Birthday Meals & Self Compassion
April 10TH 2020
A few years back I took the most amazing ‘Mindful Self-Compassion’ course at Spirit Rock Mediation Center. It was around the time I had just been left by a long-term partner. I found myself in a very confused state-of-being that caused an enormous amount of emotional overwhelm. Now, years later, I still am confused about that, but I have also come to acknowledge that these particular moments or states-of being are crucial for learning and growth, in particular if you allow yourself to move through them slowly, carefully and compassionately. By no means is the post about any of that being easy.
I have a problem with emotional overwhelm. It has taken me many years to understand that this problem has obstructed greater bouts of joy from entering into my life, it has also menaced many of my most important relationships whether they were family, romantic, friend or professional relationships. My inability to properly deal with overwhelm made things ultra-complicated. The eight-week intensive self-compassion course taught me some fundamentals… some fairly basic stuff, actually, that in retrospect seems silly to have forgotten or not have known in the first place–all of which basically boils down to the continued flow forward and kindness, not just to others but kindness to oneself.
Our world places a lot of emphasis on being kind to others, and rightly so. But a world where everything is outward-facing seems to be part of what keeps us all disconnected. I know for me authenticity is crucial. I have a deep desire, as I believe we all do, to connect to others and have them see my authentic self. An outward world will only value what the “collective” deems worth noticing. The whole being is often overlooked, authenticity gets skewed and warped. We simply see only bits and parts of each other and make judgments, often based on our own lack of inward looking or our own internal fears.
Lately, I have found myself reexamining the art of self-compassion. The convergence of my broken foot, 47th birthday, COVID-19, sheltering in place, and some good old-fashioned romantic pressure has provoked another confused state-of-being. But this time, some support mechanisms were in place. Not that these mechanisms in me work like an airbag- quickly and efficiently. My self-compassion mechanisms usually kick in after the initial overwhelm. The overwhelm simply leaves quicker than it used to. Luckily when that happens I am able to provide self-compassion and luckily life has made way to better choices leading to true compassion provided to me from all involved. Within this circle I can recognize that we are all interconnected. I think a lot of humans are (re)discovering this these days. In these hard times with each-other, we can learn and grow.
“We cannot really know who we are or how we are unless we are bumped up against others”, this statement said to me recently in my Zoom therapy session, really stuck with me. I don’t think we can possibly learn anything unless we are “bumped up against one another”. I’ve been lucky to have bumped up and into some pretty amazing people in the world and am slowly discovering myself through their eyes and hearts and through the process of giving myself a much larger break than I ever have before.
Self-compassion is the most important concept I have learned (and dare I say absorbed) over the past several years. Submitting myself to self-compassion has not only changed my life, but it has changed my relationships. Most of these relationships will always remain complicated; bumping against others in life just is. But when you begin to forgive yourself for all of your deep flaws, idiosyncrasies and (what I call my) innate weirdness, much of which we will continue to discover as we age and reflect, we begin to meet others with greater compassion. When I offer myself love in the midst of deep confusion or overwhelm, I can offer the same to others more authentically and with greater ease. Maybe more importantly, I simply judge less in the first place. When I can view myself as inherently good, it’s easier to view others as such.
One of the most beautiful things I am witnessing as I look around the world right now, mostly through the digital channels of the world – Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Facetime, email, text, and phone (yes, I am queen of the phone, always have been and always will be – call me!) – is a softness. I recognize this softness. It’s the positive response of the body, born from grief, pain, confusion, fear, and above all uncertainty. Its love.
I see the same softness in the food world and for the first time in a very long time it’s interesting to me. Not only are its normally rigid, cookie cutter confines completely broken down, but the players have changed and the fame has changed. I think for the better. Our favorite chefs that more often appear austere and perfect in immaculate kitchen studios are now showing up in their own personal kitchens with their families and pets. They are more accessible, more down to earth. They are more human, showing up with their flaws as they show us what they are baking and cooking and how they deal with the anxiety of the moment. More importantly we get to see the real -unedited- cooking that we never see on those expensive curated food shows. This is now real cooking by talented yet regular people. I love regular people, I think we all do. This is the only place, in my opinion, where and how we can actually learn about cooking; when compassionate human teachers show up. (Christina Tosi on Instagram (and her dog Butter) have never been more appealing to me.)
Self-Compassion & Cooking
My love of cooking and my passion for culture sprung up from the global roaming I have done since I was a young girl. I’ve built my culinary repertoire of skills, flavors, and techniques from all of my travels, and I have electrified them through my deep connection to organic farmers. It’s the everyday (extra)ordinary people that taught me how to cook and live well. As life bumped me up against these folks all over the world, the giving nature of these human beings taught me culinary skills and a general openness. They also taught me that perfection in food was only to be found in the act and the act alone of creating food for and with the ones you love, including your own self.
This is exactly what I am seeing more of as I look around the internet, (extra)ordinary people cooking with their families and /or alone, using what they have, and being forgiving to themselves. People swapping stories of what they are doing and being as clever as people are. The rigid confines how things should be done are tossed out the window, and I love this!
We Learn & Move On
Sharon Salzberg, the renowned author and mindful mediation teacher describes self-compassion as moving on. The kitchen is no different than life. It requires us to understand one of life’s most basic concept, sometimes shit just doesn’t work out.
I think more of this needs to happen and maybe if we were all more forgiving and loving to ourselves personally, we wouldn’t have the perfectionism quirks that we do when cooking. I learned to let go in the kitchen a long time ago. I remember the first time I cooked a special dinner for a romantic interest back in my Brooklyn days. I made a dish I was familiar with and good at and fucked it up beyond all belief. It was a traumatic experience for me. I felt like I was a horrible cook on top of feeling insecure about a man I was trying to impress. Luckily and somehow, shortly after this, I quickly learned how to let go in the kitchen. I think it might have been my need for creativity was greater than my need to be perfect. The artist in me needed to take risk. Any romantic interest would from that point forward, was going to have to be attracted to the risk taker in me. I always knew there was greater reward in risk, not just cooking but also emotionally in general. I still to this day mess up plenty of meals or produce mediocre dinners, lunches and even snacks. The cake I made for this year’s birthday is a great example. I had this idea I wanted to try and the journey was more important to me than ensuring that the cake worked out perfectly. There is a relaxation to cooking when you realize that mostly we do it because we must eat and it doesn’t always have to be fantastic, just edible. Very few skills is all you need to make edible food.
Skillful or Unskillful Kitchen Tools
I like that in Buddhism the concepts ‘bad’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ don’t really exist. Instead actions and thinking are grouped either as skillful or unskillful. The skillful stuff leads to wisdom, love, and connectedness and the unskillful basically keeps you from those things.
I think this is a useful way to think about cooking and learning how to cook and what a lot of people putting out recipes need to consider as well. There is no reason to add to suffering in this world. Recipes that don’t work, recipes that are copied and pasted from somewhere else, or recipes that require a restaurant staff to pull them off well just aren’t worth it.
The same goes for those who are purist when it comes to cooking – insisting an enchilada has to be made with a corn tortilla when the flour ones are easier to roll, or those who don’t understand that we all have different access to ingredients due to simple differences like economics, physical location and even this pandemic…
Basically, it’s a great time to toss out all the unskillful stuff and know that it will be a constant flux for the rest of our lives. Recognize what will not bring you kitchen love and toss it. Once we get through this pandemic, life will be different but it’s hard for people to change. I know this firsthand.
Joyful Cooking & Sharing of Food
Today I turn 47 and today I feel changed, more grown up, I suppose. That’s the goal, right? Resilience is key to growing. I fail often, i failed a lot this past week. But, I feel softer and more importantly can recognize softer more often. This way I am more attractive to softness. I want to be nearer to it than farther from it. I can see myself starting to make better, more skillful decisions that lead me toward it. My cooking is also even better than ever, its more relaxed and more creative and skillful.
As an Aries, it’s incredibly difficult for me to sit at home and not treat this b-day event as something incredibly special. More often than not, I enjoy traveling to some far-off land on my birthday, like I did last year in Istanbul, discovering new tastes and learning about people. Bumping myself into new people all over the world has long been my birthday MO, one that has always brought me significant joy. This year I’m here in Bolinas (where I live), with my niece. I will sell mangoes, do yoga, take Inca to the beach to swim and make myself a special meal, cake and all. And the best news ever is that it still feels, surprisingly special, maybe in a way even better (for me) than last years! (Although it’s hard to top last year’s birthday feast at Nicole in Istanbul!)
My over the top, exciting, flamboyant celebratory style will be directed inward this year, as I know its needed. Sometimes we have to do whats good for us, after all. Being content that I am safe, healthy, happy, and feeling somewhat lovable, which is not something that has come naturally for me for many years. I’m appreciating all that I have learned until now, all the teachers I have had (the ones that cared for me and the ones that did not). Most importantly I sit amazed by all there is left to learn and all the teachers that are still to come.
One of my favorite quotes lately came from a book I just read, Happiness Is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein, “the mind wobbles when it discovers something it wants that it cannot have, and then when it catches itself, it appreciates.”
Today at 47 I appreciate that I am more able to catch my wobbly mind sooner than later and I suspect many of my closest relationships (of all varieties) also do!
My gift to all of you is my authentic self in all of its glory and flaws and of course a glimpse into my birthday mind and my birthday meal. The recipes are just recipes, a food journey mapped out from my past and present that we can use as a guide into the future. The journey that lies or lays (or lay?) ahead is the important part.
Much love to you and yours, and happy (and easy) cooking to you all!
Nissa’s Birthday Herb Salt (Zaatar Salt)
Makes about 2 cups
Tasked with making a birthday salt, I panicked for a split second knowing there are so many options that could be this special. A gigantic smile appeared only face immediately after said panic. There is only one birthday salt and birthday theme for me right now… by way of the middle east. Not only is my first actual zaatar plant thriving right now, but the majority of my adult life I have been intertwined with or attracted to the food and culture of the middle east. Since my menus always seem to have middle eastern flair, and my birthday delivers much of the same, it seemed obvious to have a middle eastern birthday herb salt recipe. Fresh zaatar is practically impossible to find, in which case oregano can be used. You can use white sesame seeds, too. I just bought a gigantic bag of black ones so all my recipes use black!
½ cup finely chopped zaatar or oregano
¼ cup finely chopped thyme leaves
1 tablespoon sumac powder
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon finely chopped nasturtium petals
1 red chili pepper, deseeded and super finely chopped
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
1½ cup Maldon flake salt
Pre-heat oven to 200°F.
Mix together all fresh herbs, zests, flower petals, chili, spices, and sesame seeds. Gently fold in the salt and mix. Use your fingers to make sure the herbs and spices are well incorporated into the salt. Place the salt/herb mix on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper so that it’s spread out evenly across the entire sheet and flat. Place in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes or until the herbs seem to have lost most moisture. They should not be totally dried out and still look greenish. Store in a small bowl on your counter for a few weeks.
Nissa’s Fresh Mint Harissa
Makes 2 cups
2 dried guajillo chilies, stems removed, broken
2 dried red chilies, stems removed, broken
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons rainbow peppercorns, toasted
3 garlic cloves
1 bell pepper, roasted & peeled
2 red (fresh) jalapeno peppers, roasted & peeled
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves (optional)
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and spices are broken apart and the sauce is smooth. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Grilled Pork Chops & Nissa’s Sweet Mint Harissa
¼ cup salted butter, softened
¼ cup Nissa’s Fresh Mint Harissa
2 pork chops, any size you want, bone in or boneless
1 ½ tablespoons Nissa’s Birthday Salt
1 teaspoon cumin
Mix the butter and harissa together until well mixed. Refrigerate so that butter hardens up a little.
Preheat your grill using high-heat.
Sprinkle the salt and cumin evenly over the porch chops and let stand about 10 minutes. Place the pork chops over the high-heat grill and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side. They should be seared with grill marks on both sides and still juicy. I tend to eat pork a little less done than the average person, but a meat thermometer registering about 145°F is about what you want them to be for cooked through.
Spring Salad, Asparagus and Salad Salt
Serves 2 -4
The key to any spring salad is the generous use of spring vegetables and herbs. In this one I showcase asparagus and mint. I don’t love flowers in my salad, choices blossoms and a few petals chopped small maybe, but they are rather beautiful and tasty in the salt that I generously pepper this salad with. Fresh garden greens are always preferable.
2-4 heads little gem lettuce, ripped bite size
2 cups young spinach leaves, ripped bite size
Handful of parsley leaves
Handful of mint leaves
1 carrot, shaved
A few radishes, shaved
Spring onion, sliced thin
Handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 avocado, sliced thin
Some crumbled feta cheese
A few spoonsful of chive blossoms
Steamed asparagus, cold
Toss together the lettuce, spinach and herbs and top with carrots, onions, radishes, avocado tomatoes and feta. Sprinkle the chive blossoms on top and place the asparagus over the top of the salad. Sprinkle generously with the Salad Salt. Serve with your dressing of choice.
Spring Carrot Cake & Parsley Art
Makes 1 4-layer, 6-inch round cake
I love carrot cake, but it often feels too plain for my birthday. This one I jazzed up with ginger and some Middle Eastern flare by adding spiced pecans and barberries. I made the signature carrot cake cream cheese lighter by using mascarpone and whipped cream and I made it tastier by flavoring it with orange zest and ginger. Be prepared that the carrots may turn a greenish color once cooked, making this unique cake rather interesting looking. Carrots contain certain pigments that are sensitive to PH balance. The white balsamic vinegar I added for some tang in the flavor combined with the extra sensitive of the red carrot pigment and resulted in some greenish flecks inside. You can omit the vinegar and peel the carrots first to avoid this.
Carrots contain pigments that are sensitive to changes in pH balance.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup sour cream
¼ cup milk or cream
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 ½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely grated
2 teaspoons orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
1 ½ cup (3 sticks) melted butter
3 cups shredded red carrots
¾ cup Spiced Pecans, coarsely chopped
½ cup dried barberries, currants or golden raisins or a combination of all
Ginger & Orange Whipped Cream Mascarpone Frosting
Carrot & Parsley & Pecan Dirt Decorations
Preheat oven to 325°F .
Grease a 18” x 13” baking sheet and line it with parchment paper. In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and soda, and set aside. In another large mixing bowl, beat together eggs, sour cream, milk, balsamic vinegar, sugar, ginger, zest, vanilla, and spices until well combined. Add the carrots and mix. Gently mix in the flour mixture to the carrot mixture, about 2/3 cup at a time until just combined. Fold in the spiced pecans and dried fruit.
Spoon the cake batter onto the prepared baking sheet and spread it out evenly. Place the cake in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife or tooth pick poked into the center comes out clean. Remove and low the cake to cool completely.
Using a cake cutter or a mixing bowl around 5-6” wide cut 3 or 4 cake circles out of the baking sheet. Place one layer down on a plate or cake carboard and place about 1/2 cup of frosting over the top. Spread it out evenly over the layer and then repeat with the other layers. Frost the top and the sides and decorate to your liking. Refrigerate for a few hours before eating.
Ginger & Orange Whipped Cream Mascarpone Frosting
Makes 4 cups
I love the idea of a lighter cream cheese frosting. A carrot cake generally tends to be heavy and so the frosting needs to feel lighter. Using mascarpone and whipped cream together lighten it up and the orange and ginger flavor it so that it complements the carrot cake perfectly.
2 cups (16 ounces) mascarpone cheese, room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar
1 2/3 cup heavy whipping cream, very cold
2 tablespoons orange zest
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat together the mascarpone and sugar on medium-slow speed until the cheese is soft and the sugar is mixed in well. Turn the speed to high and slowly pour in the heavy cream. Continue to beat until the icing becomes light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add the orange zest, ginger, and vanilla, and beat until mixed in. This frosting is best used right away.
Carrot & Parsley & Pecan Dirt Decorations
Enough for a cake
Cleverness is where this recipe came from. I’m not very good at decorating things. My artistry is in flavor, but every once in a while a clever idea is born. This one is a good one.
2 large carrots
8-9 parsley stems (about 30 leaves)
1 ½ cup Spiced Pecans, super finely chopped
Cut the carrots into long flattish strips and then cut out as many triangle shapes as you can, ideally the same size. Arrange the triangles point side down on the cake, sticking into the frosting
Buddha’s Helping (Strawberry) Hand
Makes 1 drink
We all need a little help from friends, and sometimes we also need a drink. My neighbor graciously left some buddha hands on my porch a few days before my birthday and despite the fact that I haven’t been drinking much alcohol I thought it time to make a beautiful birthday drink for myself. Its fresh and springing with tartness, like I like a few dashes of bitter and some Buddha shavings for good luck!
1 big strawberry, quartered
¾ ounce parsley stem syrup*
2 ounces gin
1 ounce lemon juice
Meyer lemon bitters
Dried lemon wheel garnish
Parsley leaf garnish
Fresh Buddha hand shavings.
Muddle the strawberry together with the parsley syrup in a cocktail mixer. Add the gin, lemon juice, bitters and some ice and stir for about 20 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass with a large ice cube. Shave some fresh Buddha hand over the top and garnish with lemon wheel and parsley leaf.