I watched the coffee slowly decrease in this IKEA jar in our fridge. Husband is the coffee drinker in our home, and the grounds in this jar were a gift to us from Papa, Husband’s father, during his and Mama’s last visit. They were staying in a hotel in Geneva the weekend before Christmas, and they had stopped at some sort of speciality store and he bought the coffee for us. It was a special brand, one of those extravagant treats that we would not buy for ourselves, and while we thanked him for it and enjoyed the coffee – well, Husband enjoyed the coffee – we had no idea how special it would become.

It is not an exaggeration to say that death is on my mind daily since February when Papa died. I think about it when I kiss Husband goodbye before a business trip, it’s on my mind when I put Small One in his crib for naps and for the night, every Skype call with a member of my family ends with the fleeting thought of “What if this is the last time?” This is my first experience with death and its aftermath, and I am not a fan.

I never realized how much I spent most of my life focussing on the afterlife – I could not wait to get to heaven, be with Jesus and live in my mansion that was going to be equipped with a private beach (really) and I think I was also able to walk in the air and sit on clouds. I used to fantasize about this in my teenage years, and thought then that the idea of dying young was probably one of the best things that could ever happen to me. Even as I matured into adulthood, I still held death as the sad but glorious door through which we walk into a blissful eternity.

I still believe in an afterlife – heaven and hell – and I still believe that an eternity with Jesus in heaven will be more awesome than anyone can imagine, private beaches or not. But I had no idea how absolutely awful and final death on earth actually is.

There is nothing particularly beautiful about it, in fact my limited encounter with it this time around only shows me that death is totally opposite to everything that we long for as human beings. We want continuity of relationships, to grow deeper, walk closer, be more intimate. Relationships were not made to end. We want to keep making a difference, do something with our lives, be productive, effective, useful. Life exists for a purpose.

The coffee jar in the photo was for a me a tie to Papa, a small reminder of his life and a tiny way that it intersected our daily lives before he died. Husband drank the coffee and would remark about how great it was, and we were thankful for the gift. Now it is a link to a father who is gone, who will never buy us another bag of special coffee, and with each cup we drink from the grounds in this jar, we inch closer and closer to the day that it will be empty. The coffee will be finished, and this jar will not be refilled because Papa is dead and he is not coming back.

I think about these things as I cooked breakfasts and brunches, dinners and lunches this long weekend for Mama, Husband’s brother and our family, during Settler’s of Catan marathons, late nights and weary mornings, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I think about it as I sing in church and curl my hair and push Small One in the swing.

Jesus is alive, death has lost its victory and the grave has been denied, I sing to Small One on Easter Sunday morning, Jesus lives forever, he’s ali-i-i-ve, Hallelujah, Jesus is alive. And I believe it, with all my heart I believe it because what else do I have than the hope of this, that Jesus makes us what we were always made for, that he gives us a Relationship that never ends because he never ends, that he gives us life on earth and life after death because he is Life,  that he gives my now purpose and meaning because he is the only reason to be alive, that he takes our innate weakness and makes us whole forever, for eternity.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:67-69 

Oh I could eat this with a spoon. Seriously. Tart, salty and hot, hot, hot, this recipe for harissa from my Moroccan cookbook is a winner. (As you can see, last week was very Moroccan in our flat.)

I make decisions about what to cook one of two ways. Method one involves looking at photos and reading recipes in a cookbook or online, being inspired evidenced by the formation of pools of saliva in my mouth, and rushing to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. Method two is showing up at the grocery store, noticing that beef is on sale, buying a pack and then wondering what to do with it because you need to make something different than the steak with balsamic sauce reduction you’ve cooked (and eaten with delight) twice in the past week.

Harissa is now a part of my life thanks to the second method. There were frozen potato wedges in the freezer, asparagus in the veggie basket and sweet potatoes still on hand, I had two steaks to use and the Moroccan steak recipe looked ridiculously easy (it was) and involved no balsamic vinegar.  (A note to my American friends: these are steaks à la minute, not even a centimeter thick, so nothing like those beefy American steaks.)

The recipe called for a yoghurt sauce mixed with harissa. I can’t think of anywhere in all of Geneva where I could buy harissa, so I was going to go without it or have to make it myself. As I mentioned yesterday, this is why I love “A Month in Marrakesh” by Andy Harris; he covers even the little details of Moroccan cooking.

The yoghurt sauce with the harissa in it was delicious and perfect with the steak, which was marinated in ground cumin, coriander, paprika, salt and olive oil. I could eat the harissa with a spoon except that it’s so spicy, it makes me cry a little bit. It’s a wonderful condiment to go with toasty flatbreads – that’s how a Moroccan restaurant serves it here – and just a nice alternative to chopped chilies with soups and stews.

  • Harissa   (from “A Month in Marrakesh” by Andy Harris)    Soak 75 grams of dried chilies in hot water and leave for an hour (I did not do this, and everything worked out fine, but I did end up with a more salsa-like consistency and less of a paste consistency). Drain and put in a food processor, add 6 garlic cloves, peeled, and 3 tablespoons of sea salt and blend to a rough paste. Stir in the juice of half a lemon and five tablespoons of olive oil. Transfer into a jar. If you follow these quantities, you end up with 480 grams of harissa. I had only about 10 grams of dried chilies on hand, so I just adapted it. I love garlic, and I love salt, so I upped those quantities a bit, and it was gorgeous. I kept adding the lemon juice until it was the right level of tartness for me.

Marrakech, Morocco is a place that lives up to its hype. The guidebooks will tell you that the vendors are crazy; in reality they are even crazier. The colours are brighter, more enchanting and intoxicating than in the photographs. Winding, narrow roads in the medina are full of children, teens, donkeys, motorcycles and other rapidly moving people and objects. Tourists come in droves and all eat at the same cafes and restaurants. The night market is noisy, full of sights and sounds that bombard the senses.

We went to Marrakech for five days; it was my birthday present and our babymoon in one. Looking back it’s probably not the best place to visit if you’re a foodie and 28-weeks pregnant.The Moroccan street food smelled fantastic, and the little hole-in-the-wall eateries looked like it had the best food options in the city, but we were stuck going to establishments for tourists to make sure baby and I didn’t get food poisoning. (If you’re reading this and planning a trip to Marrakech, skip the expensive, touristy places. The food is not bad, but the best stuff is on the street.)

My love for Moroccan food began six years ago when I first made a Jamie Oliver cous cous recipe with a Moroccan-inspired roast chicken, and I’ve made a tagine or two in the past few years. For Christmas, my sister gave Husband and I “A Month in Marrakesh” by Andy Harris, and thumbing through it has warmed my little heart through and through. It reads like a travel guide and memoir even though the bulk of it is devoted to recipes. And not just any recipes, of course it has tagines and kebabs, but it also has how-tos for pickles, sauces, pastes, drinks, jams and so many other things. So far I’ve made three things from it – a Moroccan steak recipe, harissa and this tagine. All have been winners, albeit with some tweaking. The book could be better edited, and lacks some details, I think, but those things are easily remedied.

  • Lamb and Prune Tagine   (from “A Month in Marrakesh” by Andy Harris)   I’ll put the recipe from the book here as it is written and write my adjustments as I go along.
  • Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a casserole dish or tagine over medium heat, and then add 1 kilo of lamb, cut into 5 cm chunks and brown for 5-7 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a plate. (I used lamb cutlets, with the bone, and it was fantastic.)
  • Add to the casserole dish 1 sliced onion (I used two), 2 cloves of garlic sliced (I put four), 1 chopped celery stick, 2 chopped carrots, and 1 large tomato peeled and roughly chopped and soften for 5-7 minutes.
  • Add 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon saffron threads, 1 teaspoon ground coriander and 1 tablespoon of flat-leaf parsley finely chopped and cook for five more minutes. (I tripled the ground spices – so 3 teaspoons of ginger and coriander and at least two teaspoons of cinnamon; to me cinnamon is a necessary spice in Moroccan lamb dishes.)
  • Return the lamb to the casserole dish and add enough water to just cover the mixture (I mixed some beef bouillon with the water to give it a richer flavour, and I would say this is important. We made it with just water, and the flavour is less full). Check for salt and add if you need to. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat, cover with the lid and simmer for 1.5 hours or until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened. Add 300g pitted prunes softened for 5 minutes in hot water and cook for another 30 minutes.
  • Serve with cous cous and sprinkle with toasted almonds. (There was a lot of liquid in the tagine when it was essentially finished, so I took out about 750 milliliters, reheated it to the point of boiling, and it was the liquid I used to cook the cous cous, which gave it a great, lamb and spices flavour. Normally I would add some special things into the cous cous, but I didn’t have time, and this was a good way to make it a bit more interesting and use what I had.)

He was rarely still, my son, even as a wee newborn. His eyes flitted about the room, taking everything in before he locked in on mine when they first put him on my chest. Then his Papa started talking to him, and Small One turned his big eyes to his father’s and they locked eyes. He tossed and turned when he cried, when we put him on his back, he tried to look behind him and after three weeks would cry from frustration because he could not roll over. He wanted to move.

He has always wanted to move, my son.

We went to the park yesterday for a play date with his little friends. They were all warmly encased in wombs when they first met in a long, dry prenatal class where tired pregnant women sat on floors with no shoes holding hands with husbands who looked worn and wary on those Friday evenings.

Baby girls, baby boys, knit together inside of us now in the middle of a mass of rugs on the soft spring grass of Parc Des Bastions. They try to take toys from each other, touch each other and occasionally pull on limbs, hands and hair. There are little screeches and baby babbles; they must understand their special language. I put Small One down in the middle of the rug, and within minutes he leaves it, crawling away on the grass, headed for his open space.

He is not like this indoors. When we visit his little friend’s houses, he sticks close to me, seated and often will play with a toy, pull up on my leg or even cry. He only starts to move when he has been there for a while and feels comfortable.

I pull him back to the mat, telling him that it’s time to stay here and read a book, play with a toy, something. The grass will stain your clothes, I tell him, it’s dirty out there. I don’t remember everything I told him because it did not matter. He was gone in a few minutes. I followed him around this time, his delighted face looking at me, looking at the grass, the trees, the people. Brown dirt embeds inside his finger nails, and his sheepskin shoes are getting dirty.

He doesn’t care; he is happy here. He is himself like this, moving, moving, always moving.

I die a little – can I say that? – when I see him crawling away from me into the open. My heart, it bleeds just a bit, as I watch my baby become my son. There weren’t enough days, I think, not enough moments, no moments enough in the whole world to contain the past 10 months of life. Your life, my precious son. How precious you are to me, how impossible it is to describe what you have done to my heart. 

Release, release.  I try once more to bring him back, a futile attempt and eventually, Mommy let’s go and let’s him go. He is off once more into the grass. His cute Gap pants will be ruined, I sigh to myself, and I release him into his future again.

I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life, I think, watching my son crawl, walk, run into the open space of destiny. 

I go through phases with food. For the past few months, my soy sauce bottle stayed full and the fish sauce did not need replacing. It was only a few weeks ago that I even realized how long it has been since I made anything Asian. It’s been a lot of winter, European food for us, but it didn’t take long for my little Asian heart (and tummy) to start craving the taste of soy sauce, ginger and lemongrass again.

This dinner was inspired by several things – a lack of time, salmon on sale, the presence of pak choi in the veggie aisle, Jamie Oliver and some limes I had lying around. Any excuse to use limes, really. When I say that this is easy, I mean it takes maybe 20 minutes for the whole meal to be ready from start to finish. Maybe a bit longer if you are very careful about how you wash your veggies.

Easy Dinner

  • Salmon      put it skin side down on a hot pan slathered with olive oil, salt and pepper the top, put a cover on it. Let it cook for however long you want – I cooked ours to well done – then flip and finish. I liked having the very crispy, done skin and a crispy top
  • Sesame Pak Choi    (from BBC food)  I followed the recipe and added snap peas/mangetout to it. So I put those in first because I thought it would take longer than the pak choi to cook. Really watch this because overcooked snap peas and pak choi are no good in my book.
  • Noodle Salad    (adapted from “fiery noodle salad” in Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals)  Bring a pot of water to boil and toss in your egg noodles. While it’s cooking, chop a red onion and small bunch of coriander (chili would also be good but I didn’t have any), put it into a salad bowl. Add soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and lime juice into the onion and coriander mix. Don’t get hung up on quantities – just mix until it’s a great taste for you. For me personally I liked it with more rice wine vinegar and lime juice for a tart taste. I would also add sesame oil unless you mix the Sesame Pak Choi into it (because that has a full sesame taste from the oil). To finish, toss the noodles into the bowl with this dressing and it’s all done.