On ashes and pastries

This week marked the beginning of the season of Lent.  We made King Cakes at work for Fat Tuesday, and one of my coworkers brought in paczkis.  On Wednesday they were distributing ashes at the train station or on the corner of Lake Street, but I went to an Ash Wednesday service at our local Episcopal Church.  It happen to be a family service, geared toward children, which made my Ash Wednesday meditation funny, disruptive, and refreshingly simplistic.  It didn't exactly match the spirit of quiet and penitence I was seeking, but it was real, authentic and communal.  I followed a five year old to the altar to receive ashes.  The words of the ashes always have a strong affect on me:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I am forever humbled by my humanness, by my imperfection and my constant denial of it. It's good to remember how we were created and why were created, out of a love that surpasses understanding.  And that despite all the dust and ashes and wrongdoing in between, He called it good.

You can strip this week of all the traditions and practices and silly pastries, and it is just another week in February.  It is the end of a season and the beginning of another.  It is six weeks before Easter.  But all that aside, something stirred within me this week.  I have been made startlingly self-aware, waking up with what I have done or left undone heavy on my heart.  My short-comings have reminded me that I am but dust, dependent on my Maker, and it is by grace that I live and breath.  

"Having nothing, and yet possessing everything."


I hereby accept the frame of the canvas

I've been working on this project for a while now, a painting commissioned by a friend.  It has taken me a bit to gather materials and information - culling ideas from my limited knowledge of color, design, and experience of the world.  For a while, it felt rather stale - not propelled by any particular objective or contraint.  But suddenly the ideas I had been gleaning started to come together.  I began to see all sorts of connections within the project, remembering my artistry and my instincts.

Ah yes, this is why I do what I do.  
Sometimes when I haven't been "in the studio" for a while, I forget my sense of ability, my inherent tendency as an artist.  It is just as my art instructors always said:  you must practice art to make art.

I have always approached my commitment to the arts as more of a life-style than a career choice.  I don't make art in order to achieve any sort of fame or fortune.  I create because it is in my being to do so.  I create because I am created.  I create because it brings me closer to who I was created to be.

So when I set out to "make a painting," it can feel strange at first - the task too grand and the canvas or paper too confining.  But when I stand before a block of white space, I remember this statement I heard an artist (a painter) once proclaim:
I hereby accept the frame of the canvas.

I stood before my latest project, the expanse of white, with ideas, images, and colors whirling foggily around my head and acknowledged the frame, accepted my mission.  It is a limitation that provides it's own set of problems and a unique challenge, but it is also such a beautifully concentrated space of creativity for the painter.  I put down layers of color and thought on the canvas, and the painting began to emerge.  My months of laboring and imagining were suddenly visible, manifesting themselves in a tangible space. Within the frame of the canvas.

To create is such a personal act, an exhibition of the artist's inner thoughts for the world to see.  I feel most vulnerable when I've completed a piece, and it sits for people to survey, judge, and infer meaning.  It may be impossible for the world to fully understand the artist's intent.  A painting is like a porthole to the artist's reverie.  And so it is always with great pleasure, apprehension, and humility, that I present my work to you all.

Working Title: In between all that space, all that blue, 2012
30" x 40"


Which is why I like it

I love rustic food.  I love dishes that are simple, fresh, and highlight the natural flavors of whatever you're cooking.  Some of my favorite meals while traveling through Europe included nothing more than a baguette, a wedge of good cheese, fresh fruit and a bottle of wine.  So simple, yet with a complexity of flavors and a pleasant roughness.  A good salad with fresh cheese and a simple vinaigrette.  A tray of roasted vegetables and fresh herbs.  A beautifully fried egg atop a bit of toasted homemade bread and a slice of fresh tomato.  This is my kind of eating.  

Jamie Oliver is probably my favorite chef - mostly because we share a love for rustic, seasonal, and fresh food.  He's taught me everything I know about the value of fresh herbs.  I can barely make a savory dish now without a sprig of something.  I'm lost in the winter, without a pot of small herbs to supply me.  Fresh herbs or not, he inspires me to make something delicious and beautiful out of the most simple ingredients.

We had a quiche shell at work this week that fell during the pre-bake - it was far too short to hold a fair amount of egg and milk.   So I took it home to re-purpose.  With winter and rustic in mind, I discovered a lovely Sweet Potato Parmesan & Goat Cheese Galette recipe.  Perfect.  I even had a dried bunch of thyme leftover from the season.  It baked up marvelously in my short-little crust and the harmony of fresh flavors was the highlight of my week.

PS.  A "galette" is just a type of french pastry crust - usually freeform and used in savory and sweet dishes alike.  Of course, it is simple and rustic, which is why I like it.  I already had a crust, but for the purpose of this recipe, you can make your basic savory pie or tart crust or buy one from the store.

Adapted from Fine Cooking, Susie Middleton

pastry crust
3+ Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
3-5 sweet potatoes (depending on size), peeled
1 heaping tsp. coarsely chopped fresh thyme leaves
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup shaved or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 oz. crumbled fresh chevre/goat cheese

If you've got a pie/tart crust to roll out, now's the time.  You can roll it out for a pie or tart pan or you can roll it out into some sort of organic shape for a galette - in which you will fill the shell (on a sheet pan) and fold over the edges, leaving the center open.  If you're planning on baking it in a pie or tart shell, I suggest pre-baking the shell.  Line the shell with tinfoil and fill with pie weights, dried beans, or anything small and oven-safe (I often use small metal silverware).  This keeps the bottom crust from puffing up and the sides from collapsing.  Bake at 375 for 20 or so minutes, until it's slightly browned.  Let cool.

Combine the shallots and a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce to a low simmer and cook for about 2 minutes, until shallots are soft but not browned.  Remove from heat and let cool.

Preheat over to 400 degrees.

Slice the potatoes as thinly as possible - very carefully with a chef's knife or like I did, quick and simple with the food processer.  Put the potatoes in a mixing bowl, add the shallots, a drizzle of olive oil, fresh herbs and salt.  Use your hands or a rubber spatula to toss well and coat the potatoes.

Cover the bottom of the crust with a single layer of potatoes.  Start along the outermost edge and move in ward, slightly overlapping the potato slices.  Sprinkle with some of the parmesan and crumbled goat cheese.  Arrange another layer of potatoes.  Sprinkle with more parmesan and goat cheese.  Arrange a final layer of potatoes and sprinkle the top with remaining cheeses.  

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is a rich golden brown and the potatoes are tender all the way through (poke with a fork to test).  Don't worry if the goat cheese seems quite brown - it will be delicious!  

Let cool 10-15 minutes and slice into wedges.  I promise, you'll want seconds.