Monday, October 01, 2012

On the nature of complete presence and preserved lemons

Two months and some of living in India have really not delivered too many surprises as much as they have lessons about self. And habit. And a way of life that had become so natural as to become invisible. I have been used to being absent. I have lived far away with email and then the telephone being my means of connection. I used to be able to get away with mere long-distance listening powers. I did not have to be here with my whole being. But now I do. I have to re-engage with a deep social sphere and an overwhelming set of cues.

A few months ago, I read a set of articles on a woman called Olivia Fox Cabane who apparently has the key to what some people call charisma. The thesis is sparse and the learnings instrumental. However, the idea of learning charisma and cues in order to be noticed is a little annoying, not to mention problematic. It ends up reinforcing guardedness and overly self-conscious behaviour (For example: "Far too many women have a complete bobblehead, which gives the impression of over-eagerness to please"). Ms.Cabane is paid a lot of money to coach Silicon Valley geeks to cultivate charisma or in other words, to instruct people in the art of "turning it on". The Marilyn Monroe example in this article that talks about Cabane's philosophy is particularly instructive. But those of us who have watched the brilliant film, "My Week with Marilyn" will also perhaps recall that there is a flip side to cultivating such intentional attention-garnering skills without the accompanying sustained interest in people. As an antidote, I instead advocate the less ambitious and more difficult art of presence.

For many long years, I used to view the world through nostalgia and what if's and continued to be absent. Now I scoff at the past and look at old photographs in a way reminiscent of Faiz and old love. As necessary loss. Now I practise presence. Like the untidy nest built by the little bird on the ceiling of our tiled roof, it is a messy endeavour. It is in equal measure composed of unruly dust and wildly beautiful flowers. 

One of the nicest ways to be present I have discovered is to cook. I do not have my own kitchen yet. So I borrow from friends and insert my few skills carefully and cautiously. And this is the truly wonderful part of it. I have friends and family who allow me into their homes and lives. And prattle and share my thoughts and theirs.  And so in gratefulness, I preserve lemons for them. This is what I have recently learnt to do and this is what I offer at the altar of those who feed and keep me.

One of my favorite forms of cooking is Mediterranean. And I live in lust for one of these ever since wolfing down some wonderful vegetarian tagine at Cafe Mogador in the East Village. While this will have to await the acquisition of a house and a kitchen, I am meanwhile slowly developing expertise in culling together the traditional ingredients of a tagine. Ras-el-hanout will be next. But today, I give you preserved lemons.

My recipe is from David Lebovitz whose website I really like. The instructions are simple, the language easy, and the final product really quite delicious.

You will need:
(a) Dry hands
(b) Eight to ten small, slightly pliable lemons with a clear skin
(c) One cup of rock salt
(d) A teaspoon of whole coriander seeds
(e) One or two dried red chillies
(f) Two or three bay leaves
(g) A dry glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid

 -- Wash and dry the lemons.
 -- Cut off small bits of each edge but be careful not to cut off the layer of skin.
 -- Incise the lemons with x-shaped cuts so that one is left with hot-cross like little yellow entities. Employ a delicate hand. Do not cut right through. If you do, make lemonade instead.
 -- Gently fill these incised lemons with around a teaspoon of rock salt. With lemons as in life, make sure to be generous.

-- Now stuff the lemons gently into the glass jar making sure to use a dry spoon to press down on top of them. Intersperse them with coriander seeds, chillies, and bay leaves.
-- Close the lid. Store in a cool, dry place.
-- Make sure to continue pressing down on the lemons every two or three days until all of them are immersed in juice. When you press down with a spoon, make sure to taste it. The tart, spicy juice is a special treat. It makes me think of novels, and hammocks, and stolen childhood afternoons.
-- Let the lemons soften for a month after which they can be stored in the refrigerator.

Once done:
  -- Rinse the liquid off and scrape out the pulp. Cut into small diced pieces and add to stews, soups, and pretty much anything else that might need some flavour.

Today, I drink coffee, listen to the thunderstorm outside, and listen to some rather funny, incredibly sassy, celebratory music. Happy Monday people.