Do you ever experience a pervading sense of doom, a pit in your stomach you didn’t know the root of until you later find out some tragic news? That was the air in the atmosphere last weekend. The suddenly warm temperatures which shielded the sky against a now-lingering cold front had the windows open in our house, sandals on our feet, trees beginning to bud and bloom, and fresh grass sprouting from snowmelt-damp soil. It’s hard to believe anyone could feel down at this time of year, but then again it’s all relative to what you may be experiencing in your life at the time: the flowers and warmth of Spring can sometimes only lift your mood so far.
“A Year Ago”, Facebook notified me, my boyfriend and I were in Illinois for the weekend. I hadn’t slept a whole night (typically only 4 hours, if that) in weeks because my subconscious was so stressed out on a life path I suddenly knew was definitely not right for me. Rolling through the endless suburbs of Chicago I sat in the passenger seat in nervous, sleep-deprived anxiety, until we finally pulled into a parking lot to take a train the rest of the way downtown. The fresh variance of pace in the city plus a delicious pizza in a restaurant nearby the music venue calmed my rattled nerves.
We had planned after the show to drive an hour or so back East, near Peru, IL, where there was a state park we could camp at. But the late hour landed us in a hotel room after all, not wanting to set up camp in the dark. And it was the best sleep I’d gotten in weeks.
The next day, we ventured into the State Park along with everyone else from Chicago, it seemed (this was one of the only larger parks around for miles) and hiked some trails, but eventually found ourselves the only ones on bikes riding along an old path that connected the nearby towns. A few placards along the way provided the history of this path and how it had been used by fur traders before there were cars. The Caucasian-inhabited history of this area preceded that in Iowa by a good generation, it seemed, and one could picture the lonely inhabitants amongst the dense woods, slowly modifying and taking over the landscape.
Books I had read in my childhood came to mind: I was the boy in “Where the Red Fern Grows”, walking through the dark woods to nearby towns to get my Coonhound pups. We passed dilapidated barns and homes, which conjured the murder-mysteries of R.L. Stine: I was convinced that there were ghosts staring out at me from behind those clouded windows.
All-in-all, it was a relief to be unsettled in a way thought up mostly by my imagination and not by the harsh life-or-death realities of what I was experiencing as a Veterinary Technician student. And it was good to simply get away. We biked into the cute little tourist town of La Salle, set snug within the river valley, with great saloons and diners which echoed the 1800s-era mystique that pervaded the bike ride (so they sensed the haunted feeling, too). Soon it was back to Iowa and reality, but La Salle, Illinois will forever linger in my mind as a beautiful respite from the present.
I have met this Spring with much more ease and have actually been able to enjoy the change in seasons. Last weekend, I had made a ton of cheese and had advertised it to friends for pick-up. Therefore, I had a number of people stopping by throughout the day, which was fun. I also experimented with making a new cheese, an Indian cheese known as “Paneer”.
If you are familiar with Indian food and are a regular connoisseur, you most definitely know such dishes as “Saag Paneer”. If you don’t, it is a curry (a gravy sauce) made up of cooked spinach (Saag), herbs and spices and semi-firm cubes of cheese (Paneer) that resemble tofu.
Two books that I own have recipes for Paneer: “Home Cheesemaking” by Ricki Carroll and the “Complete Book of Indian Cooking” by Suneeta Vaswani. While the first is a more-or-less bible for home cheesemakers, I decided to try first the recipe from the Indian chef of Indian heritage for this traditional Indian cheese. It is a beautiful book, one I picked up years ago, that has recipes sorted by each region of the country and beautiful photos of the food and the people to accompany it.
The recipe is called “Lower-Fat Panir” (it can be spelled either way) and specifies that it is from a Northern region of India: Punjab. Suneeta states that Paneer is “the only form of cheese indigenous to India” (1). I prefer to use whole milk (I don’t care so much about the Low-Fat). The instructions say to take 8 cups of milk and bring it to boil in a large saucepan. Then, pour in 4 cups of buttermilk and stir until the solids separate from the whey. Pour into cheesecloth-lined colander, gather up ends of cheesecloth and hang above the sink for 5 minutes, then press flat with fingers and, still within the cheesecloth, place on a plate with the saucepan full of water on top and press for 30 minutes or longer. I had to add a third layer of cheesecloth, as the curds were so fine and tiny, I was losing some through the mesh as I poured it into the sink.
I left to go on a hike with my boyfriend, so it sat pressing for a few hours. We were planning to use it in an Indian-themed dinner that night, so after we went to the store to get ingredients for the other components of the dish, I returned to uncover my Paneer. It was gorgeous! And it tasted wonderful! The curds had pressed into a nice block about an inch thick that was delicate and slightly earthy. We cooked it in a Tikka Masala sauce, which we served over rice alongside a “Cauliflower Peas Pancake” dish and a wedge of curried chicken: a meal that, we felt, would make the chefs at our local Indian restaurants drool.
I had promised some Paneer to a co-worker if it turned out right and if I had some left over from our meal. Wrapping the plastic around it like a present, a special treasure, was a glorious feeling and I felt it only deserved a beautiful label: an Indian elephant decorated in traditional paint.
But all things are not glorious in life. I had given a friend some cheese to try once and I’m not sure if he didn’t like it or just took it to be nice, but it sat in the refrigerator for weeks. After he’d left town, I found the empty container stashed in a cupboard. I didn’t take it personally; that’s just kind of how he was.
Living in the aftermath of a tragedy is curious. You are alive, yes, but somehow you are floating through reality… connected to that spirit lost maybe, or perhaps they are connected to you–because who knows what happens post-departure from this world, how long one stays close in the spirit realm before moving on to heaven or whatever you believe is beyond… nothingness? Another life? But maybe their spirit being present is purely an invention of your imagination–a coping mechanism–and it’s just that you’re still thinking of them that makes them feel present?
Anyways, I believe I felt his lingering spirit. I felt I could see through his eyes for brief moments. I felt him watching my car as I drove to the funeral home, as Spring raindrops pattered against my windshield and I wiped tears from my eyes.
Shock and awe: the awe of death, fascinating and scary. Especially when you’re faced with the tragic death of someone young, not much older than you. We talked about Grandparents dying, and how that is sad, but we all know the limitations of human life, so at a certain age it’s not unexpected. We all think that we will all get to live such long lives. But when someone young dies before their time, it’s a sobering reality that any one of us could go at any moment.
We make promises to live our lives to the fullest in the wake of such tragedies, to not let the petty things bog us down. We listen to the wonderful things being reflected upon our departed friend and wonder what will be said about us when we go… and become kind of nervous about that. I look at pictures taken from about a year ago of all of us together, having fun, and wonder if he ever thought in only a year he would no longer be here?
How quickly it can happen. I sigh and try to remember what I had been doing beforehand, what my life’s goals and pursuits were; they all seem so small now…
Today, the day after his funeral, I linger in my house sipping tea and nibbling on chocolate. I had returned yesterday afternoon completely wiped out from the emotional toll of the day. That evening, I decided it would be best to give my body a rest and called off going for brunch with some friends a half hour away.
In the morning, as the time for my boyfriend to leave for class approached, I realized I would be alone with my thoughts and the image of him lying there stiff and thought maybe I should have gone out with my friends. Death always hits me like that. At first, I am horrified, yet fascinated by the details. If I don’t acknowledge the pain, it can unexpectedly hit and can be shattering (the tiny kitten on the pre-operation prep table heaving in fits suddenly slumping over and dying…).
I had cried when I’d heard, I hadn’t tried to shut off the pain and “be strong” this time… but the images wouldn’t quit in my mind. I told myself to stop thinking about it, to focus on life and here I am writing it out (the best therapy there is). I read some more of “M Train” by Patti Smith, lingering on her descriptions of her meeting with “the gone Beats’ orphaned children” in the Beats’ “port of call”, Tangier (2), then looked up flight prices to Morocco… not bad. My boyfriend and I discussed a possible Morocco to Madrid excursion (we’re trying to figure out where and when to travel abroad).
Then, I made cheese. Paneer again, but this time I decided to try the other recipe, the one from “Home Cheesemaking”. The process was the same, but this recipe calls for using lemon or lime juice instead of Buttermilk. In reading through the cheesemaking process the book goes into excellent detail about, I discovered that though Rennet is typically used to curdle the milk, various citric acids, vinegars, (and apparently buttermilk too) can also be used to raise the acidity and separate the curds from the whey (3). I’d already experimented with this process in making Ricotta and Queso Fresco, which both call for using vinegar.
After heating the milk and drizzling in the lemon juice, the curds quickly formed and lumped together in much larger masses than had occurred with the Buttermilk. They also looked and felt a little more rubbery, more like how the Ricotta curds look. After dumping them into the cheesecloth-lined colander, I washed off the curds as the recipe called for and tasted a little before pressing; they definitely took on a lemony flavor.
I just uncovered the Paneer from pressing. This batch doesn’t look quite as pretty; it didn’t press together as nicely, but it’s still a formed block. The lemony flavor could be alright for Indian dishes. It is also a little drier. So while it is a cheaper way to make Paneer (8 Tbs of lemon juice is much cheaper than 4 C Buttermilk), I think I’ll stick to making the other one.
…that’s all I have for now.
(1) “Complete Book of Indian Cooking” by Suneeta Vaswani, pg. 312
(2) “M Train” by Patti Smith, pgs. 217, 222
(3) “Home Cheesemaking” by Ricki Carroll, pg. 25