Black Eyed Pea Soup For Luck and Greatness

black eyed peas

Every year I make a slightly different version of this soup. It’s always got to have black eyed peas, of course, because eating those delightful little babies on New Year’s Day brings you prosperity and luck in the whole long year to come.

Because duh. That’s a known fact. That’s just science. But the rest of the ingredients? They tend to be more of an improvisation.

As is, ultimately, the whole long year to come.

I’ve been eating much, much healthier this last little while than I have in my whole life — so much so that I’ve lost 90 pounds since July 2012 — so this year’s version is considerably lighter than the one I made last year. No salt pork, no bacon, a bit less olive oil than before. But it’s no less delicious.

Promise.

And hey, if it makes you feel any better, I totally wolfed down a massive bowl of this soup today on this fine, sunny New Year’s Day with a side of the most amazing grilled cheese sandwich, made with crusty rye bread and some sharp, sharp cheese.

Because cheese is good luck, too. Everybody knows that.

Black Eyed Pea Soup 2014

Serves 6

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

2 cups onion, diced

2 cups purple topped turnip, diced

1/2 cup uncooked brown rice

7 cups chicken or veg stock

Salt and pepper

1 15 oz can cooked black eyed peas, rinsed

6 Tbs fresh lemon juice

1 pinch ground cumin

1 bay leaf

 

Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Add the turnip, broth, rice, salt, pepper, and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 35 minutes. Add the black beans. Simmer for another 10 minutes, until the rice is cooked. Add the lemon juice and cumin and stir well. Remove the bay leaf and serve hot, preferably with some amazing crusty bread and some sharp, sharp cheese.

Adapted from the excellent, luminous, and utterly un-put-downable cookbook Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

How to Coddle an Egg

So I’m a big fan of coddled eggs. I eat them for breakfast all winter long, which means that I occasionally rhapsodize — at length and out loud — about how truly spectacular a thing coddled eggs are, which means that my friends can often be found walking around looking deeply confused when they’re with me.

I mean, that would be the case anyway. But coddled eggs are a thing. A truly spectacular thing. Trust me!

Or don’t! Why should you take my word for it? You should experience the awesomeness of a coddled egg yourself. And then you will know.

Hey, trust but verify. Right?

How to Make a Coddled Egg

A coddled egg is basically just a soft boiled egg, but one that’s been cooked in a special, egg-shaped type of porcelain container rather than in its own shell. This makes it hella easier to eat, and also allows you to have pretty little egg coddlers lying around in your cupboards, which is a thing that gives me great joy.

I mean, look at this one. So pretty!

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It’s even a Royal Worcester!

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We’re all friends here, so I know we all watch Antiques Roadshow (UK version), so  we all know right off the bat that this makes this guy really happy.

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Henry Sandon, Porcelain Expert, Royal Worcester Historian, and Chortler Extraordinaire

And since you also watch Antiques Roadshow (UK), and you’re so very much like me, you will now read the rest of this post with his adorable little chortling voice in your head. Yes sirree. That is exactly what you will do.

So where can you get your hands on your very own egg coddler? Well, I was incredibly lucky and a friend of mine sent me this amazing egg coddler, totally out of the blue, as an unexpected gift, because people you meet on the internet are awesome. But you can find your own at a flea market or an antique shop, or you could even just pop on over to Etsy and see what they’ve got for egg coddlers these days. Chances are, they’ve got something good.

To get started, just open up the little screw-top lid.

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Now crack an egg and drop that sucker inside.

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Fasten the lid back on, nice and snug.

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Bring a pot of water to boil, making sure that the water will completely cover the egg coddler once it’s boiling. You don’t need to cover the little handle on top of the lid, but you do want the whole vessel to be submerged.

(You probably know what a pot of boiling water looks like, but I’m going to go with the flow and show you a picture of that, too.)

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Once the water is at a full, rolling boil, set the egg coddler upright in the pot. You can drop it in (carefully) with your fingers holding on to the handle on top of the lid, or just use a pair of tongs to lower it into place.

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Remember to make sure that the water completely covers the chamber of the coddler. You want that entire egg to be surrounded by hot water, not just the bottom half or two thirds.

Now set your timer (do NOT leave this part to chance) to exactly 7 minutes. I actually like to set my timer for exactly 7 minutes and 14 seconds, but that’s just because 7/14 is my birthday and I’m a total little princess like that. Experiment a little (HINT: This means you get to eat a lot of coddled eggs, in the name of SCIENCE) to find the time that gives you the kind of egg you like best. I like a very runny yolk with practically no runniness at all left to the white, and 7:14 does that for me almost every time. If anything, I occasionally have to give it another 10 seconds rolling around on its side, just to finish off that last little bit of runny whites on the top.

But not this time. Because this egg is PERFECT.

egg

OMG

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Will you just look at that perfect egg!

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SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW.

sandon elated

For the eating of the egg, I like to just toss a little kosher salt in there and then nom nom nom the night away. But some folks need to get all fancy with their coddled eggs. For instance, you could line the inside of the coddler with little slices of ham or cheese before you drop the egg in, or you could sprinkle some finely diced bell peppers or shredded parmesan on top. Basically anything you like to eat with your regular eggs, you can incorporate somehow into your coddled egg. Just keep in mind that there’s not too much room in there for anything besides one whole, glorious, spectacular egg.

And what else do you really need? Honestly. I ask you.

So if you like soft boiled eggs, or runny eggs in any form, get yourself a coddled egg one of these days. It requires a little bit of equipment, but egg coddlers are relatively cheap and, as mentioned above, they look swell in your open shelving. Like you’re a real proper lady or something. And isn’t that all any of us really want?

Personally, I think coddled eggs are a huge improvement over soft boiled eggs the way I used to eat them, which was over toast, just like Mom used to make for me when I was sick. Only the toast soaks up all that amazing runny yolk way too fast, and I could never get the bread-to-egg ratio just right. This cuts out that messy little complication and simplifies the whole ordeal.

Now it’s just me and my egg. An egg and her girl. The egg and I. I’ll stop.

Interregnum

babysbreath

It happened sooner than I was expecting. The seedheads and weeds were overtaking the garden faster than the late summer wildflowers could climb up and over them to crowd them on out. And the days were rapidly cooling. And getting shorter.

It’s fall. I don’t care what the calendar says. And things are dying.

As a gardener, I have mixed feelings about this time of year. Horticulturally, that is. My feelings for autumn otherwise are an unmixed vat of joy and relief, as I am pretty much the least enthusiastic cheerleader for summer you’ve ever seen. And now that I’m a runner, I’m even more eager to greet the frost with open arms. But a garden is a different thing. And it calls for a different response.

Most gardens, of course, are built for the summer months. Sure, you could create a landscape rich with mums and hardy foliage to see you through the cooler months, but even that is a stop-gap. A bandaid. Most of us will admit that this time of year is simply the end. When the magazines in the grocery stores start prematurely featuring pumpkins in their cover art, it’s time to go outside and Do Something About The Garden. Time to take it in hand, as my grandmother would say.

So that’s what I did today.

I started by just pulling a few of the wild daisy stems by hand, their blackened old heads bobbing high above grey, cobwebby stems. These came out easily from the loose, sandy soil. No struggle at all. And they were intermingled with great airy shoots of the one plant that I still wanted to leave intact — the wild baby’s breath that is only now bursting out into delicate, white song.

Once I’d cleared that tiny area of intermingled loveliness, though, it was time for the heavy artillery. Time to pull out the loud whirring device that knocks all stems flat in its wake. It’s sold under the name of “weed whacker,” but I am the kind of gardener who barely discriminates between what the world calls a “weed” and what I call a “welcome addition to the family,” so I don’t call it that.

I don’t know what I call it, but I don’t call it that. All I know is that I need it, this time of year.

And down they went, arcing row by arcing row. I did what I could to keep the baby’s breath free from harm, and I left the heather standing in its proudly defended corner, too. They’ll get their haircut come early spring. In the meantime, the heather, like the cheese, stands alone.

I’ll plant bulbs near the heather, in a month or so. Once things have settled down. After the last warm breath of summer has well and truly faded, and the windows are closed in the bedroom against the chill of the air.

Bulbs are also a thing that I need. I plant them every autumn; I consider them a down payment on spring. A promise to myself that there are more flowers to look forward to, more life on the other side of winter. And all winter long, I look at that corner of the garden, and think about the sneak attack spring that is lying in wait there. Like it’s a secret between me and the ground. No one suspects a thing!

I need to know those bulbs are there, somehow. And they, of course, need me to plant them. That’s how the whole system works.

So I whacked today. And my wildflower patch isn’t too terribly big, so it was only a matter of minutes before all lay flat and tidy before me. A few tiny orange butterflies fluttered anxiously about, wondering what had happened to the vast forest of leaves and branches that had sheltered them only moments before.

Fall. It’s a time of changes, you know. Of loss, if you really must know. And of clearing the way for the next thing to come.

We lost our cat last week. Amelia. Our girl cat, our last cat, the sister to the brother who passed away last fall. Satchel and Amelia. They were the cats of our youth, found abandoned in a vacant lot on the bad side of town. Our friend Colin, who worked in an organ factory on that bad side of town, scooped them up and brought them to us without a second thought. We had an old couch in that apartment, one we didn’t use. We turned it up on its end and made it into a low-rent kind of cat tree for them. That’s where they sat, perched high above the floor, at a human adult’s eye level, for those early years. House parties. Poker nights. The couch sat right next to the toe line for our dart board, and they’d get cuddles for good luck at every single turn.

That was seventeen years ago now.

Seventeen years, and those cats, saw us through more changes and upheavals than I’d care to recall. They were with us when we moved back to Cape Cod, with us when we were struggling to find friends here, with us when we finally got decent jobs and nice friends and spare time. With us when we started to travel for pleasure, leaving them behind in the care of my father or friends. We’d fret about them then, as a low-level hum in the background of our minds, as we wandered around in those far-off cities and towns.

It was always there, that low thrum of anxiety. Of knowing they were there, and that they needed us home.

Now we are planning a trip to England later this fall, and we will be spared that constant thrum of care. Spared the need to write out excruciatingly detailed instructions for their sitters. Spared the joyful welcome home when we finally burst through the door again, laughing and dropping luggage at our feet amid swirling curlicues of fur. Shivering, dancing with joy.

That trip is just over a month away now. I do need a vacation. I know I do. But for now, I wait.

I wait while I watch another autumnal robe drape itself carelessly over the trees lining the river by my home. I bend over in the setting sun and clear away cobwebby old daisies. I pull out the spent stems of my day lilies and stack them carefully in a pile behind the shed wall.

I am sparing the baby’s breath, though. The baby’s breath can stay. I bring some inside with me when I’m done. Tuck it carefully into a jam jar and set it high up on the mantle, eye level with a human, where the cool autumn air can come in through the window. Make it shiver and dance.

Bulbs will be planted and lay dormant until spring. Lilies will spread and run rampant next June. And right about now, I suppose somebody somewhere is noticing a cat will have kittens. And they’ll be needing a home.

And I’ll be needing them, too.

 

Image by Just a Prairie Boy.

Time Will Have His Little Scar

ivied

I was sixteen years old when my great aunt’s house fell in love with me. Well, technically, fell on me. But I knew what it meant.

The timing was apt. Not because I was at some peculiarly ripe age for handsome old houses to start noticing me. I mean. Is there ever a wrong time for a house to choose you, and mark you as its own?

This is probably not a hypothetical question.

Our house, as I’ve mentioned, was old. Inherited complete with its contents from my Great Aunt Eva, who left us in sole possession of her lovingly hoarded Staffordshire collection, a handful of blown eggs, and a prodigious assortment of clawed mahogany furniture, which we proceeded to trash. Three kids, five Newfoundlands, and a stunningly casual attitude towards housework will do that to a place.

The house was delightful. Built sometime around 1910, it featured six-over-six leaded glass windows (which it would be my teenage duty to clean in the spring), beautifully inlaid floors (which we would laboriously refinish one hot autumn), and a generously proportioned porch (which would choose to hug me in an exuberant fashion in the summer of my sixteenth year).

It was the summer of our big family reunion, so we had an unusually large audience for the occasion of my great aunt’s house declaring its love for me.

For this is, in fact, how I chose to view it. Oh, sure. Some skeptics might have called it the inevitable consequence of going too long without addressing the need to replace the rotting wood at the base of the pillars that bore the weight of our veranda.

I’m gonna be honest with you. With my wider extended family arrayed almost ceremoniously in front of me on the wide, freshly mown lawn, it felt more like a declaration than that.

It took me quite by surprise.

I was doing what most teenagers do at large family gatherings — standing awkwardly to one side, rereading the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. My mother had bought me a subscription the year before for my birthday, to support my burgeoning interest in geology. I remember flipping the pages idly while looking up to see who was winning the badminton game being played out a few paces in front of me on the lawn.

It was the badminton that saved me, I guess.

For in that moment, I saw that the white grecian column closest to me was slowly tipping over, cascading down toward me without a sound — but with alarming haste — toward the top of my head.

I took one quick, furtive step back. The ragged edge of the column’s top grazed down across the front of my shirt, sheared delicately along the length of my legs.

It was a very near thing.

In the end, we decided that most of the blood was coming from the large gash on the front of my shin, a cut only about three inches long. We debated for a while about whether or not we needed to mark the occasion with a visit to the emergency room for stitches, but it was eventually agreed that a few butterfly bandaids stretched gamely across the wound would do the trick.

My mother and uncle are both nurses, so I was quite thoroughly cleaned up, you needn’t worry. And the party went on.

From that day forward, I felt a new bond between me and that house. I had always loved it, from the moment we first moved in. At the time of the move, I was young enough to only associate it with the warm smell of cookies Eva was prone to baking for us when we came tumbling off the school bus. All I knew, when she passed away, was that we were moving into the house with the cookies and the gleaming cabinets of white.

Later, I learned to love the speckled green paint on the back hallway floor. The rough, raised surface of the alligator staining on the doors. The cool, embracing velvet of the curtains that hung between dining room and parlor, allegedly there to conserve heat in the winter but really, as we all tacitly understood, hung for the sole purpose of the theatricals I mounted with increasing regularity for my assembled, eternally patient family.

It’s no wonder we fell in love, really. It was such a heady time.

I hardly ever notice the scar now, of course, although it’s never really faded with time. The house has continued its long, slow decay. All of the columns were long since replaced by less graceful posts erected more for duty than for flair, and the gleaming white porch has been tinged a damp olive green after too many summer rains.

The last time I was in my old bedroom — to rescue some old books from storage, no doubt, or to rummage around for the odd picture or two — I noticed with dismay that there were tendrils of ivy snaking quietly in through the splitting window frame.

Then I saw it more clearly; saw that it was just the old, viney hands of great aunt Eva’s old house, reaching in for one more sweet, leafy embrace. I ran my hands slowly down a thin, green stem, and remembered how gently this house had always held me.

Notwithstanding that one time it climbed all over me like a big, clumsy dog, her claws drawing just a little bit of blood in her happy eagerness to get close.

Notwithstanding that one time, this house and I have always been in love.

 

Image by wickenden.

 

Just a Series of Blurs

stars Here is what I remember.

I got to town that January smarting hard from a breakup. College sweethearts who hadn’t managed the transition to real life, we’d split up in May. Then we ran. First one, then the other. Just dropped everything and ran off, to California, of course. Because this is where you go when you are from New England, and everything has gone right to hell. And it had.

But then whose first year after college isn’t awful?

California was awful. We were both ready to try, but it just wasn’t on. The romance was over, and now we were just very sad friends, made sadder still by the shocking bad luck of being stranded out west. As if we hadn’t been the ones who’d up and sold everything we owned and gone racing hell-bent out there to begin with.

I began to regret throwing away that full scholarship to grad school. This was slowly being revealed to me having been sort of a bad idea.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d only gone west with the very best of intentions. The Pursuit of True Love and My Destiny and possibly also a Fresh Start and all the other crap we think we’ll find when we get there. When what we actually find is just another boring apartment in some other boring neighborhood, surrounded by trees that look all wrong and hills that turn moldy in the fall. Also, the people out there are weirdly prone to hugging. It’s unsettling.

I called up the school I had spurned for all this. Miraculously, they said that they still had a place for me. I’m telling you, you’ve never seen a person buy a plane ticket so fast. And this was before the internet.

So I got there, as I said, in the middle of January. And how happy was I to see snow? Ice? Barns that looked moments away from toppling, with rooflines you could see the winter sun through? I wanted to hug every inch of Central New York. But of course I refrained, as we easterners are not given to such embarrassing displays.

Not like some I could name.

I loved it. I was so happy, I was rendered absolutely mute with it. Before I even got my own apartment, when I was still being put up by some gracious older grad student out in the frozen, silent hills outside of town, I took to bundling up inside all of the winter clothes I thought I’d put away forever. I’d go walking out into the night, gasping ecstatically into the perfect, cold air.

For hours, I would walk.

I’d been carrying around some excess belly fat that winter, from all the grief and the shock and the geographic cures, but my long midnight rambles were slowly whipping me back into shape. Even after I’d secured myself an apartment near school, sharing four walls with a nervous, spindly young woman who regularly accused me of trying to steal her ferrets’ love from her, I kept up the habit.

I’d sold my car to get my plane ticket west, so walking was pretty much where it was at for me.

I spent that first winter dating a nice, good-natured guy from my department. He was sweet, and shy, and he liked me more than I liked him, which was a relief. My bruised ego was so grateful for that. And by the time the Central New York spring finally staggered through our doors, I was feeling noticeably better about myself. More capable of taking on the rigors of love. Of, dare I say it, aiming higher.

I broke up with him as gently as I could, which wasn’t very. In fact, I was an ass.

He slammed the door on his way out and made his tires squeal all the way down the block. It didn’t really bother me. I was ready to move on. We hadn’t had that much in common, and I secretly thought I could do better.

Winter turned to spring. I’d lost twenty pounds, and to celebrate I spent a few bucks on a cute pair of jeans at the Salvation Army. A classmate said I swaggered when I wore them, which I mistakenly took as a compliment. So it was with a bit of a swagger that I sallied forth to the bookstore at the end of the semester, my newly thin thighs encased in denim that it would soon be too hot to wear. I was off to Vienna come July — on some important grad student business, you know — and I needed a few language tapes to help me overcome my hopelessness at German.

We used things called “language tapes” for such things in those days, if you can believe.

I found what I was looking for and brought them up to the register, where I also found you. And at first — I’ll be honest — it didn’t even occur to me to flirt. As a rule, I’m not the kind of girl who is found irresistible by attractive young men wearing glasses in bookstores. At least, I had never thought of myself as such. But I was pretty sure I sensed you flirting at me. That was unexpected. I assayed a few half-hearted flutters in return. You… didn’t recoil.

I can’t express my surprise. Oh, I’d lost some weight, sure. Gotten a little collarbone back along with my allegedly swaggering hips. But I was never thought pretty; never cute in any canonical sense of the word. Even on my best days I still felt a bit like a drag queen in a sundress, and I’d never once managed to wear a shawl with conviction.

But there you were, acting for all the world like you liked me. So I went with it. It was summer, and I felt up for a challenge.

We went out for dinner. I couldn’t eat, I was so nervous, which was a new thing for me. I waited for it to wear off, either the nervousness or my appeal. But stubbornly, you persisted. You stayed.

I started to feel better.

I mean, things were clearly shaping up. This last year, I decided, had been no more than a blip. An aberration. Because here I was, only recently back from a trip out west that ranked right up there with the Donner Party in terms of lack of forethought, and within six short months I’d found myself a fully funded graduate student, weeks away from taking a free trip to Europe, dating an attractive boy my age with poetical inclinations. Things were looking pretty good.

My roommate still thought I was after her ferrets’ sweet affection, but otherwise things were looking good.

I was still up to my walking-all-night tricks, only now it was to escape the heat of my room as much as to deal with the buckets of unspent energy only a freshly minted 23-year-old can sustain. It wasn’t like I was getting up to anything. No mischief was managed. All I ever did was walk. But it felt so important that I cover that ground. And man, did I ever. I racked up the mileage like it was my job.

Of course sometimes I’d circle around to your house. You only lived a few blocks away. But sometimes not. I tried to refrain. I knew I liked you more than you liked me and that things wouldn’t go on like this forever. There were all these legitimately cute girls around, for one thing. One or another of them would catch your eye eventually. But things were going well fairly well between us now, and I was slowly regaining the ability to nibble on things when you were around. I called it progress.

I went on my trip to Austria. I hadn’t learned much German after all, but it was okay. Everybody there spoke flawless English, and they all sounded adorably like Arnold Schwartzenegger whenever they spoke. Now, I have never found Arnold Schwartzenegger particularly adorable, but hearing his voice coming out of the mouths of young pensione owners in the lake country of Austria did me in. Both charming and vaguely sinister at the same time. All travel should have such frisson.

When we flew back home three weeks later I was tan from the mountains and bursting to see you.

The summer was still hot. You’d put a up a tent behind your house, since your apartment was even more air-starved than mine, and took to sleeping out there at night. Seriously, though, you had an awful apartment. Thick, flithy carpeting, and fake wood panels that were sweaty to the touch. A nice enough roommate, though, who didn’t seem to tax you with rodent-based conspiracy theories the way mine did. So, pros and cons.

I knew things had changed the minute I saw you. It wasn’t surprising. I had been away for three weeks. We were both still so young, and there is only so much you can ask of the young.

Soon the day came. I saw your car pull up outside my house, which was odd. You only lived down the street, after all, and I hadn’t been expecting you to come. But I waited, happily, for the doorbell to ring. Instead, you strolled up the steps of the house next door. And I knew my time had come.

I watched it all happen, of course. A few of the friendlier ferrets and I sat curled up next to each other by the window as we followed your progress from room to room through the unevenly hung blinds. I knew the girl who lived there. She was beautiful. Blond. Willowy. Effortless in a sundress. An absolute knockout in a shawl. It made sense, really. The ferrets — who had always liked me better, it’s true — wrapped themselves lovingly around my feet while we waited for you to leave.

You took a dreadful long time about it.

Then, for a few hot, uncomfortable days, we waited for you to call. Which you did.

We didn’t really have much in common, you explained. And secretly, I knew you thought you could do better.

It was almost fall now, and the students were coming back to the neighborhood. I walked past their houses on my post-midnight strolls, peering in through their windows as I wandered on by.

Such incredible optimism motivates the tricking out of one’s rooms in the fall of a new year. Exercise bikes we still think we’ll use. Books we’re still determined we’ll read.

It rubbed off on me, you know? I’d get by. There were all these new people around to soften the blow, a new forest of trees to wander through, their fluttering branches giving shade to my steps.

And it was okay, in the end. I went home to Cape Cod for a few days before classes resumed, and made out with a boy who liked me more than I liked him. I didn’t have much in common with him. But we both knew we would do better, in time.