I didn’t know today was the first day of spring until Rosie’s preschool teacher mentioned it to me this afternoon. I had already decided to tell you about the significance of lemons in the rhythms of my cooking, and breathing, and existing – and that bringing out the first lemons of spring, and cooking with them is always symbolic (to me, anyway) of brighter times, and the openings of doorways and the end of some level of darkness.
Yesterday morning, I posted this photo to my social media channels. I asked “what should I make with these beautiful lemons?”. I can see now that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for these gorgeous hopeful fruits. I received an overwhelming response; each poster suggesting their favorite lemon creation with palpable enthusiasm. “Lemon Merengue Pie!”, “Lemon Cake”, “Lemon Chicken!”, “Lemon Pavlova!”. I think I could write an entire book of lemon recipes based on the suggestions of my loyal participants.
As I was going about my morning routine of getting the kids to school, swimming my laps, and shopping at “the market” (Walmart), I thought about how lemons are so much more to us than just a fruit. There is something so relieving about seeing a group of bright, gorgeous lemons. There’s such a relief in starting a new season, of smelling fresh air, and of knowing that so many possibilities, like lemon recipes, are within our grasp.
Lemons have the ablility to shake us out of a stale state. Even maybe a desperate state. The first time I experienced the life-reviving power of lemons was in the early spring of 2006, when we lived in Cambridge, England. I had just given birth to my third child, and was utterly wrung-out. Charlotte was a post-Afghanistan baby – bouncing into our lives just when we thought we couldn’t handle much more grief. Truly, from darkness, came the great light that was She. The postpartum period was difficult, however. By the second week, I had plummeted into a deep depression. I’m not sure if it was hormones, or the fact that we were now a veteran family grappling with survivor’s grief, or the fact that in my attempts to understand war and understand the truly horrific side of humanity, I had decided to read a book on Auschwitz.
It was my husband who figured out why I couldn’t stop crying. He looked down and proclaimed “What are you reading?”. I just cried harder. Lesson learned: Never read a book about Auschwitz when you’ve just had a baby. It will not work out for you.
Two weeks after my husband comphiscated my book on Auschwitz, I was starting to feel better. It was actually a day much like today that I felt renewed, and resigned that if I could not psychologically grasp deep evil, then I could at least have a somewhat decent day, doing simple things for the sheer joy of it. It seemed like a very logical conclusion to a concept I’d struggled with for a long time.
It was the day that I walked to the Cambridge Sainsbury’s and “pleasure shopped” that I learned my most valuable coping technique to date. My most valuable coping technique for dark and uncertain times is this: Shop with no plan in mind, and cook whatever you’re inspired to cook. Of course, I have had 13 years to build on this skill, but I’m happy to say I’m still learning. That day in England, with my little Charlotte sleeping in her front pack, I went to the Sainsbury’s and I found quail eggs. Adorable little speckled eggs that I later made tiny eggs and toast (out of cocktail bread) with for my older children. They thought it was amazing. I also found lemons on that day, and brought them home and made the most glorious lemon curd. The first lemon curd I had ever made – and yes it was clumpy and thick, but it was delicious. I remember listening to Ella Fitzgerald in the kitchen while I created the lemon curd, the fragrant citrus wafting into my nose, behind my eyes, and down my throat – like I could just swallow the scent. I remember breathing as if I hadn’t breathed for over a year. Because I hadn’t breathed in over a year. Not really, anyway. Indeed, holding your breath when your spouse is in a combat zone is quite common. And then holding your breath through the following pregnancy is equally as common, because this baby MUST LIVE. No more death, not now. Not war death, not unborn death. After two live births, and two miscarriages, this fifth pregnancy would say much about whether carrying a baby to term was an exception, or a rule for us. It was a pivotal time.
As I made my luxurious, unplanned food, in my little British kitchen, with my Ella Fitzgerald singing “When Sunny Gets Blue”, I felt a great, all-expansive peace. I could breathe, finally. With three young children, there was other work that should have received my attention. The laundry, the closets, the stacks of papers I had been avoiding. What I was doing…. meandering my way around the kitchen – making lumpy lemon curd to the crooning of Ella Fitzgerald was completely inefficient. But it was the medicine I so desperately needed.
It’s funny, all the lemon dish/cooking suggestions from my social media pages reminded me of how lemons bring us such joy. The enthusiasm of my loyal readers when they chirped their favorite lemon ideas, must mean that I am not alone. Walking around the market this morning made me think of that day, thirteen years ago, walking around a much different market in a much different place. Different continent, different set of circumstances, but the same need for relief – for refreshment – for reprieve.
In times like these, when we are swimming in despair – maybe it’s okay to take a break from the sad news, the desperate news, the horrific news… like the book on Auschwitz. And just for a while – just for a little while….breathe. Breathe and create a moment of goodness for ourselves. Simply.
I really did plan on making a lemon merengue pie today. But after my long swim, and after walking around the market for a while, I started to feel less interested in a sweet, and more interested in a savory. Also, I knew my time was running low. I had spent extra minutes in my own memory, and knew that one way or other, my kids would need dinner soon. However, it wasn’t until I found the boneless, skinless chicken thighs that I knew what I was going to make.
And then, of course, I chose my music. Like I said earlier, it wasn’t until I picked up little Rosie from preschool that I learned today is actually the first day of spring. Regardless, I knew that it FELT like spring, and Vivaldi is the quintessential (maybe even cliche) way too ring in Spring. I always cook to music, and I like to pair my tunes with my recipes – thoughtfully. I think I’m going to make my music pairings a regular part of my posts. I have eclectic tastes, but a background in Jazz and an extensive background in classical music. Pairing music to my recipes is something I take great joy in. I don’t know why I didn’t mention it until now.
Sticky Lemon Chicken
By Shannon Vavich
I’m pleasantly surprised this turned out so well. I wrote it on the fly, and much to my delight, it needs no changes. Prep time: approx 40 minutes. Cook time: approx 1 hour. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Start rice in rice cooker – enough for 8 people.
Also, you can halve this recipe if you wish.
4lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
13 lemons. Nice ones. Juice and zest 9 lemons (see instructions), reserve 4 for slicing and garnishing (see instructions)
1 Tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
3 cups flour
4-6 cups vegetable oil (for frying)
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 cup honey
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon soy sauce
About 4 tablespoons capers (optional)
Sliced green onion for garnish
Sesame seeds for garnish
White rice for serving
Thank you for hanging around my kitchen today! Tomorrow, MORE SPRING COOKING!!! What should I make with these beauties?