Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reading List

Summertime is reading time.
It's a trait I inherited from my mother.

Mother used to sunbathe and read paperback novels while my younger siblings and I splashed about in a kiddie pool in the backyard.

Mother was a compulsive reader. And every time she finished a book she would proudly proclaim, "Now that was the best book I have ever read." Until she finished another book then that would become the best book she had ever read.

Of all the books Mother ever read, the one that stands out most in my memory is Herman Wouk's The Winds of War. You just don't forget a novel as as big as that lying about for weeks on end.

One tranquil summer afternoon, sprinklers swishing and lawnmowers humming in the distance, mother put her swimsuit on, spread a blanket onto the lawn, and sat down to sunbathe and finish The Winds of War.

Hours passed while my younger brother and sister and I frolicked about. Until finally, down to the very last page, mother got up for just a moment - as many avid readers do, in order to give reverence and pause before finishing a good book - and returned to find our beagle, Deacon, gnawing and slobbering all over her tattered paperback and the very last page was missing. 

This was bad, I remember thinking to myself. Up until that point in time Old Yeller had been the longest book I had ever read and it seemed like a tome. I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to read something so long as this and not be able to finish the very last page. "Whatever will you do?" I remember asking my mother. We had no money to buy a new book and the library was closed. And lord knew no one else in our nonliterary circle of friends had this atrociously long novel lying about.

But mother was a sly one. Swiftly she threw on a blouse and some flip flops and scurried my younger brother and sister and I into a finned station wagon, and nary a word, drove like a mad woman down to the local drugstore, where she strutted in, sunburned, bare-legged and resolute, three soggy kids in tow, straight toward a spinning rack of books, picked up The Winds Of War, read the very last page, paused, then gently placed it back upon the rack and turned and strutted back out the door again.

Three elderly townsmen stared, jaws agape, at this spectacle they had witnessed. And as the car eased from the curb, mother blissfully proclaimed, "Now that was the best book I have ever read."

I was impressed with my mother that day and never forgot The Winds of War. And years later, during a late night game of Trivial Pursuit, before my husband's drunken college buddy could slur the words out of his mouth, I knew the answer to "Who wrote The Winds of War?"

It is rare moments like these when I cherish my kooky, crafty mother the most. She didn't give me much, but she instilled in me a love of reading and for that I will be eternally grateful.

So what's on your summer reading list?

Nothing so long as The Winds Of War, I hope.

I am needing some ideas.

These are the books I have read so far.

Anymore suggestions?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Henry and Edith

Society seems to be stuck in the fast lane.

Busy these days seems to be the norm.
Sometimes I feel as if I must convey an illusion of busyness, just because one feels inferior if one is not busy. 

Heaven forbid you have a quiet moment with nothing to do but set beside a pond and think and read a book.

If Thoreau could see us today...
That is what I keep telling myself.
But I know better.

Because if there is one thing I have learned from reading and literature, it is that mankind, over time, has changed very little.

Henry David Thoreau escaped to Walden's pond and wrote: "Our life is frittered away by detail. ... Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand;"

In a trance of endless social engagements and mindless activities, Edith Wharton wrote Twilight Sleep, a book about a family determined to escape the pain, boredom and emptiness of life by living in a very "busy" world.

These two writers had a lot in common.

Thoreau died in 1862.

Edith was born in 1862.

One began where the other left off.

Both keenly aware of the fact that mankind, throughout time, has always been busy.

Or are we just busy being mankind?

Walden Pond

I know Thoreau well.

Not through his books.

Oh, I tried reading "Walden" once and all I could think of was Show me the damn pond so I can throw myself in and spare myself the agony of this book(!).

I know Thoreau because I live with him.

My husband is Thoreau. He could spend two years setting beside a pond. Come to think of it, when we were dating, I lived beside a pond and while my husband was pretending to visit me, I know in reality that he was more interested in fishing at the pond.

Hmm... Should have been a sign.

Now I just realized that hubby and Thoreau share the same birthday.
Wow, such a revelation because Edith Wharton and I share the same birthday.

Come to think of it, as I began this post, Thoreau and Wharton were the two authors who's works came to mind when I thought about mankind and how hectic our lives have become.

Each wrote, although in vastly different style, on this very subject.

And each were keenly aware of the fact that life has become too busy, too fast-paced, and too complicated in these modern times.

Henry and Edith were definitely ahead of their time.

Hubby and I not only share the same birthdays with these two authors, we also share a love of place.
Thoreau loved Walden's pond and preferred a simple life in the woods.

Wharton, on the other hand, appreciated the finer things in life and lived in a mansion and wrote The Decoration Of Houses.

So I guess it should come as no surprise when I tell you that hubby wants to live in the country, while I prefer city life with architecture and cultural activities.

Wharton split her time between The Mount and Europe.

Thoreau spent two years living on an isolated pond in the woods. zzzz ... zzzz...

The Mount

Hubby and I are the modern day equivalent of Henry and Edith: two complete opposites coming together through place and time with absolutely nothing in common but a love of place and an appreciation of books.  

Next month we will be married twenty-nine years.

It's a union of mutual respect.
I respect the fact that he likes to go fishing and wander about in the woods. He respects the fact that I am a town mouse and prefer cafes and libraries and big old houses on tree-lined streets.

So I guess the moral of the story is, when choosing a partner, don't rely entirely on their zodiac sign. Look up which author born was on their birthday. There you'll find the true personality of your mate.

Edith Wharton

Henry David Thoreau

I think there's a resemblance! 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cake Knife

Happy belated Mother's Day.

My children have finally begun to leave the nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental this year, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never seemed to make Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on and on, but there is no use telling you about my mother, because you already know my mother. She is the embodiment of every single character that the actress Shirley MacLaine has ever played.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain it's breathing, then, reassured, walks away. My mother. Every scene including that final screaming at the nurses ... totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. That pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt ... so my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer ... the embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years, most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother.

With her there was never a dull moment. But the thing that makes me sad, is how hard she tried, at times, to be normal. But normalcy eluded her.

I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, she invited a co-worker and her husband over for dinner one evening. Now to most normal people, dinner with friends on a beautiful summer evening would seem no big deal. Tidy up the house, prepare a meal ...  it isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small, domestic trivialities annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this profession had left her with little patience and zero tolerance for mundane day-to-day activities. Our home was a mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts, leaving my two younger siblings and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant globs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a housekeeper, mother had always felt woefully inadequate. Yet somehow she seemed eager to clean the place up. So after much fussing and fretting, by the time the guests arrived, she had made our lives (along with anyone else's who had crossed her path) completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people on the day of a dinner party would attend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table, tidying up. But not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into a single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. Now, we were so caught up in the actual cleaning process, that the party and dinner itself had become an afterthought. But to my mother this was no matter. She was intent on having this party and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her. For one day out of the year she was going to cook, entertain and be a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and nothing was going to stop her god dammit!

That was my mother.

Next came the staging. For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress these people, so the house had to be perfect. She wanted to convey the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic, artists living in a big nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our home(!). So after our manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down out of the closet and place it conveniently on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. What the hell that had to do with anything, I'll never know. Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were exhausted. But for a moment all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together. This party just may be a success after all, I thought to myself.

But mother was an irascible person, and the longer she prepared for this party and its venerated guests, the more she began to resent them. So much so, that she began to despise them. How dare they come to my house and make me do all this work(!) she murmured while peeling potatoes. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of a roast, carrots and potatoes haphazardly cooked in a dented, tarnished metal cake pan, along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this I do not recall much about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bare to stay and watch my mother, a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life and death, make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening was strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned and given her a lifeboat, now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one peculiar thing about the evening I do recall, however. A minute thing, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun fell behind the elms and cast it's shadowy tendrils across the lawn, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out of her car and presented my mother with a tall, white cake, and along with it, she'd had the forethought to bring ... a cake knife.

Now in reality a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent meaning. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world, this had become heavy artillery. This was big time! This lady owned a cake knife. This meant organized, responsible, an outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife. To my mother it represented the apex of all domesticity and reminded her of her dolefully inadequate life. Mother's kitchen was filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, knife wielding guest stepped up onto my mother's porch one fateful summers eve, I looked into mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil became a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life. I knew instantly the party was a bust. And now there was nothing left to do but to go on with the show.

Mother never threw another party after that. And it was a long time before we ate cake again.

On a brighter note, in the summertime we feasted on fresh vegetables from my grandparents garden and mother always enjoyed a good chefs salad made with these ingredients. 

If I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for mother's dinner party. I found the Romaine, green onions, and even the cherry tomatoes at the farmers market today. To satisfy the men in my life, I topped it with pan fried chicken strips, homemade croutons, and a local Colby-jack cheese.

This salad dressing is a winner. I like to make it in a Mason jar and store it in the refrigerator.
You may have noticed the spice container in the photo: Target's Simply Organic dried basil.

I know, I've committed a mortal sin. But I went to three different grocery stores, all of which were out of fresh basil. And I felt this was a vital component to the recipe, so I substituted. And you know, it wasn't bad. Not great. But not bad. So in a pinch, you do what you gotta do.

Icebox Buttermilk Dressing
adapted from Art Smith's Back To The Table
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup mayo
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped rinsed capers
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and hot red pepper sauce, to taste
Place all ingredients in a jar and shake well to blend. (Keeps about a week in the fridge.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Digging Myself Deeper

Happy Cinco De Mayo!

My mother spent part of her youth in New Mexico. And although she seldom cooks - she does make a mean taco.

Keep in mind this was before Taco Bell and when she met my dad, her future husband, in Kansas in the early sixties, he'd never even heard of a taco. Back then, this was exotic cuisine.

She bought tortillas in flat, round cans and would fry them up by the dozens. It was my favorite meal and remains one of my favorite meals to this day. Along with enchiladas, salsa verde and anything else Mexican. I could eat it 24/7.

It is also my husbands favorite food. And for our very first meal together as a married couple, I prepared tacos from an Old El Paso kit, which he fondly remembers to this day.

When I was pregnant, I craved Mexican food so much, that my husband, begrudgingly, made midnight runs to Taco Bell. (Ick.)

Thankfully, those days are over. I haven't eaten at Taco Bell in years. But I still eat a lot of taco's...

So many, that I started doing the math ...
I've been married for almost twenty-nine years, and figure, on average, that I have made twelve tacos a week for the past twenty-nine years. That's a whopping 18,096 tacos! And every single tortilla (until recently) was store bought.

Have you read the ingredients on the back of those packages lately? It's a long list of unidentifiable things ... mostly preservatives. I don't know about you, but this concerns me. I knew I could do better. So I decided to try making them myself.

First off, I needed a press. I did some research online and decided to go with an inexpensive cast iron press thinking I could always upgrade later if things went well. 

Bed Bath and Beyond is only a few minutes from my home, so I stopped in one day and asked a store associate where the tortilla presses were.  Well I got lucky and the lady there was very helpful and even spoke with a Spanish accent. She asked me what type of tortilla I was making, corn or flour, and if I had ever made them before. Then she asked, Where do you usually buy your tortillas? Which I thought was an unusual question.

So I answered the usual big chain grocery stores, and winced in embarrassment. (Where I come from, there literally is no place else to shop.)

Shaking her head back and forth, she reprimanded me with a quick, No, no, no.

Where do you get your tortillas, I asked?

Oh, it's easy, she said, you just buy the Masa at the grocery store and use the directions on the package. Or you can go to Ted's. (The local Mexcian restaurant that everyone, except me, seems to love.)

So here I am, one week later, after a few bouts of trial and error, standing in the kitchen rolling, pressing and flipping corn tortillas like Rick Bayless on steroids. When my daughter, accustomed to seeing giant clouds of flour and messes in the kitchen, with a concerned look on her face said, Mom, you're digging yourself deeper.

Truer words had never been spoken. I had been complaining about how much time I was spending in the kitchen lately.  And yes, making my own tortillas was more work. And I was wanting to make things easier. But this is definitely worth it. They are much better than the ones you buy at the store.

So I am in deep now. Way deep.

Tips and Recipes
Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina, Golden Corn Flour is the best I have found so far.
Basically, all you do is mix Masa, water, salt, cooking oil - then roll the dough with your hands into small size golf balls - then press, and cook on a griddle or cast iron skillet for a minute on each side. That's it. Four ingredients, counting water. Compare that to the long list you see on your store bought packages. I had a slight problem with sticking and controlling the heat on my cast iron skillet - but I have a cheap, electric stove - so switched to a nonstick skillet and things worked better.
Homemade Corn Tortillas
2 cups Masa Harina
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water
Mix masa, oil and salt together in a medium bowl. Stir in water and knead dough with hands until it feels like a very wet cookie dough. Keep dough covered with a damp cloth so it doesn't dry out. Roll into balls with hands and press between two sheets of plastic (I cut a ziploc bag for this) on your tortilla press. Heat on a nonstick skillet, or griddle, for 1 to 2 minutes.

My kids like to eat soft tortillas for lunch - topping them with black beans, Queso Fresco, Monterey Jack, cilantro, salsa, and pickled red onion.

And nothing beats a fresh, homemade taco ...

For this taco, I ground my own beef with a Kitchenaid mixer attachment.

I am in so deep now, I may never see the light of day.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Chickens Sweeping Down The Plain

Rogers and Hammerstein certainly knew Oklahoma when they wrote those famous lyrics ...the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
It not only sweeps, it howls, gusts, blusters, tornadoes, and sandblasts. But most of all, it just blows, a lot, all the time.

My brother called today.
He's a true Okie through and through.
He lives on the other side of the state.
The converstation went something like this ...

Me: Hello Little Brother!.

Little Brother: How ya doin', sister Michelle?!

(I use exclamation points because we are a loud, goofy family.)

Me: Pretty good! What are you up to?

Little Brother: Oh, I had to take a horse to the vet today and now I'm just settin here, doin' nothin', starin' at the Oklahoma prairie.
Me: Sure is windy!(At this point I must add that my brother and I live on opposite sides of the state. But if it is windy at my house, it is windy at his house too. Like the song says, the wind comes sweeping down the plain. And it sweeps clean cross the state.)
Little Brother: Well at least the chickens aren't blowing yet.
Me confused: Chickens blowing???
Brother: Yeah, one time a storm 'picked up' and it blew so hard that the chickens went tumbling across the yard like tumbleweeds. So now that's our wind gage. If the chickens aren't blowing, we figure it's not too bad.
Me, Chuckling: Poor Chickens(!).
Brother: Only in Oklahoma(!).
Me: I think there's a redneck joke somewhere in that.

This is Little Jerry Seinfeld. He has a girlfriend named Elaine.
My brother has lots of chickens.
He and his wife like to give them funny names.
One day my husband came home and I told him, David called and said Jerry Seinfeld died.
My husband, clearly confused, was very upset.
Not the actor, I said, The chicken.
My hubby should know by now that only a family as nutty as ours would name their chickens after television personalities.
My brother also has a rather amorous rooster named Bill Clinton.

And two goats - Bert and Ernie.
My seven year old nephew named them.
And they wonder why we call their place the Funny Farm.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Miss Dahl's Kitchen

In a perfect world I world, I would be like the gal in the picture below: a tall glamorous super model living in a cozy English cottage with the most adorable kitchen and a farmhouse sink. 

As it happens, I barely stand five foot three, live in a suburban rental with a dark, inadequate kitchen and a tiny Holly Hobbie sink. Oh, well.

But we can always dream, right?

And that is what I did when I watched these clips from England's latest cooking show The Delicious Miss Dahl. A younger, blonder Nigella, with some nostalgic music thrown in. I found myself glued to these clips on You Tube, just to see the beautifully busy British kitchen. Yes it is a bit cluttered for my taste, but for some reason, I really liked it.

I have a feeling, however, that men aren't tuning in to see the cute, country kitchen. They're looking at the former, gorgeous super model Miss Dahl who just so happens to be the granddaughter of Roald Dahl the famous author.

A lot of people here in the states may not be familiar with Sophie Dahl. She is from England and along with her new show has a cookbook Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights. Her grandfather was the author Roald Dahl, and her grandmother the actress Patricia Neal. Roald Dahl wrote James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and my favorite, The Witches, all of which have been made into movies. My kids loved The Witches. We've read the book twice and watched the movie at least a hundred times.

Anyway, I am bummed because Miss Dahl's new television show, The Delicious Miss Dahl, only airs on BBC 2 and I can't get it here. There's just something about those British cookery shows that draw me in. They make me want to set down in their kitchen with a cup of tea and hang out a while. They seem a little more laid back than our American cooking shows. And best of all, they show us that a women can be smart, and sexy, and cook, all without having to be a size three.

I am hoping Food Network will eventually pick this one up. But in the mean time, I'll keep my eye out for more episodes online.

Anyone else out there watch cooking shows just to see the kitchens like I do?