If you pay attention to such things, you may have noticed that many books and movies, before launching into their primary narrative, have a little section–a preamble or voiceover, depending on the medium–that sets up the scene. In scholarly terms, this is called “framing”; in more everyday parlance, it’s known as “setting the scene.” Regardless of what you want to call it, it’s the thing foremost in my mind these days when I look out the back window onto my little rented yard on the border of Maryland and Delaware. I can’t look out there without thinking how all of my troubles began when the men arrived with their bulldozers, massive drains, and haphazard plans to (supposedly) prevent the yards behind this row of houses from turning into miniature lakes each and every time it rained or snowed. Truly, if I had known then what I know now, I never would have encouraged my landlord to approve this yard renovation.
And what precisely do I know now? Far from an individual experienced in the ways of landscaping, I hadn’t quite realized that attempting to renovate a yard in the winter was, in short, probably a really bad idea. What had before seemed a relatively smooth surface with a few puddly blemishes is now pockmarked from top to bottom; the beagle can no longer go outside since, for the past two Fridays, she has gone out to return to the house only as Miss Muddy Paws. This alone would have been manageable, but two Fridays ago, while the Greek was off interviewing at another campus, the beagle was attempting to escape, which meant I had to give chase. I don’t know about you, but Friday mornings are usually something to relish…unless you find yourself sinking into muddy quicksand, having to pull yourself out by grabbing onto a fence, and losing a shoe to mud that has a life force of its own in the process. The Greek didn’t necessarily believe that it was as bad as I had described until he too was confronted with an on-the-run beagle (a ginger cat, her arch-nemesis, likes to leave his scent in our yard to drive her crazy) and was forced to take action. After he jumped the fence and pursued our cat-obsessed animal in the neighbor’s waterlogged yard, it now looks like it was visited by Bigfoot’s little brother.
Of course, mud alone can be washed away. As I write this, the beagle’s legs are again white, the mud has been soaked out of the Greek’s pajama pants, and my shoes have been both recovered and cleaned. The real tragedy in all of this is not the moat surrounding our house (a failed moat, in any case, since the feline enemy is still finding a way in), but the fact that the general destruction of the yards has led to our neighbor walking her dog every morning. While this may seem a rather innocuous thing–and it should be–imagine a tiny, anxious black curly creature being taken on morning walks at 6:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, and yipping every inch of the way as he and his owner walk around the circle. High-pitched in its nervous intensity, his little bark could cut through glass, which it basically does when it rouses me, the Greek, Elektra, and only God knows who else. Even worse, the beagle naturally can’t resist this animal’s cri de coeur and joins in with her own. The Greek chimes in with one of two options: “Death to dogs!” or “Death to beagles!” Me, I just pull the covers over my head and think of the neighbor, who after years of simmering over who knows what behavior, finally launched himself at Rand Paul after Paul finished mowing his lawn. To distract myself from reenactment fantasies, or at the very least, from leaving a muzzle outside her front door, I mentally calculate when we will be moving. The where hardly matters anymore. Just give me an end date, something akin to closure.
At the beginning of the year, I was certain–no, more than certain–that 2018 was going to be, if not our year, then at least a better year than 2017. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting anything miraculous, either: just a job for the Greek and forward motion in our lives. Certainly, these things are still be in the cards (two interviews to go and several pending hiring decisions), but the waiting has become rather unbearable. I’m not prone to any kind of paranoia or anxiety, but in the overwhelming post-interview silence, it’s easy to experience both. It’s also strange because, when this comes up in conversation with anybody, I’m referred to as “a tag-along wife” or as “being on the sidelines.” While I obviously don’t think of myself in those terms–are not all spouses tag-alongs in one way or another? Is that not the nature of marriage?–let us not forget that, although technically on the sidelines, there is still a massive emotional investment on the part of any spouse, male or female, whose partner is looking for a job. Wives and women may often be relegated to a secondary role, but they do contribute to the success of the men around them (how many times did Sofia Andreevna Tolstoy copy out War and Peace for old misognystic Lev? Eight times and this was, of course, by hand.).
Adding to the “what-ifs” surrounding our future, the first curveball of 2018 has officially arrived. It came, as curveballs often do, with little warning of any kind and has left in its wake a whole host of additional “what ifs,” these relating to health and diet. The long and short of it is that my grandma, beloved and long a fixture in my life, has to have open-heart surgery. Anything involving the word surgery is frightening enough, but add to it “heart,” “open,” and “81 years old,” and it suddenly gains magnitude. As with all things, however, all one can do is wait and see, watch and wait, be patient. The platitudes are many, although the comforts they offer slim.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in times of trouble, one can only occupy one’s hands as a way of distracting the overactive mind. This sentiment may not be as eloquent as Jane Austen’s about men with fortunes needing wives, but the idea at its core is sound.
These days life is highly regimented: Monday Pottery, Tuesday Yoga, Thursday Booty Barre (yes, the name of this is ridiculous, but there are worse things in this life than doing plies as Bruno Mars blares over the sound system even if there’s something highly ironic about torturing your body to the sounds of ‘That’s What I Like.”), which in and of itself can be reassuring. When I’m not looking at my ruby red toes through a curtain of rapidly greying hair, I’m cooking like my very life depends on it. Mainly because I enjoy it, but also because there’s something nice about having things like Kim Boyce’s Sweet Potato Muffins in the freezer (having anything tucked away for a rainy day is the ultimate way of being kind to yourself). Possibly even better than having the muffins ready for any eventual muffin and/or sweet potato craving is the great satisfaction you can experience after finally using up that 8-pound bag of sweet potatoes that, during a hungry Costco run, seemed like a really good idea.
That’s the thing about liking to experiment in the kitchen: you surround yourself with ingredients you might use, but then find yourself drowning in perishable produce, jars of coriander and Nigella seeds, small colorful tins of fish. What to use first? Your intentions might be good, but then you fall victim to a craving for food that you tried long ago in Russia and that, oddly enough, now seems to be part of the latest culinary craze.
This is what happened to me a few weeks ago when I picked up Carla Capalbo’s masterful Tasting Georgia (the country, not the state); as eager as I was to open it and try my hand at khachapuri (cheese bread), I was somewhat bemused to see a blurb from Rene Redzepi on the cover, telling readers that this was one of the “last undiscovered great food cultures of Europe.” The man may not be wrong, but anybody who has ever been to Russia walks away from the experience waxing poetic about the khachapuri, pounded eggplant stuffed with walnut paste, lobio (beans), plump khinkali (Georgian dumplings); if you don’t believe me, it’s no accident that the first English-language cookbook devoted to Georgian cuisine was written by Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at Williams College; we don’t need Redzepi’s endorsement. That said, this blurb shouldn’t turn you off from the encyclopedic book, which is more a study of regional Georgian cooking with recipes than a cookbook–at least according to our modern definition of cookbooks as vehicles for glossy photography and short, recipe-forward footnotes. It will not only lead you down the khachapuri rabbit hole, but also allow you to execute whichever version–egg on top! boat-shaped! cheese both on top of and inside the bread!–your heart should desire with aplomb.
To accompany the pure decadence of khachapuri, I made the leeks (prasi) with walnut paste (nigvzis sakmazi), which, while good, didn’t quite do it for me. I love leeks and I love the combination of herbs mixed with ground walnuts, garlic and chilli, so it’s hard to say what was underwhelming about it. I suspect that it was that the leeks were boiled rather than sautéed; like most Americans, I find it hard to get behind the blandness of boiled vegetables. And, of course, although the leeks themselves were gone in two days, there was still almost a full cup of walnut paste to use up. While I initially thought it would languish in the fridge until I decided to make another Georgian recipe, I had a flash of inspiration when foraging one day for lunch. There is a leek and feta omelet recipe in Diana Henry’s Simple that I often make on foraging days when I have both eggs and leeks handy; it is tasty and, as the title of her book promises, oh so simple to throw together. I started to wonder if I could Georgia-nize this recipe, using up some of the walnut paste by mixing it with a mild and creamy goat cheese (much less salty than feta) and sprinkling it over the sautéed leeks. The answer, as it turns out, is yes. This, at least while the walnut paste lasts, has become my favorite impromptu lunch. The creamy tanginess of the goat cheese seems like it was created only to be paired with the textured herbal notes of Georgian walnut paste and, when combined with the most elegant of the allium family, the whole thing rings with the perfection of Beethoven’s final symphony. While the superior flavor of the dish speaks for itself, it’s also a testament to the best kind of cooking: simple and personal–a composite of staple pantry items, the desire to use up things in the fridge, and two recipes from disparate cookbooks fusing into one dish. On no front does it get better than this. More importantly, there’s nothing quite like a good meal to place you firmly in the here and now.
Omelet with Leeks, Goat Cheese and Georgian Walnut Paste
For the walnut paste:
Makes about 1 cup
Adapted from Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia
1 1/2 cups (5 oz/150 g) walnut halves or pieces
3 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp ground coriander or crushed coriander seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp mint, chopped (you can substitute dried)
3 tbsp chopped cilantro
1 tsp dill, chopped (you can substitute dried)
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup water
Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until evenly chopped and well mixed. Alternatively, this can be made with a mortar and pestle, but that’s going to require some additional arm strength.
Store tightly wrapped in the refrigerator or freeze in small batches, wrapped first in plastic and then in foil to prevent freezer burn.
When using, it’s typical to loosen the paste with water to make a sauce, although the paste can also be mixed into salad dressings or in the case of the recipe below, mixed with the goat cheese. For a cheese plate, a log of goat cheese could also be rolled in the walnut paste to give it an extra layer of flavor.
For the omelet:
Inspired by Diana Henry’s Leek and Feta Omelet with Sumac in Simple
For one person, one leek is more than enough, but I find that when I make this, I usually sauté two, since, if I’m cleaning one leek, I might as well clean two and set some aside–either for another omelet or pasta or quiche. Really, the options are endless.
I also couldn’t resist, although sumac has nothing to do with Georgian food, still adding some to the finished product. Call it a desire for color or simply one to use up my jar of sumac, but its lemony flavor is more than welcome.
1 tbsp olive oil
2 leeks (10 ounces/290 g), white and light green parts only
1/4 tsp kosher salt
about 1/2 tbsp (.2 ounces/5 g) unsalted butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten + a little salt and pepper
2 ounces (about 1/3 cup) crumbled goat cheese
2 heaping tbsp (1 ounce/30 g) Georgian walnut paste
sumac, for sprinkling
Clean the leeks carefully, cutting a slit lengthwise into each of them and holding them under a cool stream of water. Make sure to check their base, since sandy dirt can hide there. Dry off, then first cut into rounds and then again in half.
Pour the oil into a nonstick skillet and heat on medium. Once the oil is hot, add the leek. After about a minute, add the salt and continue to sauté for about 5-6 minutes, or until the leek has softened, but not colored. Scrape the leeks into a small bowl and return the skillet to the burner.
Lower the heat to medium low, then return the skillet to the burner, adding the butter. Once the butter has melted, add the eggs. Let them firm up a little, then scrape the uncooked bits to the side of the pan. Once almost fully cooked (the base will be firm, but the eggs on top still a little runny), cover the skillet for about 30-45 seconds, then remove the eggs from the heat.
Spoon about 3 tablespoons of the cooked leeks over the half the omelet, then add the crumbled goat cheese. Using your fingers, scatter the walnut paste over the top. Fold the other half of the omelet on top and then transfer to a plate. Sprinkle with sumac or with additional black pepper.
Serve and enjoy while hot.