Eat, Pray, Get Better

- August 8, 2012

" is about to ramp up to a whole new level in my life"

For the last three months, as I lay flat on my stomach, confined to the house with an eye so black it looked like Rocky Balboa himself had sucker punched me, food became a significant part of my recovery from surgery for a detached retina.

Truth be told, food has always played a major role in my life. When I was 4, I had two eye surgeries for a lazy eye. Then, at age 6, tired of doctors and hospitals, I came down with a sore throat and didn't tell my parents. It turned out to be strep and without medication, it spread to my kidney and made me sick for six months. I was out of school and on penicillin for a year.

My mom used to make me special treats – Julia Child's chocolate almond cake, garlic bread, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, buttery English muffins with strawberry jam. Food was the one thing that not only brightened up my day, it filled me up, made me happy and sometimes even helped me sleep.

Since May 25, food has once again taken front and center stage in my life. During the three weeks I spent face down on a massage table, meals provided a welcome relief from the monotony of the day. At first, I couldn't cook for myself, so my husband made all the meals. But once I could get up and move around the kitchen, I started cooking up some of my favorite childhood comfort foods—blueberry waffles with peanut butter and maple syrup, my mom's garlic bread and grilled cheese, lots of soups and sometimes even a BLT or fried rice.

There were days when all I could do was muster up enough energy to eat. Once, I had a bad winter cold and my mom showed up at my doorstep with a bag full of remedies and some of her home-cooked French onion soup, a potent weapon against a cold. Another time I was knocked out by the flu and my boss dropped by with a bag full of groceries to help me recover.

Always when we had to attend funerals, food was an important topic. Who was bringing what dish to the family gathering after a service, or which restaurant did we have reservations for. When my mom died in 1991, we gathered around food to remember her and celebrate her life. At a reception on the Princeton University campus following a memorial service at the university chapel, a high school friend of mine catered delectable appetizers that provided sustenance and comfort. A dinner that followed at a local restaurant seemed the right way to honor my mother, who loved cooking and hosting dinner parties.

Having just discovered that I now have to undergo a third surgery to remove some scarring, food is about to ramp up to a whole new level in my life. I'll have to spend three weeks recovering again, though not on my stomach, thankfully. I won't be able to walk two miles every day, which I recently had resumed. So meals will once again become the highlight of the day. This time, though, I'm going to make it more challenging by cooking only healthful, nutritious meals. They can be comfort foods, but they also have to provide some health benefits.

I've been perusing some new cookbooks for ideas so that I can have some new dishes to try. Here are a few that I'll be making in the coming weeks.

Recipes from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck

Barley Salad with Figs and Tarragon-Lemon Dressing

(Serves 4)


2 cups water

¾ cup pearl barley

Lemon zest, one strip

3 peppercorns

Pinch of fine sea salt

Bring water, barley, lemon zest, peppercorns and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Lower heat to simmer, cover and cook until barley is tender but slightly chewy, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let sit, covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid, transfer barley to large serving bowl and cool. Remove the lemon zest and peppercorns.


1 lemon

1 cup chopped dried figs

2 stalks chopped celery, halved lengthwise and cut into ¼-inch slices (1 cup)

½ cup finely chopped green onions

½ cup chopped tangy apple, such as Granny Smith

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2-3 teaspoons honey

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley

Grate the zest of the lemon for 2 teaspoons of zest. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Place figs in small bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Set aside. Add celery, green onions and apple to the serving bowl.

Whisk together olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 teaspoons of honey and season with salt and pepper. Stir in tarragon and parsley and adjust seasonings to your taste. Add barley and figs with lemon juice to the bowl and mix. Drizzle the dressing on the salad and toss to combine. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes so the flavors can mingle. Toss again and serve.

Saffron Risotto with White Wine Clams & Pasta

(Serves 4)

2 ½ cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 piece of Parmesan cheese rind

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 pounds littleneck clams (about 25)

1/3 cup minced shallot

1 clove garlic, lightly crushed

½ teaspoon saffron threads

About 4 cups parnoiled short-grain rice

1 cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio

7 ounces frozen peas

2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

About 1 ounce of finely grated Parmesan

1 ½ teaspoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley

Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the cheese rind and stir in the salt. Cover and lower heat to simmer.

Clean the clams, discarding any that are broken, chipped or open. Soak clams in large bowl of cold water for 20 minutes, so the sand clears out from inside their shells.

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot, garlic and saffron and cook, stirring frequently for 2 minutes, until shallot softens. Add rice and cook, stirring vigorously until grains are coated with oil and turn shiny, about 2 minutes. Increase heat to medium high and add ¾ cup of wine. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom, until the wine turns syrupy and is almost absorbed, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add broth, stirring with a wooden spoon, and bring to boil. Decrease heat to simmer, cover and cook until much of the broth is absorbed, about 10 to 12 minutes, stirring about halfway. Add ½ cup more of the broth, stir, cover and cook for 5 more minutes.

Scrub clams under cold running water, then bring remaining ¼ cup of wine to a boil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add clams in a single layer, cover and steam for 3 to 5 minutes, until they open.

Stir peas and cream into risotto, cover and cook on low heat for 3 minutes. Stir in the cheese, butter, pepper and salt.  Serve with parsley as a garnish and Parmesan.

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