Leeks and Improv Dinners

I distinctly remember a time at which I did not know what a leek was. Sure, any six-year-old could boast the same thing, but I didn’t actually discover the wondrous leek until I was in high school. I must have somehow gotten it into my head to make some potato soup, given my obsession with that particular starch. To be truthful, I was addicted to all kinds of starch. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I used to take nothing but a sleeve of crackers for my lunch when I was in high school. I suppose I just had more pressing things to do with my time than to make myself something more nourishing than a sleeve of crackers: writing copiously in my journal (with rainbow-colored inks, no less), cramming for AP history, braiding my hair, attempting (not totally successfully) to shape fabric scraps into long and flowing skirts. Having recently become a vegetarian, I fully embraced what were usually my three restaurant options: veggie burgers, bean burritos, and baked potatoes.

Hoping to introduce some shadow of versatility into my life, I must have looked up a recipe for potato soup and found this mysterious ingredient: leeks. Ironically enough, I had just started a job at one of the city’s only natural food markets. I think I recall looking for leeks in the produce section, and I definitely remember shoving the long and strangely cylindrical object in the fridge. For some reason, it was in a brown paper bag.

I can’t remember making that soup at all, or how it tasted, but I thought of it this week because I am about to make potato leek soup again. It really hasn’t been so long, I will confess, that leeks have been a normal part of my life. I didn’t even understand that they were somewhere on the onion family tree until I left the remains of one in my kitchen trash overnight. Oh wow, was it pungent in the morning.

I’ve been reflecting on my cooking history these past few weeks because I’m trying out a new technique in the kitchen. It’s not the use of a fancy mandoline, or slow-rising my bread dough (though that’s not a bad idea), or even breaking in the pasta maker I have yet to acquire. It’s just a bit of an emancipation from the way I have been cooking for as long as I can remember.

In a nutshell (since we’re talking about food anyway), I have been very attached to my recipes. Not my recipes. But ones I’ve scrounged up from cookbooks and magazines and blogs. I’ve never strayed too far from them, since I’ve never really considered myself to be an expert in kitchen alchemy: how things fit together, how much water you need to cook rice, how to balance the notes of sweet and sour and bitter and salty and even umami.

It’s not that I really understand now either. But for some reason, I feel the need to give myself a bit more room for experimentation. So, what I am doing these days is going to the store and buying what looks good. Then I come home, cram it all in the fridge, and ask myself: “Now what can I make with this?”

This week I wound up with some radishes, a parsnip, potatoes, three shallots, a bunch of Italian parsley, a head of cauliflower, a few bell peppers, and a leek or two, among other things. So far I have concocted some roasted vegetable quinoa (which I topped with some leftover mustard vinaigrette) and some carrot ginger soup. As I pondered the ingredients I have on hand to determine the next dish, I realized, of course: potato leek soup. It’s been a lot of fun following my intuitions, and whims even, in place of my usual attempt to perfectly recreate something someone else has designed. I affectionately call these most recent attempts of mine my improv dinners.

I’ve also been thinking about cooking in more general terms as a result of this kitchen overhaul. I’ve always been intensely interested in the staples of other kitchens. I have a friend who always has kale on hand. He says it’s really good on pizza. Lover of all things crunchy, I’ll believe that. I have another friend who is never without her vanilla yogurt. My little brother puts Tapatio hot sauce on everything. I mean everything. He even put it on our Thanksgiving pumpkin fondue. My boyfriend (now my husband!) almost always has an eggplant on hand for a quick sauté, and a squash of some kind when they’re in season.

It’s refreshing and kind of delightful to see how the variety of the individual is displayed in the kitchen. And it also invites me to a particularly exhilarating opportunity for reinvention. What are my staples? What are the things I keep around now that I didn’t six months ago, two years ago; what are the things I always have on hand that I didn’t know existed two years ago? Our kitchens define us in such interesting ways; it’s just one of many arenas in which we carve out our identities.

As I look back on my kitchens past, I see that there is an evolution, and not only in my cooking methods and preferences. My staples map me: where I have been, what I have been reading, with whom I’ve been eating. A few years ago, spinach lasagna was the only dinner-party-worthy dish I knew how to make. In my stressful months of qualifying exam preparation, I’d consider it a red-letter evening if I had enough energy to make myself some pancakes. But thankfully in the past few years I’ve made time for exploring new flavors. I’ll admit that I’m spoiled rotten to be living in a place where such a huge variety of fresh produce is both available and affordable. It’s here that I’ve come to love kumquats and golden kiwis and shallots, and, yes, leeks. It’s here that I’ve learned how to toast bulgur and barley, how to braise fennel, how to make my own vegetable stock. It’s here that I’ve come to embrace the most delicious and stinky of cheeses: Gorgonzola, Stilton, Blue. It’s here that my kitchen has come to revolve around fresh pressed garlic and chopped sage, thyme, and oregano.

I know that I won’t always live in a place where acquiring these ingredients, which have become my staples, will be easy. But there’s a part of me that believes I’ll somehow carry them with me, wherever I may go. They’ve become a part of who I am, so I will bring my leeks with me, in their brown paper bag.

Small Symphony

It’s raining here, and it promises to keep drenching us for the rest of the week. It’s a pretty normal pattern for this part of the country, just a routine dose of precipitation that requires you to have a bit more foresight, and a bit more slick gear, as you step out the door into the rainforest: umbrella, raincoat, boots with raised heels that make them slightly more impervious to puddles.

I like it most in the morning, when I’m safely (and even sometimes warmly) wrapped in my apartment. The first thing I hear when I wake up is pinging, singing: the sound of a small symphony. The melodic beat of the rain on my ceiling, sometimes developing into a truly thunderous crescendo. The percussive plinks of hail against my windows. The occasional high-pitched notes of water hitting the glass top of my kitchen fan. The muffled sound of the palm leaves frantically rustling under the weight and fury of the driving drops.

It’s been a long time since those summers when I would run out into the backyard to dance in the rain, to take in the deliciously lush smell of freshly wetted grass, to feel the coolness of the water on my bare arms and legs and to shriek with glee at what I am sure then I didn’t quite understand was simply the joy of being alive, the sheer endless wonder of the earth.

I think, in spite of all that is irretrievable in time and space, that this rain symphony is gently inviting me, softly asking me to dance, to feel here inside my cozy apartment what I felt then, all those years ago, a rain-drenched girl spinning with delight under the wondrously melting ocean of the sky.

Breathing. Just Breathing.

I have been thinking a lot about breathing lately. Part of this is certainly because I am getting back to my yoga classes, during which I lie on the floor in the dark and take directives about exhaling and inhaling. I’m not really very good at it yet. I find that whole synthesis of thought and action and meta-thought more than a bit intimidating. And then I tend to think myself into circles, and tightly wound ones at that. I have a feeling this is not the goal of the exercise.

But I have hope that I’ll get there. Tonight our teacher read us something about breathing being the link between the mind and the body–how being conscious of this simple and constant activity can, and I quote, however irresponsibly, this monk whose name I cannot recall, “make life more vivid and enjoyable.” I’ll buy that.

The thing is that, of course, we don’t have to think about breathing.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Isn’t that what we tell people who have suffered some terrible shock or catastrophe? It’s possible that in such moments our bodies could fail us, but on the whole this constant process of breathing in and out happens entirely without our awareness.

And therein lies its mystery and its beauty. As I’ve been thinking about breathing lately, it’s not been in any kind of tantric way (though I don’t deny the benefits of such practice). Instead, I try to think consciously about what is happening in my body as I’m breathing. I think about air filling my lungs, all the way down to my miniscule alveoli. I think about the steady drumline of my heart, pumping blood to every corner and crevice of my body. I think about my bones and muscles that know instinctively how to walk, how to stretch themselves, how to hug and to hold. It’s an incredibly majestic thing, this human body. I am fully aware that even as I type this, there are more processes occurring in me than I could fit on this page. People who study and know the body far better than I do must feel these sensations all the time—they must think about their joints and tendons as they are tying their shoes, consider how their eyes were moving and their synapses firing as they wake from a vivid dream, comprehend how moisture moves through the body as tears dampen their lashes.

Even with the very little bit I know and recall about how the body works, I still catch myself staring in awe sometimes. When I’m lying in bed, I rest my finger on my pulse; when a tiny cut produces an equally tiny red drop of blood, I think about how it was blue until it hit the surface; when I breathe, I try to imagine my lungs expanding and contracting, safely hidden away behind the bars of my ribcage.

I’m not really sure that this is what the monk had in mind, but I do find that it deeply enriches my sense of myself, that it binds my mind to my body, even just a little bit, to think about things that do not require thinking.

Nightwalk and Terra Incognita

Late in the evening on New Year’s Day I was angling to go out and look at the moon. We used to be able to see the sky more clearly before huge chunks of our neighborhood were annexed by the city and summarily saddled with streetlights. But there is still one little stretch at the end of our street that has escaped this fate, at least thus far.

Mom proposed that we go out for a nightwalk. Nightwalk. All one word, and when it stands alone, it requires no article, no determination of its definite or indefinite status. I was a bit resistant at first- a quick peep was more what I had in mind, since it was so fiercely cold (by which I mean about 30 degrees. Cold for this city). Mom was undeterred and proffered some huge coats we have hiding in the closet under the stairs. I went along.

One of those coats was mine. I hadn’t worn it in years- it was my Russia coat. I pulled it off the hanger and dragged it (it’s at least as long as I am) into Mom’s room to put it on. I laid my hands on it to turn it over and just stood there, staring at my fingertips resting lightly on its silky surface, feeling the thickness of its memories, instantaneously transmitted to my body.

I remember so sharply that winter before I left for Russia. How we pored over boots and guidebooks, scarves and socks. But choosing my coat was the most important mission. We finally found it in a Land’s End catalog: a long quilted down sleeping bag of a coat, full of pockets on the outside and inside (perfect for stashing your leather gloves and your tram fare), with a hood that zipped off (for those magical days when the sky might deign to hover somewhere above +10 degrees Celsius), and, most importantly, black as midnight, so as not to announce me as some kind of naïve rainbow bright foreigner.

I remember the day it came in the mail, how I skipped back into the house to open the box. I threw the coat on over some little dress I was wearing and ran out into the January cold. Духовка. The Oven. That’s what I called that coat, it was so deliciously warm. I wore it almost every single day I was in Russia, the few exceptions being a handful of days in May when I could get away with wearing its younger cousin, a down vest I lovingly referred to as Микровальновка, The Microwave.

Touching it, running my fingers over my coat that night transformed me, even if just for a moment, into the woman that I was then, exactly seven years ago. I remembered the elation of exploring St. Petersburg in that coat, the only light for its winter darkness the tiny sugar grains of snow caught in the yellow glow of the streetlights, preserved in perfect silence. It might have been the first time I ever fell in love, and it was certainly the first and only time I have ever fallen in love with a city. It’s a different kind of love, that, one that doesn’t leave any room for insecurities or rejection- you are simply there, you love, and the city itself is tangible evidence of its love in return, always surprising you with exquisite tokens of undying affection: the bells at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, translucent curtains on the windows of the trams (lovingly installed by the ticket-collectors who make it their home), the bustle and vibrant colors of the Kuznechny Market, where you’d never know you were in the grip of a Russian winter, and where blood-stained butchers never fail to call you over to choose from among their pink and marbled wares: “Hey beautiful, don’t walk away!”

This is the woman I held in my hands when I pulled my coat out of the closet that night. I’ve wondered sometimes, as I’ve grown older and my heart has turned more toward home, where she has gone. Is it that my delusions of invincibility have slowly faded away? I’d still like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous person, but I don’t feel the same tug east (or north, or south, or west, for that matter) that I used to. I’ve not been to Russia in almost six years, have not left this country in four, and I think that’s something this earlier self of mine would have had some trouble with.

It’s not that the prospect of exploring terra incognita doesn’t still make my heart skip a beat, or that I wouldn’t love to return to the place that literally made me weep for joy for weeks after I’d arrived (every night: my journal and my tears), and then made me weep weeks in advance over the prospect of leaving it. It’s just, I suppose, that my terra incognita finds itself here now; it’s something that I explore, that I see with fresh eyes, every day, and something that fills my heart so completely.

It’s not so much the space itself, but the fact that everything is new when I see it with Eric. What makes me weep for joy now is not the memory of those first euphoric days in Russia, when I’d periodically pause to consult a map and recall with glee that I was literally on the other side of the earth, but instead the life that we have built together, the adventures we’ve crafted together, the conversations that we share, the myriad of fascinating things that we are constantly learning from and about each other, the hours we’ve spent laughing and loving one another: these are my Nevsky Prospect, my Dostoevsky Museum, my tram tickets shoved into the pockets of my coat–my terra incognita.

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