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In the Pink - Cast Iron Salsa

The Phone Call

Sometimes life takes a radical turn. Sometimes you see it coming. Sometimes you don’t.

Last year, in February, I went for a routine mammogram. Then I went about my business. I attended a women’s retreat. I posted to my blog. I hardly gave it another thought.

I had no reason for concern. A mammogram was a routine part of my annual health care. It had been since my 20s. I hadn’t felt a lump or anything out of the ordinary in my monthly self-exams and I wasn’t unusually anxious about the results.

Then I got the phone call. I needed to come back to the women’s health center for more pictures, then for a biopsy. Less than two weeks and three tests later the results were confirmed: Breast Cancer.

The Learning Curve

I spent the next three weeks reading, praying, asking questions and keeping appointments. Besides learning about my cancer there was little time to do anything but eat and sleep. When what I learned began to ache in my chest and feel like paralysis, I slept. I slept a lot during those weeks as decisions were made and I moved toward treatment.

After an MRI, genetic testing and appointments with several surgeons, I checked into the hospital for a double mastectomy. By the grace of God, my margins were clean. My sentinel nodes were clear. Thankfully my breast cancer was caught early. Another couple of weeks and my drains were removed. I was on the road to recovery.

As I have learned over the past year, my story is not unique. It happens again and again all around us. Sometimes we hear about it, sometimes we don’t. Some people are comfortable sharing and some people aren’t or don’t know how to. I learned about others who were recently diagnosed: another woman in my Bible Study group, someone two streets over in my neighborhood, a friend from church. I learned the stories of survivors: my cousin, a neighbor from Texas, a neighbor from Virginia, women at church, the mothers and sisters, daughters and friends of those who offered care and concern and wonderful meals that kept me well nourished as I recovered from surgery. And I have been reminded of the stories of those who, like my mother, haven’t survived and still are well remembered.

Reflections in Cast-Iron

I’ve been one of the quiet ones. I haven’t talked much about my cancer. I’m not one to dress in pink or wear the ribbon. But today, one year later, I want to share a recipe that in some way speaks to this milestone in my walk with cancer.

I clipped this recipe for Cast-Iron Salsa from Southern Living magazine last year. It starts with the deep pink of plum tomatoes. Toss in pungent garlic and white onion along with a fiery jalapeno. Together they are seared and sweetened in my cast iron skillet, the big one that always sits on my stovetop reminding me of where I come from and those who have walked before me.

I have little to add to the recipe. I scarcely deviate from the steps as written. I slice through the tomatoes, tear up as I confront the onion, wince at the scent of the split jalapeno roasting on the hot bed of the skillet.

Once the vegetables begin to char, they are roughly chopped in a food processor. Then they are salted to bring out their character, brightened with a zing of lime juice and garnished with the chopped leaves of fresh cilantro.

Tempered by hot iron this salsa has a rich depth of smoky-sweet undertones. Serve it with chips or savor as a relish with eggs, meat or fresh roasted vegetables.

Cast-Iron Salsa
From Southern Living

3 plum tomatoes, halved
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 jalapeno pepper, halved
1 medium white onion, cut into 16 wedges
1½ Tablespoons fresh lime juice
¾ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot (approximately 5 minutes.) Place the tomato halves in the skillet, cut side down, spacing them evenly. Add the garlic cloves and jalapeno pepper. Cook, turning the vegetables occasionally, until soft and slightly charred, about 6 minutes.

Transfer the tomatoes and jalapeno to the bowl of a food processor. Peel the garlic cloves and add them to the bowl.

Place the onion wedges in the hot skillet and repeat. Cook the onions, turning occasionally, until soft and slightly charred. Add the cooked onions to the bowl of the food processor.

Process the vegetables briefly, 30-45 seconds or until they reach the desired consistency. Add the fresh lime juice and salt. Pulse to combine.

Allow the mixture to rest for 10-15 minutes to cool completely. Stir in the chopped cilantro.

Transfer to a pretty bowl and serve.

Warm Spiced Olives

This is the best kind of recipe: simple, warm, fragrant and delicious. Like Fried Almonds with Rosemary, it starts with something nice that is easy to pick up at the market. Then, with only a few ingredients and within just a few minutes, kicks it up a notch and makes it personal.

Olives make a wonderful appetizer. They are relatively low in calories and high in phytonutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial qualities. From the deli or olive bar they are delicious just as they are. I have eaten them like that for years, enjoying olives straight from the container. Though I know they also add a nice note to many warm entrees I never thought of serving warmed olives as an appetizer.

Leave it to Martha. Looking through a back issue of Martha Stewart Living I found this gem of a recipe on the recipe card page. I followed the concept and list of ingredients while changing the quantities and directions somewhat. I left the seed spices whole and cooked them a little longer before adding about half as many olives as the recipe called for. I love toasty bits of rosemary and the crunch of whole fennel and coriander seeds adorning each gently warmed olive.

These olives are completely delightful as a party snack or pre-dinner nibble. Gently warmed the olives are meltingly tender and infused with a lingering aftertaste of warm chiles and sweet fennel. Remember to have a few breadsticks or chucks of crusty French bread on hand to mop up any of the warm spicy oil and seeds left over once the olives are gone.

Bonus: Your kitchen will smell fantastic!

Warm Spiced Olives
slightly adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 small dried red chiles
Leaves from 1 rosemary sprig, (about 1 Tablespoon)
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1-2 cups mixed olives, rinsed and patted dry

Heat oil, chiles, rosemary, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds in a medium skillet over medium heat until fragrant and starting to brown, about 3-5 minutes.

Reduce heat to low, and add olives. Stir to coat.

Heat olives, stirring occasionally, until warmed, about 5-10 minutes.

Serve and enjoy!

Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes

Lost Words

I’ve been through a lot over the past year or so. One thing seems to have morphed into another only to pale in comparison to what came next. Somewhere along the way words got lost.

Looking back I don’t have to go far to see that I have been here before. And again I find I can relate to that rectangular white bowl given to me by a friend. Once again life has been like a canvas with hard edges, some abrupt corners and an unusual turn or two. Once again, the only way I’ve known how to go forward has been to open my arms and accept the space I am given as I continue on the journey.

Beautiful things have filled that open space. Friends and kind people who were, not long before, strangers, sustained me with meals and cards and stories of their own journeys. New recipes and dietary considerations colored my appetite and sense of taste as I explored new ways to feed myself and my family. Faith and nutrition played major roles in my ability to weather the storm.

A Happy Discovery

Even as change has continued to bombard me in ways that have sometimes been frightening and sometimes costly, it has also been exciting to learn and move forward, making things new and sometimes better.

Here is a side dish filled with rich color and good nutrition for the journey. Black rice is not only beautiful it is high in antioxidants, has a firm texture, and an appealing nutty flavor. Ginger adds a little sass while aiding digestion and fighting inflammation. Sweet potatoes provide a colorful contrast that is high in Vitamin A (an antioxidant powerhouse) and fiber. Interesting, beautiful and easy to prepare, Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes is a happy discovery.

Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes
From the back of the bag and also at Epicurious

¾ cup black rice
1½ cups water
¾ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 bunch scallions, chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 large sweet potato, (12-14 oz) Peeled and cut to ½-inch dice

chopped scallion greens for garnish

Serves 4

Rinse rice. Place the black rice, water, and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and most of the water has been absorbed (30-35 minutes). Remove saucepan from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

While rice is cooking, heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When shimmery, add the scallions, ginger, and sweet potato stirring until well coated. Saute about 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium and add remaining salt (¼ teaspoon) and a little pepper, if you like. Cover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until potato is just tender, about 12 minutes. Add rice to potato mixture and toss gently to combine.