There and Back Again: Some Mud and Fire.

Mirthful BannerBWarning! I don’t have a new recipe post for you today. But I hope you’ll stay, indulge me and read on. Yes, this is the answer post to the teaser at the end of the Spinach, Cheese and Phyllo Tart alluding to new adventures. It all started here:

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Many years ago, I decided to take a class in pottery at our local and very wonderful Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. I had taken one clay class in college and didn’t enjoy it, but thought perhaps my perspective might have changed after being out in the real world for a while, so I was willing to give it another go. Little could I have known then how deeply that decision would impact my life. It led to a love and pursuit of clay for 15 years, and the forging some life-long friendships along the way. And then strangely, in some ways it led me back to painting watercolors, then to gardening, then developing even more of an interest in food and cooking, and then to this blog.

I first approached clay because I thought it would be a fun way to provide some much needed physical and creative release from a pretty stressful business. Pounding clay is great therapy, and working sculpturally was a wonderful way to gain perspective on what I did every day in a more two-dimensional world.

Clay is dirt. Mud, in fact. No doubt about it. It’s primeval. It’s grounding. It’s been the material of choice for hand made vessels that have propelled humans from the stone age into the modern world, Vessels for the necessities of life and community, for food, water and storage. We still use it. We feel connected with the Earth and each other every time our hands touch it.

I became addicted to the medium and had the good fortune to be invited to work in the studios of some very talented professional potters who were first my teachers, and later became close friends. After a time, I stopped taking classes and joined some of those same potters in our own studio. During those years, I explored different ways to hand build, multiple firing techniques, and created both decorative and functional pieces. I particularly enjoyed building with coils, and I embraced an exposed coil style of handbuilding that I used for many years. I loved painting with bright commercial glazes and then Raku firing them, smoking the pieces to enhance the contrast between color and darkness, shiny and matte. I showed some work in local festivals and in our own studio shows. I had a blast. And then one day I stopped doing it completely.

Why did I leave it? The answer to that might be a book unto itself, because as we all know, interests and life take natural twists and turns.

Briefly, my sabbatical from clay was a time to explore…things that ended up, at least in my mind, being oddly related to clay in some form or another. Getting my hands into organic gardening and the organic and sustainable food movement, cooking my own food more frequently and creating new recipes, taking some time to paint watercolors, finding that I enjoy writing. But what I firmly do believe about our existence in this world is that we are, inexorably, pulled towards—or back to—the things we are meant to do. And resistance is futile. So now, 10 years later, I’m embracing clay once more. And I’m so excited about it that I wanted to share!

Don’t worry. I’m not changing anything…I’m still a professional graphic designer, I still love cooking and blogging about food, and will still be doing and enjoying those things. But I know now it’s time to return to clay because I love it, too, and I’ve really missed it.

So how on earth does all this talk of clay tie into this food blog? The premise of this blog is: Bits and Breadcrumbs: Where all trails lead to good food. Some of you may remember a post I did year before last. It was the holiday season and I mentioned some fellow artists and showed you their postcards for their holiday shows and sales. I also mentioned my Arty Artichoke Dip that I used to make sometimes for our grand pot luck Raku events at Callanwolde, and also for our studio shows when I was a potter. Those pot lucks and the signature dishes that showed up there were famous—and still are—so you’ll be hearing more about them in the future. See? Trails to more good food via clay. Food and art have always gone together, and every opening I go to seems to also be a big food event as well as a showcase for the art. After all, the term “starving artist” has more than one meaning!

Additionally, some of the comments I received on that same post were requests to see some of my work, but at that time, I didn’t have anything shot in a digital format since I hadn’t been working in clay for so long. In truth, much of my work from those years now resides in other people’s personal collections, and my only reference is still in slide form. But I do happen to have an inventory of the pieces left from my last studio show that I have now shot. So…..drum roll, please. I introduce you to my other persona: Mirthful Mudslinger.

All the images you see here today were hand built by me, and are currently featured items on my new Etsy store. These items are decorative and decoratively functional, and I think you’ll find them interesting. What I really hope is that you’ll stay tuned for the new work, which will be coming very shortly. I have lots of ideas I want to explore, and there will definitely be some food-related and food-safe pieces, too. See that clay-food connection?

After today’s post, I may occasionally interrupt this cooking broadcast to update you with new work I think you might like to see, directing you to my Etsy gallery which you can find right now by clicking here: Mirthful Mudslinger I’d also really, really love it if you’d take a moment to “Like” Mirthful Mudslinger on Facebook by clicking here and then the “like” button on the page, which will provide you with a quicker way to see the new work as soon as it’s uploaded to the store, if you follow Facebook.

And that’s my new adventure, folks! Thanks for reading this long post. I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s little foray into another direction, and look for me to be back to our regular programming on the next post! Hopefully by then I will have made my new Spring header, too. Meanwhile, may you have a truly Mirthful day!

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Note: If you live in the Atlanta metro area there are 3 wonderful resources in which to explore the world of clay on a community level. Check out Callanwolde Fine Arts Center-my alma mater, so to speak, and where I know the fine clay studio director and a good many of the equally fine current instructors, with classes in handbuilding and throwing, assistantships, and many firing options including electric, gas, salt, soda and Raku; Abernathy Arts Center-great instructors, handbuilding and throwing classes with multiple firing methods available including Raku; MudFire-an open clay studio facility by membership with a gallery, also has many firing options including electric, gas and Raku.

If you are interested in purchasing any items seen here and reside in the U.S., please go to the Etsy store at the link above. If you live outside the U.S. and are interested in purchasing an item shown here or on Etsy, please contact me directly. I am currently not shipping outside the U.S. via Etsy.

CATS

Terracotta Tabby Cat Raku Mask

Terracotta Tabby Cat

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Blue Tabby Cat

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Dogs

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Small Puppy Dog No. 1

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Big Blue Dog No. 2

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Pigs

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Pink Piggy No. 1

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Spotted Trotter

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Pink Piggy No. 2

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Fish

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Big Tuna

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Tile Trivets

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Teal and Sand Trivet

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Pink and Terracotta Trivet Pair

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Pink and Sand Raku Trivet

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Seafoam and Sand Trivet Pair

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Spinach, Cheese and Almond Phyllo Tart

Another dish I could eat every day and be quite happy, thank you!

Another dish I could eat every day and be quite happy, thank you! It’s a night shot so please excuse the flash.

Here’s a little tart that’s free-formed, which in my case resulted in a rectangle. You could actually make it rounded, I suppose, if your phyllo happens to come in a different shape than that which we get here. But this rectangle format was a no-brainer using locally purchased phyllo from the freezer, and also seemed to give the tart a proper amount of phyllo-to-filling ratio in each slice. It makes for a pretty presentation and is not too difficult to make, once you get over what I like to call “Fear of Phyllo.”

Perhaps I should digress enough to say that I’ve suffered from “fear of phyllo” in the past, afraid that it would dry out before I could have my way with it, so to speak. But I find it well worth the minimal effort it takes to work with phyllo. Just keep the portion you plan working with unrolled on plastic cling film, wax or butcher paper and under a damp cloth, covering the remaining sheets each time with the damp cloth as you are working on the others, and you should be just fine. I’m sure there will be instructions to that effect on the package.

This recipe makes a fantastically full-flavored tart that is good for lunch all by itself, or for dinner served with a side or a salad such as the Mediterranean one in the last post. I would definitely make this for company and will also be modifying it soon, using smaller pieces of the phyllo pressed into mini muffin tins to make appetizer tarts.

And on another note, and I hope an interesting one for you, this week has been about some new beginnings for me…or rather a return to some creative endeavors from my past. Stay tuned for a little departure post, hopefully by the time of my next one, to share what’s going on. Meanwhile, enjoy this recipe, have a great weekend and here’s a little teaser photo to whet your interest!

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Spinach, Cheese and Almond Phyllo Tart
Serves 6

1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and minced
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
several grinds of black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Two 10-oz. packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed and drained of as much liquid as possible
2 eggs, whisked to combine
1/2 cup slivered, blanched and toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 Tablespoon Panko breadcrumbs
Eight 9″ x 14″ unbaked phyllo sheets, thawed if frozen (mine was frozen)
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Brush some of the melted butter on a large baking sheet or flat pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic, stirring until the onion is softened and transparent, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the onion and garlic, and cook a minute or two longer, stirring, until any liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 4 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, feta, cottage cheese, almonds, Panko bread crumbs and the spinach mixture stir until well mixed.

Working on the flat surface of your buttered baking sheet, lay down 1 sheet of the phyllo dough and, using a pastry brush, brush it lightly with some of the melted butter. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of the parmesan cheese over the butter, then top with another sheet of phyllo, repeating the butter, parmesan and phyllo sheets until all eight sheets are stacked on top of each other. Spoon the spinach filling down the center of your phyllo sheet, spreading it evenly and leaving about two inches of the phyllo uncovered all the way around it. Fold up the two long sides of the phyllo to just come up and over the top edge of the filling and brush the edges of the phyllo with some melted butter. Fold the two short ends of the phyllo just up and over the short edges of the filling and the ends of the long sides to make an evenly folded “package” and brush those ends with butter to seal it. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese over the top of the spinach filling, and bake the tart in the oven until the tart is lightly browned on the top and the phyllo is golden brown (see photo below.) Remove from the oven and allow the tart to sit for about 5 minutes. Slice crosswise into six even slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

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If there are leftovers, they keep well completely cooled, placed in the fridge and reheated gently in the microwave the next day. The phyllo stays amazingly crisp!

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