She was lovely, with a ready smile. Someone we'd look forward to seeing every evening on the walk with Opie.
Her sparkling white cottage with its wraparound porch was just a few blocks from our home, and Desi and I would often stop to admire it. Every Fourth of July, it was awash in red, white and blue. On St. Patrick's Day, green clover leaves would appear in the windows. And come Christmas time, you couldn't find a porch with more stars and lights and cheer.
For Opie, the lawn was the clincher. It was green and soft and always immaculately mowed, and in winters it dried into a perfect, golden carpet that tickled his belly. He would flop down on it each evening. When Desi or I tried to get him up, he'd turn around and roll in the grass, a huge smile on his face.
"Let him enjoy it," she'd say with an exuberant wave. "I love dogs."
Sometimes she'd take a break from weeding to come talk to us. She shared casual little details of her life: how she had worked at the National Institutes of Health for more than three decades. How the woman across the street had put up a dozen or more bird feeders in her backyard, bringing too many birds into the neighborhood --"they poop all over the place!" How she'd once fallen asleep behind the wheel on a drive back from visiting her daughter in Baltimore and crashed into a tree, lucky to escape with just a few injuries and a warning from a policeman.
When Opie started to slow down himself (he passed away last year), we no longer walked as far as her house anymore. We didn't really think of her until one day, driving that way, we saw the "For Sale" sign outside the cottage.
Soon after there was an announcement of an estate sale, and for the first time we walked into her house, to look at all of the things, little and big, that had made up her life. A rocking chair with a well-worn seat. A 50-piece puzzle, perhaps for a visiting grandchild. A cupboard full of dainty china that someone had already stamped with a "SOLD" sign.
I love estate sales, and I hate them. It's wonderful to find a little treasure for a steal, but I hate that they give you that feeling of intruding on someone's once-cherished things, of trying to make them your own.
We asked the man running the estate sale about her. She had moved into a senior care home, he said, because her children thought she no longer could live alone safely. She was fine.
I was relieved the news wasn't worse, and saddened that I would never see her again. I wished I remembered her name, and I was ashamed I didn't.
I bought two cast iron skillets at that estate sale. The seasoning was worn off in places, as if she hadn't cooked in them for a while. But they were also smooth and black and no doubt well-used at one time, to make meals for the husband who had passed away, for the friends whose visits grew fewer and farther between, and for the children who had moved on.
Now, they are the skillets I go to first in my kitchen, not just because none of my newer skillets come anywhere close to them in beauty and efficiency, but also because each time I hold their weight in my hand, I am reminded of her sweet smile and friendly voice.
She was a bright spot on those evening walks with Opie, and those skillets she left me without ever knowing she did are now a bright spot in my kitchen.
The simplest of recipes are often the most seductive. Take a Farinata, for instance. All it really needs is chickpea flour, a few herbs, some veggies, perhaps, and you have a food you can bake and devour in just a few minutes. Very little work required.
While Farinatas are often called breads or pancakes, they pretty much make a complete meal by themselves. You have all that great protein from the chickpea flour and then you have the veggies. At best, all you need is a salad on the side to add some fresh, green flavor.
You can use all kinds of veggies in your Farinata, but I was inspired by Joe Yonan who made a farinata with butternut squash. This is the perfect fall and winter vegetable, and I had some just waiting to be used up. I tweaked his recipe only slightly: I reduced the oil, and I used sage instead of parsley, because the sage in my yard is still producing delicious silver-gray foliage, and because sage and butternut are magical together.
To make a good Farinata, you need a good cast-iron skillet, and, of course, I used my favorite one. The cast-iron is important because you begin the cooking process on the stove-top and finish it in the oven, and no pan can do that job with as much versatility as a cast-iron one.
So go on, get the oven going and pull out your treasured skillet. Maybe it's the one you got from your grandma, or from your mom, or a friend. Or maybe you just bought it at Walmart, and have seasoned it with love and care all these years. Either way, you're about to taste deliciousness as it should be.
Vegan Butternut Squash Farinata
- 2 ½ cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into a small dice
- 1 ½ cups chickpea or garbanzo bean flour or besan
- 2 cups water at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon chopped sage
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 1 teaspoon virgin coconut oil
- 2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large shallot, minced
- Place the chickpea flour in a bowl and trickle in half the water, whisking as you go, to make a smooth paste. Then add the remaining water and whisk well. The batter should have the consistency of a thin pancake batter. Word of caution-- don't try and flip this by adding the chickpea flour into the water-- it will take you forever to break up the lumps.
- Add 1 teaspoon of the olive oil, salt to taste, pepper, sage, and thyme into the chickpea batter. Let the batter stand two hours at room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- On the stovetop, in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the remaining olive oil and coconut oil.
- Add the shallots and season with some salt and pepper. When the shallots start to soften, in about two minutes over medium heat, add the butternut squash.
- Cook the butternut squash, stirring frequently, over medium heat until the squash softens and is almost tender, about eight to 10 minutes.
- Make sure the squash and shallots are evenly dispersed in the skillet, then turn off the heat and pour the chickpea batter into the skillet.
- Place the skillet (be sure to use oven mitts) into the oven and bake the Farinata for 30 minutes or until the sides are golden-brown and start to pull away from the skillet.
- Carefully, using oven mitts, remove the skillet from the oven and let it stand 10 minutes.
- Cut into slices, and serve.