Cooking in general is a nice form of meditation for me. I appreciate the quiet moments standing at the stove, stirring a pot of soup or a sauté pan full of bits of golden garlic. That is, of course, when I have the luxury of cooking in a leisurely manner. As one who works from home, I usually do have that luxury.
I can plan ahead, paging through cookbooks and old Food & Wine magazines to find something interesting to cook. I can wander through the grocery store finding odd ingredients like yuzu kosho and blond chocolate. There are no kids underfoot, no one demanding dinner at a certain time, and only one other person to feed who is happy with pretty much anything from the simple (scrambled eggs on toast) to the sublime (homemade dumplings with garlicky, ginger-y greens and from-scratch dipping sauce).
But as conducive to calm cooking as my days tend to be, even I have those times when it's anything but: harried and frenzied and slapdash. You know those nights when you time it all wrong, and the rice finishes cooking just as your chicken starts to burn and spatter oil over the stove and the dishwasher is full right when you need a G-D CLEAN SPOON and the phone rings and you still have to take a shower and you remember you ran out of olive oil yesterday and meant to buy more but didn't because you got sidetracked in the gummy candy aisle and walked out of the store with three jars of fancy yogurt and didn't even buy paper towels? Right. Those nights.
So that makes me all the more appreciate of the contemplative, meditative moments of cooking, like cooking oatmeal in the morning after a hot shower. I always make mine the same way, so it's second nature. My method requires a bit of babysitting and stirring, so it forces me to stand over my little well-worn pale blue enamel porridge pot and take 15 minutes to just be in the morning.
First I add a little butter to the pan: just enough to coat the base. Then I add the oats and toast them until they are juuuuust starting to burn on the edges. Then I add a very generous amount of water, maybe 1 1/2 cups and a huge pinch of Maldon sea salt. I let this cook on medium-high, bubbling vigorously, for about 3 minutes before adding about 1/2 cup of milk. I keep cooking the oatmeal on high heat, adding splashes of milk (some almond and some regular; I realize that sounds odd but almond milk makes it extra creamy and regular milk keeps the flavor from being too almond-y) until the oatmeal starts to really thicken. I stop cooking when the oatmeal is still loose with liquid, and let it sit to cool for about 5 minutes.
That's it. Simple. Sometimes I'll read the news as I stir. Sometimes poetry. Last week I had fallen into a discovery of a new-to-me poet: Richard Siken. One morning as I cooked my oats I read my way through his poem Saying Your Names and felt all shivery. I selected a few favorite bits below (the entire poem itself is quite long but worth reading when you have the time. Say, when you're cooking oatmeal?).
And perhaps you’re not an oatmeal person. Perhaps you’re more of a cake-masquerading-as-breakfast type of person, in which case you must immediately bake the lemon poppyseed loaf recipe that follows. It’s perfect, you guys. Perfect. Tender and moist and teetering on the edge of being dense, but managing not to be one bit. It’s bright and zesty with citrus and has a springy crumb that’s interrupted by the crunch of tiny poppyseeds. But first, poetry, then cake:
Saying Your Names [Richard Siken]
Nicknames and pet names
and baroque French monikers, written in
shorthand, written in longhand, scrawled
illegibly in brown ink on the backs of yellowing
photographs, or embossed on envelopes lined
with gold. Names called out across the water,
names I called you behind your back,
sour and delicious, secret and unrepeatable,
the names of flowers that open only once,
shouted from balconies, shouted from rooftops,
or muffled by pillows, or whispered in sleep.
Names of heat and names of light,
names of collision in the dark, on the side of the
bus, in the bark of the tree, in ballpoint pen
on jeans and hands and the backs of matchbooks
that then get lost.
Your name like
a song I sing to myself, your name like a box
where I keep my love, your name like a nest
in the tree of love, your name like a boat in the
sea of love — O now we’re in the sea of love!
Your name like detergent in the washing machine.
Your name like two X’s like punched-in eyes,
like a drunk cartoon passed out in the gutter,
your name with two X’s to mark the spots,
to hold the place, to keep the treasure from
becoming ever lost.
I’m saying your name
in the grocery store, I’m saying your name on
the bridge at dawn.
Here is a map with your name for a capital,
here is an arrow to prove a point: we laugh
and it pits the world against us, we laugh,
and we’ve got nothing left to lose, and our hearts
turn red, and the river rises like a barn on fire.
I came to tell you, we’ll swim in the water, we’ll
swim like something sparkling underneath
the waves. Our bodies shivering, and the sound
of our breathing, and the shore so far away.
Names of poisons, names of
handguns, names of places we’ve been
together, names of people we’d be together,
Names of endurance, names of devotion,
street names and place names and all the names
of our dark heaven crackling in their pan.
If there was one thing I could save from the fire,
he said, the broken arms of the sycamore,
the eucalyptus still trying to climb out of the yard —
your breath on my neck like a music that holds
my hands down, kisses as they burn their way
along my spine — or rain, our bodies wet,
clothes clinging arm to elbow, clothes clinging
nipple to groin — I’ll be right here. I’m waiting.
Here is my hand, my heart,
my throat, my wrist. Here are the illuminated
cities at the center of me, and here is the center
of me, which is a lake, which is a well that we
can drink from, but I can’t go through with it.
If you’re like me, you might need to sit down and breathe deeply and let that sink in. But once you have, you’ll want something to help you recover. So onto some cake!
Lemon Poppyseed Loaf
Makes one loaf
1 1/2 cups (180 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (230 grams) plain yogurt
1 cup (198 grams) sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon paste (optional)
1/3 cup poppyseeds
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Grease an 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pan (a 9” x 5” pan will work as well). I like to line mine with parchment, but greasing it thoroughly will work too.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla, oil, and lemon paste (if using). Fold the dry ingredients into the wet, mixing just until combined and no streaks of flour remain, then add the poppyseeds and stir until evenly distributed.
Pour the batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean with no batter clinging to it.
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes before turning out onto a rack to finish cooling.