Photographs by Meadow Linn

Monday, May 13, 2013

Carpe Diem

Carpe diem
Seize the day
Live for today
You live only once
Grab the bull by the horns

These oft repeated directives remind us to make the most of each moment. They tell us to squeeze every last drop from an experience and live boldly and joyfully. Why sit back and watch when we could participate! And, why toil when we could revel!

Unfortunately, most of us don’t actually live this way. We have excellent reasons and excuses for perpetually putting off seizing the moment. Perhaps this isn’t true for you, but it’s certainly true for me. Whether it’s a looming deadline, piles of e-mail, or baskets of laundry, there’s always something I “have to do” demanding my time and attention. I love my work and I can even find joy scrubbing the toilet and pulling weeds, but sometimes we have to be willing to relinquish the “shoulds” and the “have tos” in order to make room in our lives for the “wows” and “totally awesomes.”

A balcony in the sun-drenched South of France
When I look back on my life, the experiences that have had the greatest impact on me happened when I took advantage of every opportunity as though it might never present itself again. These have also been some of my happiest times. For instance, when I did a Junior-Year-Abroad in the South of France, I knew I only had eight or so months to learn as much French as possible, stroll the farmers’ markets, travel in Europe, and make new friends. I didn’t sit around and watch TV all evening, as I sometimes do now. Instead, I lounged in cafes, meandered along cobblestone streets, and spent weekends on the train exploring quaint villages. Although I wasn’t there even 12 months, I fit years worth of living into that short sojourn. The colors, scents, sounds, and people will be with me for the rest of my life.

My favorite fountain in Aix-en-Provence
In contrast, a few weeks ago, I went to the downtown area of my little town to pick up some food for a friend with the flu. Although the historic town square with trendy boutiques and great restaurants is only a couple blocks from my home, I realized it had been months since I’d visited. I live in the heart of California wine country, yet I rarely take advantage of my location. The people who spend a week here on vacation actually experience more of this beautiful area than I do.

When we’ve been somewhere for a long time, it’s easy to become complacent. There’s always tomorrow, next month, or next year. Having constancy can be a blessing, but also it can keep us from getting the most out of every day and even the most out of our lives. I often get caught up in the mindset of “so much to do – so much to do” and forget that in order to lead the life I want to lead, it’s important to make room in my life for madcap fun, in whatever form it takes. A life-altering experience need not take time, money, or be complicated.

One of the tree-lined streets in my sweet town
Although it might feel like a bit of a cliché, I think it’s important to take the “rocking chair test” from time to time. That is, imagine yourself as an old woman (or man) gently swaying in your chair. What will you remember? What will be the most poignant? What actions will have had the greatest impact? What will you regret? What will you be grateful for?

Although I find great pleasure in savoring the simple moments in life, such as my morning cup of tea or the way the dew looks on the grass when the sunlight hits it, I’m also realizing that if I spend more time acting as though there were an expiration date on my time in this home, in this town, with these people, doing this job, I might be able to squeeze even more zest out of my life.

Have you ever noticed how we often wait until something is nearly finished before we appreciate it? What steps could you take today to have more fun and make the most out this very moment?

Pastis Chicken

When I prepare this dish, which I’ve loosely based on a traditional Provençal dish, I’m instantly transported to Aix-en-Provence, where I spent a year studying French literature. With each bite, I feel my being flooded with the hot sun, the scent of lavender, and the unbound joy I felt while there.

This recipe makes two very hearty servings, but you can easily stretch it to serve four by adding two additional chicken breasts. There will be slightly less sauce for everyone to dip their bread in, but there will still be plenty of goodness to go around.

Serves 2-4

¼ cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 lg. fennel bulbs, cored and thinly sliced
1 tsp. saffron threads, crumbled
5 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
3 Tbsp. pastis (also goes by the brand names, Pernod or Ricard)*
½ cup good black olives (preferably not kalamata—too salty)**
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
sea salt

To garnish:
Chopped flat-leaf parsley

*Pastis is a traditional Provençal anise liqueur. If you can’t find it, the recipe will still be delicious without it.
**I typically use the olives my dad makes, which are halfway between green and black and somewhat vinegary, though any good olive will work. 

Over medium heat in a large saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil with a pinch of salt until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. To layer flavors, continue to add pinches of salt throughout the cooking process, being sure to taste as you go. Meanwhile, core and slice the fennel and soak the saffron. Saffron releases its flavor in moisture, so the best way to get the most out of this precious seasoning is to crumble the filaments between your fingers into a tiny bowl and soak them in a small amount of warm water (1-2 tablespoons). Add the fennel to the onions and sauté for 20 minutes or so to caramelize them. Add the saffron and soaking liquid, tomatoes, and tomato paste and stir to combine. Increase the temperature to medium-high and simmer until a luscious sauce is formed, about 5 minutes. Reduce to medium heat. Mix in the olives and the pastis. Put the chicken in the pan and cover with the sauce. Cover the pan and gently simmer until the chicken is cooked through (internal temperature 165ºF), about 20 minutes, though the time will vary based on the thickness of the breast. Do not over cook. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes and good French bread for mopping up the sauce. Bon appétit!

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