Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Nettles?

Dear Friends, I've been waiting for this time of year to write this post. Please excuse that it is a reprint of today's post on my professional blog found on because I have just one thing to say about nettles...Yum!

Yes it's Time!

This early spring day with it’s cloud canopy, rain and wind is not getting me down. And do you know why? The nettles have sprung, and I love to cook with nettles! Yes, I’m talking about those omnipresent spiky weeds you never notice in the woods until you brush by them accidentally. First you feel a tingle which quickly elevates into a blistering sting followed by a rash that will last for a few days. Yep, those are the ones.

Who would know how good they taste? They have a lovely hearty herb-y flavor that is as close as I’ve found to the wild greens I used to gather in the mountains of Crete and eat with olive oil. Horta, they called it. I just called it ‘joy’ and I feel the same way about nettles. They also are amazingly nutritious and even do wonders for your tummy, skin and hair.

I have a bit of wilderness on my land where I was lucky enough to discover a large stand of those ornery friends a couple of years ago. Today I ventured out to that patch with gloves, scissors and a large bowl. Snipping the young herbs that were just peeking above the leaf cover, I gathered them into the bowl and carried them reverently back to my kitchen, where I covered them with water and a bit of salt. (Soaking them in the bowl with salt water removes some of the sting and draws out any insects.) The strange thing about the sting of those nettles is that it is gone in a flash as soon as the leaves come in contact with heat or are rubbed with salt. Drying them will do the same.

Today I’ll make a Macedonian Nettle and Cheese Pie. While it is best to get those nettles when they are young, I’ll continue to run out to that bit of wilderness from time to time all summer and snip the tops of the lengthening stalks (as one should use only the top 4 inches of the plant for eating). For a flavorful nutritious boost I chop them up and throw them into soups or anywhere I would normally use cooked spinach. You can even make a strained tea with the lower parts of the stalk and splash it on your face or use it as a hair rinse. (I even use nettle extract in my homemade skin cream.)

Nettles offer an important life lesson right there on the plate. They remind us that there are fewer enemies out there if one simply knows how to be with things. In a dark sort of way, I’ve just turned the table on them (so to speak), and made the nettles more afraid of me than I am of them! Then again, maybe they like me too. That stand of them in my wilderness I protect vigilantly, and they in turn yield to me their first sproutings of Spring.

Macedonian Nettle and Cheese Pie

From The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean cookbook by Paula Wolfert

¾ to 1 pound young nettle tops
Coarse salt (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons snipped fresh mint
1 cup ricotta
1 cup (4 oz) grated fresh unsalted mozzarella
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream

Early in the day (or the day before), make the dough below.

1. Wash the nettle tops under running water. Rub with the salt or blanch in boiling water until wilted, then drain and squeeze out moisture. Chop coarsely. Makes about 1 ¼ cups.
2. In a medium skillet, heat the oil, add the scallions, and cook, covered, over medium heat 2 minutes, stirring, or until soft. Add the nettles and cook about 2 minutes, stirring, or until the oil has been absorbed; transfer to a plate to cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
4. In a mixing bowl, combine the greens, mint, and cheeses; add salt and pepper to taste; mix well with hands. Stir in the eggs. If the filling seems very dry, add the cream. Makes 1 quart filling.

Homemade Pastry Dough with Olive Oil
10½ oz (2 cups) all-purpose flour (plus more for kneading)
½ cup seltzer or soda water or 1 cup water and 1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup olive oil, plus more for brushing the dough
1 ½ teaspoons white or cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Approx. 3 cups filling

1. To make the pastry, place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process 20 seconds. On a lightly floured work surface, knead the dough for an instant, form into a ball, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 4 hours; better, chill overnight.
2. Meanwhile, prepare about 3 to 4 cups filling (see above).
3. Divide the dough in 2 parts. Roll out one piece of dough to make a 12-inch round. Brush with olive oil. Place a small ramekin in the center of the dough. Make 8 radiating spokes, at equal distances from the rim of the ramekin to the edge of the pastry. Remove the ramekin. Working clockwise, fold “wedges” one on top of the other to create a small packet. Leave to rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, repeat with the second round.
4. Roll the first packet of dough to line a 9-inch oiled tart pan or pie plate. Spoon the filling into the shell. Roll out the remaining dough just large enough to fit over the top of the pie shell and place it over the pie. Trim the edges, brush the top with olive oil, score the surface, and bake in a preheated 375 degree F. oven until golden brown and well puffed. about 45 minutes.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 1

I sent the email on July 27

To the Sisters at Our Lady of the Rock:

I live in Princeton, New Jersey. I have heard vague references to you over the years and have finally been able to track you down on your little island. I would like to visit your monastery and would be free any time after the 2nd half of October. Please let me know if this can be done, and what might be needed for such a visit.
In peace,
Marcia W.

July 28

July 28
Yes! I know just where you are...I grew up in Washington and have felt the pull of the San Juan Islands most of my life, although I haven't explored them nearly enough. Being out here in New Jersey makes me miss the San Juans even more, and once I found you I thought it would be the perfect thing to do. I will be in Seattle the 24th, and would be able to come to your island any time after that. The 25th would be wonderful.


P.S. I am a trained cook The thought of cooking out there sounds like heaven to me.

Aug. 2

Oct. 8
Dear Mother Hildegard,
Once I catch the ferry to Shaw Island, how will I find you? Can I get there without a car?
Thank you,
Marcia W.

Oct. 11



Oct. 12
Thank you! I will be dropped off on the mainland side. I'll let you know about my arrival as soon as I get the ferry schedule.

Oct. 22

The tiny old ferry, like a magical rumbling boatman, navigates the mysteries of The San Juan Islands. I first encountered these old green and white rusted metal carriers when I was twelve years old and had just moved from Los Angeles up to the Northwest Puget Sound. I thought those ferries were the closest thing on this earth to angels. Fat, slow and unassuming; yet weightless and able to carry so many people’s burdens.

Looking out the window from the upper deck I can already see the islands. Like the people who live here, they are difficult to approach, and one can’t easily find that first foothold. There are no soft, sandy beaches: rather, each island is a rock that falls straight into the icy water. The peeling red-barked madronas have managed, though. They don’t grow just anywhere, yet here they cling tenaciously to the plunging rock by the thousands, giving way to cedars and firs as one moves inland. There are few buildings to be seen, no lights, just island rock.

Those who live by the ferry schedule learn to be patient, practical and self-reliant.

The rhythmic rumbling of the engine mutes the scraping of my suitcase as I walk down the aisle past blue leather restaurant-like booths. Silver-haired folk (they don’t color their hair much out here) wearing Goretex jackets, Nordic sweaters, and blue jeans listen to an old salt strum an acoustic guitar. He’s staring out the window as though he’s playing to the sea birds and icy-green whitecaps. One fellow with a well-trimmed beard wearing a pea-coat and wool fisherman’s cap nods at me silently, as though he thinks I’m a local. Maybe my suitcase gives the impression I’m coming home.

Pushing through the double doors to the outside deck I close my eyes and relish the cold stinging drizzle as it hits my face. Ah, this is the Puget Sound of my teens, before Microsoft and Google...

I remember feasting on raw oysters with a bewildering taste of watermelon, eating crab while still on the boat where we caught and boiled them, fishing for salmon back when they were easy to find, tasting my first clam chowder cooked on the beach over a driftwood fire...

The ferry pulls into the Orcas Island terminal and everyone gets off, except me. It is only noon, yet it feels late in the day, as though the place is closing up. As the ferry takes off again, I look around and realize I am the only passenger left. Suddenly I’m gripped with the fear that I’ve taken the wrong boat. A crew member pushes a mop nearby and I ask, “Is this ferry going to Shaw as well?”

“Yep,” she says. “It’s just that most people only go this far.”

“Is there something I need to know about that?” I ask concerned.

“Nope,” she replies without lifting her eyes from her task at hand. “Not much going on there...just the nuns, mostly. They even used to land the ferry out there a while ago. But they’re older now, and not so many. They got other things to do.” She pushes the mop on by.

Just a few moments pass before a voice booms over the loud speaker for my ears alone, “ALL PASSENGERS PREPARE FOR DEPARTURE. WALK-ONS DEPART FROM THE CAR DECK!” I roll my suitcase down the ramp as we approach the tiny dock. There is a one-person shack for the ferry worker on the left, a tiny weathered cedar-shingled store on the right, and hanging above the dock is a primitive carved wooden sign of a whale, over which is engraved in free hand, “SHAW”.

Islanders' Clam Chowder

As my husband (a fifth generation Puget Sound Islander) says, “This chowder is just like something you’d find at a stall while you were waiting for the ferry!” It is a rustic dish made in one pot, preferably cooked on the beach where you dug the clams. While the milky broth may be delicate, the eating of it is not. Pick the clams out of the soup with your fingers, carefully pluck off the stringy bits, then suck out the meat and throw the shells against the rocks for the seagulls. If you are faint of heart and don’t want to look at a whole clam in your bowl, you can always shuck and mince them, leaving the shells and the occasional grain of sand, out of the soup entirely.

One last note: if you are missing a minor ingredient, do the best you can. Today you’re an Islander, by God! Make do!

2 slices bacon, chopped
1 clove minced garlic
¼ cup chopped onion, shallot or leek
¼ cup chopped fennel bulb and/or celery
1 bay leaf
⅛ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning or curry powder
small pinch of cayenne
1 ½ cups water
1 lb fresh clams, extremely well-scrubbed and preferably left to empty their stomachs
in a bucket of salt water and cornmeal.
½ cup fresh corn kernels
¼ cup heavy cream
1½ cups whole milk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, chives, tarragon, what-have-you
Pepper to taste, (salt is probably not necessary)

In a 2 qt. pot saute the bacon until brown and crispy. Add the garlic, onion, celery and bay leaf cooking until the onions are translucent. Add spices, cooking a minute longer (careful not to let the spices burn.)

Add the water and bring to a boil, then add the clams and cover the pot, cooking for 5-10 minutes (depending on the size of the clams), until all the clams are open. Toss in the corn, cream and milk. Heat until almost simmering. Serve with a grinding of pepper and a sprinkle of herbs.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 2

There was only one road leading off the ferry, and it followed the contour of the island. Although thankful for the lack of traffic, I kept to the side of the shoulderless road, minding the steep woods sloping into the water on my right, the cedar fenced sheep pasture stretching towards the sky on the left. I spied a rustic cedar shelter perched close to the water with the opening facing sea. It was just large enough for a dreamer to sit in solitude meditating the tides while breathing in cedar, seaweed and salt.

A large muddy ford drove up and a grizzled older man in a flannel shirt asked awkwardly, "Can I offer you a ride of some sort?" It sounded well-meant, like something my late father would have said in his shy Idaho farmer way.

"No thanks," I replied. "I'm just lovin' the walk!" He grunted and sped away.

And I was, really, loving the walk. Somehow wildly fueled for this trek, I found myself almost sprinting to Our Lady to meet the Mothers. The road took a sharp turn though, and I came face-to-face with a road sign reading, "DOGS SEEN CHASING OR INJURING LIVESTOCK MAY BE SHOT BY PROPERTY OWNER." Above that in hand-written scrawl were the words, "OFFICIAL SIGN."

'What would be the chances of seeing that in Princeton?' I mused. But I began to wonder how much farther it was to the monastery anyway. "God!" I whispered, "I hope I'm on the right path...I just don't remember any other options!" I continued, although now with the feeling that I was running from something rather than towards Our Lady. My thoughts turned toward my own mother.

"You should be with her now," the words resounded in my head. And it was true. It had been months, and she so wanted me to spend some time with her, "to see her one last time" as she told my husband. I comforted myself with the confidence that she will live to be a hundred. The years since my father's death have been so dark for her though.

Like the nuns who have chosen to withdraw from the world and its comforts, she too lives with curtains closed, oblivious to the magnificence outside her window. And not so different from these sisters who have opted for simplicity, she survives with the austerity of a martyr, refusing to eat much or to turn up the heat in her home. Why is it then, that I think these nuns have so much to tell me, and my own mother so little?

If you had asked me (and precious few ever have) why I chose to seek an understanding of the facets of faith, I would tell you this: faithlessness just doesn't age well.

I think back to the moment that I had decided to seek a spiritual life. I, at barely fifteen, had taken myself on a 30-hour bus ride to Humbolt, California to visit a very religious cousin in college. After a day or two of following after her and those fundamentalist friends of hers, I found myself dying of boredom. I was desperate for a little shake up! The moment itself meant very little to me, a careless ‘what the hell’ kind of instant that gets fifteen-year-old girls in all kinds of trouble. I was in a prayer meeting led by another student in a cramped dorm room. As directed, I repeated the words. You know the ones, asking Jesus to come into your heart? They were powerful words only because by uttering them, I had done the most forbidden thing I could imagine, worse than if I’d gone and had sex. I spoke them. And disappointingly, I felt nothing for it: no rush of energy, or flood of love or anything that felt Jesus-y. Yet, because it was so big, so forbidden and yet so nothing, I simply laughed. And I laughed for days.

How could I have understood what it all meant then, to start on such a path?

Now surveying the island road ahead, I was convinced that I had truly lost my way. I grabbed my cell phone but there was no reception, there were no houses in sight, nowhere I might ask for help. Suddenly, an old station wagon came from nowhere and stopped. Staring at me from the passenger seat, with huge and curious ringlet covered eyes, sat a large black Portuguese water terrier. And poking her head from behind the dog, sitting in the drivers seat, appeared a tiny nun, barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. In a slow, high, voice which was full of a plain sort of kindness--not at all cloying, she asked , “Would you like a ride?”

Oh, yes!” I answered with relief. I opened the back door, threw in my suitcase, and jumped into the back seat. The dog pressed her huge body between the two front seats so that she could get a better look at me. Then the nun asked, “And where might you be going?”

"Oh! I’m the monastery!” I answered, embarrassed because I thought she already knew.

"If you don’t mind, then, we have one milk delivery to make before going back...We are certified raw milk producers for the island,” and she pulled up a gravel road to a large Northwest style house. Stopping the car, she opened the back and removed some milk bottles. I studied her as she bent down, carefully placing each bottle full of milk in a delivery basket and switching out the empty ones. She wore a sturdy linen wimple that had seen some wear. It was held in place by a serviceable black cable knit skullcap, an old magnificently cabled indigo sweater, and a simple faded denim dress showing evidence of the day’s work. (A dear ex-nun friend of mine once explained that the nuns who still wear habits usually have one for work and one for church. Only in the Northwest, however, would one see a habit made of denim.) I wondered how old she was. She had beautiful skin, but her delicate posture and slow, careful movements seemed elderly.

She got back into the car, ignoring the dog, who was inching closer to me and by now had her paws on my shoulders.

"That's Bella," said the nun,  eyes on the road ahead but speaking of the dog behind her, now in my lap. "She runs this place."


No recipe this post, except the explicit instructions to go out and find yourself a glass of true raw milk. You haven't lived until you've tried it. There is a sweetness and complexity that remains unmatched by that pasteurized stuff you find on the shelves these days. It's not always easy to find, however, and is illegal to sell or even to give away in some states. As for me, since it is a banned substance in New Jersey, I take myself into Pennsylvania and bring the contraband home. So go find yourself some. You'll need it for the recipe in my next post!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 3

The car made its way back to the main road following the edge of the island, then turned into Hoffman Cove Road where to the left the sister pointed out a wildlife preserve owned by the University of Washington. On the right was ancient cedar fencing containing some of the oddest looking cows.

"Over there," said the sister in her soft no-nonsense voice, "are the Kerry cattle we keep." She nodded towards some small black cows with glossy coats. "And those," she said pointing to some long-forelocked red ones, all fully horned, "are the Scottish Highland." I had read earlier that they kept these heirloom breeds here as a way of preserving them.

Coming finally to the large iron Maltese cross, we turned into the dirt road of the monastery. The sister pulled up to a tidy but aging two-story gabled house with covered front entry. The car stopped at the back of the house and the sister said, "Your dinner is waiting for you in the refrigerator--and on the door you'll find your room assignment. Sister Barbara will be with you shortly to show you around, and Vespers will be at five, if you care to come."

"Thank you," I said as I stepped out of the car. "By the way, I'm Marcia," I said, wondering what Vespers was.

"I am Mother Therese," she responded, then drove away.

I swung open the screen door and stepped into the mud-room, neatly lined with a variety of work shoes and garden equipment.  I then opened the door into the tidy kitchen of a 1970s house. Beyond the kitchen was the living-room: a plain wooden dining table, a couch and other probably donated chairs and such. The living-room led into a small sun-room filled with various crafts and bottles of mustard for sale. A donation box tucked discretely among the goods reminded all to pay for whatever one wanted, as well as the room. No price was specified, just a note that the monastery was solely supported by donations.

A large picture window next to the kitchen table opened into a corralled area where a Scottish Highland milk-cow stood looking into the window at me. As she turned and walked away I could see her udders were heavy but her upper body seemed to have no muscle at all. The skin on her back stretched over bone so starkly that I wondered if she were starving. Couldn't be, I thought. Not in this place! I gazed beyond the corral to the hills and meadows, sloping to the ocean. Not in this perfect place. I closed my eyes and took in a long and luxurious breath. 
A knock at the door brought me back, and a short woman about 60 with a simple scarf tied at the nape of her neck entered. She smiled and cheerfully said, "Hello, I'm Sister Barbara...Oh!"  She suddenly turned around and removing her shoes left them in the mud-room. I took it as a gentle reminder to do the same. I ran over and kicked them off into the mud room as well.

"I just wanted to cover a few housekeeping details," she said cheerily. "First of all, you have been assigned the single room upstairs, but since you are the only guest, you can have your pick. Secondly, this is an 'enclosed' monastery, which means that the nuns are semi-cloistered. If you see a closed gate please do not enter it unless invited. Please refrain from wearing shorts or bathing suits, and do ask permission before taking pictures of the nuns. Some don't like being photographed. Do you have any questions?"

"What is Vespers?" I asked.
"That is the five pm service. As you see on the refrigerator schedule, there are several throughout the day."

"I'm a Quaker, we just sit with our eyes closed. I don't know when to stand or genuflect or whatever..." I said awkwardly.

"Oh, don't worry about it. If you like, you stand when the nuns enter, stand when they leave, stand when they stand..."

"Whew! Sounds complicated," I said. She smiled and left saying she would see me at Vespers, and that Mother Hildegard would meet me outside afterward. 

I opened the refrigerator to find a bottle of milk (presumably the wonderful raw stuff they produced), a large salad and a casserole enough for feeding three people, which I warmed and ate entirely. Then, like Goldilocks, I wandered upstairs and found just the right room with a dormer window facing the wildlife sanctuary; and in the unbelievable silence of the afternoon, I took a nap.

Awakened by church bells calling me to Vespers, I quickly dressed and left the house. My shoes were now neatly tucked next to the others. I put them on and wandered up the hill, past the herb garden, the dairy, the Cotswold sheep behind stack rail fencing, to the chapel at the top of the hill.

It was still a few minutes before five, so I continued past the chapel to the beginning of a switchback that continued up the mountain. There was a clearing there that allowed a view down into the valley, framed by trees sloping down to the basin itself. Lush, verdant, and peaceful, a smattering of contented llamas grazing, the valley gave way to water, and opened out into the sound. My heart ached with its beauty. Who would ever want to be anywhere else? I wondered.

I returned to the chapel. The L-shaped building was of simple Asian architecture, wrapping around a large moss-covered rock. One flank gated the nuns quarters which was blocked from view, the other was the entrance to the small chapel. I walked through the rock garden and entered the chapel itself. It was almost tent-like with a single beam in the center supporting, it seemed, the whole structure. The architecture was simple and exposed, with smooth natural wood everywhere, warmed by soft lighting. Someone had built this place with so much love, I thought.

There was a slatted wood separation between the nun's area and the public pews. I was the only one in the public section of the chapel and I chose the farthest, darkest corner. My entrance had interrupted a nun in meditation on the other section, and she scurried through a side door. 

But soon, the door re-opened and all the nuns entered their area. I saw among them Sister Barbara and Mother Therese, all now in the more formal black and white full habits. I stood, sat, stood, sat, listened, and felt horribly awkward in my Quaker ignorance. The Sisters took turns singing parts. Mother Therese sounded like a young woman in her high clear gentle voice. Another nun's voice distinguished itself from the others, savoring each articulation; it was her voice that rose a little higher than the others, then lower, and it was her voice which trailed a fraction of a second longer than the others before each pause. One nun stared out the window, as though God was really out there in the valley. And just outside, barking her praises along with the nuns, stood Bella. In time, I just closed my eyes and surrendered, letting their chants wash over me, hoping they'd understand.

Note: sorry I lied about the raw milk recipe. That will be in the next post!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 4

Mothers. Here was a room full of them. Orderly and crisp in black and white. Worshipful, generous, aged but strong. Here in this woodland island chapel, they offered this place of peace, a lovingly burnished sacred space. I drank it up for a glorious while, but it wasn’t long before my euphoria began to crumble. I started to squirm, pestered by thoughts of my own mother nibbling at my consciousness.

I should be there with her, not here. I can see her staring into the darkness of her living room with drawn curtains while I enjoy all this.
But how could I not be here?
I’m taking it all for myself.
Bring her here...
How could I bring her here? She couldn't stand it.
...Hush then...Let her be.

My ruminations turned into anticipation of meeting all the sisters; I had my afternoon to settle in and have a nap. I was ready for some fun; I anticipated hanging with the sisters in the kitchen, asking them all about life, their life, farm life, my life, all while cooking together... When was this Vespers supposed to end anyway?

Finally, the nuns stood; blessed me, then left through the door on their side of the partition. I hurried outside. One of the sisters, looking serious and substantial, waited with a small basket in hand covered with a cloth. I recognized the nun as the one who sat staring down into the pasture at her flock of llamas and sheep.

"Hello!" I said, excited to begin our time together. It was hard to read her. She had a no-nonsense, almost stern expression; and I couldn't tell if she was welcoming me, or if I just sort of was.

"Hello," she replied. "I am Mother Hildegard. I understand you would like to cook with us while you are here. Were you thinking of something in particular?" Her expression remained plain and unreadable.

"Oh, I'd be happy to do anything you like!" I chirped, hoping to make a good impression. Knowing how wholesome this place was, I continued, "I could do some bread, something with that pastured meat, or if you have any produce still here I could work with that...or..." Mother Hildegard furrowed her brow and looked down at her feet. I could see this was not what she had in mind.

"Well, we were thinking something more in the line of desserts." she hedged, meeting my gaze from beneath her starched cap. "The sister who usually does that kind of thing is not here right now."

"Hmmmm." I said. "Well, with all that raw milk you've got here, we could do a crème brûlée?"

Her eyes met mine and grew wide. "Oh yes!" she said, "I love creme caramel made with raw milk! The milk sort of separates while it is cooking so it gets creamier and lighter at the top than on the bottom!"

Raw milk crème brûlée. That was intriguing. "Crème brûlée it is then, if we can get some cream.” I said. "When should we start?"

"I will come down to the work kitchen right next to the guesthouse, tomorrow morning after Terse, about 9:45. I'll show you around and make sure you have whatever you need. Will that do?" she said as she held out the basket. "Here is your supper. It's not too fancy, we were trying to use up some of the things from earlier this week."

"Uh, sure...thank you!" I said weakly as I took the basket, realizing that I had just been dismissed. She nodded and disappeared behind the gate. I stole a look of the monastery itself as she slipped behind the gate. It was a simple single-story structure mostly hidden behind a moss-covered boulder. How can all those women live in there? I wondered. The front of it was perhaps glass and heavy wooden beams, not surprising architecture in the Northwest--kind of Asian-in-the-woods. The gate snapped shut behind Mother Hildegard; and I stood for a moment, staring at the wall before me with the realization that I was to be left alone for the rest of the night, and for the rest of my stay, with my thoughts. And darkness was coming.

Basket in hand, I wandered back to the guesthouse, slowly, for time was all I had. Silently, I lifted the cloth and pulled out a bit of beef and noodles. I heated the meal, and ate some of it at the table; but I hadn’t planned on eating alone, and didn't really have the stomach for it tonight. I made some tea and sat back down at the table, and watched as the cow, heavy with milk, skin pulled over bone, amble back to the barn.

There we were, me, my mother, the nuns, and the cow; all cloistered in our own little corners. What is the difference, anyway? I thought ruefully. It’s time I went back to her. I watched as darkness, the deep darkness that only happens on islands, enveloped our worlds.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 5 (Final)

Chocolate and roses
My sleep had been deep and peaceful, perhaps due to my resolution to end the trip, perhaps simply due to the velvety silence of the night; and I awoke to the gentle lowing of cows. I would speak to Mother Hildegard after the morning Terse, make the most of the day, and leave on the evening ferry. But the first thing I would do was to visit the cows.

I threw on my jeans, made some coffee and strolled outside to find them, munching on grass, happy enough in their confinement. The bells rang, signaling that it was time to go to the chapel.

I found the morning prayer to be such a luxury, although more for me perhaps than the sisters. They had been up since dawn, I expect; as there had been two other prayer services before this one; and while I sat quietly with eyes closed, luxuriating in the sounds of worship, they chanted. It seemed like such work for them, and I the beneficiary.

That work, however was soon over. I rose to meet Mother Hildegard outside.

“I realized last night,” I told her, “that I should go back today to see my mother. She’s not too well, you know, and, well, I think it was wrong of me to come here. I’d like to cook today and leave tonight.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said with a surprisingly grave rich voice full of sincere gentleness, and my eyes began to burn. She continued, “I’m sure you know what you need to do. I’ll meet you down in the work kitchen and you can get started. It is the building right next to your guesthouse, connected to the dairy. I’ll see you down there in a few minutes.” Again, she disappeared behind the gate, and I took my own path down to the kitchen. This time, I was ready to work alone, as they did, each tending to their own tasks.

The kitchen was a welcome sight, a clearly workable and unpretentious space. There were boxes of apples, several varieties, they no doubt were donations from nearby farms. There were also lines of mason jars, bowls and strainers on bare wood shelves, and a large mixer on an old wooden work table. The place was clean, and everything looked old and very well used. I found a dish towel which I wrapped around my head to contain my hair, and threw on an apron.

Mother Hildegard entered hurriedly, and with efficiency she set about showing me the kitchen. With a sharp ‘crunch’ down on the levered door handle she opened the large reach-in refrigerator. “Here is where we keep the eggs, milk and produce. The dried fruit, chocolate and nuts are over there.” She slammed the door closed, then opened another door into the large room containing a walk-in freezer. “Here’s the butter and over there are the bins of flour and sugar.” I ran after her  back into the kitchen where she grabbed a cookbook entitled Bars which she quickly leafed through. “I love these pecan chocolate bars, but any of them are good.” She slapped closed the book. “What kind of crème brûlée did you want to make?”

“Hmmm,” I said. “I love to work with rose petals or lavender as long as there are no pesticides on them. Do you have any of that?”

“Only dried ones from the garden for Sister Patrice’s pot pourri,” she said apologetically, as though she usually had fresh ones on hand. She threw two one-gallon bags onto the  work table; one filled with brilliant magenta rose petals and the other with lavender. I chuckled shaking my head, never having before seen such a large supply in one place.

“I have to get to the animals, now. Mother Therese will bring over the cream as soon as she gets it skimmed, and Sister Barbara will come get you at about three o’clock to go up to the herb house to work on Mother Patrice’s mustard. One of us will take you to the ferry a little bit after Compline.” And with that, she blew out the door, clearly having much more to do somewhere else.

Immediately I set out to make the bars. I put together a shortbread dough and pressed it into the bottom of a baking pan, then placed it in the oven while I assembled the chocolate-pecan topping. The recipe called for more chocolate chips than they had so I chopped up semi-sweet chocolate pieces. It seemed to call for an awful lot, but somehow I just didn’t trust myself and just went by numbers. I don’t often use corn syrup and that seemed too much as well. And parchment--Oh God! There wasn’t any, so I had to use waxed paper. Even waxed paper was making me nervous. My stomach began to tighten. Cooking for nuns should not have been this daunting -- even these pecan chocolate bars were proving too much for me. But I powered on. Actually, this felt more like careening.

Just as I put the pecan bars back in the oven, Mother Therese entered gingerly holding a glass pint pitcher of cream. She was careful not to splash any of it over the top. “Here’s the cream, as much as I could get of it, anyway,” she said placing it on the work table. “Hope it will do!” Of course it would! I thought. I’d make just as much crème brûlée as I had cream. In fact, I would even add some milk to add to the layering effect Mother Hildegard had described.

I’d need one egg yolk per half cup of cream and milk. The trick however, would be in steeping the rose petals. I wanted to keep the milk raw, but needed heat to steep the petals. I ended up steeping a small amount of cream with all the petals, leaving the remaining cream raw. Then I mixed together the eggs and sugar, strained in the rose-cream the raw cream, and the milk, then I poured it all into one pan which was placed in a hot water bath. I opened the oven, pulled the pecan bars out and placed them where they could cool, then I put in the crème brûlée.

Two down, one to go! I thought with satisfaction. Maybe I can do this! And I started in on an apple pie. This will be a no-brainer, I thought as I threw together a quick crust. The apples--there were such beautiful boxes of them. I couldn’t decide which kind to use, so I chose a few of each and tasted the variety as I sliced them up. I tossed in some flour, lemon juice,  cinnamon, sugar, then tasted for balance...and I choked. I had added salt instead of sugar (the two canisters being unmarked and sitting next to each other). There was a moment of panic. I can’t waste the stuff, they might get upset. And it’s not like I can hide the evidence! I gulped hard and rinsed the apples, pouring all that flavor down the sink. Then I added more sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and flour. I’ll suggest they eat the pie with the crème brûlée, I thought with desperation. It might work, apples and rose are wonderful together.

I looked at the bars which now were probably cool enough to slice. When I tried to lift them out though, my heart sank even further.They were far too gloppy and the waxed paper stuck to the bottom of them. I peeled off what I could, hoping the nuns might not notice the lines of paper on the crust. I was thankful that I would be long gone before they ate the stuff, and I harbored no illusions that the nuns would ever want me back.

I cleaned up as the apple pie baked, returned to the guest house, and waited for Sister Barbara.

“Hello!” she said smiling as she entered the kitchen. “Are you ready to help me with the mustard?”

I was more than ready. We got into the car, the same large station wagon that Mother Therese used, and we drove up past the chapel to an old mobile home in the woods. Shelves along the walls were filled with jars of dried herbs. There was a loom and a small pile of natural dyed yarns, a kitchen sink, and a work table in the center, with a large bucket of mustard prepared by one of the nuns. Our job was to funnel it into smaller jars for sale.

I had hoped for such a time. We filled the jars as Barbara told me a little about monastery life--the structure of it, the extremely early mornings, the hours of singing. She talked about the strange dreams that disassembled her earlier life with a marriage and thriving therapeutic practice and directed her specifically to this place; how this life continued to teach her the radical discipline of ‘letting go’. She explained that she was an ‘oblate’ which meant that there would be a time before she and they would decide if she was a good fit for the monastery. The other nuns, the ‘Mothers’ had interesting accomplishments as well. Mother Hildegard had a PhD in adolescent psychology; she uses the monastery’s heirloom breeds of cattle, sheep and llamas to work with emotionally disturbed youth. Another Mother had a PhD in musicology. (I wondered if she was the one who luxuriated in the sounds and cadence of the liturgy.) Benedictines, evidently, prefer women who know what the world is before they give it up.

When we finished filling the jars of mustard, Sister Barbara drove me back to the guesthouse to prepare for Vespers and Compline which was immediately following on this day.

The final entrance into the chapel was full of mystery. Just as the night before, it was dusk, but the lights were low. I took my place in the back corner, closed my eyes and centered into silence until the sisters entered. This time, I was not going to worry about standing when I thought I was supposed to, I would simply be. The awareness of soft footsteps soon caused me to open my eyes, however. It was Mother Therese standing before me. She whispered, “Would you like the lights on?”

“No,” I answered dreamily.

“I thought not,” she replied turning back to take her place on the other side of the partition. I centered now into the chanting of Vespers, then Compline. When it was over I rose and silently took the road back to the guesthouse to wait for my ride.

Inside, I sat at the table with the rest of my dinner and a cup of tea, this time enjoying the silence while looking one last time out the window. I regretted inconveniencing one of the nuns for my ride while the rest were no doubt turning in, and I so regretted leaving. Perhaps we value these stolen moments all the more because they interrupt obligations and are by design too small.

A soft light glowed from the dairy where the cow was now sheltered. Up the hillside beyond the dairy was a brilliant cascade of lights I hadn’t noticed the night before. I caught my breath. There was more to the monastery than that small space I had initially seen over Mother Hildegard’s shoulder. What I had thought was a simple single story structure was actually a shining wall of windows facing the pasture and the sea.

The curtains were kept open here, even to the dark. The depths of their dwelling served as a  beacon from my night window; and these sisters were there to be the lucky first to glimpse the dawn.

I finished my tea just as the quiet rumble of a large station wagon signaled my approaching ride. I grabbed the suitcase, stepped into the shoes that were tucked so neatly in the mud room, and went outside where, barely visible over the station wagon’s dashboard, sat Mother Therese with Bella beside her.


November 15, 2010
Dear Mother Hildegard and all the sisters of Our Lady,

Thank you so much for your lovely hospitality. You have blessed Shaw Island with your presence and stewardship, and have provided a sanctuary for man and beast alike. I am so sorry I did not stay longer, I miss the place already and hope to return time and again in the future. It was best that I returned when I did. I thank you for your blessings, and hope the desserts worked out alright. Now that I know what your kitchen is like, I'll be better equipped to do some fun sweets next time.

Thank you again.

In Love of Light and Life,
Marcia W.





Rose-Scented Crème Brûlée from the Raw 
(Of course, pasteurized cream will do, if you must.
However, don't use rose water from a bottle. That's a 
different flavor entirely. If you don't have rose-petals 
substitute 3 Tablespoons dried lavender or earl grey tea,
even a teaspoon of vanilla.)
2 cups cream (or a rich mixture of raw milk and cream)
1/2 cup untreated organic rose petals
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

Heat oven to 325 degrees F and put a pot of water on to boil.

Place 1/2 cup cream in a saucepan and heat just until steaming but not boiling (about 160 degrees). Add rose petals and stir. Leave covered for 20 minutes allowing roses to steep. Strain the cream.

Mix together eggs and sugar being careful not to introduce too much air. (The air bubbles will create a rough surface on the finished product.) Then temper the egg mixture into the cream and pour into small ramekins. 

Place ramekins in a pan, then add the hot water to the inside of the pan, being careful not to get any inside the ramekins. Place the into the center of the oven. Cook just until done but still a little wiggly in the center.

Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature in the water bath. Then remove the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, place sugar on top of each custard, rolling the ramekin around so as to fully coat each surface with sugar. Aim the flame of the blow torch at the surface so that it is darkened and crispy. Serve immediately.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why Bread?

The shrill screech of my guinea hen was a brutal awakening this morning. The sky was still dark. The other hens joined in for a bit; but it was that first screech that really jolted me up. I tried to calm myself back to sleep thinking, It’s just guinea hens--they’re always loud when they get spooked! They are known for their horrific strident ruckus designed to frighten off predators and friends alike, and so I tried to close my eyes.
But my eyes shot open again! This first cry was different, more like a sudden piercing electrified explosion that screamed “Death!’ then trailed off into a whimper, and finally into a dark and ugly silence.
I threw on my clothes and ran out the back door, down the grassy hill to the birds’ chain-link enclosure near the brook. Searching for them in the moonlight, I could barely make out the shapes of four motionless bodies lying in the hay instead of on their usual perch. Maybe they were threatened and are now just frozen so the threat will go away, I hoped for a moment; or maybe an intruder killed every one of them, I couldn’t tell. I cooed what I hoped were some calming sounds and returned to the kitchen knowing I would have to wait until light to assess the damage, a wait that was promising to be dreadful. The thought tightened my gut so badly that it was about to lurch like the damn crouching beast that probably pounced my birds.
There would be no more sleep for me, so I made myself a cup of coffee, donned an apron, then set to work. I reached for the large glass jars of red winter wheat and oat groats from the highest shelves, pouring them directly into the hopper of the grinder that lives on my counter. It was a ritualistic act, done without thought or measurement. I switched on the machine and watched the freshly ground flour descend into the old blue splatterware bread bowl like sand in an hourglass. The things this bowl and I have seen, I thought, running my fingers over its chips and crazing. It’s been with me for as long as I’ve been making this bread. I stared into the bowl; scooped the flour into my hands; felt the warmth from the mill; weighed the coarse and fluid gravity of the grain as it ran through my fingers. It was calming me already. This has been done forever, I mused; the grain in my hands has been forever.
Bread is an awe-fully plain thing; created from grain, water, leaven and time. How easy it is to overlook such simplicity; but making bread serves as a reminder that time and intention creates sustenance from nothing. I find this truth as well in other kinds of cooking, which I’ll write about later; but I first discovered this in making bread. It has nourished us in its simplicity for all time.
I made this morning’s loaf by dissolving yeast into sweetened water, adding a large pinch of salt, a medium handful of brown sugar, a pinch of ginger and a bit of nut oil. This, I poured into my ancient bread bowl with about half of the flour and stirred everything together into a thick dough with my large flat wooden spoon. The remaining flour, I sprinkled heavily onto the wooden work table and poured the thick dough on top. With a bench scraper at first, I began the timeless process of folding and pressing, incorporating just barely as much flour as necessary; knowing that good bread-making requires a light touch, and an awareness of what is enough; enough grain, enough water, enough time...then losing time.,,
Lost in the ritual of stirring and kneading I surrender and find balance, the dough’s body absorbs the world’s sorrow and upheaval. Like a child hugging a gorgeously fat grandmother, all that is wrong flows out through hands, all things became bearable...and I return.
There is a miraculous transition that bread undergoes while kneading. It starts as a thick gooey mass; then it is worked with the repetitive motion of your two hands. Fingers cupped, drawn toward you, then with open palms pressed gently away, over, and over. The change begins to happen. The protein strands lengthen, and gain the ability to support structure. This will be useful later when the yeast produces gasses which are caught in this protein web at rising. You can feel the change in your hands as you work as well. What begins as a clingy, leaden, all-absorbing mush begins to take form. The dough begins to hold its own shape, to stand on its own. When you press, it bounces back, and the dough becomes lighter and plumper. It’s hard to say just when it has had enough. The rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 minutes or so. All I can say is that it’s done when it tells you it is. It is ready to inhale the leavening spirits.
In this way my bread was kneaded, then placed back in the bowl, covered, and left to rise just as the sky began to show some light. Wiping my hands on my apron I turned my mind back to the birds, or whatever was left of them. With trepidation, I woke my husband and took him outside where we found the four guineas alive and huddled together in the corner of their enclosure. One, however, was clearly injured and too weak even to escape my husband’s reach. My husband gently wrapped the bird in a cloth and took it away, having been left with the job of putting the poor thing out of its misery. The remaining birds were fine but shaken, and anxious to leave their night enclosure. They quickly scattered into the bushes at first chance. Guineas seem to have a very short memory as much as they love to huddle with each other. They would soon be ok.
I swallowed hard. The worst was over, the day was still early, and the bread was calling me back. It was time to punch the dough and form it into loaves, which would rise again with even more strength; I would cover the loaves with seeds and put them in the oven.
“Life goes on,” it whispered. “Even bad mornings are surprisingly ordinary; and... there is still bread to be baked.”