Monday, December 27, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #11

Big, fluffy towels.

When I folded them warm from the dryer this week,
I was grateful all over again for their lush, wrap-around generosity.
What an every day luxury.

Friday, December 24, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

In the middle of all the Christmas mono mania--the list of gifts to procure, the wrapping, the social events, the endless carols playing everywhere--we made a departure with dinner last night: Johnny Cash was singing while we ate shakshuka.

Well, maybe there's a tenuous and unintentional connection between tonight's dinner and the holiday, since both the dish and the Christ child were born in Israel. But that's just occurred to me now. I really made the shakshuka
to appease the curiosity developed after reading about it on the Smitten Kitchen blog and to use up my accidental surfeit of eggs purchased for all the holiday baking I have yet to do. (Some year, I swear...)

Shakshuka is basically eggs poached in a tomato sauce spiced up with onions, (in this version, although an alternate and very Jewish source I checked out forbade them), hot peppers (I used jalapenos), garlic, cumin, and paprika. The lively concoction then gets garnished with crumbled feta and chopped parsley for more flair.

From my limited research, I gathered that this dish is Isreali home or comfort food. It's usually served as I did, in the skillet in which it was cooked, to be dished out at the table. Some restaurants pretty it up with individual skillets or ramekins, but I like the rustic idea of plunking it down in the center of a hungry gathering and participating actively in its diminishment.

We certainly diminished ours. We left just enough to see if it's good for breakfast tomorrow with father-in-law's spicy sausage and toast. We have to make it to Lupper time for Christmas dinner, so bring on the protein in the a.m.!

While I admire any recipe that can make dinner out of inexpensive ingredients in one dish (I added spinach to make it complete), my favorite part of the shakshuka experience (other than its name, which sounds like a vigorous exotic dance to me) was savoring the creamy yolks as they complemented and tamed the spiciness and acidity of the sauce. Of course, warm whole wheat pita bread for sopping in all that sauce isn't a bad thing either. Not at all.

Frankly, I'm glad for any chance to cook dinner this week, whatever the meal. Christmas shopping and socializing has had me, and will continue to have me, away from home, kitchen, and blog for most of this week. (Which is why I love January, but that's another grinchy topic.) I'm grateful that during the readiness festival that is Christmas week, there was this total departure dinner that made me think of dancing instead of demands. Viva la Shakshuka, baby!


Serves: 4 to 6

1/4 cup olive oil
5 anaheim or 3 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, crushed then sliced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
1 28-ounce can of whole peeled or diced tomatoes
Kosher salt, to taste
6 eggs
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Warm pitas, for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. (Deb called for a 12-inch, but I used my 13-inch French skillet without incident.) Add chiles and onions, and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and golden brown, about six minutes. Add garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft, about two more minutes.

Add tomatoes to skillet (If using whole tomatoes, place them in a bowl and break them up with your hands before adding.) along with 1/2 cup of water, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Season sauce with salt.

Crack eggs over the sauce so that the eggs are distributed evenly over the sauce's surface. Cover skillet and cook until yolks are just set, about 5 minutes. Using a spoon baste the whites of the eggs with tomato mixture, being careful not to disturb the yolk. (If you forget this step, which I did, rest assured that it will be good anyway.) Sprinkle shakshuka with feta and parsley, and serve with pitas for dipping (and sopping and smearing your plate pretty much clean.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Well, I'm Glad I Made That

I originally planned to make pasta with Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and parmesan for very practical reasons: The dish would use up the 1/2 pound or so of sprouts hanging out in the crisper and provide a vegetable in the entree as well as the salad. I had no idea that I, and my man, would love it so much.

Oh, I felt sure that I would like the combination, or I wouldn't have chosen to make it dinner's star. I like Brussels sprouts, and how could they suffer from being thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil and butter? (I don't know why, but sauteed sprouts seem to taste better when they're somewhat shredded. Is it just me?) I like walnuts, too. Parmigiano, I love. The whole party sounded like a win-win-win.

And it was. But not a simple, solid, that'll do win. It was the kind of winning dish which prompts those instinctive noises of satisfaction. (You know the ones. I am not going to try to spell them.) From the moment that the first bite entered my mouth, I liked it. No taste blooming, chewing, or thinking required. That, I didn't expect.

We kept on liking it, intensely and vocally, until our bowls were empty. Who knew that a Brussels sprout-based entree could be that good? I didn't, and I thought I liked the little buggers. Apparently, their vegetal potential has been way too under-rated in my life.

In fact, tasting the sprouts without the pasta made me think that they would be good cooked this way as a side dish. So the yum factor had nothing much to do with the belly-sating powers of the noodles. This dish simply let the little ole sprouts shine brighter than I knew they could.

That sum-greater-than-parts goodness wasn't missed by Molly over at Orangette, which is where I found the idea. She got it from a friend, who got it from Gourmet. It was of course tweaked at each step along the way to me, and I tweaked it myself. My old buddies the walnuts subbed for the pricey pine nuts, and I forgot to buy the cream so I skipped it.

OK. That's not true. I tried a smidge of milk instead, but it was both a waste of time (Is there really any substitute for real cream?) and unnecessary. I ended up scooping the sprouts out of the pitifully inappropriate liquid result of my experiment and still loving them. Obviously, I needn't have bothered. Molly had added the cream for her own reasons anyway. See? We all get to do our own thing.

Oh, and let's not forget that it's my other favorite thing after good--EASY. I mean, you slice and saute some sprouts, throw them on top of cooked noodles along with some nuts and cheese, and voila! Inordinate goodness. Now there's everything to love about Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Walnuts, and Parmesan.

I don't know where I'm going with this now (except bed, soon). The important thing to remember is that you want to eat this dish. You may not know it yet, but you do. Your taste buds will thank me in chorus with the first bite.

Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Walnuts, and Parmesan

Serves: 4

4 tablespoons walnuts
3/4 pound Brussels sprouts
1/2 pound long pasta (linguine or fettucine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, for topping

Toast the walnuts in a skillet or in the oven at 350 degrees until they are golden and fragrant. This step will take about 10 minutes in the oven.
Skillet toasting tends to bore me, so I don't know how long that would take. Mere minutes, I'm sure. If you choose the skillet method, you can reuse it for the sprout cooking. If you're really cheating, spread the nuts out in the microwave and zap on high for a minute or so. Whatever your method, set the toasted nuts aside.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil over high heat.

While the water is coming to a boil, trim, halve, and thinly slice the Brussels sprouts, grate the Parmigiano, and gather your other ingredients, however few.

When the water comes to a boil, put the pasta in to cook, following package directions.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the Brussels sprouts. Warm the olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the Brussels sprouts and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until the sprouts are bright green and tender.

When the pasta is done, reserve a 1/4 cup or so of the pasta water and drain. Add the reserved pasta water to the sprout mixture. Place noodles on your (warmed, surely) plates and top with the Brussels sprouts, Parmigiano, and walnuts. Then eat and be amazed.

Dinner tonight: Sausage, mushroom, zucchini, and cheddar frittata; arugula, red pear, and sliced almond salad with mustard pot dressing; red-wine poached pears with vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dinner As Hobby

In the years after I became a professional baker and before dinner became My Dream come true (and also before I dared to spend time writing semi-publicly), I often described dinner as my hobby. I didn't knit, craft, jog, or make scrapbooks. I didn't garden or make jewelry. The closest to a hobby I'd ever had was sewing, but in those busy years I only sewed when I needed something made. Dinner was what I thought about, read about (I used to read cookbooks like novels), planned, and eventually made with my own two hands.

I've always been interested in food in general, with baking in particular being my steady pleasure until I became a professional (the plumber's leaky pipes phenomenon, you understand). But being up to my proverbial eyeballs in both for years meant that I wasn't dashing into the kitchen to whip up multiple angel food cakes for extra fun. (I was tired, people.) Baking was also knocked down the totem pole because I became committed during my bakery years to more healthful eating, perhaps as a consequence of sugar saturation. In fact, I staunchly maintain that working in a sweets bakery drove me to craving beans and vegetables. You can only taste so much butter cream and brownie batter before the scales must be righted or at least neutralized.

So, with my baking itch obviously scratched quite raw but my foodie nature needing an outlet, dinner was the antidote. It had to be done, and I could play there with food that was healthy, necessary, and not what I made all day long. And so it got my loving attention, becoming my vanishing domestic art medium that made life nourishing and lively.

Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on the couch with a stack of cookbooks and a note pad, trolling for what seemed appealing to eat in the coming week. The dreamy planning part was, and still is, as much fun as the cooking and eating, both because I'm a reading and research nerd and because it makes the cooking part smoother. Although I've found a more efficient way to plan our meals now, I still enjoy the process--and the anticipation it provides. I look forward each week to making the plans and each day to making the enticing plans real. The week's meal plan is really a menu of treats waiting for me to craft them into existence.

You might wonder how all this planning squares with the improvisation I claimed in my last post. I guess the answer is that I'm improvising or being creative in the planning process more than in the execution, which is progress for a recovering perfectionist.

Relative progress aside, the armpit of the afternoon is not the time for me to be challenging my glucose-starved brain cells to QUICK, think of a use for artichokes and pepper jelly, STAT. Sunday afternoon, when I'm freshly fed both physically and spiritually and have hours to dig up intriguing possibilities for that half a zucchini, is a much better time to be thinking about what's for dinner. And with the thinking done, the execution is more fun and less pressured. It's a win-win proposition.

Besides, isn't the puttering of the mind as well as the hands a component of a hobby? Back when I did sew as a hobby, before I had a child and a job at the same time, I did as much thinking about it, reading about it, and scouting for fabric for it, as I did actually sewing, a ratio that makes my current pattern sound about right. Or really nerdy. But I am who I am, and we eat really well, so who cares?

If a hobby is defined as an enjoyable activity involving tinkering and satisfaction rather than "work" and drudgery, then yes, dinner qualified for me. I skipped right past the undeniable need to eat regularly and made dinner an avocation, a source of experimentation and play, so much so that we seldom eat the same thing twice.

With all the time, effort, and money I've now put into Dinner: The Research Project (i.e., culinary school), I hope that Dinner the Hobby will someday, somehow grow into the right kind of more for me. Until that time, I'm lucky. I have a hobby that can be different and useful every day and even shared with others in quite a dreamy fashion.
That's fine enough for now, because I have...

Dinner tonight: linguine with Brussels sprouts, Parmesan, and toasted walnuts; arugula, orange, and red onion salad with mustard pot dressing; apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Use It Up, Baby

It just occurred to me today that our menus the last week or so here at the barn had a theme: making meals out of leftovers.

First there was the salad dressing made out of the dregs of a mustard jar. I found the idea in a recent issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, credited to none other than Nigella Lawson, who also inspired my current favorite granola. (Just today I ran across her intriguing idea for crumble topping. Apparently she's had a few good ideas.)

The basic technique is to mix up vinaigrette in the mustard bottle after it's down to a few smears on the glass that normally go to waste. She gave measurements that I'll share in a few moments, but I didn't follow them. I used sherry vinegar instead of red wine and scaled up for more quantity to match my generous mustard remains (see photo below), keeping in mind the standard 3:1 vinaigrette ratio I learned in school, although
I've seen recipes with all sorts of ratios. You could also do 2:1 or even 1:1 if that suits your taste better. You get to pick!

Way more than 1/2 a teaspoon here.
I should scrape better.

In case you're not feeling free-wheeling, here's Nigella's formula.

Mustard Pot Dressing
One nearly empty Dijon mustard jar (or 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon honey
Pinch of salt

Pour vinegar, oil, honey, and salt into mustard jar. (Or combine mustard, vinegar, oil, honey, and salt in a clean jar.) Top with the lid and shake to mix ingredients well.

My other rescue-turned-dinner involved a roast chicken frame and veggie trimmings stored in the freezer. Combined in a stock pot and allowed to simmer, they became broth which in turn became the base, along with a few chicken tenders left from a cutlet experiment (don't ask), a Parmigiano rind and a bunch of cilantro stems, for chicken and barley soup. It was a simple one, with no other herbs or strong flavors. Just homey, chickeny, whole grain goodness--perfect for the early cold days we've been having. (Someone needs to inform the weather gods that it's not officially winter yet.)

Then, just last night, I turned a bit of leftover roast pork into a rice and pork salad with kalamata olives, pepperoncinis, feta, half a zucchini, and two of the final tomatoes from the yard that had finally (barely) ripened. With a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and a bed of peppery arugula, it made a confetti-bright supper out of things that needed using.
Not bad eating from odds and ends. I'm very pleased to have redeemed these castoffs into quality suppers. Of course, yesterday I threw away the last of the previous week's pear crisp that got buried in the back of the fridge and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes that expired in 2009, but hey, I'm not perfect. I'm just learning to be improvisational at long last.

I'm sorry that I don't have denotated recipes for my leftover miracles, but now you have the ideas, which are the important things. And they are:

The carcass of a roast chicken can be used for broth. Simmer it gently with a couple of quartered onions, a couple of ribs of celery, a couple of carrots roughly cut, a few peppercorns, and a sprig or two of parsley if you have it. Any bits of meat can be picked off to go in whatever soup you devise or a completely different dish if you use the broth for cooking other dishes. If you don't need the broth right away, freeze it for later in ice cube trays and store in a freezer bag or container until you need it. Frozen this way, you can take out what you need--a few ounces for a pan sauce or a quart for soup or anything in between.

Parmesan cheese rinds can be simmered in soups to boost flavor, an old Italian trick. They contain natural glutamates that add savory depth.

Cilantro stems can be used to flavor soups. Chop into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces or tie together with kitchen twine and remove when the soup is done. This handy idea I picked up from Molly at Orangette, who got it from her mother, who got it from Gourmet magazine or somewhere. I'm just passing on the good news. Parsley stems can be used the same way--perfect for stock.

Bits of leftover meat are handy for chopping and adding to soups, frittatas, stir fry, fried rice, etc. They can always be stashed in the freezer for later, too.

Veggie trimmings can be saved for adding to the chicken stock pot or for making vegetable stock in its own right. Now those part of carrots, onions, and celery that you normally discard can be put to good use. Just stash them in freezer bags as you go until you need them. Some say that other veggies can be used, too, but I can't personally testify to that at this point. (Who's got money on me finding out? )

Isn't this great! Even the compostables can be part of great meals. Our great grandmothers would be so proud.

Now, what can I use up next?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ornamental Story Telling

Every year, when we get out the ornaments to decorate the tree, I'm reminded again of how they tell some of the story of my life. These baubles of glass and plastic have an emblematic provenance for me.

The plastic pears and gold balls recall sweet friends who showed up at my door with gifts to trim my tree when I sorely needed both the tree filler and the encouragement they offered.
Another sweet friend cross-stitched this one for me during those same dark years.
The decorated eggs were bought in Prague on trips that reminded me of who I really am at a time when I wasn't sure. They still move me with their painstaking artistry, executed on something that would normally be discarded, and with what e. e. cummings might have called their intense fragility.
One ornament holds the 7-year-old thumbprints of my son.
Some are gifts--from my mother
or old friends now gone from my life
or the bakery where I worked for 9 1/2 years.
One was given to me and Dave by his mother for our first married Christmas.
The sailor was bought in honor of Dave's stint in the Naval reserves. I still remember where I was traveling when I found it.
A tin icicle bought my first solo year dangles beside the vintage style Eiffel tower I picked up on clearance at Target the day after Christmas last year.
This jaunty spatula was a gift, just yesterday, from the director of the Christmas play I was in this year. (You had to know the character. And I do!)
There is no theme or color scheme here, no designer touch. Our tree is trimmed with what life has offered up over the last nine years--gifts, intuitive purchases, and even desperation measures.

For years I dreamed of a designer tree, where everything is chosen and color matched and perfect. But to achieve that goal, I would have to reject the stories and gifts and choices that are the real story of my life in favor of what goes with this year's colors. I can't see me re-boxing my son's childhood craft just because it "doesn't go."

The Christmas that my dear friend brought me the pears, I decided that planned decorating just wasn't going to work for me. I had tried to concoct my own fresh scheme for purely aesthetic reasons and felt absolutely uninspired. I ended up with unplanned plastic pears that I cherish to this day because they're an emblem of rescuing love. That old saying that life is what happens while you're planning something else apparently applies to Christmas trees, too.

I still have my longing for the magazine version of Christmas. But every year I choose real life all over again, with it's messy variety and unexpected warmth. I hang the motley but meaningful assortment of ornaments, remembering who and what and where and when.

After all, If I had my perfect tree, it would only please my eyes. It wouldn't speak to my heart and mind the way our scruffy cedar with it's collection of memories does. I embrace the life-story decor that happened while I thought I wanted to plan something else and anticipate the additions to come.

Our tree may not be perfect, but it sure tells me a lot about who I am. Look at your own ornaments with fresh eyes. What story do they tell?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Joy to My World

Decorating for the Christmas holiday has become one of my favorite activities of the season. With more time available this year, I've spent parts of two days, in addition to the monumental tree raising, prettying up our little barn, adding small touches to delight the eye.

Like a dining table centerpiece
and red boxes (picked up on clearance after Christmas last year)
stacked in a corner of the dining room

Align Centerand by an old spindle that was a housewarming gift from David's aunt.
The smallest one sits on our end table in the sitting area
with a little bear for company.

I decorated a miniature tree (really a bouquet of branches) for our bedroom
and hung a greenery-and-bow-garnished antique sled from the farm outside,
both of which are new levels of holiday nest fluffing for me.

A snowman and a rusty metal bell snug up to a winter arrangement of dried thistles and bittersweet berries on the wicker side table in the dining room,
and more rusty metal decorations hang on the front door.
As a bonus, both of these can stay to bring me joy all winter.

I even tucked cedar sprigs in my bottle collection on the kitchen window sill, in a candle holder on the coffee table, and in a tin on top of the microwave.

Now most of the places I see as I go about my day are graced with some touch of seasonal decor that sparks a smile.

That's pretty fine, considering that I spent almost nothing. The tree and greenery were free from the farm (lucky us). Extra lights for the enormo-tree and a few other supplies totaled only about $22.00. All the more money for gifts, my friends.

I may not be done. This morning, I thought of another idea for outside, involving the top of my extra free tree and the remaining cheap-o bows I picked up at WalMart. I am unsupervised, you know.

Maybe next year I'll think of ways to bring a touch of Christmas to the bathrooms even, or hang pretties from the chandelier. It could happen. I own floral wire and cutters now. I'm ready for anything.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #10

Anytime the sky looks like this when I step out my front door...

or like this when we're driving.

A majestic sky fills me every time with just a little bit of awe
and transforms a mundane moment into a pause for celebration.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Early Christmas Treasures

I've already received two early gifts this year, but not from any person. They were not objects, but moments of a feeling I've been hoping for and cultivating and needing all my life--self acceptance. They were beautiful and intimate experiences that I choose to share, only after consideration, in the hard won knowledge that I ignore gut instinct at my own peril and in the hope that my weakness may become another's strength.

A few Sundays ago, as I was driving to church for Christmas play practice, Leeann Womack's song I Hope You Dance came on the radio. I sang along because I love what it says, and teared up as I thought of how much I want those sentiments to be true in my own life and how fervently I hope that I can pass on such wisdom to my son. That part was normal for me when I hear that song. What came afterward was not.

I suddenly felt, not sentimentally teary, but ready to sob. I was alone, so I rode the wave of part
longing and part gratitude as it briefly passed through me. Then, like the clean calm after a summer storm, came the thought "I'm OK."

That might sound like reassurance to myself after an unexplained crying jag, but that's not the case. I knew that I was all right, regardless of sudden tear squalls. I've gotten used to my emotionality, even though I strive to be a steadier person. No, this was more like an unexpected status update from deep within the running inner monologue we all have. My thoughts were telling me that I was OK just as I am--as in enough, acceptable, worthy.

I've been trying to get my deep animal brain to believe that for some time, ever since I learned that self respect was a necessity for a healthy life. I've said it to myself over and over. I've tried to repeat affirmations on occasion. I've prayed, trying to understand that God loves me just because. But those efforts always seemed hokey or forced. I was paying lip service to what I knew was supposed to be truth, but I didn't really believe it, not way down. Instead, I traveled through years listening to a serpent's mantra of unworthiness. If inner life can be characterized in a sound, there was a lot of moaning in there, much gloom and expectation of rejection. I came at the world with my head down, saying "Well, I'm probably lame, but here I am."

Not that I didn't improve my life and my situation anyway. I have healthy, loving relationships now. I took advantage of an opportunity to learn a new, better paying skill. I fulfilled a seven year dream by going to culinary school at the age of 40. I started writing. Through good years and bad I've served others at my church.

But all that growth was an upstream swim against a current of my own hidden shame and fear. I had identified it, but couldn't seem to remove it. A friend eventually named this voice of doom Gilbert in an effort to objectify and diminish it, but still he hissed in my ear "Uunwoorrthy". Or tiraded about the futility of my efforts and the audacity of my hopes. Or just buzzed with doubt and despair. I began to wonder if my mental background noise was always going to be woe.

What a surprise then to hear, not me trying to convince myself that I'm OK, but myself stating that I was--I am--sufficient. Basically, I gave myself a passing score for the first time in my life, laying down the measuring stick I've always carried. I felt a tiny warm light, like a birthday candle or a Christmas bulb, glowing in my geographic heart.

After all this time and effort, here was the simple state I'd been seeking, just arriving as I drove along a country road. I offered gratitude for it, hoping that it wouldn't be a distant memory before the night was over, as often happens with emotional highs, and keeping it to myself until the morning, when the thought and its glow were still there, and I felt ready to tell my husband about this experience that seemed to me like a small, lustrous pearl I'd been given.

In the following weeks, as I would if I were carrying a jewel in my pocket, I would reach for that new feeling and find it small but still there, and I would be both relieved and thrilled. That treasure would have been enough for quite a while.

Then last week, while lying over a rolled blanket to stretch my poor tight shoulders, I again suddenly felt the urge to sob, again tasted the mixture of longing and gratitude, again felt at peace with letting this new wave just roll through me, and again experienced a marvelous new thought that has never before lived in my mind: I love myself.

Oh, dear goodness, that might sound so kooky, but I risk that chance because it's true. I actually felt a genuine, not a taught, caring for myself just as I am. I laid there with my heart open to heaven and treasured the feeling, with its lightness and relief, which I can only describe as the first spiritual ecstasy I've ever known.

It was utterly wonderful to be released in that moment from the toxic self worthlessness that usually haunts me. I felt as if a heavy Less Than sign board had suddenly been lifted from me, or as if someone whose approval I'd always wanted finally gave it to me. My load of shame, that demon lead that has always weighed down my feet and my hands and my spirit, was blessedly and instantly gone. The moment held a bigger warm glow than the one in the car, enough to visualize holding my hands over it like someone just in from the cold after a long dark journey. I had been given another pearl that I
again hoped I'd be able to keep.

It's been days now, and the new thoughts are still there: I'm OK. I'm enough. I really am as good as anyone else. I can enjoy my life because it's good enough, too!

After years of trying to earn my own love and approval, after decades of trying to be good enough to be satisfied with myself, I finally GET that it's fully acceptable to be me just the way I am right now--not after I'm successful (whatever that means) or enlightened or better than someone else, but right now, with all my limitations and scars and unfulfilled dreams.

Years ago I read a definition of humility that was new to me and apparently needed by me. It said that humility is understanding that you are neither no better nor any worse than anyone else. Obviously, I've never had a problem with the first part. It was the second part that was my failing. Although we usually think that those who deem themselves better than others are the ones who need to learn about humility, I'm living proof that the opposite can also be true. Just as many painful errors can be committed when you think you're worthless as when you think too highly of yourself. We don't need to be puffed up, but we aren't much good if we're downtrodden, either.

I have no desire for a fuzzy but false
and lazy sense of self-esteem or to think that I'm absolutely fabulous. I would only like to be without shame and the worry that I'm not good enough. I don't want to measure up. I want to stop the measuring itself. I want an innocent first grade pride that doesn't need comparison at all. And while I long to just feel good rather than bad, I don't want it only for me. I want it so that I can be a good wife and mother and sister and daughter and friend, for my loved ones will benefit from my true humility as much as I will. Just ask my husband, or the others who've endured my darkness in the past.

For now, I'm grateful for the pearls in my pocket. Sometimes I can't feel their glow, but I know that they're there. I hope for more, enough for a long rope necklace whose weight will help me remember and carry myself upright.

In Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she records a piece of advice a friend gave her about writing her book, which was "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth." That's what I've done here--told my truth because it's what I have and what I feel that I need to do. These are my stitches. The tapestry is up to God.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas May Officially Begin

Christmas may have officially commenced for the rest of America on Black Friday or late Thanksgiving night when the shopping frenzy started, or maybe back in September when Christmas decorations prematurely appeared in stores, but we aren't on that schedule here. As my son said recently, quoting a friend, we like to give Thanksgiving a chance. I refuse to get all Christmas-y until Thanksgiving has had its day.

I used to wait even longer to start Christmas, refusing to launch project Noel until after my son's mid-December birthday. That holiday deserved a chance, too--especially when we thought he was too little to separate the two. I switched to the more normal Thanksgiving weekend during my years as a professional baker. In that era, if it didn't happen in that blessed lull before the storm that is December in the goody business, it wasn't going to happen.

That was still my plan this year, but Dave and I weren't in the mood on Thanksgiving weekend. We savored the quiet instead and made last Saturday
decoration day at our house, starting with bringing in the tree.

In the years since I married a farmer's son, we've had a tradition of going out onto the farm to find our very real (and free) tree to decorate. We take the father-in-law's old four wheel drive Blazer to the back 240 and bring it in the old fashioned way, saw and all. It's a good time of being together out in the brisk cold, sharing a tradition that links us to generations of rural folk who've done the same.

This year provided the perfect Currier & Ives day for our tree hunt. We woke to snow, the convenient kind that pretties things up while neatly avoiding the roads. We trudged through the pasture's white mantle, finding and dismissing several possibilities (Nope, twin trunks. Nope, the fence is attached to it. Etc.),

before locating a winner that was growing down by the creek.

The men sawed it down, along with an extra one for my garland plans that would later prove pointless, at least for that day.

I never made it to making a garland, or a wreath for the front door, or any other projects because it took the rest of the productive hours of the day to erect and decorate the tree, due to its height of TWELVE FEET. Yes, they always look smaller out in the field than they do in a house, but that wasn't the reason for losing our minds so.

We all got carried away and chose a big tree because we could. With the vaulted stair area that also forms part of the sitting area being the best location for our tree, we hadn't the usual 8-foot ceiling height restriction. Maybe that wasn't a good thing.

None of us had any idea that a few more feet of tree would bring so many demands.
It took all three of us to simultaneously hold the tree, secure it in the stand, and assess it for straightness (my job, of course), and it still had to be secured to the stair rail with fishing line to be sure it wouldn't fall (and it still isn't straight). We had to buy two more strands of lights to make a decent showing. The garland we had wasn't at all long enough to use, and we barely had enough ornaments to make it look adorned. Today I cut ribbons from some twenty-year-old Christmas fabric and tied bows around some of the branch ends to fill it out some. I'm just about to cave and get out the gold balls that I don't really like just to make the poor monster look more fully accessorized--as soon as I get more ornament hangers. We used all those, too.

Once it was up and decked, Dave said "Wow" a few times, being quite impressed with the size and generosity of the thing. Apparently both men think having an immense tree is cool. I just wanted to be sure we could still get to the stairs without knocking off ornaments. (We can. Barely.) It's just a liiitle out of scale with our snug barn, but hey--we can say we've been there and done that, went over the (tree) top just once.

Whatever its size and degree of difficulty, it still smells good. And that's one of my favorite Christmas treats--the crisp, resinous scent of a real tree, something we didn't have last year at the parents-in-law's house. I'm glad it's back in our lives. I loved the hunt and the decorating, and I loved sitting in its glow while Christmas music played. Even if I don't get to do all the other small and medium touches I hoped for, it now feels like Christmas because we have the tree.

It's a good thing,too. I've got to hang up my Denial hat and get shopping!

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Frugal Loaf With Flair

In the wake of our Thanksgiving feasting with its inevitable leftovers, I had another frugal foodie inspiration to share with the world.

This former poor girl who hates to throw food away was faced with the question of what to do with a leftover cup of delicious butternut squash puree, which had been oh so lovely in its blue bowl on the big day*, but was now languishing in the reduced circumstances of a plastic storage container and approaching the limits of its temporal endurance.

Squash in need of a purpose.

Since I had just made my son's pumpkin breakfast muffins for the week, it occurred to me to treat this puree in the same manner and make a quick bread for grownup snacking.

I dug up a recipe from my files
(Cottage Living 2006 RIP) and gave it a try, adjusting the sugar down since the puree was already delightfully sweetened with maple syrup. Other than that change and the addition of chopped pecans for a little protein, I followed the recipe exactly as printed because the alleged point of collecting these things (and I have a file crate almost full of them) is to test the recipes. Or, at least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that my idea worked. Now the world can know how to give purpose to a bit of leftover squash (or sweet potato, I'm sure) puree. The puree could even be frozen for later thawing and baking if it's post holiday time and one is sick to death of baking for a while.

I'm also happy about the lovely crack on top of my experimental quick bread because it's just so pretty and a sign of vigorous raising. Well, mostly because it's pretty--just like those magazine pictures that may or may not be real. Many times I've baked quick breads that, although quite tasty, had boring, flat or barely rounded tops, much to my disappointment. Taste may be the most important thing, but good looks are nice, too. Further testing will be required to determine if the attractive cracking was due to luck or a good recipe, but that shouldn't be too long coming, since t'is the season for all things squashy, and I love pumpkin bread from way back. I will report.

The magazine staff had a wild idea of their own that might compound the frugality. They suggested making two loaves and using one to make bread pudding. So if you have two cups of leftover squashiness and no desire to freeze for later--or don't trust yourself to ever carry out your good intentions and exhume the stuff--you could have two loaves, or a loaf and a dessert. Trash into treasure is such a beautiful concept, isn't it?

In short, a week after the Thanksgiving holiday, I'm still giving thanks--for my frugal loaf with flair. As God is my witness, I'll never have to throw away another cup of squash puree or dab of sweet potato casserole again. And neither will you!

Frugal Squash Bread

Makes 1 loaf

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 cup leftover squash puree
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour (Or just spray. I told you, I'm lazy) an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch loaf pan. Sift or whisk together the first six ingredients.

Combine sugar, oil, and pumpkin in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed of an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg, beating until well blended. Gradually add dry ingredients, beating at low speed until blended. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 5 minutes or until loaf is golden and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

*You know you're a serious foodie transfer your golden orange butternut squash puree from the perfectly serviceable and already dirtied bowl in which you mashed it to a brilliant blue one just to make the dish more beautiful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #9

The return of missing socks.

Today when I folded the laundry
the socks that went missing last week were back!

As we all know, that doesn't always happen. I was so satisfied to reunite them with their mates waiting hopefully on the shelf that I quit wondering where they'd been.

Welcome back prodigal socks!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Surprise Snow...and Sun in a Bowl

Well, that's Kentucky for you.

When we left for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, we found it warmer than the clouds and rain had led us to expect.

When we woke this morning, there was a skiff of snow on the ground.

Weather here is highly variable, to say the least.

But no matter what the weather is doing, I've found a way to have sunny times indoors. In a pasta bowl, to be exact. As so often happens, necessity brought it about.

I have a new system when planning menus for the week. I make a list of the things in the fridge, freezer, and pantry that need using and plan the cooking around that list. It's another example of the freedom I find in limitation. I no longer have to consider All Possible Dishes. My search is narrowed and therefore easier, not to mention more frugal.

This week I had sour cream in need of a purpose. My internet search (how did I ever live or cook without you?) turned up a pasta dish that sounded promising. I'm happy to say that it absolutely delivered on its promise. First, it prevented my sour cream from becoming the science experiment that has to go, saving our money and my distress at such waste. Second, it was delightful.

The night that this lovely Lemon-Sour Cream pasta entered our life, it was rainy, gloomy, cloudy--all the gray weather states. But in our bowls, there was sun. The lemon came through bright and clear, perky even. Eating it today left over, that zing was still there. It's one happy dish.

Another happy fact about this dish is that it's (surely you saw this coming) easy! Basically, you sizzle up some onion and garlic in butter (boy, is that a happy smell!), add the sour cream and a few other ingredients, and toss with hot pasta. I added some smoked turkey for more protein and used cilantro in place of parsley. I skipped the lemon-pepper seasoning called for because, with lemon and pepper already there, why would it be needed? (It wasn't.) I also used what sour cream I had, not the amount specified, because...well, that was the point. But also because the original recipe gave a metric amount that was meaningless to me.

Yes, I was too lazy and/or improvisational to look up a conversion. I went with what I had, and it worked. I've always wanted to be that kind of person. Mwha, ha, ha. Ahem...

We followed the dish with a salad to get those all-important veggies in there, but with the addition of a green vegetable, this could be one of my favorite things--a one bowl meal. I can easily imagine it with diced bacon and frozen peas, or ham and asparagus in the spring.

If nothing else, it gives me a flexible, go-to main dish for that half container of sour cream that I often have left over after garnishing quesadillas or the like. And a happy one at that!

Hey, I'll take extra happy wherever I find it--especially at table.

Lemon-Sour Cream Pasta

Serves 4

8 ounces long pasta (spaghetti, linquine, fettucine, etc.)
1/4 cup onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced (more if you really like garlic)
2 tablespoons butter (or less if you have a non-stick skillet)
1 cup (approximately) sour cream
4 tablespoons Parmigiano, grated and divided
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper

While the pasta water comes to a boil, do all your chopping, grating, etc.

Cook pasta according to package instructions.

While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a medium skillet. Saute the onion and garlic in the butter until it's tender and maybe a little brown. In here somewhere, the gorgeous aroma will produce the first wave of happy.

Lower the heat and add the sour cream and the remaining ingredients, reserving 2 tablespoons Parmigiano for garnish. Simmer for a minute or so.

Remove from the heat and pour over hot pasta. Add any proteins or veggies you may be using and toss. Garnish with the reserved 2 tablespoons Parmigiano and more freshly ground pepper. Then consume the sunshine no matter what the weather.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Texas Sheet Cake

I'm still not done with last week, because on Saturday there was Texas Sheet Cake for Sunday's church pot luck dinner. It deserves mention, at least in this little life of mine.

When the church secretary said to make plenty of food to provide for the guests invited to our 125th anniversary celebration, the first dessert that came to my mind was Texas Sheet Cake. I've learned to go with my instincts rather than flustering myself with over thinking, so that was that.

Now, I haven't made one of these in years. When I was enthusiastically licking the icing remnants off the spatula I wondered why. Here's what's to love about Texas Sheet Cake.

  • It's big--great if you need to feed a large family or a crowd
  • It's chocolate--my favorite, always and forever, amen. But not so chocolatey and rich that you almost choke before the piece is gone. I've uncharacteristically thought "I could eat another one" after every piece. But I haven't.
  • The icing--a light fudgey layer. Since it goes hot onto the hot cake, there's a gorgeous thin melty line that makes me melt, too. And no waiting for the cake to cool before icing it means that dessert is done in one pass. Perfect for the Lazy Chef.
  • It's easy--no fussy creaming step that must be gotten just right or the cake won't work.
  • It uses all pantry and fridge staples--no extra ingredients to buy. I could make one anytime. If I had some help to eat it, that is. Ah, but there's the freezer, where part of our leavings rest now. We'll see how that works. *(UPDATE: It works beautifully.)
  • It's as easy to eat as it is to make--no fork required when baked in a 12 x 18 half sheet pan. Then again, you could bake it in a 9 x 13 pan and have honest to goodness cake. I love versatility.
My husband is mystified as to why I'm loving this cake so much. Frankly, I don't have a ready answer. It just works for me right now. Maybe tomorrow I'll be in love with butterscotch pie all over again, since that's what I'm making right now for tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast. This could be another good food week at the barn.

By the way, the recipe I chose to follow was in one of my Cooking Light yearbooks, but there was no appreciable difference between their version and those not claiming to be lightened. (Texas Sheet Cake must be practically healthy!) The only variable I could find was a little less butter in the icing. Believe me when I say that you will not miss it. I did depart from their instructions when adding the pecans. I studded the top with them instead of folding them into the icing, just because I thought it would be prettier. And I used a bigger pan than they called for. I also skipped the cinnamon because I wanted just chocolatey goodness this time. and reduced the vanilla in the icing because I just didn't see the need for more than a teaspoon. It wasn't missed either.

Well, apparently I've made enough changes that I'd better just record my version here for you. If you need something big and chocolicious, and if you keep nothing more unusual than buttermilk in your larder, make yourself a Texas Sheet Cake and call in the neighbors. Or just pull down the shades, and no one will know.

Texas Sheet Cake

Serves: 12 to 20 (Depends on how you cut it, now doesn't it!)

Cooking spray
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup milk

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cups pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare cake, coat a 12 x 18 half sheet pan with cooking spray and dust with the 2 teaspoons flour. You could also use a 10 x 15 jelly roll pan or a 9 x 13 pan, but cooking times will have to be adjusted up.

Combine the 2 cups flour and the next four ingredients in a large bowl, preferably of your KitchenAid stand mixer, if you are so blessed. Stir well with a whisk or let the mixer go for a bit.

Combine water, 1/2 cup butter, and 1/4 cup cocoa in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. OR use my cheater method: combine them in a microwave safe glass measuring cup and heat on high until boiling, about 3 1/2 minutes. Whisk briskly and pour into the flour mixture. Beat with a mixer (of some kind) at medium speed until well blended. Add buttermilk and eggs. Beat well. Pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or longer if you're using a smaller pan and therefore have thicker batter. Whatever the pan size, when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, it's done.
To make the icing, combine the 6 tablespoons butter, milk, and the other 1/4 cup cocoa in a medium saucepan. No vessel cheating possible here. This is old fashioned goodness that requires the stove. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat.

Gradually stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla. Stir in the pecans at this point if you want them enrobed with icing. Spread over the hot cake. You'll need to work with moderate speed, since it sets up fairly quickly. Scatter the pecans now if you're top dressing. You may need to press on them ever-so-lightly to embed them in the icing that is quickly becoming fudge's cousin. Cool completely on a rack.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dinner with Dilemma

Even though it's this week, I'm still dwelling in last week because it was so good. Two nights of just-the-two-of-us beautiful on Tuesday and Thursday were followed by the latest dinner party on Friday. (I love being able to say that last part. Sigh.) This time the menu was Vietnamese because the birthday boy among the invitees was in the mood for pho.

After a little research, the menu looked something like this:

Ga Thit Vien
Pho Bo
Che Chuoi
Coffee, Vietnamese style

Translated, that means:
Chicken Meatballs
Beef Noodle Bowl
Coconut Tapioca Soup
Coffee, Vietnamese style

The meatball recipe I found on the Food and Wine website, and the coconut tapioca soup version that I used came from Cooking Light. I located reliable instructions for the pho (pronounced phu, in case you didn't know yet) at Steamy Kitchen, complete with photos and puns. Birthday boy was in charge of the coffee because he actually owns the tiny little drip makers required to do it up right. (I'm all for investing in fun new food supplies, but since I don't drink coffee, that was one investment that I didn't intend to make.)

Let's dispense with the results. The chicken meatballs were well received, perhaps because they were somewhat familiar. They had the usual Asian party of flavors going on in one dish and each bite. Cilantro, mint, lemongrass, shallot, fish sauce--and more--were all mixing it up merrily in each little bundle of protein. The sriracha sauce was the fireworks, adding both color and heat.

The coconut tapioca soup (actually somewhere between soup and pudding) went over well, too. My husband did liken the tapioca pearls to fish eyes, but the flavor was acceptable to everyone. Well, everyone except my recovering-picky-britches son, who did bravely taste before donating his serving to one of our reliably adventurous eaters. We all agreed that the diced fresh pineapple I added to the traditional banana and toasted sesame seed topping was welcome.

Now let's back up to the middle, the main dish, the source of a mini-rant to come. Prepare yourselves.

I was all set to do pho the old fashioned way. The dish is basically a self assembled bowl of noodles, beef, and condiments bathed in a good, spiced beef stock, which I was prepared, nay delighted, to make. I've never made beef stock at home. In fact, I don't remember making it at school even. I wanted to make beef stock, straight from the bones and all.

And therein lay my last-minute problem--bones. I failed to imagine that it would be impossible in my area to find bones for stock, but it was. I called my usual grocery store's meat department and was told that most everything comes in prepacked. They had no bones. Nor would any other grocery store in the area, the nice man on the phone assured me. Then I called the slaughter house where the father-in-law has his beef processed. The lady on the phone there said that all bones went into the "bone barrel," whatever that is. They could sell me no bones. A retail meat company in the nearest small city over an hour away offered stock bones, but I had no opportunity left to make the trip to purchase them. Obviously I wouldn't be making my own stock after all.

I should have known. Somewhere in all this digging up bones effort (Sorry. Couldn't resist!), I remembered what I'd read about meat processing regulations in this country. I can't recall all the details, but I do remember that they don't make much sense. Regulations that were conceived to protect the consumer have now become so burdensome to would-be meat retailers that what the consumer is now almost protected from is buying beef or bones from anyone but an outfit large enough to navigate the complex rules and permit procedures to both process and sell it, i.e, agri-business and corporate giants.

Are you ready for the big, irritating irony that struck me while I was on the phone with the local meat processor? I live in a county full of beef farmers (one of them my own father-in-law) and two slaughter houses (one of them less than a mile away), but I can't buy five pounds of knuckle and leg bones to make stock! There's something wrong and illogical about that situation.

But that, my friends, is the mainstream food supply status quo in our country. Production and consumption are effectively divorced for most of us. If I go to the grocery store here in my town, the beef sold there probably came from who-knows-where, even though beef cattle dot almost every pasture you see right here. The local orchard languishes unattended while we buy apples from Washington state or even another country.

I'm not going to carry on all day, and I don't pretend to have all the answers to the food problems. What I will do is admit my own culpability. While brave souls all over the country are trying to reconnect producers and consumers via farmers markets, Consumer Supported Agriculture programs, and other local market endeavors, I'm still conveniently popping into the chain grocery store every week. This bone business has reminded me that I'm still part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I know of a farm in the county in which I work and do the bulk of my shopping that produces humanely and sustainably raised pork, chicken, and eggs, but I don't go out of my way to go there. There's a farmers market program, but I don't show up. Even with all the disturbing information I've encountered about food production in America, I have not yet reached my "That's it!" point. Clearly, I've got to change if I want anyone or anything else to do so.

Luckily, the purchased beef broth I was forced to use for my pho tasted quite good once it was doctored with charred onion and ginger and a vigorous spice sachet. The birthday boy--the only one who had eaten pho before--pronounced it satisfactory. But I would still have rather made my own. If that's ever going to happen, I'll have to travel to the city regularly (irony again) or become part of the local food rebels who are looking for safe, reasonable, homegrown solutions.

Which one is it going to be?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Beautiful Redux

Here we go again.
In the best way.

It's been a good food week here at the barn. As if the beautiful experience of Tuesday evening wasn't enough, we did it all over again on Thursday. The sky was quiet this time, but dinner was again a treat. Not because it was anything grandiose, but because the preparation and consumption of our evening repast was viewed as a sensual treat rather than a necessary chore.

Every dinner has been better, actually, since my smart husband began tapping into the power of music.
We drag home hungry and tired like we always have, but when he turns on his Michael Buble or Diana Krall channel on Pandora, I feel instantly happier. The atmosphere is transformed from stressed to swank, and cooking feels like pampering, not drudgery. I highly recommend this technique. Bring the restaurant ambiance to your house soon. Dinner will never be the same. Light candles, even, when dinner time is dark (another winter tradition I've come to love). Making memories on an ordinary day makes ordinary days memorable.

But before all that, Thursday's culinary inspiration was, of all things, cabbage. I had a head that needed using, which meant that the next logical thought was sausage. Polska kielbasa to be exact. I sliced up a pound of it, browned the slices, softened some onion, deglazed the pan with chicken stock and a plop of Dijon mustard, threw in chopped cabbage and a little salt and pepper, and clapped a lid on it for about 20 minutes or so.

My recipe-free concoction (Thank you, school!) was just what I wanted. Deeply savory, well seasoned, and very satisfying--especially with crusty bread to sop in the plentiful juices. Sopping may not be glamorous, but it's a time honored practice for a reason. It tastes good, yes, but it's also a mite good-to-the-last-drop lusty. It smacks of really enjoying every bit of what's in front of you. We've been blessed to feel just that way multiple times this week. No wonder I'm writing this all down!

Another virtue of this relatively painless meal is that the bulk of it is made up of a vegetable, and an inexpensive one at that. In fact, I could probably have gotten away with using only half the sausage to stretch the meat dollar and cut down on fat and calories, but I was feeling expansive. Even with carnivorous generosity, there were easily two servings or more of cooked cabbage in my blate...or plowl..or whatever. (There needs to be a better term for those broad shallow food containers usually labeled "pasta bowls" because they elevate so many more one-pot dishes than pasta into Dinner with a capital D.)

I even felt inspired (again I say, again!) to concoct a quick fruit dessert. Maybe the presence of vanilla ice cream compelled me. Whatever the reason, I suddenly had to try poaching diced Granny Smith apple and raisins in half a bottle of hard cider that had been a disappointment as a beverage but that I hoped would be redeemed as a poaching medium. (The other half became our aperitif, with cheese and crackers, during the cabbage tenderizing time!) I tossed in a multi-finger pinch of sugar, a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and a strip of lemon zest, and left it to simmer while we ate. By the time we were ready for dessert, the apple was tender, the raisins were plumped, and the cider had reduced to a golden syrup. My wicked improvisation had worked. And since I had more fruit than ice cream, I still felt virtuous.

Mostly I savored the life-is-good feeling of being relaxed, safe at home, puttering about the kitchen, feeding our whole selves well with music and soft light, in addition to the food. As usual, I've decided that the difference is attitude and the choices we made because of it. I've hit the door hungry and tired before, but choosing to make the experience of getting food on the table as pleasurable as possible made it the self care we needed at the end of the work day, an island of sensory restoration rather than a dull chore.

When you, dear reader, are faced with the dilemma of how to handle that time of the day when hunger could drive you to go quick and dirty, remember that real food, however humble, will leave you with an after glow that take out pizza or a fast food fix will not. You don't have to be a chef. Nibble on come crackers to appease the hunger demon. Then scramble some eggs and toast some bread. Or boil up some pasta and toss it hot with cheese, a few veggies, and a bit of protein. The food doesn't have to be fancy, just the feeling. Music, wine, and candlelight will supply that, and your body and mind will thank you for simple, loving food.

Just in case you don't feel improvisational (I certainly didn't for years), here are directions for my quick cabbage and sausage braise. Try it some night when you don't want to think. And don't forget the music!

Braised Cabbage and Sausage

Serves 4

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 to 1 pound polska kielbasa (depending upon how carnivorous you're feeling)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 14-oz can chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 medium head cabbage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sliced sausages and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are browned. Add the onion and cook until they are soft and translucent. Add the chicken broth and mustard to the skillet, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom. Add the cabbage, reduce the heat a bit, and cook covered until the cabbage is tender, 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's a Beautiful Life

All day it rained, the drizzly kind that makes a body feel cold even if the temperature isn't. I never took my scarf off, even in the office. But somewhere during my trek through WalMart to fill a charity Thanksgiving basket, the sun appeared in a dramatic fashion.

On the way home, the newly resurgent sun and equally resistant clouds treated us to a half hour light and shadow show that made us feel glad to be alive and see it. Entire landscapes appeared in the sky, sculpted of battling clouds and light. At one moment, it seemed that a circular portal had opened in the churning gray, like those in the movies right before the aliens appear or time is traveled.

The sudden shift in the weather, complete with sky show, made this evening feel special.
It suddenly seemed appropriate to be abandoned. We detoured to buy ice cream that I had deemed over priced just a day or two ago. Once home, the regular comfy clothes wouldn't do. I swaddled myself in a long, soft, cowl neck sweater. Dave donned his dad's old high school sweater over his turtleneck. Oh, yes. Different was the order of the night.

The brief clearing had ended by the time our dinner was ready. The wind had kicked up in the way that makes you check online for tornado or severe storm warnings. Finding nothing worse than a wind advisory, we ate our comforting pasta carbonara and romaine-parmesan salad and vanilla ice cream with sauteed apples while it howled and scooted the deck furniture, feeling cozy and blessed. I didn't do the dishes, nor even want to hear the dishwasher run. There's always tomorrow, when I'm home during the day. Tonight is different indeed.

But oh so good. We have simple delicious food and shelter and candlelight while rain blows. We are mellowed by good wine and the joy of living, while outside it's cold and damp. Tony Bennett is singing. The only lights are a hand thrown oil candle and a lantern.
I'm even co-existing peacefully with David's pipe indoors. There doesn't seem anything more important to do but Be. Here and now.

If the storm to end all my time came tonight, this evening would be a good way to leave life, going out with good food, love, and a belly full of happiness.

Blow, baby, blow. I'm as free as your wild wind for a few moments.

That, and I have a basement.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

One Degree of Separation

That is no ordinary hand blender. Just you wait.
Well, wait while you're reading.

Today, My Beloved and I ran away (again) to one of our favorite places--Augusta, Kentucky. The ostensible mission was to purchase another pair of alpaca socks for my ridiculously cold feet before winter hits (which sure wasn't today, as it got up to about 70 degrees), but the emotional mission was to decompress from a stressful week (Him) with a date (Her).

We arrived before the stores were open, so we sat by the river, watching the barges lumbering past and the ferry crossing back and forth as they've been doing for generations. The warming sun was at our backs. In front of us, the Ohio river stretched far in both directions, without bends or walls to block the vista. Above us, the wispy clouds and plane contrails formed a star burst pattern seemingly centered on our bench. A single dried leaf bobbed along in the current as a wading bird flew by trailing gangly legs. Two small planes buzzed overhead, one of them vintage. They seemed the same size as the buzzards surfing the thermals. I reflected on the vastness of the sky whose great possible distances create such a two-dimensional effect.

And then we cursed ourselves for NOT BRINGING THE CAMERA. Oh, well.

At noon (store opening time in this small town) we headed to the charming two-block commercial center for our shopping. The alpaca sock store was indeed still there, staffed by the friendly and helpful owner. We procured my toe circulation insurance, bay rum shaving soap for Dave, and some chocolates made by a local woman who was our lunch waitress on a previous visit. (I love small towns!) I was happy that my feet would be warm without scratchiness, Dave was thrilled to satisfy his craving for a classic bay rum shaving supply of some kind, and we both were glad to have chocolates for the pantry. (We CANNOT run out of chocolate. There might be rioting--by me.)

That friendly and helpful owner suggested that we go up the street to Nina's, a store owned by George Clooney's mother. Augusta is his home town, in case the world doesn't know by now. They are really proud of him. And his aunt Rosemary. And his father Nick. And apparently of his mother, too. She also said that George was in town, there could be a George sighting, he's really nice, comes home more than you think, etc. We're not celebrity hounds, so we just made polite replies.

But after a lunch at Cafe Bravo that included both the biggest pork barbecue sandwich (it required a knife and fork--no way to pick it up) and the first food-bumming stray cats I've ever seen, we did make our way up to Nina's eponymous store, where, among the interesting collection of art prints and antiques, I saw a Braun hand blender for $29.00. This item got my serious consideration because I've wished for one on at least two recent occasions. It's a much easier tool for pureeing soups than the food processor or blender, with less possibility of hot liquid ending up on the ceiling or the cook and less to clean. I'm not keen on a plethora of kitchen appliances and gadgets, but this one my life says I need.

Actually, I have one that David gave me for Christmas a few years ago, a fancy Breville from Williams-Sonoma that has never worked properly. (Sorry, Mr Williams, it's true.) I've wanted to replace it for a while, but it hasn't quite made the priority list. Thus my consideration of the Braun, which I thought was a good brand and a good price. I hesitated because I wasn't sure
if it really was a good one. (I hadn't done my RESEARCH, people!) What if it was used, and badly at that? What if there was something wrong with it? I can talk myself out of buying things like nobody's business sometimes.

Luckily an employee inquired if we needed any assistance. When I told her of my doubts about the item, the employee said that she would ask Nina, because it was hers. Nina avowed that it had never been used and was a good one, so I bought it.

Being caught up in my usual dithering over my purchase, I had missed the momentous fact that David announced on the way to the car.

"You just bought George Clooney's mother's hand blender."

(I pause here to pray. Please may that not be my only claim to culinary fame. Amen. )

We laughed at the absurdity of it, stowed the kitchen tool brushed by fame, and went on our merry way, popping into the local art guild exhibit, where we saw Nina yet again, and adding an Eiffel tower and a purple bottle from another shop to collections of mine. (I don't always talk myself out of buying things. Not at all. That's why I stay home when there's no money!) We even discovered a renewed winery on the way home that is actually the oldest winery in its original location in the country, at which we purchased local wine for our "cellar" after ogling their spectacular 160-year-old, 30-feet-high, barrel vaulted cellar. It was the cap to a day of treats.

I truly hope that my brush with once removed fame will not be the most remembered moment of our day. I'd rather revel in the more enduring pleasures of the river and the togetherness. Besides, not being a celebrity star gazer, I can't say that I'm particularly impressed by my ownership of a kitchen appliance that once graced a famous person's mama's house. It's just...amusing. You could say that there's now only one degree of separation between me and George Clooney.

That and five bucks might buy me a truffle or something.

Now I'm off to do too-late research and find out if I got a good deal after all. Then again, if it works at all, it will be better than what I have, regardless of who owned it before. It's all about the bargain, baby! (Sorry, George.)