This past weekend was my birthday, and with its proximity to the rolling over of the calendar year, I’m stuck with two reasons for year-end reflection, and, as one with a penchant for analysis and goal-setting, I can’t help but give in. I am among those who think we ought to create blank slates and resolve and revise all the year through, but I admit that I happily join the ranks of those reflecting in January. Blame it on my nature, my birthday, whatever. It’s what I do.
And this year especially, because 2013/the year of being 26 was kind of a doozy. It was our first full year as married people and Californians, both. It was the year we got mugged and I juggled jobs until finally, blissfully, I didn’t have to juggle anymore. And it was also the year in which I worried about whether or not I might have cancer, prompted by a mysterious bump on the back of my calf that all manner of tests could not identify. I didn’t even hint at it here, the experience too personal and confusing to try to talk about to most of my friends, let alone the internet. It might be nothing, or it might be cancer. I’m still not sure what a person is to do with that kind of news.
Surgery on Halloween (of all days) identified that it was not, in fact, cancer, just a strange mass of tangled blood vessels that had taken up residence in my otherwise healthy body. My kind workplace let me rest and sent me pie. I watched movies and Google-hung-out with my parents. My sweet husband dealt with all the things and didn’t mind that we spent his birthday weekend, which landed immediately after my surgery, largely at home—even when I started crying after standing for too long in the kitchen, stubbornly sautéing the chanterelles for dinner.
My still short morning runs, a scar the length of my index finger, the occasional bout of swelling and the lingering medical bills are the only remnants of the whole scare, the fitful sleep, the mind-numbing worry, but it probably goes without saying that I don’t need help remembering. The one thing hard to hold onto is the exuberant gratitude I had in those moments after I heard the good news, the gasps of I’m just so glad to be alive that rushed up despite the crutches and hopping and humbling and asking for help. I’m doing my best to remember that part, despite long days and small frustrations and winter blues. Because it is good to be alive.
In retrospect, those hard things do define this year for me. But that’s okay. Because among them were wonderfully rejuvenating trips to Healdsburg and to Point Reyes, the opportunity to assist a now-dear friend on her soon-to-be-released cookbook and the last few months working at Good Eggs. I threw dinner parties and cooked delicious things and baked in the wee morning hours and wrote many words. The good things were all the better in light of the hardships.
But yes, I am ready for a fresh new year. Already it’s not without its trials, but thanks to the crazy months behind us, I’m one year older and stronger and wiser and braver. This year, I want to be more confident, slow down, heal up from that surgery so I can run a race, take a knife skills class and crack the code to fantastic nut butters. I’m going to dance more in the living room with my husband and try to stop overthinking so damn much. I want to remember that I don’t have cancer and that life—just life, not life with everything in place or all dreams fulfilled—is really, really good.
On the eve of my birthday, a dozen friends, most of whom didn’t know one another, came over to our apartment for boozy punch, a huge pot of this stew, an equally huge loaf of bread, cabbage slaw doused in tahini, cookies (gluten free! dairy free!) and plenty of wine. It wasn’t extravagant in theory or preparation, but it was celebration at its finest. Being surrounded by our favorite people is where it’s at, Kimberley said afterward. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s to another year of good food and good friends and life, one day at a time.
Winter Stew with Warm Spices
Makes a very large pot of soup, about 12 servings
Be sure to get a head start with the beans! Soak them for at least 8 to 12 hours. Then, you’ll add them uncooked before the stew starts simmering. Everything cooks up together, infusing all kinds of great flavors and warmth into the stew.
This winter, I’ve been making a big pot of stew about once a week, using a whole pound of dried beans and riffing on this basic formula. It’s warm and healthful and tasty, and it feeds us for several meals. I used Snow Cap beans here, but anything you like will do! A delicious kabocha squash is a flavorful addition, and garam masala keeps the whole thing interesting. Though I used red pepper flakes this time around, you could instead use fire-roasted tomatoes (great for any stew or soup!). Finally, credit must go to Laura for the dates. She used them in a Moroccan-style stew, and it’s a genius touch.
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin coconut or olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 small leeks, diced
4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon garam masala
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon crushed Aleppo or red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus additional
Freshly ground pepper
White cooking wine
3 to 4 dates, pits removed and chopped
1 small kabocha squash, seeds removed and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 small carrots, diced
1 medium purple/blue potato, diced
1 large sweet potato, diced
2 14-oz cans chopped tomatoes (preferably fire roasted)
10 to 12 cups vegetable broth or water
1 pound dried Snow Cap beans, soaked 8 hours/overnight and drained
1/2 cup wheat berries (optional)
1 small bunch kale, destemmed and cut into ribbons
Fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped, for serving
Plain yogurt, for serving
In a very large pot, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, garlic and ginger. Sauté for several minutes, until the onion and leek are soft and translucent. Add the garam masala, cumin, pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with a generous splash of white cooking wine.
Add the dates, squash, carrots and potatoes and cook for several more minutes. Then, add the tomatoes, 10 cups of water, the dried beans and the wheat berries, if using. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stir in the kale.
Simmer, partially covered, for about 2 hours, until the beans are cooked through (the time may vary depending on the type of beans you used and the amount of time you soaked them). Stir occasionally, checking the liquid level and adding more water/broth if needed.
When the beans are cooked, taste and adjust seasoning. Add more water/broth to bring the stew to your desired thickness.
Serve topped with a drizzle of yogurt, fresh cilantro or parsley and freshly cracked pepper.