
I wanted to make something different, really different–the kind of thing I might eat on a regular basis in my fantasy life in Maine or New Mexico. I remembered an article I had found on Twitter earlier in the week about “great summer cookbooks” by Amy Scattergood, which was full of culinary things worth coveting and of recipes that sounded more than good enough to include on my ever-growing list of things to cook. But what really caught my eye was the link to what Scattergood called her “all-time favorite recipe,” courtesy of Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors: zhough (I believe it’s pronounced j-eew-g, although I can’t confess to be proficient in the Yemeni dialect of Arabic) , a Yemeni chile pesto with cumin, cardamom, caraway seeds and black peppercorns. Clearly, with chiles on the menu, it was going to be more a New Mexico kind of day than a Maine one.
And so, with the dog on her blanket happily chewing a rawhide, I gathered the peppers left over from our Mexican feast, the spices and the all-important pair of latex gloves (removing the seeds from spicy peppers can be a bit of a painful experience if you aren’t careful to protect your skin) and set about bringing the wonder that is zhough into my life. By the time I was done, my nose was tingling and my lips, too; the air itself seemed to crackle with the intensity of the heat contained in one small bowl. Elektra was also oddly drawn to this heat, licking a few seeds from the peppers off of the floor before I could stop her; I honestly think she comported herself better than I would have if our positions had been reversed. While I expected a whimper of pain to emerge from her tiny mouth, followed by a dash for water, all she did was sit down calmly and lick her lips for a few minutes, as if trying to figure out what had happened to her. And I think that’s what trying zhough does to you: it makes you wonder what just happened to your mouth. Your tongue really doesn’t know how to unpack the layers of spice it’s confronted with.
This is the time to confess that I usually steer clear of hot peppers, not liking my food to be so spicy that it’s inedible or so overwhelmed by any one flavor profile. With zhough, however, it was different. It was spicy all right and in that way that makes you foolishly reach for your water glass even though you know it won’t help (note: intuitive dog knowledge trumps human knowledge). But I liked it. Its blend of things spicy and peppery is nothing short of amazing; it packs a zing and then follows with a punch. In short, I would call it the sriracha of pesto, but earthier and more textured: it can be incorporated into almost any meal and will, like all good condiments, always improve upon the flavor. I was sorry I hadn’t had it last weekend to spruce up the rather sad and bland tomato sauce that I had made. And for Wednesday’s dinner, I was oh so glad that I did. Following Amy Scattergood’s advice to pair it with quinoa, arugula and feta, I created a recipe that allowed zhough’s heat to shine, while also tempering its more prickly tendencies with a basic vinaigrette of lime juice, minimal olive oil and a heaping tablespoon of plain yogurt. I’m including recipes for both.
By the end of the meal, it already felt like I had made my great escape. And I fully intend that, during other rough moments (the occasional bland dinner included) this semester, I’ll be sure to escape with zhough again. Its heat is just plain distracting and sometimes all you need is a little distraction to improve your mood and take you one step closer to your fantasy life of cacti and desert blooms.
Yields a small bowl of pesto, but keep in mind that a little goes a long way
Adapted, just barely, from Amy Scattergood/Deborah Madison
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
4.25 ounces chiles (I used a combination of jalapeños and serranos)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (leaves only)
1/2 cup cilantro (leaves only)
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
a few shakes of sea salt
about 2 teaspoons olive oil (to moisten the chile paste)
-Toast the peppercorns, cumin seeds and caraway seed over high heat in a small skillet, removing them only when they start to pop. Then, grind in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
-Remove the seeds from the chiles by slicing them down the middle. Then you can either run a knife along the inside edge of the pepper to remove the seeds, or pull out the membrane with the seeds by hand (I find the latter method to be easier than the former, but gloves are essential for this step).
-Place the peppers, ground spices, Italian parsley and cilantro leaves, peeled garlic in a food processor and blend until finely chopped and well combined.
-Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and add the olive oil; then, pulse again until well blended.
-Store tightly wrapped in the refrigerator and use whenever your food is in need of spicy inspiration.
Quinoa with Arugula, Feta, Lime Vinaigrette and Zhough
Makes about four servings
Inspired by Amy Scattergood
juice of one lime, plus bits of pulp for additional flavor
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon plain yogurt
1 cup quinoa, rinsed thoroughly and cooked according to package instructions
1 large handful arugula
3-4 ounces Feta
3 small spoonfuls of zhough
-Whisk together the lime juice, pulp, olive oil and yogurt in a small bowl.
-Place the cooked quinoa in a large bowl and stir in a large handful of arugula until it has wilted.
-Mix in the lime vinaigrette and the feta.
-Top with three dollops of zhough, swirling them around the top of the quinoa to spread the spicy flavor.