That which I cannot do


(Dahlias from my garden. And peas too. A beautiful morning!)

There is something deeply fulfilling and peaceful for me in cooking.  Not always (certainly not, for example, at those moments when my kids are screeching like wild banshees as they race circles around me). But often enough. When I am really able to immerse myself and focus on what I am doing in the kitchen, time flies by and I emerge with a clear head and a happy heart.

Back in my former life, I had a job that I really enjoyed – a job where I got to meet and work with amazing people, attend lavishly catered parties in spectacular locales, and independently manage big creative projects. I had a great boss and believed in our agency’s mission. It was a dream job, really, or at least it was for me.

But from the moment I first saw Jacob’s face I knew I wasn’t going back. Admittedly, after the three days of labor and no medication that led up to his 3 am arrival on a cool and clear fall morning,  I was more than a little delirious. Actually, I remained slightly delirious for months afterwards. But through all that delirium I never once felt pulled back to my job. Every instant with Jacob felt important, precious, revelatory. I was engaged in a whole new way with the work that was before me.

In a sense, I had found my calling.

Which is not, by the way, the same as saying that I know what I am doing. Not by a long shot.

My mom wrote a note to Jacob before she died that said, in part, “Play with full abandon and pure joy. Trust your precious creativity and instincts always. And when you work or study do it with your full attention. (Prayer is absolute attention.)”

I feel like this absolute attention – this depth of engagement and immersion and even preoccupation with what I am doing – is what I have (on the good days anyway) when I am with my kids. It is also (on the good days) what I have in my kitchen. Cooking, then, and parenting – those might be my way of praying.

Another thing my mom used to tell me was that praying was often an act of struggle, an attempt to wrestle with understanding – and that because of that, it was also an act of surrender. My mom was deeply religious – I am not. But I think I understand what she meant. When we work hard, and engage, and care deeply – when we struggle to learn and to do and to grow – to do this well we must also surrender to the thing we care so deeply about. We must let it be, and we must let it be imperfect.

So – my kids are not perfect. (Although as their mother I have to add that they are perfectly imperfect!) And my cooking is definitely not perfect. But both bring me the deepest gratification. And both bring me the chance to struggle, and to learn, and to grow on a daily basis. When I meet the challenge (a perfectly tweaked recipe, a lovingly voiced thought) and often even when I don’t meet the challenge (the recipe fails, the right parenting tack eludes me) — even then, I derive tremendous satisfaction from knowing that I have worked hard … that I have given my full attention. And usually, I find that is enough.

Unless there is banshee screaming going on. Full abandon and pure joy, my foot.

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.  ~Pablo Picasso

* * * * *

Saag Paneer with spinach and turnip greens
This is a variation on the Saag recipe from Heidi at Thanks Heidi!

This was a new recipe for me, and one I felt slightly wary of (my anxieties included: lots of spices in complicated ratios, fried cheese cubes, potential for terribly disappointing homemade Indian food … and Dad coming to dinner!). It turned out so beautifully that I ended up wanting to make it again … and again … and again! This is wonderful with rice and a simple salad for a relatively light dinner. It is also, as it turns out, the perfect precursor to Cardamom Carrot Cookies :)

1 1/2 pounds fresh baby spinach, well washed and dried, chopped if the leaves are large
Greens from one bunch turnips, washed and dried and finely ribboned
2 tablespoons butter (clarified for more authenticity :) )
14 oz paneer cheese, cut into 1 inch cubes (we got this from an Indian grocery in town and used the entire 14 ounce block of paneer, though the original recipe called for only 12 ounces).
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon all spice
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 cup buttermilk, plus more if needed

Plain yogurt and chili flakes, for serving.

Cube the paneer and then cook in one tablespoon of butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Keep turning regularly with a spatula so all sides get deeply brown. Once it is browned, remove from the pan and set aside.

Heat the other tablespoon of butter in a large soup pot. Add the onions and salt and saute until the onions soften. Add the garlic and spices. Cook, stirring, until fragrant and nicely combined (about a minute).

Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the spinach and turnip greens to the pan, all at once if possible. Cook, stirring, until the greens are collapsed and wilted (a couple of minutes).

Stir in the buttermilk, heating gently while stirring. Heidi suggests a full cup of buttermilk, but for this version 3/4 cup seems to be plenty. If the saag seems dry, add the additional 1/4 cup.

Taste and adjust seasonings. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and gently fold in the paneer cubes. Serve with yogurt and chili pepper flakes. 

A note on the spices: I loosely followed the proportions from Heidi’s suggested “spice mixture” – but didn’t freshly grind my own. Since I keep small amounts of freshly ground spices already on hand, I felt like it wouldn’t have been worth the effort to mix and grind – so I just measured. I also omitted mustard seed and added a little all-spice, since that was what seemed right to me as I was cooking. Like Heidi, I make no promises here about authenticity – but I promise that it does taste really good :) 

10 thoughts on “That which I cannot do

    • Briefly, it goes like this: pat dry a block of extra firm tofu and cut into large-ish squares or rectangles (you don’t want to have too many pieces to have to flip). Dip each piece into some whisked egg, and then into coconut “crumbs” made out of shredded coconut (or food processed coconut chips) mixed with a little sugar and a little salt. Pan-fry in not-too-much canola oil (or coconut oil if you have it) until the sides are golden brown and it smells like toasted coconut. You can then cut the pieces into smaller cubes for sushi balls. I have pre-toasted the coconut in the oven before, and found that it did not improve the end result at all. Just make sure you allow enough time in the pan to really toast the coconut – which means low enough heat not to burn it! Hope that helps, let me know if I’m not being clear. Maybe I will add this to the end of the sushi ball recipe :)

  1. Very apt thoughts on parenting and cooking. I find they apply to writing, as well. It’s so much more about putting in the time and loving the work than it is about any one success or failure. I forget that, though, even after nine years at home with my kids. So thanks for the reminder.

    The recipe looks great. Saag paneer is my very favorite dish to order at Indian restaurants. I actually have a great recipe for making paneer at home. It’s really very easy. I found it in Olive Trees and Honey, a collection of Jewish vegetarian recipes. And although I am neither Jewish nor vegetarian, it is one of my very favorite cookbooks. I’d be happy to pass the recipe along if you’re interested.

    • I’d love to have the recipe, thank you Tara! We recently started making cheese (ricotta, nothing crazy or aged or anything) and love it — I have not used paneer much, but I liked the way that it ‘handled’ — there are not many cheeses you can fry in butter and have hold their shape :)

  2. This looks amazing! I make saag paneer with kale a while ago and then with radish greens the other day. It bet it is wonderful with turnip greens. I love when you can eat the whole vegetable and nothing goes to waste!

    • The radish greens are fast becoming a favorite here, too. Turnip greens have a bit more bitterness I find … but still very good. I liked the mix with spinach. And yes – being a waste-free cook is such a good feeling! Not that I have it all the time, but I strive … and I love having recipes that are not soup for using up my ‘leftover’ greens :)

  3. This one made me teary Hannah. Going through a tough moment with the kids and just a few lines from you and the glass is full once again.

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