I appreciate anything that forces me to slow down, in body and mind. Most days find me whirling about like a dervish, juggling responsibilities and to-dos and want-to-dos high above my head.
Some of this is my own doing, a helix of innate anxiety and my goal-oriented nature that drives me forward.
Some is life as an at-home mother with very little help to two extremely energetic young sons, one of whom often demands more than your average bear.
Some is the nature of living in DC, a city that moves and thinks quickly.
In any case, life. And by and large, I like mine a lot.
But going slo-mo is an always-welcome thing and one reason I love to cook.
I am making a double batch of mujaddara, that hearty, comfort dish from the middle east that combines lentils, rice and onions in a silky way. The rice is steamed, the lentils just the right side of al dente. All that remains is to deal with the small mountain of onions.
I don my onion goggles so as to avoid crying the entire time, and set to work with a paring knife, peeling back each onion’s crackling paper layers. Once inside, I carefully remove the softer but still fibrous inner wrapping. Onion milk begins to tear, cloudy droplets suggesting freshness and pungency. I gave thanks, both for the lovely alliums and, once again, for my goggles; they make me look silly but they work, so who cares?!
Reaching for my chef’s knife, I notice the blade’s glinting edge. Tom’s just sharpened these, I think appreciatively. With almost no effort, I slice each onion in half, place them cut side down on a board, turn them clockwise forty-five degrees and quickly sliver the pile into a jumble of crescent moons.
I notice that my breath has slowed.
I notice that my heart feels at peace.
I notice that my mind no longer races.
In a deep skillet, I place a knob of butter and several tablespoons of beautiful green-tinged olive oil. I set the heat to medium-low and watch as the butter melts into the oil, twirling and dancing into a marbleized canvas.
In go the Cheshire-cat smiles. With one of my beloved wooden spoons, I gently toss the onions until they’re glistening evenly with fat. It’s time to wait, to let the magic happen.
I sit to write and notice that the corners of my mouth have turned up. I notice that my brain feels light, as if it’s given so many thoughts and memories to Dumbledore’s pensieve: Hold these until later, please. Thank you.
My fingers fly and I notice the fragrances surrounding me: frying onions, earthy lentils, Louisiana, which is all I can think of when I smell just-steamed rice.
The onions are melting. I think of the tigers in Little Black Sambo (thankful that one’s been renamed Little Babaji), biting each other’s tails and racing around a tree so quickly and for so long that the dissolve into a pool of perfect butter. My onions are that pool. A gift. Except mine has come from patience and quiet attention, rather than fierce competition.
I bump the heat up to medium and watch as the silky, translucent onions become more richly hued, turning golden, amber, honeyed. The ones on the edges look like mahogany. I think of my colored pencils, ordered by shade and how much I like when they’re neatly arranged.
It’s time now to spare the onions additional heat. After a final flourish of my wooden spoon, I slide the skillet to a cool burner, and lower my face into the aromatic steam that arises from the beautiful mess.
I don’t know how much time has passed since I began cooking. What a delight to lose myself like this.