Tag Archives: travel

Me, FD, and The Big C

If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you know quite a bit about me.  I’m a health nut, but I’m all for the occasional indulgence.  I have a spoiled (but not too spoiled) dog named Luca who thinks she’s human.  I’m a yogi, a musician, a teacher, and a cook.  I’m earthy, but not to the point of dreadlocks, and quirky, but not in the cat lady sort of way.  However, there are still some things you don’t know about me…  My kitchen is an absolute disaster when I cook.  The polished images you see on this blog?  Off-camera, the “backstage” is inundated with dirty dishes and utter chaos.  My garden needs badly to be weeded. Caffeine makes me laugh uncontrollably.  I know, all these things are small and pretty insignificant.  I’m just warming up for the big daddy of all blog confessions.  I am a fighter, I am a survivor, and I have been navigating cancer for four years now.

I guess I’ve been trying to keep cancer in its own little compartment, apart from the sunny place I consider Spoon With Me to be.  If you’ve had cancer, or been close to someone who has, you know the fear that comes with sharing news of “the big C”.  Peoples’ reactions are like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.    I’ll sidestep my least favorite, and most insensitive responses, because I genuinely believe that people mean well and just don’t know what to say.  My favorite responses come from good friends who know that all I need to hear is “What the hell?  That sucks!!!”, and “I’m here for you, now let’s go on a bike ride!”.

I was 26 when I was diagnosed with Medullary Thyroid Cancer (one of the rarer forms of thyroid cancer), and remember feeling paralyzed with fear. Ummm….excuse me!  I’m 26!  I just got married.  I’m not okay with this!  After surgery to remove my thyroid and supposedly all the cancer, I felt cautiously optimistic.  A year later, when the cancer started showing up again in my blood work, I felt like someone had scribbled on the path I thought my life was taking, and I didn’t know where I was going anymore.  I had, and still have, loving family and friends, yet I felt alone and isolated.  Cancer took away much of my self-assuredness, made me skittish about social interactions, and about life in general.  It turned me into a worrier, taking away much of what made “Jenny” Jenny in the first place.  The support of friends and family helped.  Healthy eating and yoga made me feel like I was in at least a little control, but I was still missing something, and I felt ready to find it.

A few weeks ago, I took a grand leap into the unknown, and went on a kayaking trip with First Descents.  I had heard about First Descents through the Mister, who was brought on to help edit their new documentary.  First Descents gives young adult cancer survivors ages 18-39 (the most underserved population of cancer fighters and survivors, b.t.w)  the opportunity to take on a legitimate outdoor challenge–kayaking, rock climbing or surfing, in order to face and conquer fears, and regain the self confidence and direction that was lost to cancer.  I called and signed up for a kayaking camp, the adventure that both intrigued and frightened me the most.

After a debacle of a travel day, which consisted of 11 hours getting to know the Dallas Ft. Worth airport after a missed connecting flight, not making it off the stand-by list for the next flight, and waiting for a torrential downpour to settle down, I finally made it to the airport in Tennessee at 2 am, frazzled and discombobulated.  It was there I met “Pleezah” and “Konvict”, my camp leaders (who drove 2 1/2 hours in the middle of the night to pick me up).  We made a quick stop so that Pleezah could procure a red bull and some beef jerky to keep him awake for the drive into Bryson City.

We arrived at 5:30 am, and I stumbled into bed for a couple hours, and woke up to meet my new camp mates for the week.  I was introduced to smiling faces with names like “Ativan”, “Brave Chicken”, and “Junior High”.   There were 11 of us campers, 3 camp moms, and a chef.  I had missed the receiving of the nicknames, so with others‘ input, I debated and wish-washed over what my nickname should be on the way out the door.  Finally, in all my indecisiveness, I was granted a new name, “Flip-Flop”.  Perfect.  We ate breakfast and headed out to the lake to take on my most feared challenge, the dreaded wet exit, ie:  flip yourself over in your kayak, and get yo-self outta there and swim to shore.  I remember wondering, “What was I thinking?!?”  Brown Claw, one of the kindest and most motivating 23 year olds I’ve met, saw my panic and said “You’ve got this, Flip-Flop!”  And I did!  I flipped that sucker over, got out into the freezing lake and lived to tell about it.  I felt like a shivering, exhausted, unsure rock star.

In the next few days, we kayaked on progressively harder rivers, conquering more and more fear each day.  River metaphors were abundant.  Pick the path that looks like the most fun, and paddle toward it…Look where you want to go–if you’re looking at where you don’t want to go, that’s where you’ll inevitably end up… The only bad decision is indecision.  Our instructors were teaching us to read the river, and we were all soaking it up as metaphors on how to proceed in life.

I don’t know exactly how it happened in the mere week I was there, but I began to feel joyful and alive.  I felt connected to my new FD family, and like I was no longer alone.  The floodgates opened, and I could laugh freely, reach out to others, and rip through the rapids with a fire I hadn’t seen from myself in a long while.  “Flip-Flop” helped re-introduce me to an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long while…myself!

I cannot express enough my gratitude for all that First Descents did to help me launch into my life again!  If you are a young adult cancer survivor, or just want to find out more about this life-changing organization, you can check out their site here.  

Next post:  Back to the food:  A tasty lunch wrap that will give your sad cheese sandwich pangs of jealousy 

 

In the meantime…check out a few of my favorite summertime eats!

How about some cold “Fauxjitos” or  Fizzy Lavender Lemonade?

Southwest Quinoa Salad–one of my favorite summer side dishes!

Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright Tomato Soup, because tomatoes are almost here, and because every little thing is gonna be alright!


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Chicken Bastila, the Moroccan Way

Do as the Moroccans Do…

The day after we arrived in Casablanca, we hopped on a train bound for Marrakech with our friends Karissa and Tom.  We snacked from bags of raw figs, cherries and olives, purchased from the local market that morning, as the train sped past fields of grazing sheep and crops surrounded by expansive cacti “fences”.  I admired the intricate henna painted on the hand of the woman across from me.  Arriving at the train station, we bartered for a taxi, and headed straight for Jemaa Lafna, the main square in Marrakech.  Think of everything you might picture in your head about the nature of Morocco, and multiply it.  Concentrate it.  Only then can you begin to imagine the main square and medina in the center of Marrakech.

Snake charmers played nasal-sounding instruments.  Men walked monkeys on leashes, hoping to trap unsuspecting tourists in an unwanted photo-op.  Henna ladies sat under umbrellas in the sweltering heat, wielding their skin-tinting syringes, and before five minutes had passed , Karissa and I were happily painted from index finger to wrist.  By day, we wandered the covered medinas, shopping for pottery, lanterns, jewelry and spices.  A shopkeeper invited us in, serving us sweet Moroccan mint tea and allowing us to see and smell potent blends of spices from glass jars.

The real magic in Marrakech happens at night.  We wove through hoards of people.  Musicians clanked castanet-type instruments and drums, and storytellers stood on wooden crates, telling ancient tales in Arabic to an enthralled audience.  Smoke billowed from outdoor grills, as food stand owners used every line in the book to drum up business.  “You just ate?  You’re skinny, so you can eat again!”.  We drank freshly squeezed orange juice purchased from a stand.  I am still convinced that it was and will be the best orange juice I have ever tasted.  Deep in the medina, we found our hotel, so gritty on the outside, but so very Moroccan on the inside, with its tiled garden paradise courtyard in the center.  We lay on the rooftop and listened as the last call to prayer echoed from minaret to minaret across the city.

The next morning, we headed back to Casablanca.  When Karissa asked if I’d like to go to the hamam, I nervously thought, I don’t know, do I want to go to the hamam?   Hamam=Turkish bathhouse.  I didn’t know much about Turkish bathhouses, but what I did know involved steam rooms and nudity.  I’ve never been the kind of girl to prance around the locker room in less than a towel, so thinking about being topless around other women and actually relaxing was a bit of a stretch for me, but I had told myself that I wanted the full Moroccan experience, so I had Karissa tell me more.  In Morocco, many households don’t have showers.  People feel that the only way to truly get clean is to go to the hamam.  It is a ritual, and a social bonding time between women.  You can’t get any more Moroccan than a hamam!

A few days later, we walked through the busy streets of Casablanca to the hamam, stopping at a roadside cart to snack on two ears of salted, charred corn.  Once inside, we paid the woman behind the counter 80 dirham, and in return, she gave us two tokens and two towels.  We traded in the first token to sit in the steam room, relaxing and slathering ourselves with black soap.  I felt self-conscious, but free, sitting around chatting, and pouring buckets of warm water over my shoulders.  After the steam room, a woman with flushed cheeks wearing a black bathing suit directed me to lay on a marble massage table for the “savvonage,” a very thorough scrubbing and sloughing which felt both relaxing at times, painful at others.  I left the hamam feeling energized, squeaky clean, and smooth as a baby, exhilarated to been someplace I never imagined I’d be.

The verdict is in.  If only hamams existed in Denver…

Cook as the Moroccans cook…

On Monday, after Karissa and Tom headed to work, Fatima arrived.  After a flurry of mimed greetings, and a few words in French, learned from the internet a few minutes prior to her arrival, I followed Fatima as she fearlessly crossed busy streets, looking after me like a mother hen.  People on the streets looked at us curiously, the odd pair that we were, her in a powder blue jelaba, and me in sunglasses and flip-flops.  We walked down a ramp to the underground market to buy the ingredients to make bastila, a traditional Moroccan phyllo-wrapped pigeon (or in this case, chicken) dish.

First, we walked through small aisles of produce, toward the sounds of clucking and rustling feathers. Fatima spoke in Arabic to the shopkeeper, and he picked up a chicken and weighed it as we left the area (thank heavens), to purchase our produce.  We moved on to buy our phyllo dough, which the seller made to order by dabbing wet dough on a heated metal disc, lifting and each thin sheet of finished dough into the air to cool.  When we returned to the chicken stand, our recently-live chicken was handed to us in a plastic bag, butchered, plucked, and cleaned.  We visited the spice seller to buy the ginger, and I asked if I could take a picture of him and his stand.  He smiled and puffed up with pride, asking if I would bring it back so he could see.  The picture is a little out of focus, but I just couldn’t resist including it.

When we returned to the apartment, Fatima and I got to work.  With no shortcuts or convenience foods, such as blanched almonds or powdered sugar, I learned what it means to cook like a Moroccan.

Cover a freshly plucked and cleaned chicken with water in a large saucepan.  Generously salt the water, and boil the chicken until cooked through and tender.  Remove the chicken from the pan to cool before shredding, but don’t throw out the chicken broth you’ve just made in the bottom of the pan!  You’ll use it to simmer the onions.

The shredded chicken goes back into the pot.  Season the Moroccan way, with salt, white pepper, and a generous amount of cinnamon.  Now, pound the saffron into a powder, using Fatima’s favorite kitchen implement, a hammer.  Sweep the saffron into the pot.  Watch as the saffron immediately begins to swirl its red-orange pigment throughout the broth.  Stir.  The saffron will give the chicken a bright yellow tinge.  Next, add some chopped parsley while you wait for the almonds to boil and soften.

Have you ever blanched almonds by hand?  Neither had I.  After boiling them, it’s easier than it would seem.  Just drain them, allow to cool, and pop them out of their skins one by one, pinching them between your thumb and index finger.  Put them into a pot of oil, and fry until golden.  Allow them to cool, and if there’s no food processor to be found, use a hammer!

Now, add the golden raisins, and season to taste with salt, powdered sugar, and cinnamon.  Then crack the eggs into the pot with the shredded chicken mixture.  Fatima emphasizes that you must stir constantly until the mixture is dry, with no raw egg remaining in the bottom of the pan.  Toss in a couple small handfuls of the crushed almonds and stir.  Finally, the filling is complete!  “Mangez!”  Taste your progress!  But not so fast…There’s still work to be done!

Butter.  Generous amounts of butter.  Butter on the pan, butter on the phyllo.  Moroccans like their butter.

Then, fill the phyllo with the sweet and savory chicken mixture, topping with the fried almonds.

Fold and butter, fold and butter.

Drape the top with a final piece of phyllo, tuck in the edges, and, you guessed it, dab with butter.  Bake and wait, or make Fatima’s Zaalouk to make the time pass faster.

The bastilla emerges from the oven, golden, and so flaky.

Cinnamon stripes,

Powdered sugar stripes (ie:  granulated sugar pounded to a powder using, you guessed it, a hammer).

Finally, the bastila is complete; sweet and savory, flaky and moist layered with so many textures and flavors, and totally worth the hours of hard work!

Meet new people, eat, and share!  What better to bring people together than bastila?

Missing the recipe?  I have yet to streamline and test this bastilla in my own kitchen.  As soon as I do, I’ll update this post!  This post has finally been updated!  You can find the recipe here.


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Filed under Main Dishes, Musings

Zaalouk (Moroccan Eggplant-Tomato Spread)

“Welcome to Morocco!”

We stepped off the plane, surrounded by the sounds of French and Arabic airport chatter.  The mister and I sticking out like sore thumbs–Peder, 6’4, blue-eyed and German-looking, and fair-skinned me in my very American clothing.  Without a word of Arabic between us, and hardly a word of French between us, we made it through customs and were greeted with a reassuring “Hey Guys!”. We spotted Karissa, looking well-traveled, and completely comfortable in her surroundings.  Following her like two deer in headlights to the snack shop, we watched her chat candidly in French with the workers to buy us three bottles of water.  I felt way out of my comfort zone, and tried to blend in.  Will people accept us here?  This is a Muslim country.  Do they hate Americans, like the news leads me to believe?  In the middle of my musings, one of the shop workers exclaimed, “You’re American?  We love Americans!  Welcome to Morocco!”  

After making our way out of the airport, Karissa immediately started bargaining in French with a taxi driver to settle on a fare.  Being a passenger in a Moroccan taxi is an experience that one never forgets.  It’s the first initiation into Morocco that every traveler must endure.  Drivers squeeze cars, motorbikes and donkey carts into every available slot, and shuffle themselves around like decks of cards.  Lane lines are suggestions, and honking is used as a form of communication as if to say, “I’m here, don’t hit me!.”  Ever played the game Frogger?  Then you know how to cross a five lane Moroccan street.

We rode past fruit carts and run down buildings, flowering bushes and dirty sidewalks, simultaneously taking in the scene around us, and chatting away with Karissa, trying to catch up for the past year she had been abroad, teaching at Casablanca American School.  Next, the interrogation.  The Mister and I fired off questions in rapid succession.  How do we blend in?  You won’t.  You’re going to stick out.  You just are, and that’s okay!  What about eye contact?  I made eye contact with a man at the airport, and he looked very surprised.  How very forward of you, Karissa laughed. Women don’t make eye contact with men.  It is okay for women to make eye contact with other women.  We learned to say “thank you” in Arabic as we exited the taxi, and Karissa began to argue with the taxi driver who insisted that she should give him a big tip because of his nice big car.  From what I gathered, Karissa told him “I am not a tourist, I live here, I don’t have to pay you a tip!”  Karissa gave the driver a smaller tip than he had asked for.  He gave her his business card and said, “Next time you need a driver, you call me, and you can give me a bigger tip!”

A little later, our other good friend Tom joined us, and we set out to eat dinner.  The four of us walked down dirty sidewalks and past flowering bushes, gritty stucco walls, and children laughing and playing soccer outside five story buildings.  We stepped through a keyhole-shaped door and into the restaurant, a pristine tiled courtyard garden, complete with a fountain and a traditional Moroccan band filling the space with beats I had never learned in any of my music education courses.  I thought I’d gone to heaven when the waiter brought us a basket of squat round seeded breads and two bowls full of olives, and reached a state of enlightenment when I had my first taste of chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons.

At dusk, we walked along the beach outside the largest mosque in Morocco, the Hassan II.  It was brilliantly lit against the electric blue sky.  I didn’t know what to expect, and wondered if we were intruding on a sacred space that didn’t belong to us. When we reached the front of the mosque, we saw families and friends out for evening walks, dressed in traditional djellaba and hijab.  Children ran and played on the shining marble steps, and birds weaved in and out of the ornate arches.  Women held hands with women, men with men, and I sensed a deep kinship as they socialized and chatted.  The mosque exuded peace, and was a refuge from the speeding motorbikes and honking taxis.  We were met with curiosity and acceptance, as evening strollers glanced at our very different appearance.  I knew then and there that I wanted to step outside my comfort zone, in order to experience Morocco fully.

Join me next time as we eat as the Moroccans eat, cook as the Moroccans cook, and do as the Moroccans do.  We’ll walk through medinas and markets, meet new friends, and learn another recipe from Fatima, a kind Moroccan woman I had the privilege of cooking with.  The first recipe I’ll be sharing with you, is for a warm eggplant and tomato spread/salad called Zaalook.  Just as with most recipes, every home cook has his or her own version.  Here is Fatima’s, as illustrated below.

Eggplant and tomato, fresh from the underground market

Fatima quickly peels the tomatoes and trims the eggplant,

and dices it, with her crazy paring-knife skills.

She chops the parsley, 

and layers everything together on the stove, finely grating the garlic overtop.

Next, Fatima drizzles the vegetables with oil.  Lots of oil.  She cooks the vegetables without stirring until the tomatoes have released their juices, and then stirs everything together.

Now, the spices:  salt, paprika, harissa, and cumin seeds, which she toasts and rubs between her fingers to release the aroma.

She seasons to taste, and adds more harissa paste (to my delight).  Perfect to eat as a spread on bread, or as a salad.  Voila!  Zaalouk!  

Zaalouk

Serves 4-6 as and appetizer or small salad

  • 4 medium tomatoes, peeled, trimmed, and diced
  • 2 medium eggplants, trimmed and diced
  • 4 medium cloves garlic
  • 1 small bunch flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped (stems and all)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted until fragrant in a small frying pan
  • harissa to taste*
  • sea salt and black pepper to taste
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Heat a large frying pan over medium heat.  Drizzle olive oil on the bottom of the pan to thinly coat.  Layer the vegetables in the pan as follows:  tomatoes, eggplant, then parsley.  Add another drizzling of oil over the vegetables.  Increase the heat to medium-high.  Cook, shaking the pan back and forth occasionally (to prevent sticking), until the tomatoes have released most of their juices.  Thinly grate the garlic over top, and stir the vegetables to combine.  Add the paprika, salt and pepper, and harissa to taste.  Rub the toasted cumin seeds between your palms to release their aroma, then add to the pan and stir.  Cover the pan, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the eggplant has softened and the tomatoes have almost broken down completely (The eggplant and tomato will have formed a paste with some remaining texture from the eggplant.)  Serve warm or at room temperature, alone or with bread.

*Harissa is a spicy Moroccan chile paste, which can be found in some Middle Eastern markets and specialty stores.  If you can’t find it, chile-garlic paste (sambal oelek), cayenne powder, or crushed red pepper would make decent substitutions.  

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Filed under Appetizers, Salads, Side Dishes