Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year, New Beginnings: Resolutions for 2013

For the past two years, I’ve managed to actually keep my New Year’s resolutions, and it felt really good. So this year, I submit for your approval my food- and drink-related resolutions for 2013:

Cook at home more often
I do love take out. But it’s a money sucker and not the healthiest thing in the world (20-pound burrito, I’m looking at you.)
Finally throw that Mad Men dinner party I’ve been talking about for nine months
I've gestated this idea for as long as I gestated my child. Now it's time to give birth to the thing. Plus, my friend, Rosie, gave me a Mad Men cookbook and vintage cocktail recipes for Christmas. I can take a hint.
Spend the summer seriously canning every piece of fresh produce in sight
Last year, I didn’t become the canning maniac that I really know I can be. This summer, I want to people to walk into my kitchen and immediately start thinking about Victory Gardens and War Bonds while humming “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Make some cheese
For my birthday and Christmas, loved ones gifted me with a cheese-making book, two cheese-making kits, a night at a cheese-making class, and a gift certificate to a cheese shop. Again, I get the hints. The universe is asking—nay, begging—me to make some damn cheese, already.
Drink less
Sorry, that’s a typo. It should actually read “drink less-crappy wine.”
Happy New Year, folks! Bottoms up!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Last minute Christmas gift to the rescue: Peppermint Bark

Dear Alex,
Crap! It’s Christmas Eve morning, our family party is in a few hours, and I don’t have a gift for my Great Aunt Stella! Please don’t suggest that I buy her a gift card. I did that last year and she looked really confused by it. Help!
Screwed in Schenectady
Dear Screwed,
First of all, I would never suggest a gift card. Who do you think I am? Secondly, your panic is totally unwarranted: I am the Fairy Godmother of last-minute food gifts. Take a deep breath. Do you have $10? A way to get to the grocery store? A microwave? Then fear not. I present to you the world’s simplest, loveliest solution: Peppermint bark, which, provided Aunt Stella’s teeth are in relatively good working order, will come swiftly to your rescue.  
Peppermint bark is pretty, yummy, and very easy and inexpensive to make. I break it into rough pieces, stack the pieces in clear plastic candy bags, and tie the bags with festive ribbon. It’s a nice gift for bosses, neighbors, teachers, and elderly aunties. Your salvation awaits below:
White Chocolate Peppermint Bark
  • Two bags of white chocolate morsels (of course, you can substitute other kinds of chocolate)
  • About 50 mini candy canes
  • Optional: Clear plastic candy bags and ribbon for packing (available at Wal-Mart, Target, craft stores and the like)
  1. Put the candy canes in a food processor and pulse until they’re busted into smithereens; pull out a couple of handfuls of the biggest pieces and set them aside. Leave the rest in the food processor bowl. Note: If you don’t have a food processor, or simply need an outlet for some pent-up rage, you can always put the candy canes in a big plastic zip-top bag and smash the hell out of them with something heavy like a rolling pin (or a lead pipe, depending on your lifestyle).
  2. Put the white chocolate morsels in a glass bowl and microwave for a minute and a half; stir. Then microwave for 20-second bursts, stirring in between each burst until they’re totally melted.
  3. Mix the peppermint chunks from the food processor into the melted chocolate.
  4. Pour the mixture onto a foil or waxed paper-lined cookie sheet (or you could even just use a sheet of foil on the table if you’re without a cookie sheet).
  5. Use a rubber spatula to spread it out evenly (it should be about ¼ inch thick).
  6. Sprinkle the larger chunks of candy cane pieces over the top.
  7. Wait until it’s completely hardened (about 30-60 minutes; speed things up by popping the cookie sheet in the fridge) and break the white chocolate into chunks. Pieces that are ragged and uneven add to the charm, otherwise it wouldn’t be called bark; it would be called Boring Squares of Chocolate.
  8. Stack the pieces in clear plastic candy bags and tie them with a ribbon. Or, pile them on a plate and use clear plastic wrap and a ribbon to wrap them up all purdy.
Makes enough to fill about three candy bags with a little left over for you to have at home.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Pecci Questionnaire

Whenever I pick up an issue of Vanity Fair, I always immediately flip to the back page to read the Proust Questionnaire, in which a celebrity or some other person of note answers 20 questions that might illuminate something about their character. Dolly Parton said if she could die and come back as one person or thing it would be a "big, fat hog so I could eat whatever I want." And Tina Fey said she considers "natural childbirth" the most overrated virtue.
It's fun, but I identify more with food. And so I present to you the Pecci Questionnaire, a food-related version of Proust’s parlor game. Play it during your holiday potluck:
 The Pecci Questionnaire
1.      What food gives you perfect happiness?
2.      What dish or ingredient do you most fear?
3.      Which famous chef do you most identify with?
4.      Whose cooking do you most admire?
5.      What eating habit do you most deplore in yourself?
6.      What eating habit do you most deplore in others?
7.      What food is your greatest extravagance?
8.      On what occasions are you dishonest about someone's cooking?
9.      If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?
10.  What meal made you happiest and where did you eat it?
11.  What food will you never eat again?
12.  If you could change one thing about how you eat what would it be?
13.  What do you consider to be your finest culinary achievement?
14.  What food/meal is most overrated?
15.  What is your most treasured kitchen appliance/tool/utensil?
16.  What do you regard as a food punishment?
17.  How does food make you feel?
18.  What food do you most dislike?
19.  What would your last meal be?
20.  What is your cooking or eating motto?

Friday, November 23, 2012

On style and food and love

When I was a kid, having dinner at my stepmother’s parents’ house was one of the fanciest elements of my life. Their house was big and beautiful. There were always jazz records playing and vases of fresh flowers adorning side tables. A baby grand piano, not a TV, was the focal point of the white carpeted formal sitting room. And instead of eating dinner in the kitchen or on TV trays, like we did at home, we sat at an elegant dining room table set with fluted crystal stemware and china plates and cloth napkins and engraved silverware. Napkins always on laps. Elbows never on the table. After dinner, the adults lingered over dessert and coffee and witticisms. This, I thought, is what it means to be sophisticated.
When I had dinner last week with that same grandmother (whose name is Sue), I told her how much I loved those formal dinners at her house. I told her how fancy and refined they seemed to my nine-year-old sensibilities. She laughed and told me it was all part of the show: She always hoped that the fanciness of her dinner parties would distract guests from the fact that food wasn’t very good.
Now, in her defense: I think the food was fine. But now that I do think about it, I don’t really remember. When I think about those dinners, I have no recollection of actually eating. My memories center on the silverware and the glasses and the plates and the people; there might not have been any food at all. And so I say to her: Mission accomplished. I was duly distracted.
Now that I throw my own dinner parties, I use the opposite approach. I hope my food will serve as a distraction from the hard water spots on the drinking glasses, and from the bookcase cluttered with cookery books and gadgets, and from the little hole that I repaired on our kitchen curtains. I hope the food will erase from my guests’ collective memories the fact that the end of the rubber serving spoon was melted flat because I accidentally left it on the hot stovetop. I hope the food will make them forget that our cat jumped from the railing of our upstairs loft and onto the kitchen table during Easter brunch, landing right between the quiche and a pitcher of mimosas. (Yes, this really happened. And I guess no amount of good food will make anyone forget it.)
I know that Sue set her table this way because she loved us and wanted things to be as beautiful as possible for the people she invited into her home. And now, I hope that Chloe and Brian and my family and friends know that when I make the pudding and the whipped cream from scratch; when I pour you another glass of wine; when I bring a casserole to your house because you’re sick or sad; when dinner and dessert lasts for two hours; when I give you homemade peppermint bark and ginger cookies and hot cocoa mix…it’s because I love you so much. And that’s how I say it best.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tricks and treats

Greetings after a vacation hiatus from blogging! I considered filing food dispatches from warm, sunny Florida, namely about the weird fact that there are no knives at Golden Corral, which seems to cater to the nursing home crowd with an "endless buffet" of soft, institutional food. But living through the experience once was quite enough.
So instead, I’m back with tales of Halloween. Chloe went trick-or-treating and had a Halloween party at school, which of course got me reminiscing about Halloweens of yore (and by “yore,” I mean the early 90s).
As I have mentioned before, athletic endeavors were never my strong suit, but I have always excelled at food-based competition. In middle school, while my friend Kristine was forcing some witless male classmate to do her sewing projects, I was busy winning the Home Ec. award every semester (yes, there was such a thing).
But my skills really shone on Halloween when it came time to eat a donut off of a string or get an apple out of a bucket of water using nothing but my face. I employed a deadly apple-bobbing trick (which I’ll reveal, possibly, when Carly Simon reveals who is so vain) that literally blew my competition out of the water. The other kids never stood a chance.
I have vowed that when Chloe is old enough for Halloween parties, I will resurrect bobbing for apples, fears of germs and wet heads be damned. I never drowned or contracted any deadly pathogens in an apple-bobbing bucket, and I doubt anyone ever will. This is New Hampshire. Live Free or Die, bitches!
For now, though, Chloe’s still only three years old, so her school Halloween party was limited to decorating pumpkins and dancing around to a kid-boppish version of “Thriller.” But, as one of the moms tasked with helping out at the Halloween party, I was determined to tear that shit up with an awesome craft project and snack: real mini-pumpkins for the kids to decorate and homemade pumpkin-shaped marshmallows coated in sparkly orange sugar.
Since a gigantic bag of marshmallows will only set you back about a dollar fifty at the grocery store, making homemade ones may seem like one of those pointless “why would you do that?” kind of things. My answer to that question is four-fold:
  1. I can see how never buying store-bought bread would be a pain in the ass, but how often do you eat marshmallows, really? Unless you do a ridiculous amount of camping, I would guess not very often. In which case, create a special occasion the few times a year you indulge in marshmallows and make them yourself!
  2. Bagged marshmallows suck.
  3. It’s fun and impressive.
  4. It’s chimp-easy.
I used the very simple recipe from the Food Network’s Good Eats, then spiffed it up with a few add-ons at the end. In this case, I used food coloring during the whipping process to make the marshmallows orange-tinged. After spreading the marshmallow on the baking sheet, I coated the top with orange-colored sugar, which I picked up in the cake decorating section of Wal-Mart. When the marshmallows were set, I used a pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter sprayed with cooking oil to stamp out thick, fluffy marshmallow pumpkins. Then I dusted the sticky edges with some powered sugar and a little cornstarch (see recipe below). Of course you can do this for any holiday with different colored sugars and cookie cutters.

Put each marshmallow in a festive candy bag and distribute to the grateful masses.
There will be leftover pieces from around the edges if you use a cookie cutter for shaping, so just cut the excess pieces into chunks, dust them with the powdered sugar mixture, and bag them. They’re yummy for snacking, floating in a mug of homemade hot cocoa, or whatever else you can think of. I'm currently testing how well they freeze; I'll update when I find out.
Good Eats Homemade Marshmallows
  • 3 packages unflavored gelatin
  • Ice-cold water
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • Nonstick spray
Place the gelatin and ½ cup of cold water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
In a small saucepan combine another 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cook, covered over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.
Turn the stand mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high (be sure to lock your stand mixer head or it will jump all over the counter!). Whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 15 minutes. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping.
While the mixture is whipping prepare the pans:
Combine the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly spray a 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Add the sugar and cornstarch mixture and move around to completely coat the bottom and sides of the pan, like you’re flouring a cake pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.
When it’s ready, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. (OR SEE MY VARIATION, ABOVE, USING COLORED SUGAR) Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners' sugar mixture. (OR SEE MY VARIATIONS, ABOVE) Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with more of the confectioners' sugar mixture. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

UPDATE: These marshmallows freeze beautifully, and actually have a nicer texture after defrosting. However, we used these homemade mallows to top Brian's famous sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving, and the result was not so pretty. Unlike commercial marshmallows--which puff and brown in the oven, but retain their shape--homemade ones melted into a yucky-looking froth. The taste was good (and I don't really want to think about why commercial marshmallows don't melt), but looks-wise, it was wasn't their finest hour.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dilly beans and broken glass

Perhaps it was the universe’s way of knocking me down a few pegs after the high of making mayonnaise and bragging about it like a kitchen magician. Perhaps it was carelessness and overconfidence after my swaggering strawberry and blueberry jam performances of the summer. The reasons why don’t really matter. All that matters is the outcome: Broken glass in boiling vinegar-water.

Making dilly beans—pickled green beans—was a way for me to use two pounds of a vegetable that my family and I don’t like but which we grew in our garden anyway. The plant started as a sweet, innocent little sprout in a little plastic bag in our kitchen window, but once we planted it in the garden, it became monstrous, overtaking all the other vegetables like the Blob devouring people in a movie theater.
I could barely keep up with picking all of the green beans that erupted from the plant's vines, let alone cooking them all, so I gave them away and stashed the rest in the freezer for later use. Once I’d amassed almost two pounds of them, I decided that now was the time for pickling. I found an easy (or so I thought) recipe in my trusty Ball Blue Book and set out to can them on a rainy Sunday morning.
The task started out ominously with Brian lurking around the kitchen, worrying out loud, as he often does, about food safety and canning. Between my obsessive canning over the summer and the use of homemade mayo on my veggie sub last week, perhaps he thought I'd been playing fast and loose with food-borne illness. He stood behind me with his black sweatshirt hood up over his head like some fretting grim reaper and said of my jars of dilly beans, “This will be our demise.”
I assured him that he was being silly, and proceeded to pack my mostly defrosted green beans into the hot mason jars, along with a clove of garlic, a few fronds of dill, cayenne pepper, and finally, a briny solution of boiling water, vinegar, and salt.
I lidded them up and dropped them into the boiling water, when CRACK.
“That’s not a normal sound,” I thought to myself, burning my fingertips over the boiling pot like I always do. And then, suddenly, green beans were floating to the surface, the water clouded with cayenne pepper, and broken glass started to jangle against bottom of the metal pot. Two of the jars had exploded, releasing their contents into the boiling water. Blast those not-quite defrosted vegetables!
Two of the jars were OK, so I frantically tried to retrieve the errant green beans from the water and continue processing the jars that hadn’t broken.
At this point Chloe wandered into the kitchen. She asked, “Mommy, what’s that smell?”
“It’s vinegar and dill and defeat,” I replied.
“No, what’s that gross, gross smell?” she clarified.
“It’s the pickles I’m trying to make, Chloe,” I said.
And then, her conclusion, the piece de resistance: “It smells like foots.”
In the end, two of my jars survived the dilly bean disaster of 2012. I haven’t opened them yet to see if they will, in fact, lead to our demise, but I do know that I will never grow green beans again.

Nine days later, I tried the dilly beans (which I’d kept in the fridge, since making them didn’t exactly go smoothly) and they are DELISH! They're spicy and salty, like thin, delicate pickles, and I am in love. Chloe loved them, too, but said they were too spicy (that would be because of the cayenne pepper). Maybe I will grow green beans again next year after all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The miracle that is homemade mayonnaise

Whipping up my own mayonnaise was so simple that I almost feel stupid writing about it. It literally had four ingredients and took me five minutes to make, if that. But I can’t help it. It was so freaking awesome, I felt like I was doing some kind of a magic trick. I whipped an egg yolk with mustard, lemon juice, and oil, and before I knew it, mayonnaise was simply appearing before my eyes, all white and creamy and beautiful in the bowl. I now understand the name Miracle Whip.

A couple of days later, I wanted to do the trick again, this time for an audience. My mother was visiting, and she seemed the perfect person to dazzle with my newly discovered skill.

“Hey mum, want to watch me make mayonnaise?”
It was, I thought, a tantalizing offer. Akin to watching Jesus turn water into wine, no?
She mumbled something about needing to check her email and never materialized in the kitchen. I was, of course, dumbfounded. Aside from growing a human a few years back, this was the coolest trick I’d ever performed! Alas, I’d have to keep my mayo making prowess to myself.
But homemade mayo has a dark side: The specter of salmonella. Luckily, my first batch of mayonnaise was slathered onto chicken and baked, so with that meal, I was free to enjoy my miraculous creation without the worry of bathroom misery and possible death. But I am obsessed with the idea of never buying mayo again, so I need to get my mitts on some pasteurized eggs (which I’ve yet to find in the grocery store).
I’ve heard tell from my kitchen guru Alton Brown that simply leaving your newly made mayo at room temperature for a few hours will help the acid in the lemon juice render impotent any nasty bugs that may have taken up residence in your yolks. And it’s unlikely that your eggs are contaminated anyway. But, being the paranoid mommy that I am, I simply could not give Chloe such a concoction. Ahhh, the moral conundrums of cookery. I will just have to hunt harder for pasteurized eggs and in the meantime, find lots of recipes that call for cooking with mayo.
The homemade mayo recipe was so simple I have it committed to memory, and I typically don't remember much. It tastes so good that it will erase from your mind any yucky mayo associations you have. And it makes me feel like a wizard. Please make it. It will undoubtedly boost your self esteem.
In a large bowl, whisk together one egg yolk (pasteurized for the paranoid), a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, the juice from half a lemon, and a pinch of salt.
Slowly (so slowly that it seems absurd) drip and drizzle one cup of grape seed oil into the bowl, whisking constantly until the miracle occurs.
Tip: Use some kind of a nonskid pad or wet towel under the bowl to keep the bowl still, lest you spin it in maddening circles as you whisk.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Couch-to-5K, and no, K doesn’t stand for kitchen

I did it!
I recently decided to move against the current of my entire erstwhile existence and take up running. Actually, running is too strong a word. It’s more like walking with a pained and aggravated bounce.

Prior to this week I have insisted that the only circumstance under which I would run is if I were being chased by some kind of angry assailant or hungry animal. And yet here I am, morning after morning, hitting the pavement for 30 minutes of self-inflicted torture. Although I still don’t like doing it or really even see the appeal yet, I was inspired to get off my ass and run by my legions of mom friends who are suddenly busting out 5Ks the way I bust out loaves of zucchini bread and jars of jam.

So. I download the Couch-to-5K app for the iPhone and get going. On day one, I run wearing a t-shirt from a local cupcake truck business that I wrote about for a magazine. On day two, I run wearing a t-shirt from a barbeque festival that I was assigned to cover for a food website.

I see a pattern emerging. I literally get paid to eat, and now I’m sweating through a cupcake shirt. It’s not doing much for my running credibility, which is already in question since I also am somehow able to kick myself in the calves as I go. So I buy some legit running outfits to look more the part.

Did I also mention that I live next door to Dunkin' Donuts? I run on a quarter-mile path that wraps around my condo complex and right past the drive-through, where I hear things like, “Aaaaaand….three chocolate-glazed donuts. Yeah, that’s it.” And it smells really good in the morning, like coffee and happiness.

But my trouble has never been with food. As anyone who knows me understands, I am unapologetically and unabashedly guilt-free in my love for all things food related. I don’t even have body image issues; in fact, I think I have a kind of reverse anorexia in which I believe I’m thinner than I actually am.

My trouble has been with the belief that I am inherently un-athletic. It’s not my fault, I reasoned, just the way I was born. So I didn’t even try. But I recently read an article in Psychology Today called “The Trouble With Bright Girls,” which says “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” When bright girls struggle with something, they give up; boys on the other hand just try harder to master it. And suddenly, my entire, lifelong experience with sports (and math, but that’s a topic for another day) came back to me in a rush.

And so, I decide that I could learn to run, just like I could learn to make jam, just like Chloe is overcoming her disability and learning to walk. I have no doubt that Chloe will walk unassisted, that she’ll be able to work hard and practice in order to learn how to do something that comes naturally to almost everyone else. The notion she wouldn’t be able to do it isn’t even a remote possibility in my mind. Chloe is one of the brightest girls I know. And if she can do it, so can her mama.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Fruit leather and burnt fingertips

Ten days after braving the wretchedness of Mother Nature in pursuit of orchard-fresh peaches, I have made one cobbler, one batch of granita, and a mess of several t-shirts, thanks to the juiciness of the just-picked fruit. The five peaches that I now have left over are withering away on the counter, not quite to the point where they need to be tossed, but a little too ugly to feel great about serving them to my loved ones.

These five refugees languishing in the fruit bowl are also covered in an almost obscene amount of actual peach fuzz (local peaches are startlingly hairy just off the tree), which means they’re just a few days away from looking like your shriveled old auntie who has long since given up on grooming her facial hair.
So, what to do with these specimens? Why, make fruit leather of course!
I loved Fruit Roll Ups when growing up, but like Z.Cavariccis and name-brand cereal, it was a luxury in which I didn’t often indulge. Now that I’ve stumbled upon a recipe for the homemade version, though, my mind starts racing with excitement. I imagine that one day I’ll pack this delicious, homemade treat into Chloe’s lunchbox, allowing her to savor the yumminess of Fruit Roll Ups without all the additives and packaging.
But then there’s the flip side to the DIY Fruit Roll Up: lunchroom embarrassment. And somehow, my insistence that the homemade version of something cool and expensive is just like—no better!—than the fancy, store-bought product seems to conjure up sad images of me sewing Chloe’s prom dress in my Dust Bowl-era shack on the prairie.
I make the fruit leather anyway, and it’s a lot more difficult than the instructions would indicate. And seeing the finished product makes me realize that when it comes to passing off my fruit leather for the store-bought variety, I’m closer to the shack version of events that I had originally thought.
As I already noted, the instructions are deceptively simple: Chop and puree fruit; boil it down with sugar and a little lemon juice; spread it on a sheet pan; and bake in a low oven for several hours. Then just slice, peel, and indulge. All you really need are three ingredients, an empty afternoon, and remedial reading skills.
What the recipe fails to note, however, are the many “ifs” involved in this procedure. Like if you don’t spread your fruit puree thinly enough you’ll wind up with fruit goop that never quite forms into leather. Or that if you don’t use a silicone baking sheet your fruit leather will never, ever peel off the pan. Or that although the recipe says the leather is done when it feels barely tacky, you will burn each and every fingertip and hiss "fuuuuuuck" into the oven again and again if you touch it when it’s not yet finished leathering.
In the end, because of uneven spreading and a bit of tinfoil under one spot where my silicone mat had ripped, I wound up with just four strips of ragged and wildly unattractive (yet tasty) fruit leather. Still, I rolled them up in pieces of waxed paper, put them into a bag, and told Brian that he could take them to work with his lunch. He took a look, laughed a little, and thanked me a little too wholeheartedly. Dust Bowl. Shack. Homemade prom dress. At least it tastes good.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If you don't get some damn peaches you're dead to me

I love me a cold beer on a summer night (or day), but when it comes to hard alcohol, I’m a lightweight of the most pathetic sort. Which explains why, after a single slurp of my peach-vodka granita mixture (for recipe-testing purposes only), I had a very slight buzz on a Tuesday afternoon. I was quite ashamed of this, of course. But when the recipe Gods call, I must heed.

Making granita accomplished several things:
  • I got to use some hard-won peaches. My friend Rosie and I recently decided that a hot humid day in mid-August would be a good time to push toddlers in strollers up a steep, rocky, quarter-mile hill in order to pick peaches at a local farm. Our friendship was tested when I almost gave up at the top of the hill, and Rosie gave me a sweaty and breathless ultimatum: “If you don’t get some damn peaches, you’re dead to me.”
  • It allowed me to use some of the vodka that’s been taking up space in my freezer since I got it in a Yankee Swap many years ago.
  • It made me seem much fancier than I really am because doesn’t granita just sound so gourmet and fabulous?
  • It's an easy, thrown-together dessert/cocktail all rolled into one. Here's how easy it is.
Recipe: Peach-vodka granita
Serves two, but it doubles easily
  1. Wait until your peaches are very, very ripe (right around the time a well-meaning houseguest might suggest that you put them in the refrigerator instead of keeping them on the counter).
  2. Peel, pit, and blend 3 or 4 of them in the food processor, to yield about 1 ½ cups of peach puree.
  3. Add ¼ cup of vodka (add more if you like more, or just leave it out), about 10 drops of bitters (a totally non-essential ingredient, but a nice touch if you happen to have them), and 1 tablespoon of honey. Give it another swirl in the food processor until everything’s nice and smooth.
  4. Pour it into a plastic storage container, cover, and freeze it overnight.
  5. To serve, scrape it with a fork to make a kind of thick slush and mound it up all pretty in a glass.
  6. Garnish with a mint leaf (or maybe some candied ginger?) for guests or simply devour in your pajamas with the freezer door still open if you’re alone.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Recipe: Fake-meat lasagna that’s probably not fooling anyone but still tastes really good

“What’s for dinner?” Brian asked a few nights ago.

“Vegetarian lasagna!” I enthused, thinking that a loud, high-pitched, and overly excited reply would trick him into preferring fake meat.

He slunk out of the kitchen.
No matter how chipper my declaration, Brian will always prefer real meat in his lasagna, just as I will never support the sale or consumption of reduced-fat cheese, which, by my definition, flies in the face of living an enjoyable life. Why even bother getting out of bed in the morning if you routinely deny yourself the simple and profound pleasure of real cheese?
In truth, I am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes by making faux-meat lasagna. I don’t expect anyone to be reeling in disbelief when I reveal, hidden-camera style, that what they’ve just eaten is not actually ground beef but a brilliant and beguiling imitation.
I find eating lasagna that’s made exclusively with vegetables to be a frustrating exercise in being hungry—and a little angry—ten minutes after eating. But because the faux-meat lasagna that I make employs a meat imitator rather than what is essentially hot salad squished in between noodles and sauce, it is a mighty tasty substitute for the real thing.
Making vegetarian lasagna also provides an excellent opportunity to get a knife into your child’s hands—not a phrase that usually generates excitement, I am aware. But helping out in the kitchen keeps your kid out of shenanigans while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. Plus, entrusting them with a knife makes them oddly careful and respectful of their task. Chloe is three years old and uses a butter knife to chop soft fruits and vegetables with aplomb.
The recipe gets its meaty heft from sautéed portabella mushrooms and the contents of a 9-ounce box of Veggie Patch-brand meatless meatballs (which thus should be simply referred to as “balls,” but I see the marketing problem that may pose).
Faux-meat lasagna
Adapted from the Barilla Four Layer No-boil Lasagna
You’ll need:
·         1 box of no-boil lasagna (although they spell it “lasagne” on the box, hmmm)
·         2 eggs
·         1 15-oz container of ricotta cheese
·         ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
·         1 package of veggie “meatballs” or veggie fake meat crumbles (I like Veggie Patch-brand meatless meatballs)
·         1 cup chopped portabella mushroom caps
·         2 jars marinara sauce
·         4 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese

 Here’s how to make it: 

·         Preheat oven to 375
·         Don’t boil the lasagna, but you can read, so I don’t need to tell you that
·         Put it all together
·         Beat eggs and stir in the ricotta, 2 cups of the mozzarella and all of the parmesan
·         Sautee the mushrooms in olive oil and a pinch of salt until they’re soft; remove from heat
·         Break up the fake meatballs so they’re in chunks similar to ground beef and add to the mushrooms, just to incorporate
·         Spread 1 cup of tomato sauce on bottom of 13x9 baking pan
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, 1/3 of ricotta mixture, half of the “meat” and mushrooms, 1 cup of mozzarella, and 1 cup of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, 1/3 of ricotta mixture, and 1 ½ cups of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, the rest of the ricotta mixture and fake meat, and 1 cup of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, the rest of the sauce, and the rest of the mozzarella
·         Bake 50-60 minutes or until it’s bubbling
·         Let it set up for 15 or 20 minutes so it doesn’t become a soupy, runny mess the second you cut into it

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I am not a fricken genius

In the grand tradition of my grandmother—who once dressed a fruit salad with meat marinade and served it to a crowd—I am trying to do more experimentation with food. Having been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s fruit salad, I know that it’s wise to tread carefully in this area. I have discovered that not every idea is a good idea. I have also discovered that not everything from your local farm stand is infused with whimsy and magic.

I’m on a local food high as Brian and I prepare to make my mother a birthday feast. We have in our possession farm-fresh handmade sausage, crisp dandelion greens, a bagful of corn on the cob, a pint of just-picked blueberries, and a bottle of cream from cows that live only a few towns away. We’ll bake the sausages, sauté the greens with garlic, and for dessert, whip the cream into a lovely topping for blueberries.
I’m aware that such local food orgies appear often in the pages of the glossy magazines and dreamily photographed blogs that I so admire. In those scenarios, a sprite-like child helps to shuck corn while mom sets the reclaimed wood farmhouse table with charmingly mismatched vintage plates.
So I invite Chloe to climb onto a kitchen chair and help me whip the cream. I open the bottle to see that a thick plug of cream has risen to the top—not uncommon with fresh milk that hasn’t been homogenized.
“The crème de la crème!” I declare, leaning over to smell the sweet cream. Except.
“Does this smell alright to you?” I ask my mother, tilting the bottle toward her nose. She takes a whiff and makes a face.
“It’s a little sour,” she admits.
I smell it again. Yuck. I pour it into the bowl. Chunks.
I dash out into the rain to get some cream at the convenience store next door—perhaps the antithesis of the farm stand. I come home soaking wet with a carton of light cream because the convenience store doesn't have whipping cream. No convenience store does. Which is not very convenient.
But I try to whip it anyway, assaulting the cream with an electric beater for several minutes. No whipped cream. Just a bowl full of bubbles. It occurs to me that there’s not enough butter fat in light cream for it to whip properly. Then, I have an epiphany. I’ll just replace the missing butter fat with butter! I’m a fricken genius. I can’t believe I’ve revolutionized cooking in this way. So I cut a few tablespoons of butter into the food processor, pour in the cream and a little sugar, and let her rip.
Here’s what I have learned:
  • Trying to make whipped cream out of butter and light cream will simply create wet butter.
  • I am not a fricken genius. I have not revolutionized cooking. In fact, I may have set it back slightly.
  • Convenience stores sell cans of whipped cream for a reason.
  • Your mom will love her birthday dinner even if the dessert is still-liquid cream poured over blueberries.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jamming out

One of the hallmarks of jam makers seems to be their propensity for giving away their creations. The Ball Blue Book—the decades-old, venerable holy bible of home preserving—touts the fact that your homemade jams and relishes, when tied with a ribbon and affixed with a handwritten label, will make beautiful gifts. I am far too selfish of a person for this kind of gift giving. Jam making is hard fucking work! And unless your sweat, along with mine, dripped down your neck while these blueberries were being plucked, one by one, from their sun-beaten bush, don’t expect a jar of jam in your Christmas stocking from me.

My jam makes for a pretty finished product, but the process for getting there is anything but. That’s why I prefer to cook alone. As I’ve mentioned before, I have many things going against me when it comes to being a graceful chef. I’m disorganized. I make a mess and leave a trail. I swear a lot. I drop things and break things and hurt myself. The phrase “Mama cut her finger with a chef knife” was recently a major part of Chloe’s catching-up chit-chat with people she hadn’t seen in a while.

Maybe that’s why jam making and canning appeals to me and challenges me so much. It is precise and allows no room for error. It requires organization and exacting tools and tight choreography. It requires preparation and meticulousness. As someone who loses her keys every single day, home canning is a complete departure from my personality. It’s teaching me discipline and exactitude, which is like teaching math to a cat. But that’s exactly why—when it comes out right—it’s so very, very rewarding.
Things to do with homemade blueberry jam:
  1. Spread it on toast
  2. Make the best darn PB&J you’ve ever eaten
  3. Swirl it into yogurt for food-of-the-gods-good blueberry yogurt
  4. Warm it up a little and spoon it on top of cheesecake or vanilla ice cream
  5. Sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night and eat it straight from the jar
  6. Give it as a gift, if you’re a nicer person than me

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Budget dinner at its finest: Black beans and rice

There are dishes that Brian and I ate while we were growing up that bring back some loving and cringe-worthy memories: SpaghettiOs with hotdogs sliced into it, boxed macaroni and cheese mixed with peas, and a little (delicious) gem that my mom made called tuna fish and rice casserole. These meals were filling, made an attempt at incorporating multiple food groups, and cost about 30 cents per serving.

As a kid I was happy, and loved, and snuggled, and read to, and watched TV when we had cable, and so what if I ate store-brand cereals and Hydrox and peanut-butter-and-butter sandwiches? Back then, everyone had patches sewn onto their jeans. Brian claims that pigeon traps on his friend’s roof provided him with a tasty lunch during one afternoon visit. I’m not sure if I believe this. But you get my drift. He still remembers how delicious his butter and sugar sandwiches tasted. The point is, we were all toting questionable lunches to school in the 80s.
For example, when my brother and I went to visit my dad on weekends, he would occasionally be tasked with packing me a lunch for Girl Scout hikes or other excursions. This was always a strange experience. I’m not sure if my dad just didn’t want me to go hungry or if he truly had no idea what a typical eight-year-old girl ate for lunch, but, on more than one occasion, he sent me off with a gigantic brown paper grocery bag filled with three bananas, three apples, four granola bars, two sandwiches, and multiple juice boxes. I was the Gulliver of the Girl Scout Troop, as I pulled an entire grocery bag’s worth of lunch out of the bright green, industrial-sized backpack that he’d sewn for me out of extra boat canvas (he’s an upholsterer). Now, I can appreciate that he was very much ahead of the crafty, DIY curve, one of the “original hipsters,” driving around in his green-and-white striped El Camino. But back then, well…I had a big giant school bag.
Thrift extended beyond the kitchen, of course. For my mother, punks were the source of many of her purchasing decisions. If we wanted Z. Cavariccis, my mom would say no, only punks wore those. Skidz? A special favorite of punks. The laser-beam background for school pictures? Punk-ness preserved forever. As with my father, I can now appreciate my mom’s reticence to succumbing to ugly, overpriced trends. Back then, well…I had maroon corduroys.
“You make it sound like we were dirt farmers,” my mom exclaimed when I told her about this post.
We were not farming dirt. Brian and I were just like every other kid in the 80s and early 90s: We played outside until the street lights came on, ate freeze-pops until our tongues turned green, squatted over a pile over grass clippings for hours making bird’s nests, and watched cartoons starting at 5 am until we left for school. But thanks to my mom, I know that popcorn tastes better, is far cheaper, and is leagues healthier if it’s popped from actual kernels in a pan on the stovetop instead of from a bag in the microwave.
I still have a fondness for getting a lot out of a little, and I think a good example of that is the black beans and rice dish that’s been a hit in my house for years. It’s a step above hotdogs in SpaghettiOs, but it’s still true budget dining at its heart. Here it is:

Adapted from The Teen's Vegetarian Cookbook
  • In a stockpot or other large saucepan, heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Saute one small, finely chopped onion for 1 minute, then add one clove of finely minced garlic and sauté for a minute more.
  • Use a food processor (or just your amazing knife skills) to finely chop a green pepper, two carrots, and a jalapeño pepper (with the seeds removed).
  • Add the additional veggies to the pot and sauté for 5 minutes.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of cumin, a 15-ounce can of black beans (liquid and all), and 2 cups of veggie broth to the pot. (Hint: You can used the canned or carton version, although I’ve been known to use veggie bullion to make my own broth in a pinch. Or go full DIY and make your own). Simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Add ¾ cup of instant brown rice and simmer, covered, until the rice is cooked. If it’s not thick enough for you, add more rice. Optional additions: 1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.
  • Serve alone or with sour cream and tortilla chips.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Recipe: Lazy lady’s guilt-induced homemade frozen garlic bread

I often wish that I could be effortlessly crafty and creative and have a house full of homemade quilts and furniture that’s upcycled from empty soda cans and plastic wrap or something like that. But my projects inevitably look like something that a slow-witted six year old made during arts and crafts at summer camp.

This desire to be a creative DIY-er also extends to food, and although my cooking doesn’t possess the same deficiencies as my pathetic artistic efforts, it’s often trumped by another demon: Laziness. As much as I would like to make everything from scratch all the time, I just don’t have the time or inclination to do so, and sometimes (often) succumb to things such as store-bought frozen garlic bread.
It’s a scene that plays out frequently: I stand, paralyzed, in front of the freezer case at the grocery store. I grab a loaf of frozen garlic bread, read the list of unpronounceable ingredients, and guiltily put it back on the shelf, closing the freezer case door with a steely resolve. But I don’t walk away. I think about dinner and the task of making dinner and how yummy and convenient and inexpensive frozen garlic bread is, and how well it goes with spaghetti and meatballs. I might wonder if other shoppers are watching my dance of indecision, if they can see the little angel and devil on each of my shoulders, whispering in my ear. Buy it! The devil hisses. It’s delicious. You love it! Admit it!
He’s right. I do love it. I brush the angel away and quickly toss a loaf into my cart where it lands with a thud. I walk away in a shame spiral. I console myself by thinking that at least the meatballs will be homemade.
At home, the garlic bread is quick and easy and undeniably tasty, but I still feel yucky about all of the processed crap that I just served my family.
Then I had a revelation: I could make frozen garlic bread myself; make my own convenience food. With minimal upfront effort, you can be rewarded with an excellent harried-weeknight payoff.
Now I should warn you that I’m not claiming that this is health food. There’s a stick of butter in it for shit’s sake. But at least the four ingredients you put into it are recognizable, pronounceable, and regularly appear in kitchens, rather than test tubes. Check it out.

Recipe: Homemade frozen garlic bread
  • Take a stick of butter (the real stuff, please) out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter until it’s soft.
  • Roast a bulb of garlic in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until soft. (Click here for an excellent, visual tutorial on how to roast garlic).
  • When the garlic’s cool enough to touch, hold the bulb upside down and squeeze out the now-soft garlic into a mixing bowl. Note: Experiment with the amount of garlic to see how much you like. It's always easier to start with a little and add more.
  • Mix together the garlic and the soft butter until it’s smooth (ish). Add kosher salt to taste.
  • Take a loaf of any kind of rustic or Italian bread you like and cut it into one-inch slices. Line up the slices on a foil-lined sheet pan that you can easily fit into your freezer.
  • Slather each of the slices with a generous amount of garlic-butter.
  • For cheesy bread, grate some parmesan over the slices (using the big holes on your box grater), then press the cheese down into the bread a little so it sticks.
  • Put the whole shebang into the freezer until everything is frozen.
  • To store, place a slice-sized square of waxed or parchment paper between the slices, stack them up, and store them in gallon-sized zip-top freezer bags. I like putting four slices in each bag because that’s how many I generally would reheat for a single family meal.
  • To reheat, remove the waxed paper, and place the bread slices (butter side up, of course) on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until they’re golden and crispy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Here I become yet another foodie enamored of squash blossoms

If there’s a single food that perfectly captures the fleeting feeling of summer, it would be squash blossoms, without a doubt. Some people might argue strawberries or some other fruit with a short growing season. But here’s what I say: Although strawberries are at their peak for just a few weeks in June, they’re still available at the grocery store in January. They might be tasteless and spongy and shipped from half a world away, but they’re there, on the shelf, year-round. Squash blossoms are never on any shelf, often not even at farmer’s markets. They’re just too delicate, these gossamer blooms that open eagerly in the morning to drink in the July sunshine and wilt by sunset.
I’ve read about fried squash blossoms for years, and despite the yammering about them from foodies, they seemed to be a delicacy not worth bothering with. The main ingredient was impossible to locate, and I was skeptical about how satisfying a fried flower could actually taste. Plus, there’s my closeted fear of frying things. I am not the most, say, graceful person on earth, and even though I love cooking, I seem to burn myself more often than would be considered normal. So putting me in charge of a pot filled with boiling-hot oil was a scenario that I could not envision ending well.
But then we planted our little four-by-four garden, and suddenly, bright yellow zucchini and squash blossoms were staring me in the face every time I stepped out the back door. By now our garden had morphed into a parking lot-abutting jungle that inspired awe-filled chuckles from our neighbors. The squash and zucchini plants had choked out all of our other veggies—carrots, beets, and lettuce—except for the pole beans. These were the most enthusiastic and hearty plants I’d ever encountered, shooting runners across our walkway and growing higher than my waist. If one of the climbing vines had reached out to tap me on the shoulder on my walk to the car, I don’t think I would have been too surprised.
Our first, ready-to-pick zucchini was this long, stout, phallic thing sticking out proudly over the wall of the raised bed. I cut it off with a pair of scissors, making gleeful squeaking sounds as I did it; I think I skipped into the house with the zucchini raised triumphantly over my head. I made Chloe sit on the couch and hold it in the air like a trophy so I could snap pictures of it with my camera phone. We grew food! I was astounded. We put a seed in dirt and a couple of months later, food came out. It was a miracle.
Here, I learn that Brian doesn’t like zucchini. Which I find odd, because to me, zucchini has very little actual flavor. It’s more a vehicle for other flavors. But he’s vindicated because Chloe doesn’t like it either. And we have more zucchini than I really know what to do with in a house where only one person will eat it in its natural state. So I start making those aforementioned zucchini breads in earnest, tripling my recipe again and again for multiple batches and freezing the loaves for later. My whole family loves zucchini bread, especially for breakfast. Chloe actually claims to be “hungry for zucchini bread,” which I can totally relate to.
And crowning the ends of all those lovely zucchinis that are filling our little garden? Zucchini flowers, in abundance. Sometimes there are flowers where no zucchini will ever bloom from the vine. So I’m ignoring them, ignoring them, ignoring them all summer, until an internet search for what the hell else to do with zucchini accidentally yielded recipes for fried zucchini blossoms. Some called for the blooms to be battered and fried alone, but I happen to have ricotta in the fridge and want to use it.
So I found a blog with gauzy and ethereal-looking pictures of a fabulously DIY life. The blog’s owner was a serenely beautiful hipster lady chef who had lovely, manicured fingernails and demanded that a free-range egg be used in her squash blossom recipe. Her instructions included step-by-step photos taken with an amazing camera. Here’s a photo of the blossoms strewn artfully on a sunlit, clutter-free counter. Here’s a photo of her pretty hand filling the blooms with ricotta. Here’s a photo of the zucchini blossoms stuffed and laid out in a neat row on a vintage platter. Naturally, I wanted to reach through the computer screen and slap this woman.
The real-life process for frying squash blossoms is not so angelic, but the taste was oh-so worth it. And here’s what I learned about frying: It’s pretty darn forgiving. After getting a dip in batter and a sizzle in the hot-oil Jacuzzi, my squash blossoms were delectable. Maybe they weren’t pretty enough to warrant a Pinterest board, but they were gone so fast, it really didn’t matter. I’ve made them twice now for different groups of people and each time they’ve vanished from the plate within minutes.
I harvested them from our own garden and doing so got dicey only once, when I accidentally disturbed a beetle who was hanging out in one of the blossoms. He flew out angrily and then buzzed me once in the head for good measure before flying off. I screeched and threw his little blossom condo into the parking lot while Chloe laughed hysterically at me from her orange Adirondack chair.
After that, it was all smooth sailing. And I burned my fingers only once. Here’s how it goes down.
Recipe: Fried and stuffed squash blossoms:
  1. Make the filling: Combine a cup of ricotta cheese, a half-cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, one beaten egg, one clove of garlic that’s minced as finely as you can get it, just under ½ teaspoon of grated lemon zest, and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  2. If you’re harvesting the squash blossoms yourself, do it now. Take 8-12 squash blossoms and open up the flower petals. I’d tell you to be as delicate as you can because these suckers like to stick together, but I’ve ripped every one of my blossoms so far and they’ve come out fine.
  3. Heat the oil: Heat about 2 cups of vegetable oil in a wide saucepan.
  4. Using a piping bag, a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, or even just a spoon, fill the open blossoms with the ricotta mixture until they’re about 2/3 filled. Twist or fold over the petals to close it.
  5. Make the batter: Mix 2/3 cup of whole-wheat flour (I like its nutty flavor) with one cup of seltzer and mix until the flour is just wet.
  6. Dip each of the stuffed blossoms into the batter to coat and drop them one by one into the hot oil. Move them around so they don’t stick together or to the bottom of the pan. (I think this is best done in two batches, frying them 5 or 6 at a time). Fry for three minutes.
  7. Remove them to a paper-towel lined sheet and sprinkle them with kosher salt.
  8. Lay claim to at least two of them for yourself immediately. They go fast.

"Of course I can!"

We picked strawberries this weekend, and of course Chloe ate more strawberries than she put into her basket. She popped them whole into her mouth: stem and leaves and dirt and all.
The rest of these strawberries are destined for the desert of winter, when I will open a jar of homemade jam and be instantly transported from the cold, dull gloom of January back to the sunny, sweet warmth of June, of picking strawberries under a bright blue sky with my little girl and her daddy.
Of course, I’ve never made jam before, ergo have never canned it before either. A healthy fear of botulism has kept me from venturing into the dark netherworld of home canning, a practice that seems so arcane, so foreign that I feel like I’m traveling back in time just by contemplating it. I don’t even think my maternal great-grandmother—a divorced, chain-smoking woman who sent her only child to live with nuns Monday-Friday so she could work full time—ever considered canning.
But I am more than contemplating it now. I am going to do it. The strawberries sit, untouched, in the fridge. They have a higher purpose than being added to something as mundane as my morning cereal. They are destined for greater things. Summer—and ingenuity—in a jar.
Since I am overly romantic about everything, I insist, then, on saying I am “puttin’ up” jam, like I am a homesteader living on the range, not a yuppie living in a condo. I wear a red cotton sundress and sandals, throw the windows wide open, and set about rinsing these newly picked strawberries—I am almost giddy with excitement. My jars and pectin (whatever the hell that is) are waiting at the ready.
Here I will pause to impart some canning wisdom.
Things I have learned about canning:
  1. Don’t wear sandals. Boiling jam is really fricken hot and hurts like a bitch when it splashes on top of your naked foot.
  2. Having one of those wide-mouth funnels really helps to get the jam into the jar. It’s not just something “fancy” that you don’t need. No matter how many times you mutter “motherfucker,” that jam will not make it off the counter and into your canning vessel.
  3. When attempting to process the filled cans, be sure your pot is tall enough to house both your jars and enough water to cover them by at least an inch. Displacing boiling water all over the stop top is an ugly turn of events. (Although jumping backward and screaming as the water scorches across the burner and onto the floor is a surefire way to get your husband’s attention).
  4. Canning tongs with rubber grips that curve around the jar’s rim are also essential, also not just another something “fancy.” Trying to extract heavy cans from boiling water using nothing but your wits and a ridiculously huge set of grilling tongs is no fun; no fun at all.
  5. There is little else as satisfying as the pop of a vacuum seal gone right.
  6. You might irritate your friends by sending text message pictures of your new jars of gorgeous jam. Do it anyway!
  7. You might have recurring dreams all night that your jam doesn’t “set up.” Resist the urge to run to the kitchen at 2:30 am to check on it. You’ll be rewarded in the morning with perfectly set jam and a happy toddler begging to eat it on toast, to which you will blissfully oblige.
Now that I have successfully done it once, I am obsessed with canning. I immediately order a canning kit online, complete with the correct tongs and funnel, and check the website 30 minutes later to see if it has shipped yet (it hasn’t). I obsessively take pictures of my gorgeous jars and scoff at my camera’s inability to capture their jewel-like beauty.  I can’t wait for the blueberries and raspberries and blackberries to be ready for picking, and therefore jam making, and therefore canning. And although I am not anxious for the long days of summer to slip through my fingers like sand at the beach, a part of me can’t wait for January, for popping open that jar of June jam and smiling all over again at a job well done.

How does your garden grow?

Finally the day to plant outside has arrived, but first we have to put together the four sides of the raised bed. My husband, Brian, isn’t the handiest fellow on Earth, so the task of screwing the thing together falls to me, since I don’t get hurt nearly as often or as dramatically as he does. The job is a quick one.

Chloe observes all from her spot on the lawn, sporting her pink polka-dotted cat-eyed sunglasses and a thick layer of sunscreen.

“That was a tough job,” she says periodically throughout the proceedings. She quickly dispenses of the bucket of water she was given to play with, and joins us to dig up the lawn, trowel in hand, “rescuing” the worms that have been unceremoniously dug up and disposing of the many rocks that seem to be growing in the dirt.
Brian has a head that’s shaved bald, so sweat just beads up on his skin and rolls onto his face, stinging his eyes with salt and sunscreen. I think he sweats a lot. He insists he sweats no more than anyone else; it’s just that everyone else has hair to soak it up. Perhaps this is true. Whether it is true or not, though, I will give him this: In the almost 12 years we’ve been together, he’s never smelled anything less than shower fresh, even after a couple days of camping, even after playing nine innings of baseball on Sunday mornings. I don’t know how he does it, but I challenge any other lady to be able to say that about her man.
Brian puts on a hat to soak up his head sweat, and soon, we’ve dug a beautiful square of dirt. We pound in the four sides of the raised bed and pat ourselves on the back. Since our previous attempts at planting eggplant and tomatoes in smaller patches right next to our steps and directly into the ground resulted in cracked and blighted-looking fruit, we fill the garden with the contents of four 30-pound bags of lovely, rich, black garden soil that promises to feed our vegetables for three months! And grow them twice as big!
“Why are there so many sticks and stuff in there?” Brian demands. He sounds cheated. I don’t know why they’re there; maybe for drainage. I have heard drainage is important in such matters. He seems appeased by this explanation, so we smooth the soil out, making it clump free and even. Suddenly possessed and overcome by the beauty by this wide expanse of dirt, Chloe frantically hops over the raised bed wall and into the newly dug garden plot, planting herself right in the middle. I ask if she’s a vegetable and whether she wants me to fry her in butter for dinner. She laughs gleefully at this proposition, but hops out.
We plant only the six healthiest-looking squash and zucchini plants, plus some of the beets, a few more beat seeds, and a bean plant that Chloe and I started on a lark in a plastic bag in the window, but which is now growing like, well, a weed. We also plant carrot seeds. I mean, we “direct sow”carrot seeds. I have to remember to use the right lingo here. I am delighted that the carrots can be planted every two weeks throughout the season to ensure an ongoing crop. We save the lettuce for another day. Brian keeps telling me that his grandfather grew lettuce in bathtubs, but somehow I think a bathtub on the lawn would raise the ire of the condo people, so we’ll hold out for metal buckets.
I have visions—maybe delusions—of our summer; of walking out the back door and plucking the ingredients for that night’s dinner off of the bushes with a serene smile on my face, looking like the beautiful, peaceful earth mama that I wish I could be. Of making enough zucchini bread and jars of beautifully pickled beets and whatever the hell you do with carrots to last us the whole, long, cold, winter. I am a good cook, if nothing else.
“Is four-feet-by-four-feet enough space to grow all of that stuff?” a friend asks me at a party later that night.
“I don’t know,” I confess, to a chorus of laughter. I wish my gardening career didn’t begin with so many people laughing at my ineptitude. But even if the garden doesn’t end well, it’s not like I won’t be able to feed myself. I can still drive to the grocery store.