I have a confession. It’s awfully silly. For the past couple of years, I’ve been scared – nay petrified - of peanut butter.
I’ll forgive you if you stop reading this moment, aghast at my admission. (But maybe I can lure you back with a recipe for peanut butter fudge popcorn?)
Here’s the scoop. Peanut butter has held the most horrible reputation among health-bloggers for some time, and I read lots of these blogs which adds up to regular exposure. Peanuts – we write and read – are the bottom feeders of the plant world, poised to absorb every horrible soil impurity and pesticide in their path. Allergenic! Dirty! Those smiling little Kraft bears with their red and green bows? Guised killers, placed to lure us into peanut butter’s sticky trap.
Examining the research, I eventually converted to almond butter – which is delicious in its own way, but definitely not peanut butter. And I began to throw dirty glances at the Kraft bears – those murderers! – whenever I found myself anywhere close to breakfast spreads. Joking aside, I knew deep-down that a good-quality peanut butter eaten now and again was not going to kill me.
A couple weeks back, a friend mentioned the delicious PB&J he was having for lunch. Gosh that sounds good, I thought… if only I ate peanut butter… it’s been so long. I daydreamed of raspberry preserves and crunchy peanut spread with a cup of tea. Finally, on Sunday while grocery shopping, I bought some. Stealthily into the cart (lest anyone see my transgression!) I placed a small jar of MaraNatha Organic Salted Crunchy Peanut Butter. Baby steps. PB&J would soon be mine.
And it’s been a delicious tryst, between me and peanut butter. Into my smoothies and spread on bananas and straight from the spoon – the stuff’s delicious. Its ability to make things tasty knows no bounds!
Then, the other night popping popcorn in my housemate’s mom’s 1970s air popper, I had an idea. Popcorn and peanuts – a natural fit. Into a pan went some brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and peanut butter, stirred to a soft caramel. I shook it with the freshly popped kernels and placed them on trays in a low oven to crisp.
Oh my. Sweet, salty, crunchy peanut butter popcorn. It was popcorn crack. What had I started?
Since then, I’ve been perfecting the recipe nightly. Adding nuts here, and a sugar-coating there, a pinch more salt in some batches – and it just keeps improving. It took all my willpower to save a paltry tumbler (the photo at top) for my housemate to try. Even then, I had to portion it out, sit it on his desk, close the door, and run to make a tea so I would forget it. Popcorn that good.
I’m hopeful that by the time I deplete this jar, I’ll be so sick of peanut butter I avoid it for another couple of years. But I’m not holding my breath. And I still need to make that sandwich.
Peanut butter fudge popcorn
(serves two – well, one, unless you have incredible restraint)
10 cups air-popped popcorn
2Tbsp dark brown sugar
1/4tsp fine sea salt
tiniest shake of cinnamon (just a pinch!)
2Tbsp crunchy natural peanut butter
2 tsp brown sugar, reserved for shaking
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
Pop popcorn using your usual method into a large container that has a lid. You’ll need room to shake the corn, so sometimes two batches works best.
In a small pan over medium-high heat, combine brown sugar, salt and cinnamon with a scant tablespoon of water. When it starts to bubble rapidly, remove from heat and stir in peanut butter. The mixture will look like a thick caramel sauce. Pour over popcorn, pop lid on, and shake vigorously until all the kernels are coated. Open the container and add the 2tsp reserved brown sugar, tossing again to coat.
Spread evenly on two parchment-lined cookie trays and place in the oven to harden, about 8-10 minutes. Remove and let cool and store covered at room temperature.
[bear photo via]
I lay on the bedspread with its pink and purple gardenias that match the curtains that my grandma has sewn. Anywhere else, the pattern would be positively gaudy. But in this place, this moment – they are just right. The breeze is powerful and salty and full of clay-earth. It blows the curtains like great flowery sails above my head. I stare at the ceiling, listening to the clock that accompanies me through each siesta.
We spent many summers when I was little at my grandparents’ island house: a whitewashed specimen on the top of a hill on a little dot of an island in the middle of the Aegean sea. Sometimes I think we humans try to remember a childhood more idyllic than it really was – I am guilty, for sure. But my island home was everything and more. Quiet afternoons spent reading while the Real Greeks napped; walks home from the beach bathed in a fine white sand; climbing to my very favourite mill on my very favourite hill. Schinousa was a dusty, magical place.
Greeks eat their main meal at lunch time: in our family this fell after siesta at around three in the afternoon. Bellies grumbled from a day at the beach coupled with rest, wanting nourishment before the night (and real party) began. I’d quietly make my way to the kitchen before the rest of the house could wake. In two I would fold the napkins. I placed silverware – opposite to my North American upbringing – with the fork to each plate’s right. I poured bottomless jugs of wine into tiny thimbles that we’d refill through the meal.
My Yia-yia is an incredible cook. From her island oven would waft beautiful smells: revithosoupa, tyropites, yemista and other delicious things. But none so coveted (by me, at least!) as her gigantes. Her giants. Broad beans one inch across in a silky tomato sauce – thick and studded with carrots and onion and infused with nutmeg and allspice and maybe a cinnamon stick. Imagine the best baked beans you’ve ever had. These leave those beans in the island dust. Whether scalding your tongue straight from the tapsi or in cold spoonfuls from the fridge; they elevate beans to another level where beans don’t really belong.
I’m always amazed at the beautiful things island frugality produces. It doesn’t make sense that some stewed beans and tomatoes should be extraordinary. Just as, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense that island life – resplendent with quiet and sameness and constancy – should be extraordinary. It just is.
(makes one big tapsi – or pan)
Traditionally, these are spiced with dill and parsley – which is nice, just not the recipe I ate growing up. Mine are infused with the gentlest amount of warm spices: clove, allspice, cinnamon bark and nutmeg. It’s one of those funny recipes that’s equally suited to a hot island lunch as to a mid-winter’s dinner.
Cold leftovers are especially good spooned over toasty bread, sprinkled with parsley and taken in great bites over the sink.
1 pound dried gigantes (you can use elephant beans, lima beans or butter beans to equal success)
4 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 28-ounce jar crushed tomatoes
4 allspice berries
1 small piece cinnamon bark
few rasps of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4tsp ground
salt and pepper to taste
1/4c reserved bean liquid
Overnight, soak the rinsed beans in pure filtered water. You can leave them on the counter, just make sure they’re covered with about an inch of liquid – they’ll absorb most of it.
The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large saucepan, bring fresh water and beans to a boil and simmer to firm-tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/4c bean liquid. In a separate pan, heat olive oil and add onions, carrot and garlic, salting liberally. Cook about 10 minutes until softened but not browned.
In the largest pot of the two, combine beans, onion-carrot mixture, crushed tomatoes, bean liquid and spices. Simmer until combined, about 5 minutes – the mixture should be soupy but not runny. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a casserole dish and bake uncovered, about one hour, until the top is crusty and the liquid evaporates to a thick sauce.
This is great warm from the oven, but even better brought up to room temperature the next day. Leftovers will keep for 5 days or so in the fridge.
Intentional is my favourite word. Not terribly sexy or exciting, I’m afraid. But for a long time now, I’ve relished it. How it sounds and how it looks and how it’s a word used – fittingly – with certain purposefulness.
In 2009, Sameer and a few others picked a word for their year. I quite liked this idea, of choosing some term of reference for a fresh slate of days. Years (and time for that matter) are a curious thing for me – the notion of crossing one 365-day threshold to a next. It’s a concept that I’ve never really been able to wrap my in-the-clouds head around.
As years go, my 2009 was a bit of a blur. Of my own making, and I am gradually working that out. I told a good friend today that I don’t really remember March through June of last year, and I’m still so unsettled at the thought. But as I try to figure out why, I understand that losing my intentionality was part of my self-centred morose. As a rule, I am a quietly contented sort of person. I believe we play a hand in this little world we create on our little piece of planet, for better and worse. Sadness and confusion are not intentional. They are not something with which I’d try to paint my days.
Many years ago, I pulled a Dorothy Parker quote from a Real Simple issue as I sat on the long train to Windsor from Kingston – It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. (The editors were referring to ironing, not life, but what have you.) Life throws some really crappy things at us, some unexpected things. But the tragedies, I realize more and more, are not the instances in which we lose ourselves. It’s the creep, over time, the unintended complacency. The little messes that we haphazardly clean up and leave to sort out tomorrow. That’s what Dorothy had in mind, I imagine, as opposed to Real Simple’s untidy laundry closet.
My 2010 will be intentional.
In my actions, toward my family and friends, with my career, when I write and cook and create – and mainly in this deep-seated yearning I’ve always had to learn and explore and find a constant place of contentedness. A struggle to be meaningful and present sweeps me away sometimes. I worry I don’t have it in me to be at peace with me, whoever she is, if that makes any sense at all. I don’t think the need to be better will ever get easier, but I hope with each year I more willingly embrace this elemental shell I’ve inherited.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s languageAnd next year’s words await another voice.And to make an end is to make a beginning.
With this new year – this end and this beginning – I regain my intentionality: something, I’m afraid, that I unconsciously swept away without realizing at all.