The perfect salsa, a starry night, these are our little loves

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Julia Driscoll/The Occidental

From cooking our favorite meals to stargazing or dancing around our houses, these stories from our staff share the moments in our daily lives that we have fallen in love with. Mundane, extraordinary or both — these “little loves” highlight some of the joys we’ve been extra thankful for this February.

Photo courtesy of Frannie DiBona.

The perfect salsa verde by Frannie DiBona

I love reading cookbooks. I don’t read the whole thing usually, just the free Kindle previews: the part where they talk about why they cook. And then it’s all recipes and I never find myself buying the whole book. Recipes are easy to find and I’m usually uninterested in what they have to say.

But I read every word of Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal.” I couldn’t tear myself away from her writing. I spent weeks over her cookbook, obsessively rereading it until it was practically burned into my mind.

Months later, I sat in my apartment with no idea what to eat. I had asparagus, a wilting bunch of parsley and a medium-boiled egg I’d intended for my instant ramen. The view of my fridge was sad, and yet Adler’s words rang in my mind.

“Make salsa verde whenever you boil meat, or anything. Once you have it, you’ll start spooning it on everything in sight.”

I’d never even tasted salsa verde. But I had something to boil and nothing to put on top.

The recipe is a date with your knife. Chopping parsley is a task that only works with large amounts and you need to commit or you’ll end up with an overwhelming mouthful of unchopped parsley leaves. The shallot is minced and soaked in red wine vinegar, and added to a paste of chopped anchovy fillets, capers and salted garlic. Everything is mixed with a hearty pour of olive oil.

My dinner that night was a bundle of blanched asparagus, topped with the entire bunch of parsley’s worth of salsa verde and the egg, finely chopped.

It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I fell in head over heels for the salsa verde. It was fresh and vinegary and full of complex savory flavors. The texture of the shallots shines, a delightful light crunch, and the flavor of the parsley is well balanced among the fruitier flavors of the anchovies and shallots.

I became obsessed, using it to top my Thanksgiving green beans, to cover my pan-seared chicken with a heavy hand or to just eat it by the forkful with a few croutons or toast triangles on the side for crunch when I can’t think of anything else to eat.

I’m not a jealous lover — at least when it comes to food — and I urge you to fall in love with this salsa verde too.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Heinze.

The soft, harsh winter by Kayla Heinze

The sun sets early here in Vermont. Today it was dark by 5:30 p.m. When the cold starts to seep in we light a fire in our wood-burning stove and huddle around it doing homework until the heat fills the furthest corners of our house.

Except for a couple of years in Los Angeles, as a child and again as a college student, I’ve experienced winter every year of my life. Most of those were in the extreme cold and snow of Minnesota. I’ve always found some egotistical joy in bragging about how many times I’ve waited for the bus in subzero temperatures or about the nine days I got off from school one winter because the windchill was below 35 degrees below zero for two weeks straight. Once you’ve made it through that you want to wear the badge loudly and proudly.

Now, as I take advantage of online learning by living with some friends in Vermont, I’ve found myself once again in the grayness of February — a month for celebrating love and a month for desperately trying to shake off the grips of cabin fever. It is usually around now that I start helplessly longing for warmer seasons and all the little pleasures they bring, like the feeling of sun and water on exposed skin and lounging outside late with friends.

This year has been different though. With pandemic-related restrictions, I’ve been forced to embrace more and more outdoor activities. I started skiing, did my first and then second winter camping trip and picked up ice skating again. I’m still excited for spring but I don’t feel the same urgency I have in previous years.

I was walking through the woods here a few days ago. The sun hit the snow in just the right way, making it look like the softest pillow I’d ever seen. I felt like I could lay down in all the flakes and sleep for hours. In that moment, I realized how much I lose by trying to rush the seasons, always hoping the next one will arrive sooner and becoming fixated on the joys I don’t have access to right now. For all its tough love, winter seems to be teaching me how to be patient and how to find beauty in the world as it is, even as the sun begins to stay out later and the Earth continues its inevitable rotation. In its own surreptitious way, winter has carved out a little spot in my heart and helped me see light in places where it isn’t always so obvious.

Photo courtesy of Katie Moore.

Dancing on Zoom by Katie Moore

The only thing I love more than dropping it like it’s hot to “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake, is teaching other people how to drop it like it’s hot to “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake. I spent my Valentine’s Day blurring the line between cardio and choreography during a virtual Dance Pro rehearsal, with a wonderful group of girls who somehow put up with my chaos — and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

It makes my heart incredibly happy to have such a committed team along for the ride in this crazy year of teaching dance through Zoom. It also makes my heart happy to know that I’ve found a family in my dancers. In a time where everyone feels far away, it’s extra special to share a (virtual) space with friends and create something together. Our love for dance, and for working with each other, was palpable even through the screen. My dancers keep my love for dance alive, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Photo courtesy of River Lisius.

An ancient draw of stargazing by River Lisius

Last summer, I learned that the word “desire” is derived from “of the stars” in Latin and this has felt profoundly true to me.

As a small child, I remember being tapped awake in the middle of the night by my father to come outside and look into a telescope. I couldn’t comprehend something as old as a comet or how it could appear to be so close to me, like a shiny quarter rushing though space. And what could make Saturn have rings like that, beautiful painted rings? So of course, I wanted to be an astronaut. On snowy winter nights driving around in the backseat of my mom’s Subaru, I’d always beg her to turn on the car’s brightest headlights so all the snow flakes would be perfectly illuminated against the darkness. As they flew past the front window they looked exactly like stars and we were in a spaceship.

A few years later, I would sneak out of my summer camp bed to watch for meteors with my friends, using each others bellies as pillows, giggling and only returning to our cabin beds after midnight. Years later still, it was boys we would sneak out for, under the guise of stargazing, listening to the cicadas and fireflies on those warm August nights until our elbows had grass imprints and our arms fell asleep from leaning on them. While I could count the falling stars on my fingers and toes, in those days I think I always had too many wishes to count.

In my eighth grade Earth science class, I learned that the elements in our bodies originated from celestial explosions. The stars simply made our existence possible. Later, I learned that stars don’t actually twinkle. They only appear to as their light passes through different densities in our atmosphere, refracting it, as if the starlight runs through a million different finish line ribbons just to reach us.

One night while watching a meteor shower this summer, my friend taught me that when you look at the stars you are looking straight into the past. This isn’t just because some constellations are so old, though our ancestors have looked at our Big Dipper for millions of years before us, but also because it takes time for the light from the stars to travel to Earth. When we look at Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us other than our sun, we see it just as it was 4.24 years ago when the light we see now was first emitted. If that star suddenly extinguished, it would take that many years for us to know.

By studying the stars, the first humans were able to learn where they were on Earth, enabling them to create maps and navigate voyages. The stories we attach to those same stars tell us about our culture and give us narratives we can use to contextualize our own lives. If you’re anything like me, these stars also remind you what you desire in that fleeting moment when you catch a stream of light out of the corner of your eye. And when confronted with such fantastic vastness, the stars remind us how it feels to be small — so dizzyingly small — as small and wide eyed as we ever were as children.

I missed the stars so much when I was in LA. When I returned home to Maine in March, pulling into my driveway in the middle of the night, the first thing I did when I stepped out of the car was look up.

Illustration courtesy of Elsa DuMoulin.

A hummingbird full of hope by Elsa du Moulin

POV: It is almost noon on Feb. 27, 2020, and you are crying underneath the olive trees by Rush Gym. It is one of those “Winter? I don’t know her” days in LA — sunny with the faintest suggestion of breeze gently lifting the silvery leaves above you, and you are filled with emotion at the sight of a hummingbird darting among them.

Last Valentine’s Day I was driving on the freeway and then I wasn’t anymore.

It wasn’t quite all of a sudden, though. Not like in the movies, where the main character is laughing and not looking at the road and all of sudden you see headlights, or you don’t, and then there is big flash of lights and the sound of crunching metal and it’s over in an instant, and usually they cut to a hospital waiting room, or the morgue.

You don’t just get to cut in real life. In real life moments stretch out; they linger for an uncomfortable period of time, and in the intervening seconds, which sometimes feel like hours, you have time to do some thinking.

You have time, for example, to wonder if you are hydroplaning when you realize that your tires aren’t gripping the road, before it dawns on you that it is February in California and the sun is shining and has been for weeks.

You have time, before your car starts rolling, to realize that your tires aren’t gripping the road because they aren’t touching the road at all.

You have time, while the glass is shattering and raining out of the windows, while your car is somersaulting across the freeway, to recognize that you are about to die.

Only I didn’t die, which is why, a couple weeks later, I stopped on my walk to class to watch a hummingbird. It made me smile, and then I got this swooping feeling in my chest, not entirely unlike the experience of losing all sense of up or down when you do a 2160º in your mom’s car, and then I was crying.

A couple weeks later I was sitting at home, watching a hummingbird drink nectar from the feeder outside my mom’s kitchen window between Zoom classes. And every time I see that flash of color hovering nearby, I’m reminded, just as I was one year ago, that I might not have been alive for this moment.

Photo courtesy of DJ Prakash.

A letter when texts just won’t do by DJ Prakash

During the pandemic, I’ve become a letter-writer and a package-sender. Some of my missives are more aspirational than others: the crispest paper I can find, the surest cursive I can muster. Some are postcards, for the lazier days; some are care packages, for when chocolate is the only word I have.

Letter writing compels me to give myself space to speak. I ask questions of my correspondents, of course, but without three bouncing dots signifying their pending reply and without much memory of what I wrote in previous letters, I must make my own mark on this daunting white space and honor what I have to say, prosaic or profound.

Letter writing is arrestingly physical. It takes up space and time, something that I value during a year when online life can feel so ephemeral as to not exist at all: we mute ourselves when we’re not talking, we prove we’re human by finding pictures of crosswalks, we hold our phones close like a wound or a child. Sending and receiving something written or packed by hand re-sensitizes me to other people and to the simple miracle of mail.

As I mail one person’s package, I am particularly nervous. I read the note again, imagining it through his eyes. I wonder if he will be able to tell that I unstuck and redid the tape three times to get it aligned. I still don’t know. I drop it in the box and it’s mine no longer.