Saturday, July 16, 2016

Grandma on a Camel

I would venture to say that not many people—not many American people, anyway—have a picture of their grandmother on a camel, but I do, and it’s a beauty. Everything about it says mid-1980s grandma, from the permed hair, to the thick glasses, to the sensible tan walking shoes. Except, of course, for the fact that she’s perched precariously atop a camel, a look of sheer delight, and maybe a little astonishment, radiating off her face.

PS: Lionel Richie, I've found your twin, and he's a Moroccan camel handler

Polly’s life wasn’t always easy, for more reasons than could possibly fit into a blog post. But when she retired from decades working at the phone company, she hit the road, and I don’t mean she spent a week sunning herself at the Old Ladies’ Village in Florida. She grabbed her passport and packed her bags for a whirlwind trip to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.

I was 5 or 6 when she went, and boy did it make an impression on me, her jetting off to these exotic places across the ocean. And I’ll never forget her pulling from her bag the souvenirs she brought home for me: A bright red fan from Spain, and from Portugal, a beautiful blouse of deep indigo, intricately embroidered with poppy-red colored flowers around a scooped neckline.

But maybe the best gift of all was the one she brought home for herself: That photo of her atop the camel. It was taken on the day that her tour group ventured across the Strait of Gibraltar for a quick jaunt to Morocco from Spain.

“Who wants to ride a camel?” the guide asked her and her fellow American retiree travelers.

Crickets. No takers.

This was silly, Polly thought. No one?

“I’ll do it!” she boldly called out. Maybe it was because she actually wanted to ride a camel, or maybe because her Yankee practicality was scolding her for traveling all the way to North Africa and not riding a camel when given the chance.

So she climbed up, and a friend captured the moment on my grandmother’s camera. Polly kept that picture in a frame on her living room shelf until she died a quarter century later.

When she died, my family and I performed the quiet and cathartic task of cleaning out her apartment. She kept strange things, like wrinkled squares of used wrapping paper, that signaled her waste-not, Depression-era upbringing, and most of what we found was given away or thrown away. But we all wanted a copy of that picture of her on the camel.

I was also delighted to find another little souvenir of hers from that trip: A wine bottle stopper that's topped with a brightly painted rooster, the word “Portugal” written in delicate script around the edge. The cork is unused and unblemished—Polly wasn’t a drinker—but something about it must’ve struck her enough to bring it home and never use it for what it was made for.

I loved that little rooster (as a kid, and now), and these days, it sits in my kitchen on a little side table in a pie plate. I don’t stop wine bottles with it, and it’s too small to really hang anywhere. I keep it for myself, because it’s pretty and it makes me smile.

That trip of hers ignited my own desire to hit the road, and when I do, I like to bring back kitchen trinkets of my own, like the sage-colored glass bottle of Puglian olive oil from Southern Italy, and the small, rustic wooden bowl from Santa Fe, painted with an image of San Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks and kitchens.

And whenever I feel anxious about traveling (which is every time; I might be a frequent traveler, but I am always a nervous one), it helps me to imagine her voice, calling out into the hot, desert air, “I’ll do it!”

Polly, Haverhill High School senior portrait 

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, July 4, 2016

Spitting out pearls

I have eaten enough mussels and clams over my 35 New England summers to recognize the distinctive and unpleasant crunch of a bivalve with a belly full of sand. But last night was different: When I bit down on an orangey mussel, I felt not the crunch of sand between my teeth, but something hard and solid, like a rock, and spit out,

“A pearl!” I exclaimed to Brian and our friends who were joining us for dinner. “I found a pearl in my mussel!”

Actually, I found two pearls

I marveled at it, snapped its picture and passed it around—no one seemed to mind that it had just been in my mouth. It was a dainty thing, but pretty, and large enough to maybe be called a seed pearl. I immediately started to wonder whether I could somehow wear it as a necklace. A few minutes later, I bit down on a second, smaller one.

Pearls are formed, as most of us know, by an irritant that sneaks its way into a mollusk's soft body. As a defense mechanism, the animal adds layers of the same substances it uses to make its shell until eventually, a lustrous pearl forms. That something beautiful could grow from the unexpected and unwelcome is a lovely idea. May we all be so resourceful as to make pearls from pain, to make lemonade from lemons.

Lately, our personal pearls have come in the form of our family and friends, who rallied around us this winter after Chloe’s latest surgery. I’ve written about it before, and she’s had surgery before, but this one was particularly rough, and I can’t stop thinking about it. We have had a humbling amount of help from family and friends over the past few months; so much that I get overwhelmed with emotion knowing that I could never, ever repay them all or thank them adequately.

Instead we’re left to simply enjoy their company, and that’s what we did this weekend, when we had our friends and their little girl over for a July 4th clambake in our backyard. We had a sprinkler and sparklers; clams and mussels and grilled corn laid out over newspaper; and s’mores by the fire. And in the midst of it all, I bit down on something hard and spit out a pearl. Happy Fourth of July! 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mock orange for real life

I was unpacking toys from boxes in Chloe’s new playroom when a warm, sweet-smelling breeze floated across my face through the open window. It smelled so good that it stopped me in my tracks, and I looked out the window to see where it might be coming from.

I got the answer right away: A tall, flowering shrub with delicate white blossoms that was blooming right outside. I hadn’t noticed it until then. Had it just flowered? I wasn’t sure, but it was beautiful, and it smelled so good, like a pure, clean summer perfume.

I know nothing about plants except how to swiftly kill them, so I asked everyone who came to visit what these gorgeous flowers were called. There were lots of guesses, but I finally got the answer from my mother-in-law, Sharon, a gardening whiz who could grow plump, voluptuous roses in a cardboard box filled with gravel. The beautiful mystery flower was called was mock orange.

Over the next few days, I found myself just standing in Chloe’s playroom, hoping to catch that heavenly smell on a breeze again, or else standing outside in the front yard, burying my face in the flowers. I couldn’t see the flowers from inside the house unless I was standing right in the playroom window, and it made me a little sad.

Meanwhile, Chloe has been getting prodigiously filthy every single day the backyard, where a wooden swing-set sits in a little sandy clearing under some pine and maple trees. Every day she plays outside, and every night, she comes into the house with her sneakers filled with sand, and with dirt ringed around her neck and ankles and caked under her fingernails.

Her crutches are taking a beating, too, and it shows. They’re being sprayed with sticky, smelly mosquito repellant, and carrying her over grass, dirt, sand, puddles, mud, and all other manner of messy terrain. In a week or two, they’ll make their first appearance on the beach, first at a local lake, and then later, at the seashore, where the sun and saltwater and sand will continue to bleach away their already faded hot pink hue. The crutches’ rubber tips (which I’ve already replaced once) will get worn flat again and again, like old, bald tires on a car. A plastic piece of the crutch cuff recently snapped off in my hand, too.

Strictly speaking, actually, her crutches aren’t meant for this sort of thing. They’re not supposed to get dirty or filled with grit and sand, and they’re certainly not supposed to get wet. They’re made of metal and plastic. They’re meant to be kept clean and dry, used on safe, flat, surfaces. In school. At the library. At physical therapy. At the mall. To get in and out of the car or the house.

In other words, quiet, clean places where not too much happens. But what almost-7-year-old kid wants a life that’s quiet, clean, and boring? I want her play in the hot sand and jump through frothy waves. I want her to stomp in puddles and squash her feet through mud. I want her to pick her way down a pine-needle carpeted path in the woods.

What I don’t want is to follow her around chanting a chorus of “don’ts:” Don’t walk there, don’t get dirty, don’t get wet. Her crutches are meant to open up the world to her, not take her only to the edges of all the places she’s not allowed to go. What’s the point of having crutches at all if she isn’t going to use them to really live?

And so she gets them wet and dirty and I don’t care. Which brings me back to those lovely mock orange blossoms.

Chloe, my mom, and I spent Saturday morning at Canal Street Antique Mall, an old, brick former mill building that's filled with two cavernous floors of dusty antiques: Stacks of doors, windows with rippled glass, heavy black typewriters, cracked teapots, wind-up bell alarm clocks, ornate sewing machines, wire bird cages, violins with broken strings, porcelain dolls with lacy collars and dirty faces, a brown mink hat. Anything you can think of. I was looking for stuff for the new house, and fell in love with a rustic black metal planter. I knew exactly what I would use it for.

When I got home, I pulled a pair of heavy duty sheers from a kitchen drawer and walked right outside to the mock orange blossoms. I clipped three of the woody stalks, shook the blooms free of a few nectar-drinking bugs, and arranged them in mason jars in the planter. They filled the kitchen with their beautiful fragrance, and every time I look at the centerpiece, I smile. 

Maybe you’re not supposed to clip the flowers from a decorative shrub. But who is it there for, planted in the front of the house where I can’t see it or smell it? Is it only for the benefit of neighbors or for strangers driving by? Or is it for our pleasure, too?

Like Chloe’s crutches, I choose to use them. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Strawberry shortcake and new beginnings

I have been—and let’s face it, probably will be again sooner or later—the kind of hostess who sometimes can’t be bothered to dirty a bowl, and will instead stoop to phenomenal laziness to avoid doing dishes. Once, I opened a bag of salad and dropped it unceremoniously, with an ugly cellophane-sounding splat, onto the kitchen table in front of my brother and his lovely fiancé, who truly deserved more effort from me than just ripping open the bag and calling it a night. After an evening of cooking, it seemed that I just couldn’t bring myself to empty one more thing into one more bowl.

But here, in this new house, in this miraculous new kitchen, even cleaning is fun, and every snack and meal deserves a beautiful and thoughtful presentation, as though each morsel we put onto our plates and set out onto our table needs to live up to these lustrous blue-gray granite counters; this thick, golden wood butcher block slab; this gleaming six-burner, commercial-grade stove that hisses to life with gas and fire and cooks to absolute perfection. I would live in a tent if this stove were in it (and of course, the tent would promptly burst into flames, but, you know).

Last night we had my mother over for a simple dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. It was not an occasion that warranted fanciness. After all, you can let it all hang out with your mother, and I certainly do. I’m not above running through the house in my ratty underwear while she’s visiting, or sniffing my armpit and wondering out loud whether that stink is from forgetting to put on deodorant or just power-sweating through it.

But this night was different. It was the first meal she was having with us in this house, and Chloe and I had just come home from Cider Hill Farm where our farm share bounty of eggs, jam, cider, lettuce, scallions, and berries waited for us in the cool, dusty barn.

We left the farm that afternoon with fat, ripe, still-warm strawberries that heaped out of their green paper pint box like deep red jewels. The sky opened up just as we were leaving the farm, washing the yellow pollen dust from my car’s windshield. But by the time we got home, the rain clouds were blowing away to another neighborhood. Chloe and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and cherry tomatoes for lunch before turning our attention to our evening’s dessert: Strawberry shortcake.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cutting butter into small cubes, measuring flour and sugar, and patting dough onto the floured countertop. I handed Chloe a biscuit cutter, one that had belonged to my stepmother’s Southern-born grandma, Mildred, and showed Chloe how to dip the edges of the cutter in a little mound of flour, push it straight down onto the dough, and give it a little jiggle before pulling it up and out again. I told Chloe that she was the fourth generation—or maybe more—to cut biscuits with that little circle of metal. Her hand fit around it just right.

We put the sticky biscuits onto parchment-lined baking sheets, and I slid them into the oven. As I did, Chloe snatched up the dough scraps and balled them up. Almost instantly her fingers were stuck together, glued by a dough that she quickly discovered was too sticky to play with. 

The afternoon rain shower had given way to a bright blue evening sky and radiant sunshine, so I dried the leftover puddles off of the picnic table with an old, faded dishtowel and moved our dinner things outside.

After dinner on the deck, it was time for dessert. The shortcakes and macerated strawberries were in utilitarian storage containers with plastic covers, but for once, my instincts for avoiding dish duty were silent. I piled the biscuits atop a turquoise glass cake stand with delicately fluted edges and a hobnail base, and spooned the strawberries into a deep, aubergine-hued Fiestaware bowl.

We ate those summer strawberries on the deck as the sun dipped below the tall old pine trees that ring our new backyard, and I snatched the whipped cream away from Chloe before she could plop an even more obscene mound of it into her bowl. 

I sank back into my chair and sighed with happiness.

This. This is where I was meant to be. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Feel fancy at home: Make your own pan sauce

I’ve acquired many grown-up skills over the years—paying bills on time, stain removal, feigning interest in conversations about driving routes—but one of my very favorites is making pan sauces.

Creating a pan sauce out of little more than an ostensibly dirty pan, a splash of wine, and a pat of butter is a little bit of magic. A pan sauce transforms a boringly decent piece of meat into a next-level dinner, and really, really makes you seem like a grown-up who Knows What She’s Doing (in case you needed to prove it to anyone). Plus, making one sort of washes the pan for you, too!

Brined pork chops with a white wine pan sauce is a good, easy recipe to start with.

A brine is just a really, really salty liquid, and can be as simple as water and salt if you’re in a pinch. But other liquids, like beer, cider, and juice, plus fresh herbs, spices, or even sugars, can add more flavor.

Once you know the basic brine ratio—about one cup of liquid to 1 tablespoon of salt—you can play around with the flavors you like and the ingredients you have on hand to create one. This helps you to cook on the fly, without a recipe, and without having to make a special trip to the grocery store.

A nice brine for four boneless pork chops or sliced pork loin might be two cans of beer or cider and a little less than a ¼ cup of salt. Peak into your fridge and cabinets and think about other flavors you like: Maybe add a small handful of whole peppercorns, whole cloves, a drizzle of molasses or maple syrup, or a few sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary.

Put the pork chops in a zip-top bag and dump the brine over it. Squeeze out all the air, seal the bag, and kind of roll it around to make sure the chops are covered. Put the bag in an empty bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, but you can let it go for a few hours, too. In fact, you can throw the brine together in 5 or 10 minutes before work and pop it out to cook in less than 20 minutes when you get home.

When you’re ready to cook, pull out the chops and dry them on a few paper towels. Put a sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat—don’t use a nonstick pan, or you won’t be able to make your pan sauce!—and coat the bottom with about 1-2 tablespoon of olive oil. When the pan and oil are hot, add your pork chops to the pan. They’ll cook quickly, so don’t go anywhere or, and for the love of Pete, don’t overcook them! About 5-7 minutes for the first side, and 3-5 minutes for the other, or until the internal temperature is 140 degrees. Remove the chops to a plate and cover with some foil.

By the way, a nonstick pan won’t work because you want those browned bits that stick to the pan (and make you think you have a lot of work to do scraping and washing the pan after cooking). Those browned bits are the base of your pan sauce.

Keep the pan over medium heat, and add about 1 cup of white wine while whisking. As the wine heats up, use the whisk to scrape all those brown bits off of the bottom of the pan (this is called deglazing). Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, and then add 1 tablespoon of butter and about ½ teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with ¼ cup of cold water (mix the cornstarch and water BEFORE you add them to the pan, or you’ll get Clumpfest USA).

By this time, the pork chops will have some liquid pooled under them, so pour that into the pan, too. Cook and whisk for a few more minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. You can add some chopped fresh chopped herbs, too, if you want! It’s all very forgiving and easy to improvise. Spoon the sauce across the pork chops, feel fancy, and enjoy! 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A little lentil love

Lentils truly don’t get enough love.

These humble little legumes are fat-free and packed—and I mean PACKED—with protein, iron, and fiber. They’re ridiculously cheap, but very filling, and unlike other dried legumes, don’t need to be soaked overnight before you cook them. They can go from bag to pot to bowl in less than an hour.

Not all food has to be pretty. Although red lentils certainly are! 

And lest you think that lentils are the totally boring, C-SPANs of the food world, consider that a bag of lentils comes with an exciting element of danger: Occasionally, rogue pebbles or dirt balls can sneak in as stowaways and hide in the lentil bag.

A pebble and two dirtballs recently retrieved from a bag of lentils.
Incidentally, "dirtball" is one of my favorite insults. 

Which means you always have to comb through lentils carefully before you cook them. I leave this job to my child, who needs to earn her keep somehow.

Search those lentils! Pebbles break teeth! 

This child recently had surgery, which made grocery store runs and complex meals tough for a while. Since dried lentils are one of those cheap staples that I always have on hand—they keep in the cupboard forever and cost less than $2 per bag—lentil soup became an easy, go-to, weeknight meal during her recovery. I nearly always had its other ingredients on hand, too, so I could throw it together fast. The result is a quick, healthy, cheap, and hearty meal that my daughter always gobbles up.

I keep my lentils in a big mason jar, as this crappy picture illustrates.
I like to think of my blog pictures as charmingly bad, like primitive folk art. 

There are so many recipes for lentil soup, and I’m sure there are much better ones than mine, but this one is committed to memory and I only have so much space in my brain. Besides, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That said, though, there are lots of possible variations to the basic soup: 

  • Add cubed ham, or put a leftover hambone into the soup as it simmers.
  • Use dried, snipped mushrooms to give the soup a meatier flavor but still keep it vegetarian/vegan.
  • Make it with water OR any kind of broth that you like or have on hand. I often use the leftover, frozen chicken broth from making chicken soup or chicken pot pie. Consider using no-salt added broth, so you can salt it to your own taste later.
  • Sauté the veggies before adding the water or broth to deepen the flavor; or let the raw veggies cook in the broth if you just want to leave the pot on the stove and escape into latest issue of Us Weekly.
  • If you sauté the veggies first, you can use olive oil or some bacon fat! (I sometimes enjoy knocking lentil soup off of its healthy high horse)
  • Use any spices you like. Some ideas are a bay leaf, oregano, parsley, and thyme. I also use a smoky and salty charcoal seasoning that I picked up on a recent trip to Santa Fe.
  • Although some people like their lentil soup soupy (if you can think of a better way to phrase this, let me know) I prefer it more like a thick stew. To achieve that texture, I use an immersion blender: Just stick it right in the pot and blend until it’s as thick as you want it to be.
Today the kitchen, tomorrow the world!
A decent immersion blender will only set you back $20 or $30,
and is infinitely easier to blend soup with than a food processor.

Use kitchen scissors to snip tough dried mushrooms into small pieces.

Basic lentil soup

  • 1 ½ cups of dried lentils (searched for debris and rinsed)
  • 5 cups of water or broth
  • ¾ cup of diced carrots
  • ¾ cup of diced onion
  • Two cloves of minced garlic
  • Desired spices (about ½ teaspoon of each)

Gently sauté the carrots, onion, and garlic over medium-high heat in two tablespoons of olive oil, bacon fat, or a mixture of the two until the veggies are soft.

Add the lentils and stir for about one minute. Add optional dried mushrooms; ¼ cup of porcini mushrooms are a good choice.

Add the water or broth. Reduce heat to medium. Add optional ham bone and/or bay leaf.

Simmer, cover, and cook until the lentils are soft, about 45 minutes.

Add salt, pepper, and desired spices. Take out and toss that bay leaf, if you’ve added one.

Use an immersion blender to blend it into a thick stew, if you want to.

Add optional cubed ham.

Serve with crusty bread or yeast rolls. A little dollop of sour cream is a nice addition, too. My husband, Brian, also likes to eat his with mini dill pickles! 

No photo of the finished meal, sorry. It looks a little like kitty puke. Bon appetit! 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The F-Word: Don’t Be Afraid!

Lots of great things start with the letter F! Some of my favorite things, in fact. There’s food, of course, which is what this blog is all about. There's also fun, family, fanciness, Fall, funny, fluffy, freedom. There’s even the great phrase, “fresh and funky,” which I think I read in a teen magazine once when I was in middle school. It might have been describing my very favorite 8th grade outfit: A choker worn with a plaid, ruffled “poet” shirt with bell sleeves, and a crocheted vest. Be still, my 90s heart.

But there’s another, F-word, too. It’s one that some people love but many more people are a little afraid of. Actually, some people are very, very afraid of it!

Hey, no, not that F-word. C’mon. This is a family blog.

The other F-word is….deep breath…FEMINISM. I whispered it when I typed it so you wouldn’t run away.

Oh, scary, scary feminism. That word is so heavy with debate and worry and hand-wringing. It evokes anger and fear. Why? Because, Oh my word, women are scary. We’re especially scary when we want to be treated like human beings.

Wait, what’s that I hear? That there’s GOT to be more to feminism than that? ‘Fraid not, peeps. That’s all there is to it. It’s wanting men and women, boys and girls to be treated equally. That’s it. End of story.

Very simple, really. Very straightforward. Very basic. Not scary at all. OK? Everyone on board?

Still no? Still scared?

I’ve wondered for a long time about why people would be afraid of or intimidated by this idea. I’ve scratched my head over it for so long that I think I have a little bald spot over my right ear.

And then one day I had an epiphany: It comes down to power.

People who deny that they’re a feminist often say it’s because they love men, and that they don’t want to disenfranchise men.

But empowering women doesn’t mean taking power away from men. Saying that women should be paid more DOESN’T mean that men should be paid less. Wanting girls to be educated DOESN’T mean that boys should be raised to be scullery maids.

The uplifting of one group doesn’t mean the pushing down of another!

It’s easy to see why people would be confused about this, though. We’re taught to compete! We’re taught to reach the top. And there’s only room at the top for so many people…if it gets too crowded up there, others will certainly fall.

But, call me crazy…I think there’s room for everyone. In fact, when it comes to basic human rights, there is no top and bottom. There’s only room to stand tall, or to be pushed down to the ground. The ground is hard, and rocky, and dirty, and you can get stepped on. But when you stand up, you can breathe. You can see the world around you. And when you’re standing up, it’s your human obligation to reach down, and put out your hand, and grab onto someone who wants to stand up, too.

So that’s all that feminism is. If you think that Joey and Mary should both get a dollar for cleaning the same toilet, then you’re a feminist. If you think that your daughter is just as good at science as the boys in her class, then you’re a feminist. If you think your mom is just as valuable to this world as your dad, then you’re a feminist.

Wear it proud! Don’t be afraid! Stand up! Reach out your hand. There’s room here for everyone.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

White chocolate bananas for the sick and infirm

In the past two weeks our family has had the occasion to send and receive a couple of fancy fruit baskets that come in the mail from loving family and friends. You know the ones I mean…the fruits are skewered, dipped in chocolate, and shaped and arranged like flower bouquets. (And their name is trademarked, so I probably shouldn’t write it in this blog post).

I love them, but my love hit a wall last week when I called to order one for my husband, who was in the hospital with a collapsed lung and was craving white-chocolate dipped bananas. As one does when one collapses a lung. 

Brian enjoying some hospital food. 

But when I was told that a box of such bananas would cost $30, NOT INCLUDING tax and delivery charge, I responded with a swift “hell NO” and headed to the grocery store.

I bought some very unripe bananas (still green at both ends), wooden coffee stirrers, and a bag of Lindt white chocolate morsels. Then I headed home, smug with the knowledge that this treat would cost a mere $7 and would be made with LOOOOOVE.

At home, I sliced the bananas into chunks large enough for a big, messy, and a bit rude single bite. I stuck a wooden stirrer into the end of each chunk. Finally, I heated the chocolate in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring between each burst.

I dunked each banana chunk into the melted chocolate, shook them gently to allow excess chocolate to run off, and set them down onto a foil-lined pan. It took 15 minutes. When they were all done, I let them set in the fridge for about an hour. Then I delivered them to my grateful husband.


These commercially sold fruit baskets—which cost roughly $50 and frequently more!—also seem wicked easy to make: A few pieces of kale are wrapped over a chunk of floral foam that’s stuck in a vase. The fruit chunks (some of which are cut into shapes) are skewered, and some are dipped in chocolate. The skewers are stuck in the foam. Done.

Of course the question arises about whether you actually want to spend the time making such a thing. Part of the allure of sending a fruit basket is that someone else does the work for you. I get it, of course! I’ve sent many of these things and LOVE receiving them.

But I come by the DIY-desire to save a buck honestly: When I was a kid, my mother once spent months saving the nubs of bar soap and tried to melt them down into a single bar of Franken-soap in a saucepan on the stove. The end result? A kitchen that reeked of burned soap for days and a ruined saucepan that met its end in a strange, non-culinary task.

Brian requested another round of bananas a few days after my initial DIY triumph, and in making the second batch, I learned two things: High quality chocolate and the ripeness of the bananas matters a lot. I used bananas that were too ripe, and low-budget, store-brand chocolate morsels. The first batch of melted chocolate burned (and the bowl burned me); and the second batch seized up into an unworkable brick because the bananas were too wet. (Adding water to melted chocolate makes it chunky and grainy, dontcha know?) My Auntie Jodi offers another great tip: Add a cap full of veggie oil to store-brand chocolate for even better melting! 


SO. Buy these fruit baskets? Make them yourself? It’s up to you. I think I’ve made the case for either choice. But if you don’t want to drop $80, it’s nice to know that you can DIY relatively easily for a fraction of the cost.

As an aside, my husband is basically a hot mess during the month of October; we’ve got three years running. Reminisce with me here and here

Sunday, August 9, 2015

What I will make you if I love you

For Sara Hannan

There might be times in your life when you feel hurt or scared or sick. And I will want to make you feel better. But I’m not a doctor or a magician, so I will do the only thing I can really do in such a situation. I will cook for you. And I might cook this: A chicken pot pie that is delicious and hearty comfort food, and that takes about three hours to make, from start to finish. That might qualify this recipe for “pain-in-the-ass” status. But it doesn’t matter. Because love is nothing if not a little impractical.

A chicken potpie recipe with enough endnotes for a David Foster Wallace novel

(See below the recipe for a really, really fast version!)

Cooking the chicken and making broth:

Start with a whole, raw chicken. I like Bell and Evans brand. Remove all the gizzards and neck.[i] Put in a large stock pot along with:

·         two peeled and quartered onions

·         a few peeled and smashed garlic cloves[ii]

·         4-5 carrots (don’t bother peeling them, just cut into chunks so they fit in the pan)

·         a few ribs of celery (leaves and all, and again cut into chunks)

·         fresh herbs: Thyme, rosemary, sage, preferably tied in a bouquet garni[iii]

·         Some whole peppercorns, if you have them [iv]


1.      Fill the pot with cold water, covering everything by about an inch.

2.      Bring to a boil; let it boil for about an hour. Check on it periodically to make sure it’s not boiling over and also to skim off any foamy scum (I can’t think of a better word for this, sorry!) that comes to the surface.

3.      Check the chicken for doneness using a set of tongs to pull and twist the drumstick; if it falls away easily, it’s done.

4.      Pull the chicken from the pan and set on a big plate to cool.[v]

5.      Fish out the big pieces of veggies and herbs from the pan using a slotted spoon and throw them away. To quote Alton Brown, “they’ve given their all.”

6.      Line a big colander with a couple layers of cheesecloth, place the colander on top of another large pan, and put the whole contraption into the sink.

7.      Strain the chicken broth into the colander.

8.      Put the pot of chicken broth into the fridge to cool.[vi]

9.      Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull all of the meat off the bone and either cut it into bite-sized pieces or shred it.[vii]

All of this can be done a day or two in advance. You can put the chicken pieces and broth in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

Making the pie:

Now it’s time to actually make this thing! (By the way, you can also make a really nice chicken soup from here).

1.      Mince an onion. Peel and cut 3 or so carrots into bite-sized pieces. (You can add other veggies, too, if you like, such as a cup of frozen peas and/or corn). Sautee until soft in olive oil; set aside.

2.      Mince about a teaspoon each of fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme[viii] [ix]

3.      In a large pot, melt a half stick of butter (less if you’re also using schmaltz; the total fat should add up to ¼ cup).

4.      Add heaping ¼ cup of flour and cook for about 1 minute.

5.      Add 1 ½ cups each of milk and the reserved chicken broth and whisk until smooth.

6.      Cook and whisk over medium heat until the mixture is thick and bubbly. Add salt to taste. This means you should be actually tasting it and adding salt until it tastes good to you. Remember this is unsalted chicken broth you’re using, so salt is really needed here to get the flavor right.

7.      Add the shredded chicken, cooked veggies, and herbs to the pot and stir.

8.      Transfer everything to a casserole dish or very deep pie pan and top with a layer of pie crust. I use Immaculate Baking Company brand store-bought pie crust because it’s better and easier than anything I have ever made myself. But feel free to make your own![x]

9.      Bake in a 375 degree oven until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbling around the edges. (Put your pie dish on a cookie sheet to catch any spillage). Cover with foil if the crust browns too much.

10.  Let it set for 20 minutes or so before cutting into it.

The really fast version:

Hit the grocery store for boxed chicken broth, an already-cooked rotisserie chicken, and a bag of frozen peas and carrots. Start at step 1 or 2 of making the pie. Fresh herbs is the one thing I wouldn't skip.

As for that extra broth….

Freeze it in ice cube trays. When the cubes are frozen transfer them into a zip-top bag. Each cube will equal about 1/8 cup of liquid, so measuring for future recipes should be easy. Use the broth in certain recipes instead of water to add extra flavor, like when you’re making risotto or other rices. The broth is also great for sipping warm if you’re sick (don't forget to salt it!). Or use it to make chicken soup!

[i] Don’t rinse your chicken, no matter what other recipes say. Rinsing spreads germs!
[ii] Do it fast: Put a clove of garlic on the cutting board and lay a wide knife on top of it. Push down hard on the flat part of the knife with the heel of your hand. Pull out the smashed clove from its paper.
[iii] Tie the uncut, on-the-stem herbs into a little bundle, either with string or inside a square of cheesecloth so you’ve got something that looks like an herb teabag. This prevents the little herb pieces from getting loose in the chicken broth.
[iv] Likewise for the celery, or even the carrots.
[v] I use two big stirring spoons to do this, lifting the bird from underneath. If you find a better way, please tell me, because I don’t think this is optimal!
[vi] If you’re not in a rush, leave the broth in the fridge overnight. The next morning, you will find that the fat will have risen to the top and solidified. It’s called schmaltz. You can either toss it, or save it and use it to cook with. Before you say “eeew!” let me tell you that it’s “healthier” (clearly a relative term) than butter and will imbue your chicken pot pie with a rich, chicken-y flavor.
[vii] Taking apart the chicken while it’s still warm will be much easier and guarantee that you’ll get more meat off of the bone than if the chicken cooled completely.
[viii] Feel free to whistle “Scarborough Fair” while you’re at it.
[ix] Add more or less of each herb depending on what you like or don’t like.
[x] Sometimes I have made buttermilk biscuit dough and dropped it in spoonfuls on top of the pie filling. If you do this, bake at the temperature and approximate time that the biscuit recipe calls for. A toothpick inserted into the middle will come out clean when the biscuits are done.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Midsummer ho-hum, and a few things on my mind

It’s midsummer, Chloe’s between camps, and I’ve been awake since 3:00 am worrying about the tile job in our upstairs bathroom.
Toilet in the tub. Don't panic.
Instead of tossing and turning over such things, I got up and made banana bread, like any sane person would do at 3:45 am.

Here are a few other things that are catching my attention this week:
  1. I’m ridiculously excited to escape this weekend to Providence, Rhode Island, for WaterFire, an evocative nighttime public art event that transforms the Woonasquatucket River with 100 fires floating on the water’s surface. Also on the agenda: An overnight stay at the Omni, cocktails with a view at Rooftop at the ProvidenceG, brunch at The Duck and Bunny (where my favorite meal is served every day!), and a few leisurely hours at the RISD Museum.
  2.  In my overnight bag will be The Iliad, Homer’s 3,000-year-old, epic, and stunningly violent story of the Trojan War. It’s been a bit surreal to read The Iliad against the backdrop of the Greek debt crisis. How to reconcile the poverty and struggles of modern-day Greece with the mythical land of Achilles, Zeus, and Athena?
  3. Homemade sage and rosemary cordials are in the making on my kitchen counter. I’ll blog about the herb cordial-making process when they’re done, but I haven’t been able to resist peeking at their progress every day.

  4. Reading the reviews of Go Set a Watchman has made me realize that pretty much the only thing I remember about reading To Kill a Mockingbird 20 years ago as a high school freshman was learning what morphine was. I guess I should re-read it, which is fitting since I recently decided to work my way through “the classics.” 
  5.  I’m feeling way existential about the 20th anniversary of Clueless, so it was really fun to read this Vanity Fair article filled with reminiscences and insider info from Amy Heckerling, Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and other Clueless cast members (did you know that they considered Ben Affleck for the part of Josh?). Clueless was released about a year after I read and forgot the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I am looking forward to the day when I can ceremonially preside over Chloe’s first viewing. But watch it with her? As if! She’s got to watch it with her friends.
  6. The New York Times Magazine story, The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá, got under my skin in a big way.
  7. Speaking of The New York Times, did you know its book review panned The Devil Wears Prada when the book came out? Just something I stumbled upon when I fell down the rabbit hole of the Internet at 4:30 am.
  8. A new Canon PowerShot SX520 arrived on my doorstep the other day, and I can’t wait to play with it in Providence this weekend. I send editors enough crappy iPhone pictures with my travel stories that I figured it was time to buy a decent point-and-shoot camera.

    My first picture with the new camera.
    Love the sharp colors! 
  9. And now that I have a camera, it’s time I learn a thing or two about photo composition. I found some basic tips for upping my photography game here.
  10. The incredibly charming 1634 Meadery in Ipswich, MA, makes lots of varieties of honey wines, like apple and strawberry, but I'm partial to the classic Orange Elation, made simply with orange blossom honey. It tastes like a sweet summer afternoon.
  11. If you haven't been to Applecrest Farm Bistro yet and live near the New Hampshire Seacoast, stop what you're doing and go! It's a brand-new concept that takes farm-to-table dining to the next level by putting a year-round restaurant right on the farm itself. Fresh, creative, and delicious dishes and cocktails like these...can't wait for a third visit next week.

    The Dixon Way: Fresh cider, Bulleit rye, orange bitters

    Just-picked asparagus and poached duck egg yolk. OMG

Monday, July 13, 2015

43 days left

In 43 days, my life is going to completely change.

For the past six years and five days, I have given myself over to my daughter’s care. As a work-at-home writer, I’ve been lucky to have the best of both worlds. I’ve been able to be at home with her, drive her to and from school, sneak off to the beach for the day, host playdates, be at every doctor’s appointment (and there have been a lot), bake cookies, take her to story time at the library, volunteer in her classroom, and make her breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day. I’ve been able to do all this without giving up my career. I couldn’t afford not to work, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stop working anyhow.

I also couldn’t afford to put her in daycare, both from a financial perspective and a caring perspective, especially considering how much time we spent shuttling her back and forth to Boston Children’s Hospital during the first year of her life.

“It’s so short,” I remember my mom telling me when Chloe was a baby. There are only a few, short years between birth and full-time school. It’s such a small amount of time to give your child. A relatively small investment for an incredibly big return. I’m glad I was in such a position to give her those years. More than glad. I can’t describe what it’s meant to me, and I hope, to her, too.

And yet it hasn’t been easy or smooth. I might not have given up my career, but it certainly hasn’t come first. I’ve worked the equivalent of part-time for six years, squeezing in writing when I could, first during naps, then during the handful of hours she was in morning preschool and kindergarten. I'm in front of my laptop at 5:00 am and, too often, at midnight. I had help, thank God, a couple days a week, but I never had enough time to really work on my career, to do anything other than feel like I was just hanging on.

And in the summer? Things are even harder without those 2.5 hours of morning kindergarten. On busy summer days (like today) when I’m cramming to meet a deadline and don’t have childcare, Chloe will sit in front of the TV for hours while I crank out my work, always with the promise that we’ll do something fun when I’m finished. And we will—we’re going swimming later today—but still, there are summer days when Chloe is a straight-up couch potato, when I throw food at her and don’t even get her dressed or brush her teeth until I can come up for air.

“I hate Mondays!” she just told me, after I explained that I had too much work to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her.

So as much as I have cherished these years with her, I know that this special time at home with my baby is coming to its needed end. Because she’s not a baby anymore. And I need to get back to me a little more, too. It’ll be better for both of us, I know this. I won’t have to neglect her for hours at a time or neglect my work, either. I can give 100% to each, and be all hers, totally hers, after school.

No more missed work deadlines and no more “I’m almost done!” promises when she begs to play with me. I will be able to ramp up my career in new ways, and I will give myself to her, every afternoon, maybe even more fully than I’ve been able to before.

I don’t want to wish this time away. The summer is already flying by. My time with her feels like it’s slipping out of my hands like water. And yet, I am excited for a new beginning.

Only 43 days left!

I only have 43 days left.