Wednesday, November 23, 2016

$20 and 20 minutes: A last-minute Thanksgiving table

If you have $20 minutes and 20 minutes, you can pull off a pretty, last-minute Thanksgiving tablescape with just a few items from the grocery store:
  • A bouquet of Thanksgiving-colored flowers: $10.00
  • 6 pears: $2.00
  • 8-oz Mason jars: $8.00
Cut the flowers so the blooms are just sticking out of the jelly jars, and place the little vases at even intervals down the length of your table. The jelly jars are not only pretty, rustic, cheap, and reusable for a variety of things (I'm using the rest to serve a seasonal cocktail), but they're also low enough that folks can see each other across the table. 



Choose pears with a flat-ish bottom (so they can stand up) and a long stem, if you'd like to use them to affix name tags. I used forelle pears because they have a pretty deep-red and sage-speckled hue. 



Either place the pears between each of the jelly jars along the center of the table or use them as place settings on top of the plates.


Extras: Handmade name tags, pretty ribbon, rosemary sprigs tucked around the pears (you might already have rosemary in the house if you're making a turkey!)



Happy Thanksgiving!
Love to all! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

As authentic as Taco Bell

I love Taco Bell. I love the gooey nacho cheese, the barely-spicy spice, and the weirdly textured “signature recipe” beefed-up beef. And it costs a freaking dollar! Hello?

People are often surprised to hear about my love of Taco Bell because in the food world, we’re supposed to know the difference between authentic food and copycat food. And as a food writer, I’m especially supposed to know the difference.

What’s the difference between real food and the “fake” stuff? You know what it is.

It’s the taco that’s made at a stand owned and operated by recent immigrants from Mexico who are eager to share the real flavors of their homeland, not the 99 cent burrito at Taco Bell. It’s the fresh scallops from the roadside seafood shack that still gets dayboat fish every morning from the dock, not the frozen, shipped-across-the-country fare at Red Lobster. It’s the pasta from the Italian bistro where an old Strega has been hand rolling gnocchi for 40 years, using the recipe she learned at her own grandmother’s knee, versus the never-ending pasta bowl at Olive Garden.

We seek out the “real” when we travel, too, eager to avoid the restaurants that do their business churning tourists in and out with food that pales in comparison to the pub that’s packed with locals. This, we think, is the “authentic” taste of a place. This, we think, is “real.”

As a food and travel writer, I’ve been part of the ilk that encourages eaters and travelers to seek out these “authentic,” genuine,” “real,” and “honest” places.

But in the food writing world, there’s now serious conversation about knocking it off, about cutting it out with the authenticity myth.

Why? So many reasons. One, of course is the snobbery factor, which gives permission to scoff at those who think the food at Olive Garden is anywhere as good as the food in Italy (Which translates to: “I’ve been to Italy, and you haven’t, you uncultured slob”). It allows some people to roll their eyes at those who aren’t sophisticated enough to taste the difference between “real” sushi and grocery store sushi.

There’s also the exclusivity factor, which dictates who is “allowed” to cook and eat certain foods and who are the pretenders if they do.

I’m not saying that I would rather eat at a big corporate chain than at a family-owned restaurant. Far from it. And for the record, I fucking hate the Olive Garden. But there’s more than one way to cook and eat, and that’s what makes the world exciting.

For instance, I have friends who own what’s been called a “middle eastern” restaurant, if only because its chef/owner is from that region of the world. They tell me that older customers have complained that the food they serve isn’t “authentic” because it doesn’t hew to the traditions that they grew up with. Instead it incorporates more modern and Western flavors and techniques into traditional dishes like hummus and rolled grape leaves. Bottom line: This restaurant’s food is amazing, and is exactly the kind of innovative, exciting, creative cuisine that you’d expect from a young chef who has his finger on the pulse of two cultures. His food is just as “authentic” as anything else.

In discussing food, then it’s only natural to extend the authenticity argument to the people who cook it and to people in general. Who are the “real” owners of a society? Who has the true claim to a place or culture? Who actually belongs there, and who doesn’t?

I recently returned from Turks and Caicos, an island chain in the Caribbean that’s a British Overseas Territory, and I stayed on the island of Providenciales. Just a few decades ago, the population there was tiny, and there was very little infrastructure. As a result, people often traveled to the Bahamas to give birth in a better hospital, before returning home with their babies.

I was so surprised, in talking with the locals, at how many people made this distinction about themselves in casual conversation. When I’d ask them, making small talk, whether they were “from” Turks and Caicos, many of them noted, with a hint of shame in their voices that although they grew up in Providenciales, they were actually, physically born in the Bahamas. This, it turns out, makes a difference in how others regard them and in how they regard themselves. Someone later told me that the locals who were actually born in Turks and Caicos take great pride in that fact, and that there’s a bit of a stigma upon those who weren’t, even if they’re citizens, or “belongers,” as they’re called there.

It all sounds strange, but we do the same kind of things here in the United States, too. Main Street versus Wall Street, farm versus city. Who has a more legitimate claim to the “Real America?”

When I was in high school, I had a “Help Wanted No Irish Need Apply” sign hanging in my bedroom, as a cheeky nod to the racism that undoubtedly greeted my Irish immigrant ancestors, one of whom fought and died for the Union in the Civil War, but whose accent would always give him away as an “other.” Of course, every generation has a new batch of immigrants to fear and ostracize, and eventually, those immigrants have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who forget more and more of their ancestral tongues and customs, until they’re finally just absorbed into that great American melting pot and can tell the up-by-the-bootstraps story about how Great Grandpa Giuseppe came to America with nothing more than the clothes on his back and ten lira in his pocket.

Usually, the one thing that remains of a native culture, after all else has faded, is the food.

Food changes, it evolves, just like language, just like culture, just like demographics, just like everything. One isn’t more authentic or real or worthy than the other. You can view it as exciting, or you can view it with fear. I choose to be excited. And I will eat almost anything you put in front of me. Even those damn breadsticks from the Olive Garden. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Post-mortem

My close friend and I took this picture on Election Day. We posted it on Facebook with a cutesy caption. It was my idea.

We had just voted for different candidates at the same polling place, and taken our little girls out for ice cream sundaes afterwards. How beautiful, how very American, it would be, we thought, to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, and graciously and humbly declare ourselves friends and sisters on such a divisive day.

I was giddy with happiness and hope. I had just cast a ballot for a woman who I’ve admired practically my entire life. I had waited for her to be my president for 20 years. I sat in the disabled-access polling box with my little girl and we smiled as I filled in that little bubble with her name next to it.

I must say, it’s a lot easier to be gracious and humble when you’re sure you’re going to win.

This week has been a test for me. I grew up in a bubble, grew up believing certain things. I was taught that it was not OK to judge someone by the color of their skin, what religion they practice or don’t practice, their physical appearance or abilities, or who they love. I took these things for granted as truths, “universally acknowledged,” to quote Jane Austen. When I read Harry Potter to myself and to my daughter, the idea of “Muggle-Born Registries” seemed to be an allegory for distant events, far-removed from the beautiful and inclusive America of the 21st Century. A good reminder for history.

Now we’re flirting with such ideas today. I think everyone can agree, it’s chilling.

Do I believe that my friend, and indeed, even most of our new president-elect’s supporters have hatred and racism in their hearts?

No.

I don’t believe that. I can’t. It would be too much to bear. But I believe that the handful of those who do have hatred in their hearts now have permission for those feelings to be normalized, vocalized, and even acted upon. Now it’s up to Trump and his supporters who don’t feel this way to loudly denounce such words and actions. They’re the only ones who can do so effectively.

I’m white, middle-class, educated, employed, heterosexual, and live in the Northeast. Despite my heartache, my bubble is intact. Yet I do fear for those people who are more vulnerable than I am, including my little girl, who has a physical disability. The world has never been a particularly hospitable or easy place for the differently-abled, but we’ve come so far. Just 30 years ago, when I was her age, my daughter’s life would have been so different. I can’t watch that progress erode away.

But I also think back to where I was one year ago: In the hospital after my daughter had what can only be described as a terrible surgery with a painful, months-long recovery. Who came into my home, without hesitation, bearing food and craft projects, to sit by her side and talk me off the ledge when we had a hospital bed in our living room and my daughter couldn’t sleep for more than 30 minutes at a stretch? My friend in the above picture. Who makes sure that every pathway—literally and metaphorically—is cleared when my daughter is in her care? My friend in the above picture. Who was the first to donate a big, generous box of art supplies when I was collecting them for Boston Children’s Hospital? My friend in the above picture.

And who promised me, in the days following the election, when I was heartbroken and terrified, that she would be by my side, always fighting for what is right on my daughter’s behalf? I think you can guess.

Already, I’m seeing people in my life who are saying, “We might have different opinions about some things, but not the big things. I stand with you.” For that, I’m so grateful. May others who are marginalized also be so lucky, and may those who supported Trump be as brave and outspoken as my friend to tell the people who they love, “I stand with you,” my Muslim friend, my gay friend, my black friend, my immigrant friend.

That's America. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Eat Well, Travel Often

The view from the stunning Grace Bay Club in
Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

On our last night on Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI for short), we drove away from the gorgeous Grace Bay Club resort to have dinner at Bugaloo’s, a wooden conch shack that’s as popular with locals as it is with visitors. Bugaloo’s is perched at the edge of a bay in an area of Providenciales island called Five Cays Settlement, where little fishing boats bob gently with the tide and jetties piled with rocks and conch shells extend across the sand.

We arrived after sundown, when the restaurant’s open-air deck was packed with people and ringed with palm trees strung with white lights. Across the sand, a band played a mix of traditional music and island-infused pop hits.

The band plays at Bugaloo's.

Other performers wowed the crowd with tricks. One spun a flaming wheel on his foot and balanced weird combinations of items on his head, like a plastic deck chair and stacks of glass bottles. Another, dubbed “TCI James Brown,” took the stage in a glittering, sequined red jacket and danced frenetically, channeling the Godfather of Soul as he jerked and shimmied across the stage to songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You.”

Couples danced barefoot in the sand. A little girl, who looked about 4, spun in gleeful circles on the deck, pumping her tiny fists and stomping her feet, just a little off the beat. A mangy, stray “potcake” dog—a mongrel breed found only on TCI and the Bahamas that’s named after the cooking-pot dregs that the locals feed them—hobbled between the tables, in search of food scraps and ear scratches. 


This potcake wouldn't stay still long enough for a decent
picture of his cute and crazy face.

It was a happy night. We ordered a silly amount of traditional island food, filling the table with plates for the five of us to share—coconut-fried shrimp; fried spiny lobster; rich, pepper-flecked mac and cheese; cool, crunchy cole slaw; peas and rice (which in the U.S. we might call rice and beans); and conch every which way: fresh and citrusy scorched conch; conch salad; cracked conch; crispy coconut conch; and conch fritters. We drank pleasantly bitter Turks Head beer, an island brew, and passed plates heavy with food, urging each other to “Try this!” We unabashedly ordered second helpings of mac and cheese. We gasped and applauded as the performer “ate” fire and sang along with the band.


Our delicious spread of fried everything.

I loved the amber beer; my new buddy Nick
opted for the lager.


I've always wondered how someone first discovers
they have a talent for balancing stuff on their face.

Later, I walked across the deck to look at a small jewelry stall that stood adjacent to the restaurant and noticed TCI James Brown sitting on a stool a few feet away. He put out his hand for me to shake, and I took it. Before long, we were deep in conversation, with him regaling me with stories about his life, his fame, his friends around the world, meeting "The Godfather" himself (James Brown), and his philosophy on aging (In a nutshell: Never retire). I’m not really sure how the conversation strayed that way, but I listened to his stream-of-consciousness chatter, only asking the occasional question. His eccentricity was apparent, and so was his genuineness.

“Hate and poison sound the same,” he opined. “But love sounds good.”

I nodded, unsure about what to say. Yes, love does sound good.

Aren’t people interesting and funny?

This is my favorite part of traveling. I believe with all my heart that the world would be an infinitely better, more generous, and more understanding place if everyone had a passport and eagerly filled the pages with stamps. They’d discover that the world is both exhilaratingly enormous and humblingly small. They’d discover that most people are good and are trying their best, and that everyone wants someone to listen to them. They’d discover that all of these good people live their lives a little bit differently (sometimes a lot differently) but in many ways—the most important ways—we’re really all exactly the same. We all get zits and headaches. We accidentally swear in front of our kids when we stub a toe. We share meals with family and sometimes have a few too many glasses of wine. We laugh so hard we can’t breathe (and maybe pee a little). We love our kids more than life itself and stare up at the stars and find pictures.

We are not alone in the world, which to me, is an exciting and comforting thought. I love the far-flung beaches and new flavors that come with traveling, but when I get home the moments that tend to stick with me most are the conversations with people whose paths I never would have crossed unless one of us stepped onto a plane and into each other’s lives, at least temporarily.

It’s a little piece of magic that I hope to chase all across the world. It's a healthy reminder that we're all in this thing together. And it gives you a chance to do stuff like this: 


Travel well, my friends. Love to all. 


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.


BANANAS!

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! 


OUCH

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