Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reading List

Summertime is reading time(!). That's what mother used to say.

She loved to lie in the grass and read paperback novels while my younger brother and sister 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 became the best book she had ever read. So the cycle continued for an entire summer ... reading, splashing, sunburns, and paperback novels flapping in the wind.

Of all the books mother ever read, the one that sticks out most in my memory is Herman Wouk's The Winds of War.

One tranquil July, sprinklers swishing and lawnmowers humming in the distance, mother put her swimsuit on and went outside to sunbathe and finish The Winds of War. Hours passed while my younger siblings 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. Then, when she returned, she found our dog, Deacon, gnawing and slobbering all over The Winds of War and the very last page was missing. 

This was tragic, 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 consoling my mother. We had no money to buy a new book, 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, hurried my younger brother and sister and I into a nineteen-sixties 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 then gently placed it back upon the rack, turned, and strutted out the door again.

Three elderly townsmen stared, jaws agape, at this spectacle they had just witnessed. And as our car eased from the curb, mother proudly 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 from his mouth, I knew the answer to "Who wrote The Winds of War?"

It was rare moments like these when I cherished my kooky, crafty mother the most. She didn't give me much, but she instilled in me a love of reading and books 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 in need of some ideas.

These are the books I have read thus far and am happy to report that I recommend all three:

If you haven't read Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day then you are in for a treat.

The Optimist's Daughter is a classic that does not disappoint.

And My Cousin Rachel was worth feeling like a zombie the next day after staying up all night to finish.

Anymore suggestions?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Henry and Edith

As a society we seem 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 one has 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, things were probably just as hectic in Thoreau's time as they are now.

Because if there is one thing I have learned from reading books, 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!"

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

Now that I think about it, these two writers had a great deal in common.
Thoreau died in 1862. Edith was born in 1862. One began where the other left off. 

And each wrote about and were keenly aware of the fact that mankind, throughout time, has struggled with this burden of busyness.

So, I wonder, has mankind always been this busy? Or, are we just busy being mankind?

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(!).  No, 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 future husband was pretending to visit me, I now realize that he was actually more interested in fishing than visiting me. Hmm... Should have been a sign.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Thoreau and hubby share the same birthday.

And, coincidentally, Edith Wharton and I share the same birthday.
Each author was keenly aware of the fact that life had 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 also share another trait with these authors ... a love of place.
While 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 prefers the country life while I prefer the city with it's beautiful 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...

So here we are, Hubby and I, 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, before marrying, do some research into the author born on your future spouses birthday. It's a good indicator of personality.
                                                                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 proverbial 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 made Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on telling you about my mother, but there's no use doing that, because you already know my mother.

My mother is the amalgamation of almost every single character 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. In fact, every single 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 to a tee. With her there was never a dull moment. But the thing that makes me most sad is how hard my mother tried at being normal, but normalcy, somehow, 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 co-workers husband over for dinner one evening. Now, to most people, dinner with a couple of friends on a nice summer's eve is no big deal. Tidy up the house, throw some burgers on ... it isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small, domestic chores annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this profession had instilled in her zero tolerance and very little patience for mundane, day-to-day activities. Our home was an eternal mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts. Thus leaving my younger brother and sister and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant gobs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother always felt woefully inadequate. Yet with this looming dinner party, she became eager to clean up the place and try to impress her new so-called friends. So after much fussing and fretting, we all began the arduous task of readying the house for honored guests. Which meant that by the time the illustrious guests arrived, mother had made our lives and virtually anyone elses who'd dared cross her path, completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people, on the day of a dinner party, tend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table and tidying up. 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. We unfortunately had become so caught up in the cleaning process that cooking and dinner itself had become an afterthought. No bother. Mother was intent on having this party and she was going to cook, entertain and be her version of a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her goddammit!

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. Which meant in her mind conveying the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic artists living in a nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our home. So after a manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down from the closet and place it conspicuously on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. (What 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 afterall, I thought to myself. But mother was an irascible woman, and the longer she prepared for said dinner party and honored guests, the more she began to resent them. "How dare they come to my home and make me do all this work" she muttered while peeling potatoes. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of pot roast, carrots and potatoes haphazardly cooked in a dented 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 recall little about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bear 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 had been strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned, thrown her a lifeboat, now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one particular thing about the evening I do recall, however. Minute in detail, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun slipped behind the sprawling elms and cast it's shadowy tendrils across the lawn, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out a white Ford sedan and presented my mother with a towering vanilla cake. Along with the cake, she had had the forethought to bring (dum-ta-dum!) a cake knife.

Now, a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. 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 all that she had failed to live up to in her dolefully inadequate life. My mother's kitchen had been filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It had never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, cake knife wielding guest stepped out of her car and up onto my mother's porch one fateful summer's eve,  I looked into my mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had became a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life. I knew instantly that the party was over and there was nothing left to do but carry on with the show. Mother never threw another party after that evening. And it was a long time before we had cake in our house again.

On a brighter note, Mother loved a good salad. And in the summertime we feasted on fresh vegetables from my grandparents garden.

If I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for my 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 stores today, all of which were out of fresh basil. And I felt this was a vital component to the recipe, so I substituted. And, well, it wasn't bad. So, in a pinch, 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.)

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 most certainly 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, Jerry Seinfeld died.
My husband, clearly confused, was very upset.
Not the actor, I said, The chicken.
My hubby knows only a family as nutty as mine 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 people 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?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Hate Peas

Dad sets at the head of the table and likes to watch The Porter Wagner Show while he eats supper.

I am in the first grade. Home alone with my father, eating supper which includes a giant helping of stinky, mushy, grayish canned peas. Peas repulse me. I am not allowed to get up from the table until I eat the peas. Thus the battle ensues. I squinch my face and try feeding them to the dog. But Dad catches on and throws the dog out.

Slowly, the minutes tick by. I set at the table with my feet dangling. Dad sets in his arm chair like a despot on a throne. He seems taller. I am getting bored with this standoff but the more my father presses, the more repulsive the peas become. By now they are not only mushy and stinky, but cold as well, and there is no way in hell I am going to eat those peas.

Its seems like we've been setting for hours. Dad is cajoling, threatening, even bribing me to eat the damn peas. But I am obstinate and never realized vegetables wielded such power.

Time is strange and I have no recollection of how this ordeal ended. But I think it was with my dad in exasperation because, to this day, I have never eaten a single pea. And dad and I never went to battle over food again.

Occasionally, at family reunions, when he is in a jovial mood, Dad will say, "Michelle, have you eaten any peas?" And I always respond, "No dad, I haven't. I won that battle."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thomas Keller It

One hectic day, my son was late getting out the door, so I offered to make his sandwich.

I sliced the bread, slathered the mayo, layered the turkey and lettuce, taking care to make it just right for my pickiest child.

Suddenly, perturbed and in a rush, my son growled, "Mom, you don't have to Thomas Keller it."

Now we don't exactly set around talking about Thomas Keller all the time, so I was surprised that my son even knew who Thomas Keller was.

And this sandwich I was making was nowhere near the level of a Thomas Keller sandwich. Not even close. But Thomas Keller is an icon for perfection and my grown OCD son can certainly relate to that. So whenever my son takes the time to make something really special, like driving 30 miles to a meat market just to get the perfect steak, he calls it, "Thomas Kellering it."

Or such was my case, putting a little extra effort into a regular run-of-the-mill sandwich.

We both had a little chuckle because we have never eaten at a Thomas Keller restaurant and I am pretty sure we never will, unfortunately. :(

But the term has stuck. And to this day, we get a kick out of "Thomas Kellering it."

I tried this Thomas Keller recipe a while back Ad Hoc's Rice With Roasted Cauliflower.  And my kids loved it.

It was pretty much a meal in itself.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I Cook, Therefore I Am

There are many different reasons why people cook.

On Michael Ruhlman's latest blog entry he asked, Can I encourage other bloggers to post about why you cook? Spell it out. Writing it down forces you to know what you think.

In response to Michael's request, I will try to spell it out. And I challenge others to do the same, because I think he's right, writing it down does force you to know what you think.

I cook because:

I am hungry.
It's fun.
I refuse to let a corporation feed me and my family.
One of my kids is allergic to food additives, dyes and preservatives.
It tastes better.
For the smiles I get from my family when they eat healthy, satisfying meals.
It's a creative outlet.
Most restaurants are noisy, overpriced, and serve mediocre food.
Le Crueset. It's not just for room decor.
There's nothing more comforting and homey than a big pot of soup bubbling on the stove.
I love to shop for food.
It gives me a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic, haphazard world.

And as I posted on Ruhlman's blog:
I cook, therefore I am.

I would love to hear why you cook.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mason Cash

On a recent errand through the city, I spied a kitchenware store with a big red sign out front that said SALE.

I was in the wrong lane. I couldn't get over. I didn't know what to do. So I did what any normal Okie would do in a situation like that; I tailgated then cut off the car in front of me, whipped a U and headed back to the store. Not really(!). But I did turn around and go back to the sale. Which turned out to be a fortuitous trip indeed.

First it is important to note that I have a thing for bowls. Some women collect purses and shoes. I happen to like bowls. It's weird. Everywhere I go, I feel compelled to look at bowls. I have a sister and a friend with this same affliction, so I am wondering if it is a girl thing?

I have been admiring Mason Cash bowls for about as long as I can remember. They are made in England by a company that's been around for over one hundred years and they have a rim that you can grip and a flat edge on the bottom for easy tilting and stirring. They are the Roll-Royce of bowls.

I have spotted these bowls in countless movies and TV shows. But have never seen one in a store in my area before. So you can imagine how happy I was to find this bowl. I had considered ordering online, but didn't want to pay the high cost of shipping.

A nice lady steered me toward the sale isle where I also found an olive pitter; a dish towel; a Henckels serving spoon, fork and butter knife set. All for less than twenty dollars!

Then, just as I was about to leave the store, I beheld some splendid bowls.

My heart stopped. At first I couldn't believe it. Could this be the elusive British bowl of my dreams?  I had forgotten my reading glasses, so had to ask the nice lady to read the emblem on the bottom of the bowl just to make sure. The bowl was made in England, Mason and Cash, and the price wasn't bad either, about ten dollars less than online. And the best thing was, no lines at the checkout.
The nice lady wrote up a ticket the old fashioned way and I smiled with glee. "My husband is buying me a bowl for Valentine's Day." I said.

And the lady said, I hope he likes it.

And I said, Oh, he will because I will bake him a cake.

My bowl and I are now very happy together.
And I am certain we will have many more happy years to come.
But occasionally, I still look at other bowls.
I can't help myself.
I am only human, after all.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Italian Wedding Soup

It's been a while since I've shared a good soup recipe. But before I go any further, let me explain.

When the sun is shining and the sky is blue, there are people who like to play hooky and skip school or work.

Not me. I am the opposite.

If it is a sunny day, I have no problem staying focused on my work.

But if the skies are dreary and gray, and especially if it is raining or snowing, I daydream about being at home making soup. Actually, I daydream about that almost every day. But gray, cloudy days are the worst. I cannot concentrate. All I can think about is puttering about the house, listening to it rain or watching it snow, perhaps putting on some soft music or one of my favorite movies, slipping into some comfy clothes, and seeing what concoctions I can bubble up in the kitchen. There's something so primordially satisfying about stirring up a big pot of soup. And this explains my fondness for Le Crueset - it's the closest thing I have to a cauldron.

This winter has been especially rough. On one hand, it's a soup makers dream, we've seen more dreary days than I care to remember. On the other hand, who wants to work on such glorious, soup-making days(!)?

And today just happens to be one of those days. So I played hooky from work, avoided the dusting and laundry, and made The Barefoot Contessa's Italian Wedding Soup.

Well a version of it anyway, after I drove to three different grocery stores in the middle of a snowstorm searching for ingredients. Ina, I assume, has better food connections than I do.

The recipe called for ground chicken and chicken sausage to make the meatballs. Finally, I settled for a package of ground turkey as a replacement. I thought about grinding my own chicken and making my own sausage, but I wanted to enjoy this soup today, and who wants to clean up after all that raw chicken?

I began by making the meatballs - ground turkey, breadcrumbs, egg, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, grated Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheese - mixed lightly with a fork, formed into 1 inch meatballs, and baked in a 350 degree oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Next I precooked the small tube shaped pasta in salted boiling water until al dente, then rinsed with cold water and set aside. Ina's recipe called for cooking the pasta directly in the soup, but I wanted a nice, clear broth, and was worried that the starchy pasta would cloud the soup, so I cooked the pasta separately before hand.

For the soup, I sauteed carrot, onion and celery until soft, added 1/2 cup white wine, 10 cups chicken stock and simmered for 10 minutes. Then added a good handful of fresh clean spinach along with the cooked pasta and meatballs and simmered another minute or two until the meatballs were heated through and the spinach wilted.

Lastly, I added 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill and ladled the soup into bowls and topped with more grated cheese.

Even though I strayed from Ina's original recipe, this soup really hit the spot(!).

For some reason, I wasn't in the mood for anything too heavy or with tomatoes, and the meatballs added a nice heartiness to the light but flavorful broth. The dill was a nice touch, too. The soup got rave reviews from my entire family, which is high praise coming from my hubby the soup-isn't-actually-a-meal man. And we finished the entire pot.

I was so happy with Ina's soup that I decided to make her Lemon Angel Food Cake as well. I am sorry I didn't get a picture of that - it's already half eaten. The first time I made this cake, years ago, it seemed like a lot of effort in comparison to the easy box mix. But the last time I made a box mix, it tasted chemically and sticky. This cake is light and perfect and has turned into one of my favorite "go to" desserts.

Once again, Ina saves the day. I have dreams of me and Ina hanging out in the Hamptons, chilling with some wine, eating spectacular food. Maybe we could make it an all girls party and I could invite my blog friends Marie and Linda along. You gals up for that? I'm sure Ina would love it if we came knocking on her door. I'll bring the cake. :)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Post Traumatic Sandwich Disorder

It was the seventies and the height of bad food. A time when anything soft, soggy and squishy reigned. Insipid meatloaves, canned peas, goulash, Cheez Whiz, boxed macaroni and cheese, and that bane of my existence, mushy sandwiches on soft white bread. Reluctantly, I consumed one almost every day of my childhood: Peanut butter and jelly on squishy Wonder Bread lightly macerated with red Kool-aid from a leaky thermos, plopped into a metal Scooby-Doo lunch box. For me, the best part was the crust. Yes, I was that weird kid who liked the crust. Eventually, I omitted the jelly, though. Cold, gelatinous foods weren't appetizing to me.

The worst sandwiches, by far, were the ones my Dad used to slap together when there was nothing else to eat. After a few beers on Saturday night, Dad would stare into a fridge of unidentifiable leftovers and proclaim, There's plenty to eat in here! Then pull out a piece of petrified breakfast sausage, slap it between two pieces of moldy bread, dribble some watery ketchup on top and call it a meal. I gasped in revulsion.

Dad liked his sandwiches. They soaked up the alcohol and curbed the appetite. Olive Loaf and mustard were his favorite. But a greasy fried egg would do in a pinch, along with Tuna Salad (which always made the house smell like cat food) and sometimes pimento cheese. Most of the time Dad just scrounged around and made a sandwich out of whatever he could find. Sides, such as pickles and potato chips were a luxury. But I always liked the crunch that potato chips lent to a bologna sandwich.

For me, bread is the most important part of a sandwich.

And my mother was notorious for never tossing out old bread. Even after the entire loaf turned furry green, it still enjoyed a cozy place to thrive in our deserted kitchen cabinets.

Once, in the eleventh grade, I woke up in a panic, realizing that I had procrastinated and never did the required science experiment.

Quickly I rummaged through the kitchen cabinets and spied an entire loaf of penicillic Roman Meal. Perfect! When I handed my "experiement" over to my teacher, he smiled and stated aloud, Now that's a person who was planning ahead!!

That night, my mother chuckled when I told her the story about the bread.

By the time I graduated high school, I was sandwiched out, and the thought of a another squishy, soggy, thrown-together meal was more than I could bear. I was experiencing what I call PTSD: Post Traumatic Sandwich Disorder. And it was years before I could even look at another sandwich, let alone eat one.

Eventually, on a trip south, I discovered the Muffaletta with its spicy salami, tangy olive salad, and crusty bread. I never knew a sandwich could be so good. I couldn't get enough. Soon I was hanging out at cafes and deli's, bringing home different breads and fillings, trying to duplicate this extraordinary sandwich at home. It was then I realized, I was cured. No more PTSD. Muffaletta's are powerful medicine. And I now enjoy all types of sandwiches: Panini's, Ruebens, Submarines. Except, occasionally, when my husband makes a fried egg sandwich and slathers it with Miracle Whip. No amount of therapy is going to help me get over that one.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Concrete or Corn

To say that people talk funny where I come from would be an understatement.

We recently made the annual trek home for the holidays and should have taken along a translator to help the kids understand what Grandpa was saying.

Grandpa lives in the country, surrounded by corn, and he has a very country way of expressing himself.

Here are but a few things that confused my citified children:
When we first woke up Grandpa hollered, Y'up? Which meant "are you awake yet?"

Then Grandpa went outside and told someone to turn on the spigot. Neither of my kids knew what a spigot was, and Grandpa mumbled something about damn city folks beneath his breath.

Grandpa pretty much says whatever is on his mind. Pretty much meaning 'often or a little.' Also used in other variations such as pretty far, pretty close, and pretty well - a term that comes up pretty much in every single sentence.

A derivative of pretty much would be pert near, meaning 'pretty close or almost. My daughter asked Grandpa, are we done yet? and Grandpa responded, Purtnear. She literally had no idea what Grandpa was saying and had to come to me for translation.

Some words were easier to decipher than others. Such as up-air meaning "up there" and the commonly used fixin' meaning 'preparing to' as in "fixin' to go to the store." Grandpa is always fixin' to do something.

Also, there's the ever popular all-be, shoot far, and reckon.

And one cannot forget plumb, because by the time we left, Grandpa was plumb tuckered out.

Sometimes we even had to translate actual items found in Grandpa's kitchen such as butter and pepper. My daughter was staring into the fridge searching for butter when Grandpa hollered, "It's in that big brown tub right in front of your face." My daughter, accustomed to the real stuff in sticks, had never seen Country Crock before and was unaware, ironically, that this was the country equivalent of actual butter.

My son, wanting to pepper his eggs, searched high and low for a pepper mill, until finally Grandpa explained to him that pepper doesn't come in mills, it's in those little red and white tin cans.

Sugar is a staple in the country.
We had biscuits with honey, sugar beets, sweet pickles, brown sugar ham, sweet tater casserole with marshmallows on top, sweet corn, sweet tea, and gooey desserts. After one meal, my nieces and nephews were bouncing off the walls on a sugar high that lasted until midnight. My poor kids, unaccustomed to such large quantities of sugar, were hanging in the best they could: delirious, incoherent, heads bobbing, eyes rolling back into their heads, it was a diabetic coma the likes they had never seen.

After supper we took a walk down by the crick, which meant creek or small stream in Grandpa's neck of the woods.

After a long weekend of eating, playing, and eating some more, Grandpa's arthritis was 'spurrin' up, so we decided to leave and get an early start since the next morning it was fixin' to snow. Grandpa said, Y'all come again. Y'all being singular for 'you all.' All y'all, plural. And All y'all's, plural possessive. I won't even get into Yers and Yuins.

It was pert near dark by the time we arrived home. The city emanated a soft glow as we purred along the Interstate and slipped back into the familiar rhythm of urban life. I called Grandpa to thank him for the good time and invited him to our home in the big city soon. But something tells me he won't come. Grandpa is a Country Mouse. It's hard for him to acclimate.

If Grandpa does decide to visit, I will make him my version of a country meal: grilled Berkshire pork chops; fresh corn sauteed with zuchinni, onion, garlic and red peppers; roasted garlic mashed potatoes served with a big glass of unsweetened iced tea. It puts a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Hey Grandpa, what's for supper?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sesame Orange Granola

The brutally cold weather, compounded with the fact that there was absolutely nothing to watch on TV, compelled me to make a long overdue trip to my local library last week where I discovered a treasure trove of cookbooks just waiting to be read.

This is fantastic if you are anything like me and already own a bunch of cookbooks and don't need to buy more. It is a great way of taking a sneak peak at some of the new and interesting cookbooks out there, plus check out some of the old classics as well. I hope the cookbook authors don't mind.

I found such an interesting assortment of cookbooks and checked so many out, that I could barely lug them all home.

It was so exciting, I could hardly contain myself.

That evening I snuggled up with a cup of hot tea and read two of them straight through like novels. I do that sometimes, read cookbooks straight through like regular books.

Then I became so inspired that I got up from the sofa and whipped up Art Smith's Sesame Orange Granola.

This is the perfect snack to sustain my kids while they traipse across a bitter cold college campus. Oddly enough, I had most of the ingredients on hand.

I found the recipe in The 150 Best American Recipes: Indispensable Dishes from Legendary Chefs and Undiscovered Cooks, and it had such a tantalizing assortment of tasty looking dishes, that I may eventually have to buy it.

The granola was a slightly salty, slightly sweet combination of shredded coconut, maple syrup, orange zest, old-fashioned rolled oats, sliced almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried cranberries and honey.

Time for me to go now, I've got more cookbooks to peruse.

Anyone else out there love the library as much as I do?
Sesame Orange Granola
Adapted from Back to the Table by Art Smith

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
Grated zest of 1 large orange
4 cups old-fashioned (rolled) oats
1 cup (4 ounces) sliced almonds
1 cup (4 ounces) coarsely chopped unsalted cashews
1/3 cup honey
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1 cup chopped dried fruit , such as cranberries, dates, apples, or apricots, or a combination.

Directions: Position racks in the center and upper third of the oven and preheat to 375°F.
Spread the coconut on a baking sheet. Bake on the center rack, stirring often, until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
Bring the oil, maple syrup, and orange zest to a boil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Place the oats, almonds, cashews, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sesame seeds in bowl with coconut.
Add the syrup mixture and mix (or toss with 2 large spoons) until well coated.
Spread in 1/2-inch layers on 2 large baking sheets.
Bake, stirring often, switching the positions of the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking, until the granola is golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven - and sprinkle with a tiny bit of sea salt if you like - then cool. Pour into bowl with coconut and dried fruit and mix together. (The granola can be stored at room temperature in airtight containers for up to 1 month.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Floydian Zin

Yes, that's a new banner up there. I had the winter blah's and decided to spruce things up a bit.

Isn't cabbage the most cheerful vegetable? I happen to love cabbage, both to look at and to eat. Makes me think of Beatrix Potter and the poem A Cabbage Patch by Robert William Service. Both British authors. As Frasier once said, No one's a bigger anglophile than I.

I do love all things British. Many of my favorite novels, TV shows, movies, and even a few favorite TV chefs come from England. Anyone familiar with Keith Floyd or Rick Stein? And who doesn't love Nigella and Jamie? And I would be remiss to leave out Marco Pierre White whose uber-cool image graced my daughter's laptop wallpaper throughout college.

My kids and I used to get a kick out of Keith Floyd who did a show on food and wine. He always seemed a bit tipsy and filled his wine glass clear to the brim. Sometimes, when I pour my wine glass too full, my son says, Now that's a Floydian glass!

We hadn't seen Floyd on TV in a while, so, out of curiosity, I googled him, only to find that poor Floyd had passed away only a few days before. The NY Times headline read: Keith Floyd, Jaunty British TV Chef, Dies at 65. Jaunty! Don't you just love that? Only a Britisher could be described as jaunty.

Previously, I mentioned the poet Robert William Service, who also wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee. A highly appropriate poem right now, given our recent arctic weather. Sam Mcgee hated being cold and had a very unusual way of getting warm. If you haven't read it, I suggest you do, it's quite funny and clever.

Quite funny and clever? Now I think I'm beginning to sound British. Best to lay off the Gavin and Stacey for a while.

I am looking forward to the new year and hope to have a contest soon with some type of prize giveaway. So stay tuned. I would like to increase my visitors, and hope to write and cook more as the new year goes on.

Think I'll pour myself a Floydian glass of Zin and look up some cabbage recipes.