The corner of the heart

Back in 1998, country singer Collin Raye released a song called “Corner of the Heart,” which you can watch here. It has a good solid core idea, although the lyrics overall are weak, I think. Nevertheless, the chorus points to the fact that in most relationships there comes a time when one must choose to turn the corner—to recommit at an ever-deeper level to the other person, or to walk away.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test this theory with another person in my own life. I have seen for myself, though, how it works.

From the day I got my girl dog, Reggie, she was, to put it mildly, a problem. She peed and pooped in the house, she ate her own and Rudy’s poo, she was an incorrigible mule on the leash, she tore up my stuff, and she chewed up and ate things that blocked her bowels. For the first two years of her life, I was in a nearly constant state of rage, frustration, and anxiety. I actually talked to my doctor at one point about getting some pharmaceutical help to deal with it (although ultimately decided not to go that route).

I admit, I did not love Reggie much for most of those first two years. Everyone who knows me got to hear all about my problem dog, and how miserable she made me, and how she was ruining my sleep and my carpets and my peace of mind, and how much I wished I could rehome her but how I just couldn’t because I’d feel too guilty letting her go to anyone else. There is no end to the variety of bad homes and bad owners for dogs, and neither I nor my home is perfect but we’re better than most. Besides, she could be so cute, and so charming, from time to time. I fell in love with her the first day I met her and was so excited to bring her home. But when she peed in the middle of my bed within minutes of arriving, I couldn’t help but think I’d made a terrible mistake.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

When Reggie was about 18 months old, she developed a series of what appeared to be urinary tract infections. This led to the complete loss of her house training and pee everywhere—on the couch, on the bed, in the car, and on the carpets in every room of my house. It was a pee-a-palooza. It took several months and hundreds of dollars’ worth of tests to determine what was actually wrong with her, which turned out to be a congenital defect called a hepatic portosystemic shunt. She has an extra blood vessel on her liver that was shunting blood around her liver rather than through her liver to be filtered. Although she was very fortunate not to have suffered any long-term damage from her inadequately filtered blood those first two years, her life would have been significantly shortened if the shunt were not fixed.

Feeling guilty and hard-pressed but also hopeful that this could resolve her urinary problems, I opted to have the shunt repaired in 2011. It was a major operation, and Reggie struggled in her recovery.

In her crate immediately after surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

Reggie in her crate immediately after the shunt-repair surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

The largest struggle was with bacterial overgrowth in her gut, which gave her diarrhea. I had to keep her in a crate during the day when I was at work to keep her quiet, and it was bare empty because she would eat any fabric I put in there with her. She would poop all over her crate, then eat it, then poop it again. Every day. This pushed me to my lowest point of anger and disgust with her horrible habits.

Fortunately—by grace, evidently, because I can’t say it was by my conscious choice—this is when I turned the corner in my heart with Reggie. I finally realized that she was not “misbehaving” just to spite me and that her behavior was nothing she could choose to control. I stopped seeing her as a vexing burden I shouldered out of guilt, but rather as a small creature in my care who needed my help. In short, I stopped allowing her to make me suffer because I stopped seeing her behavior as any reflection whatsoever on me.

From that point forward, I willingly made arrangements to get Reggie out of the crate when she needed to go, even when I was at work, to break her coprophagia cycle and to help her heal. I administered her medications punctiliously, I kept her clean and dry, and I cuddled her close when she seemed to be feeling bad. I stopped seeing her accidents as affronts to me and damage to my home and started seeing them simply as a symptom that she was struggling. I did all I could to help her get better, but at the same time I accepted her for exactly the dog that she was instead of always pushing her to be the dog I wanted her to be and punishing her for not being that dog.

I’m happy to say that the surgery was 100% successful and that Reggie was once again fully house trained after all her medical issues cleared. She is in the very pink of health now and I expect her to live out her full normal life span.

She has not, however, become the dog I wanted her to be when I got her.

She’s become so much more than that.

reggie-bedlet

My best girl dog.

There was a time when I would have gladly handed Reggie over to the first person who came along and asked for her, but now I would not trade her for anything in the world. She is in my heart for life.

La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

Edible bounty

I recently signed up to join a produce-buying cooperative called Bountiful Baskets, which operates in most states. I’m not exactly sure what their structure is, but it seems to work: they buy produce at rock-bottom prices and allow people to make a contribution each week in exchange for a (ahem) healthy portion of that produce.

Eager to pick up my first basket, I headed out into the frosty dawn this morning to a slightly seedy industrial section of town not far from my house, down a street along the railroad tracks that I’ve never traveled in my more than six years of living here. As I approached the facility from which the food would be distributed, I noted several cars parked along the road, filled with individuals and families, engines running to ward off the single-digit chill. I turned around and found myself a place to park, and waited. Before too long, an invisible signal apparently came from somewhere, because as if on cue, engines switched off and car doors opened all up and down the street. I didn’t know what the protocol was, so I just followed the lady in front of me through the ice-clogged parking lot and took my place in line. We waited 15 shivering minutes or so before finally the door swung open and a volunteer cheerfully called “come on in!”

The line began to move slowly forward, and I took the time to look around behind me. The crowd had grown considerably, stretching out the better part of a city block. Everyone carried a handful of reusable grocery bags and the occasional laundry basket. I was amazed to see how popular this service is in a small town in the frozen heart of winter.

After a few minutes, I got my turn to go inside and found an industrial shop turned into an enormous temporary pantry. Rows and rows of white plastic baskets filled with fruits and vegetables were set out neatly over every inch of free floor space. I initialed next to my name on the list, showed my printed order confirmation email, and was directed to pick up two of the baskets—one of fruits, the other of veggies. I quickly transferred everything into my reusable bags and was on my way in minutes. Quite a pleasant experience, all in all, despite the wait in the cold.

I got my bags home and unpacked them with great anticipation of meals to be made! Here is what I received:

bountiful-basket

  • 2 English cucumbers
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 2 bunches of red radishes
  • 1 bunch of baby asparagus
  • A 1-lb plastic bag of carrots, plus 3 unattached stragglers
  • 11 red potatoes
  • 3 huge Jonagold apples
  • 7 Fuji apples
  • 6 navel oranges
  • 2 Asian pears
  • 1 personal-size watermelon
  • 9 exceedingly green bananas

I don’t know how many pounds that all adds up to, but probably around 15, and the total price for the lot of it was only $15. So I think I made out like a bandit! I have already devoured an orange, some of the watermelon, and a couple of carrots. I gifted the asparagus, some green onions, a few potatoes and two bananas to my neighbor Sue, who teased me that I turned her down when she offered to go halves with me on one of these baskets several months ago because “you were in your butter phase then.” Well, I guess I’m in my veggie phase now, and looking forward to making some great meals from all this bounty!

Oh, also, I want to mention that the impetus for my interest in fresh produce and recently intensified interest in cooking is this presentation by food activist and author Michael Pollan.

I am currently reading his latest book, Cooked, and am finding it fascinating. Highly recommended.

 

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme

I was cruising around on YouTube the other day not looking for anything in particular when I ran across this “French Chef” episode in which Julia Child holds up a big flat fish by its tail and flaps it at the camera as she warbles, “see how to turn this denizen of the deep into Sole Bonne Femme, today on The French Chef!” How could I refuse an invitation like that?

I watched the clip a couple of times, taking notes the second time. I decided it sounded “awfully good,” as Julia would say, so I decided to make it. A quick Googling for Sole Bonne Femme recipes didn’t find one that sounded at all like hers, so I started from scratch and wrote the recipe myself. I hope I have done a faithful job of recording exactly how she did it.

Watch the video first to find out why it’s called “Bonne Femme,” enjoy Julia’s inimitable cheery delivery as well as her signature live-TV foibles such as snuffing out a flaming potholder, shake your head at her cheerful disregard for potential raw seafood cross-contamination in the kitchen, then come back and print off the recipe so you can make it, too.

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme (Fillets of Sole with Mushrooms)

Ingredients
1 to 1.5 lb sole fillets (9-12, depending on size)
1/4 to 1/2 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (about 2 c)
1/2 c shallots, minced
1/2 c fresh parsley, minced
1/2 c dry white wine or slightly diluted dry vermouth
8 oz bottled clam juice or fish stock (1 c)
2.5 Tbs butter
2.5 Tbs flour
2 Tbs crème fraîche or heavy cream
Kosher salt and white pepper
.
Preparation
Fish
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine chopped mushrooms, about 2 Tbs minced shallots and 2 Tbs minced parsley. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour into a heavily buttered shallow baking dish that is both rangetop- and oven-proof.
  3. Lay fillets glossy side down on cutting board. Lightly score the fillets with shallow diagonal cuts, then cut each in half down the center line. Season with salt and white pepper and fold fillets over in half the long way.
  4. Layer the folded fillets in a crisscross chevron pattern over the mushroom mixture in the baking pan. Lightly season tops with salt and white pepper and a small handful of minced shallots.
  5. Pour wine/vermouth and clam juice or stock over the fillets until they are nearly but not quite covered. Bring the pan to a simmer on the stove top (2-3 minutes).
  6. Remove pan from heat and cover it with a heavily buttered sheet of waxed or parchment paper to keep the fish moist. Place pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 8-9 minutes or until fish is milky looking and springy (if it’s flaky, it’s overdone).
  7. Remove pan from oven, cover with a metal lid, and drain as much juice as possible into a large sauce pan. Set the baking pan aside, cover and keep warm.
Sauce
  1. Set the sauce pan with the baking juices over high heat and boil until mixture is reduced to about 1 cup (6-7 minutes).
  2. While the juices boil, make a roux with butter and flour. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes; do not allow it to color. Take roux off heat and allow it to cool for about a minute.
  3. Add the reduced baking juices to the roux, place pan over medium heat, and whisk until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds. Thin the sauce with crème fraîche or heavy cream. Pour off any more collected baking juices into the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add dairy as needed to achieve desired consistency (sauce should be thick but pourable).
  4. Pour sauce over fish and sprinkle with the rest of the minced parsley. [Option: Top with a thin layer of shredded cheese such as Swiss or Gruyère and place under broiler until cheese lightly browns.] Serve with rice or potatoes. Serves 4.

Sole Dugléré (Fillets of Sole with Tomatoes) variation: Substitute an equal amount of tomato concassé for the minced mushrooms. All other ingredients and steps are the same.

I don’t usually do cooking photo essays because food photography is not my strong suit, but here is how I made this.

mise-en-place

All my ingredients lined up and ready to go. The sole fillets were frozen; I recommend using fresh. I needed to use only one of the shallots and only three of those big mushrooms.

seasoning

The finished mushroom-shallot-parsley seasoning. Just a word of caution: white pepper comes out of the shaker really fast, and it is so easy to use too much. This is a powerful seasoning, so use a very light hand with the shaker if you don’t have a grinder (which I don’t, yet, but I soon will).

seasoning-in-pan

The seasoning mixture in my heavily buttered saute pan, which I chose because it is shallow and can be heated on both the burner and in the oven. I briefly considered ordering a special au gratin dish just to make this meal, but this pan worked fine.

buttered-paper

I made the waxed paper cover just the way Julia said to, and slathered it with butter.

covered-fish

Along with the white wine, one bottle of clam juice was just the right amount of liquid to almost-but-not-quite cover the fillets.

ready-to-cook

After bringing the pan to a simmer on the stovetop, I covered it and it’s ready to go in the oven.

boiling-juices

The pan juices from the cooked fish boiled up nicely before reducing. The fish is keeping warm there in the back, and the roux is standing by in the center.

final-product

The final sauced dish, ready for the plate. I might have added a spoonful too much heavy cream, so my sauce was a tad thin, but it sure tasted “awfully good.” In fact, I’d say the whole dish is worth making just for this “lovely French sauce.”

dishes

Oh yeah, the stack of dishes to do. But it was worth it.

My only quibble with this dish was with the fish, actually. Perhaps it was that my fillets were frozen, or maybe not perfectly fresh, or I cooked them a minute too long, but they seemed rather tougher than I think sole ought to be. Probably slightly overcooked. But that sauce, wow! I’ve cooked only a few Julia Child recipes and I always think “this is too simple to really be any good,” but they always end up knocking me backward because they are so good, and this one was no exception. Sometimes the simplest ingredients make the best food.

Follow the leader

When I was out with the dogs last night, we passed my neighbor Tony’s house and they both started their usual routine of wildly lunging toward and yapping at him as he stood out in his driveway. I tried to pull them away quickly, but Tony was already heading toward us.

“Oh, now, hold on!” he said with a grin. “That won’t work. Lemme show ya.” And show me he did, taking the dogs’ leashes and snapping them gently to attention, one on either side of him. He strode off down the sidewalk without a word to the dogs or a backward glance to me, with my indefatigable puller and my insistent sniffer both trotting along neatly just off his heels with their ears forward and their heads up. He went about half a block, turned around sharply, and returned them to me in the same fashion. As a family of cyclists approached and the dogs’ heads turned, he again gently snapped their attention back to him and they made not a peep. He even managed to get them to completely ignore a cat walking through his yard with just repeated quick tugs on their leashes.

He didn’t hit them or yell at them or haul them around or do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. He did consistently require them to keep their attention on him, and they seemed remarkably willing to oblige. At one point he squatted down and put Reggie by his side but slightly behind him. She sat down calmly and quietly gazed around her. Then he moved her to slightly in front of him, and she became instantly alert and distracted by activity on the street, completely oblivious to both of us. I was flabbergasted at what a difference 12 inches one way or the other made in her demeanor. He explained that when the dog is in front, she sees herself as the leader and therefore the protector of her pack, and that brings out her guarding and challenging behaviors. When I am in front of her, she no longer feels herself to be “on duty” and can simply relax. This is why it is so essential to walk the dogs at heel and not allow them to run out the length of the leash.

As I stood there watching this display of what Tony repeatedly called “calm, assertive leadership,” I think my jaw fell on the ground. I could not believe that my own two incorrigible little dogs were happily following this man, whom they’ve met only once or twice, and were so quick to do every single thing he directed them to do. Astonishing.

Tony’s dog-training rap is lifted straight from Cesar Millan, of course, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times: you have to be the leader of the pack if you expect your dog(s) to follow you. I understood this perfectly with my Rottweiler and practiced it well, so training her was a breeze. But with the little dogs, especially headstrong and independent Reggie, I’ve given up trying to control them on the walk because I just don’t want to put the time and energy into managing them every step of the way. It’s been easier for me to zone out, let them go where they want to go, stop where they want to stop, and act however they please toward the people and animals they encounter along the way. I know their bad behaviors are my own fault. But I really didn’t know until yesterday how to correct it. Tony not only corrected it completely but also made it look so easy that I felt acutely embarrassed by what I’ve been tolerating for so long.

Rudy has always been an easy dog to live with and to walk, so being a calm, assertive leader with him has always been easy, too. When I tell him to do something, he responds quickly, and he remembers when he’s been corrected. Reggie, on the other hand, has been a challenge from day one, and she has never responded to any of the training tricks I know. After months of trying and failing to curb her pulling on the leash, I just abdicated control of the walk to her. My contributions heretofore have been limited to perfectly useless asking, pleading, whining, admonishing and berating with many curses. Even when I’m telling her for the 50th time to “slow down” or “stop pulling,” I know she doesn’t understand a word I say apart from her own name and I feel stupid for doing it but I don’t know what else to do!

what-dogs-hear

It is useless to ask a dog to do something and inadequate to tell her to do something. One must actually make the dog do it, one way or another. And it’s also high time I admitted that not yelling or swearing or visibly freaking out is not the same thing as being calm, or assertive. They deserve better leadership from me, and I know I can do better for them.

I resolved to be that better leader and put an end to the arm-stretching pulling contest with Reggie on this evening’s walk. I put a leash in each hand and positioned the dogs beside and slightly behind me, and away we went at a brisk clip. Rudy fell right into line, of course, and although I had to gently correct Reggie most of the way, let me tell you: It was a miracle. They didn’t pull my arms off, they didn’t stop to sniff at every tree and fence post, and they didn’t make much more than a cursory yap at any of the people or animals we passed. Astonishing.

This video demonstrates how to walk a dog “the Cesar way,” and covers all the points that Tony made to me about redirecting the dogs’ attention to keep them calmly moving forward.

I am ready and willing to reclaim my position as pack leader so that my dogs can retire from that role and simply enjoy their exercise without having always to be on guard and ready to rumble. Reggie’s shrieking, squealing challenges to all comers are audible for blocks around and we walk nearly every day, so I think every single one of my neighbors will (silently) thank me for finally getting my dogs under control.

 

Friends of the heart

A couple of years ago, I parted ways with a friend who meant rather a lot to me over what you might call irreconcilable differences. We’re not in touch anymore, but now and then I check her Facebook page to see that she’s doing okay.

Recently, she posted the following video of two old circus elephants who were finally reunited at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years, with the message, “If only we knew love like this….”

These two animals obviously recognize each other, value each other, and want to be together. Clearly, they are not and cannot be mates. But just as clearly, they are the very closest of friends and companions. It might not even be going too far to say that they love each other, although with animals, who really knows what they feel?

Human beings do feel love for one another, though, and we can know love like this. But like these elephants, first we have to be set free to do so—free from the chains we lash around our hearts and our minds about what “love” is, how much of it we deserve, and who is “acceptable” to love, as well as who is not. I tend to think that the only limits on love are the ones we impose on it and on ourselves in an attempt to manage our own small fears: fear of connecting, fear of loss, fear of getting hurt, fear of change, fear of ourselves, fear of others. Everyone’s afraid of something, and nothing calls out the really deep, dark fears quite so strongly as emotional intimacy with another person.

close-your-eyes

They say, “an elephant never forgets.” I am not an elephant, obviously, but I am a Taurus, and that’s practically the same thing in terms of never forgetting. I can’t let go of every old hurt and hard time and bad scene I’ve ever known, but I also never forget anyone I’ve ever loved. I always tried to give my best to each of them. Whether I succeeded or failed in this endeavor, I cannot say. I know only that I tried.

love-each-other

I know that I gave the very best of myself to that friend I no longer have, and I regret the way things went between us because for about a minute out of our whole lives, we did have a love like that—not mates, but true friends of the heart.

Maybe 20 years from now, or someday, when we’ve both slipped our chains of convention and conditioning, we’ll meet and recognize each other as friends again.

 

The magic of the mouse

I had dinner with a good friend of mine last night, and she filled me in on her plans for Christmas that are so cool and so fun and so exciting, I want to tell you all about them!

She and her husband have two kids, a preschooler and a toddler. For the past several months, both kids have been periodically asking, “when are we going to Mickey’s house?” meaning Disneyland. They are both big, big fans of the mouse.

So what my friend and her family are going to do on Christmas morning this year is get up early and open their presents (which might include a Mickey-themed item or two), then have breakfast (which might be Mickey-shaped pancakes), while the parents gently and subtly cue the kids until one or the other of them asks for the thousandth time, “when are we going to Mickey’s house?”

And then Mom and Dad are going to exchange a triumphant glance over the tops of their children’s heads before gleefully asking, “how about right now? Go get packed, we’re going today!” And at 2:00 that afternoon, the whole family will board a plane headed to Anaheim and visit with Mickey for a week.

mickey-christmas

I tell you what, I think that’s such a cool plan, I’m as stoked about it as if I were one of their kids. What could be better for a young child than to have a long-delayed dream instantly manifest one day? That is parenting at its finest, and my hat is off to my friend and her husband for planning this wonderful surprise and gift for their family.

Since I (ahem) won’t be going along, I might instead catch an early showing of the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” opening Dec. 20, which stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It looks like a delightful tour de force from two of the finest actors on the screen today. So, you know, that’s almost as good as a surprise trip to Disneyland on Christmas morning. Almost. 😉

Take a look at the trailer. I bet you’ll want to see this movie, too.