And, just like that, it’s September.
That was the opening line I planned to use as I scrambled to get this post out before sunset last Wednesday as Rosh Hashanah rushed in. Instead, I used those last few hours to curl up with a good book (well, two good books) and enter the Jewish New Year calmly and with anticipation rather than racing the clock with rushed dread of not finishing and disappointing. Disappointing whom? I guess myself.
Now, ten days later, I finish this post minutes before Yom Kippur begins because after some time for reflection, this is how I want to start my new year. Right. Now.
In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I thought about the secular new year, eight months ago, when newlyweds Veronica and Brian and nearly a hundred friends and family members and I took plane, train, and automobile to reach Sacred Valley, Peru.
Mere days before the wedding ceremony, I met most of the guests in Lima at the rooftop cocktail reception that started our ten-day wedding extravaganza. While in the capital, we toured the city, tested the choppy Pacific waters, bought more alpaca gifts than any sane person should, and ate and drank.
Each evening brought a party and each party brought music and dancing. There was a rocking ukulele at the rehearsal dinner. And the dance floor at the wedding opened with Veronica and Brian’s first dance (with a well-rehearsed lift) and ended with la hora loca, the “crazy hour” that went on well into the morning, leaving everyone covered in confetti, dressed in flowered necklaces and Incan headdresses, and dancing with human-sized furry cuy - guinea pigs – that, when not entertaining, serve as traditional Andean dinner rather than childhood pet.
After the four days of wedding festivities, the adventure began with that plane-train-automobile trip to Sacred Valley, not too far from the Incan capital of Cusco.
After settling in to our new digs, we started up the New Year’s Eve party, complete with beer and wine and coca tea, with streamers and sparklers and silly hats (and a certain bride wearing traditional yellow underwear). We barely made it to midnight before we started dropping off like flies, mumbling something about setting a 5 am alarm and where’d I put that raincoat and will they have breakfast for us.
The next morning, I dragged my groggy self out of bed, tied on my just-barely-broken-in hiking books, and surrendered to a backpack filled with every possible item I just might need. Bug spray and sunscreen. Poncho. Protein bars. Water. More water. T-shirt. Long-sleeved shirt. Hat. Change of socks. Flashlight.
A short bus ride, and we walked past a flurry of retail activity to get to the train that would get us to the Inca trail. Along that short walk, hawkers cried out their wares. Good hat to protect from sun! Coca gum for altitude! Umbrella! Hiking stick!
The train dropped us off at KM104 and we started out the first day of the New Year under a brilliant sun.
From this side of the mountain, eight months later, the details are a blessed blur. There were ups and downs, zigs and zags, slippery rocks, narrow cliffs, rain and wind, and never enough water. The poncho went on and off and on again as the weather changed moods like Mercury himself.
By the end of the first mile, I was falling back. By the end of the second mile, I was holding up the caboose. There were a few of us back there, pacing ourselves, enjoying the view, breathing the air. Or, perhaps merely catching our breath. Or, many breaths. We crawled up the nearly vertical “gringo killer” stairs, and caught a few more breaths. We climbed the just-100-more, I-mean-200-more , I-mean-350-more, see-you’re-almost-there steps. Guides can be cruel like that.
And then, we really were almost there. We reached Intipunku, the Sun Gate. As the clouds parted and the fog lifted and we shed our rain gear, we shared a clear view of Machu Picchu that those who had rushed ahead of us missed.
We all made it up. We all made it down. We all returned to explore Machu Picchu the next day.
Which, strangely enough, brings us back to that fish photographed up top.
On Rosh Hashanah, we decorate our table with fish or lambs’ heads, or just a whole roasted fish. We make a blessing that we be like the head, and not the tail. A leader, and not a follower. And not someone who falls behind.
Earlier this summer, in June, I bought paiche, a sustainable Peruvian fish because it was on sale and its thick, firm fillets looked like they would cook perfectly evenly. No head. No tail. Just the good stuff in the middle. I asked Facebook whether anyone had ideas about how to cook the fish, and continued to haphazardly throw items in my basket. Brian, now settled into Lima, and waiting for Veronica to join him, embraced his new heritage and suggested that I “cook it in some banana leaves! Amazon style.”
I looked in my pantry, and just could not find any banana leaves. Crazy, that. No banana leaves. But I tucked the idea away for another day.
I did however remember a spicy fish dish that I had I had dogeared in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem months prior. I skimmed through the recipe and it looked pretty simple. Pan fry some fish, add a few pantry staples, and voilà, a quick dinner. Or so I thought.
Had I read the instructions top to bottom, I might have realized that this was no quick dish. Three hours of well-past-prime-time-TV marinating and pan frying and stirring and simmering and saucing on a night when I had wanted to eat minutes after key in door, I was annoyed. I finally sat down with fork and knife at 11 pm.
I stayed annoyed until the next afternoon, when, over a lunch of leftover paiche and couscous, I read my friend Leah‘s blog post entitled “Are we being held hostage by the 30-minute meal?“. Leah is writing her second cookbook (you might recognize a few recipes from here in her first!) and was testing time-intensive chocolate babka after time-intensive chocolate babka after time-chocolate babka until she got the recipe just right. During these hours upon hours of kneading, rising, waiting, twisting, baking, cooling , Leah found herself considering quick, get-it-on-the-table cooking versus the attention and time for reflection afforded by more complex recipes.
“When we allow everyday cooking to be the only cooking we do,” Leah says, “I think we ultimately lose out. By elevating and idealizing the 30-minute meal, we inherently discredit any recipe that takes longer to make. We abandon the deeper pleasure of tackling a difficult recipe head-on and emerging on the other side, battle-scarred but victorious. “
I realized the next day that I had indeed gone to bed victorious. emerging with merely a small battle-scar burn on my finger. Because, man, that fish was good. And the prior evening was calm, the work sometimes complex, sometimes messy, sometimes slow. Once I realized that this was going to be an evening project, I got there on my own pace. I breathed. And then breathed again.
Reflecting on the my Peruvian New Year, and my Brooklyn Rosh Hashanah, and my Brooklyn Yom Kippur, I wish for me and for you the ability to lead well and follow well, to slow down and watch the fog clear, to enjoy the quiet moments, to accept the scars, and to just get through it however you do.
This year in particular is one of new beginnings for me, and I hope to embrace each experience and learn from it. Before I get all hokey on you, l’m going to escape to light some candles. Let’s hope I don’t burn myself on the match.
L’shana tova and G’mar chatima tova. Let each and every one of us have a good year, a safe, easy, and meaningful fast, and a year of beautiful moments.
Pan-fried paiche with harissa and rose
The original recipe in Jerusalem calls for sea bass, but I figured that any firm white fish would be a good substitute. I found paiche, a South American fish, on sale and it worked perfectly. I suspect halibut or snapper would be great too. I left out the currants. This fish is spicy. Really spicy. I made the recipe with a full 3 tablespoons of harissa and next time I’ll only use 2 tablespoons. I had to serve it with couscous to counteract the spiciness. I happened to have some dried rosebuds tucked away in the back of my pantry, originally purchased as tea infusions. I’d say they’re completely optional, but are lovely for color if you have them.
The longest part of this recipe is marinating for 2 hours, and then cooking takes about 45 minutes. I don’t think the recipe will suffer if you marinate it in the morning and leave it, covered, in the refrigerator, until evening or if you give it a quick 30-minute counter top marinate.
- 2-3T harissa, divided in half for marinade and sauce
-1 t ground cumin
- 1 lb firm white fish, skin removed (paiche, sea bass, snapper, halibut, etc.)
- all purpose flour, for dusting
- 2 medium onions
- 2 T olive oil
- 6.5 T red wine vinegar (~1/3 C plus 1 T)
- 1 t ground cinnamon
- scant 1 C water
- 1.5 t honey
- 1 T rose water
- 1 T mint leaves (optional)
- 1 t dried edible rose petals (optional)
- salt and pepper
Marinate. Cut the fish into 3 or 4 pieces. Mix together half the harissa (1-1.5 T, depending on how spicy you like things), cumin, and a few pinches of salt in a bowl. Pat the fish dry and then coat with the marinade on all sides. Place the fish on a plate and let marinate for 2 hours in the fridge. While I normally marinate meat in a plastic bag, fish is too delicate and might fall apart.
Slice. Slice the onions into half moons. The original recipe calls for finely chopping the onion, but I like the longer strips.
Fry. Spread a handful of flour onto another plate. Dredge the marinated fish fillets through the flour and gently shake off the excess. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and fry the fish for two minutes on each side. Remove the fish, but keep the oil in the pan.
Cook. Now that the fish is out of the pan, add the sliced onions and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring, until the onions are golden. Add the remaining harissa (1-1.5 T), vinegar, cinnamon, a few pinches of salt, and several grinds of pepper.
Simmer. Pour in the water, lower the heat, and let the sauce simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, until quite thick. Add the honey and rose water to the pan, and simmer gently for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning and salt. Return the fish fillets to the pan. Spoon sauce over the fish as it warms up in the simmering sauce. This should take about 3 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, add a few tablespoons of water.
Sprinkle. Serve the fish warm or at room temperature with some couscous. Sprinkle with torn mint leaves and crumbled rose petals. Keep the couscous and a glass of water nearby.
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