Recipe gold, whipping cream and other kitchen thoughts

My kitchen is one of my happy places. I like to cook. I like to eat. I like to read cookbooks and food blogs and try new recipes. And once in awhile I strike what I think of as recipe gold, a dish worthy of adding to our regular repertoire, serving to guests and sharing with friends.

You may or may not follow Jenny Steffens Hobick at Everyday Occasions. She writes a fun, informative blog, often but not always about food, and has a wonderful online shop that stocks simple, quality homemaking goods like classic white serving pieces and cooking gear. I am especially smitten with her recipes. As a former caterer, Jenny is very good at easy and elegant, as well as assembling recipes for a complete menu.

Earlier this winter she shared her recipe for Slow Simmered Beef Ragu. I have now made this three times! The first time was just for us, testing it for an upcoming dinner party. It was a success the first time and at that dinner party, so I served it to company again last weekend. It’s delicious, hearty, comfort food (especially appropriate for this fickle winter!) and everyone loved it. This includes my friend’s Italian-born mother-in-law, a real honor.

This beef ragu is very much like a delicious dish we enjoyed at a winery in Tuscany last year. Even better, it’s easily made early in the day or a day ahead. In my book this makes it perfect for dinner guests.

I made it with short ribs, though the recipe gives an option for stew meat. And I have served it with fresh pasta from the grocery store, rather than making my own as Jenny does. It starts with a fair amount of chopping:

But look what you get for your efforts! Yum! Grab her recipe and try it.

My favorite new gadget

I try to limit the number of gadgets I add to my cooking gear. They take up space and I find they are often just plain unnecessary. However, a recent acquisition is too fun not to share.

My daughter-in-law works for a small chain of charming, upscale restaurants. Jen does a bit of everything: payroll, wine taster, employee trainer, and much more. And, thanks to her familiarity with the food industry and her appreciation of my love of cooking and entertaining, she buys the best kitchen gifts ever.

My gift this Christmas was this mini dessert whip. So much fresher than cream in a can and easier than using the Kitchen Aid to whip cream. With this you add a cup of cream, a little powdered sugar and vanilla, screw down the mini gas canister and presto, change-o you have cream! Okay, there are a few tricks, the first being careful where you aim. (Yes, I sprayed myself with cream in setting up this photo.)

But, if you come to my house for dinner this spring, expect dessert to include whipped cream!

 

And while we’re talking about kitchens…

I think kitchens deserve the same design respect as the rest of the house. Artwork. Rugs. Accessories.  These recent pins illustrate my point (along with my willingness to dive deep into Pinterest for eye candy!). I love how these traditional pieces — gold frames and all — glam up these tidy, bright white spaces:

And has anyone else seen this gorgeous blue and white kitchen with the traditional red runner:

From homebunch.com

And then there is this hood mantle with the silver and transferware:

From Nell Hills

And this kitchen fireplace mantel from Patina Farm:

I’m not sure how or if any of this fuels my creativity, but it does make me think it may be time to freshen things up for spring.  In the meantime, what’s cooking in your kitchen these days?

See you next time!

Blue & white is just the beginning

Blue & white is just the beginning
nhillbluewhite1
Nell Hills photo.

My blue & white transferware collection started accidentally.

Back in the decorating dark ages, before Pinterest, Houzz, Instagram, etc., I studied design magazines in search of inspiration and ideas. When stacks of magazines threatened to overwhelm the various baskets, shelves and cabinets where I stuffed them, I would page thru each issue, tearing out favorite and/or appealing photos and drop them into a file. (Sometimes I wasn’t even sure why I liked them, but I saved a lot of pictures.)

Many photos were like the ones at left and below. Eventually, I realized that often the rooms I admired featured blue and white transferware and I decided then that acquiring some of these accent pieces could go a long way to getting the “look” I was after. So, when I saw affordable pieces at antique markets and second hand shops, I snapped up what I could.

faudreeplatescabin
Charles Faudree design published in Traditional Home.

What are we talking about here?

Transferware describes a type of pottery, most often plates, cups, vases, serving pieces and the like, decorated by transferring a detailed engraving from an inked copper plate to the blank pottery before firing. Although initially I was attracted to these pieces because of the blue and white color, I have come to appreciate the technique behind transferware. (Can you imagine the skill required to create the detailed engraving and then transfer it?) Lidy at The French Garden House offered a more expert explanation of this here. (The photos she includes of her collection are wonderful, and you can check out the pieces she has for sale on her website if ayou click on the “Shop” tab.)

The pieces of red and white transferware below illustrate the detail that went into many of the designs (I especially like when designs are repeated inside a piece as on the left). If you look closely at the piece on the right you can see that the design was not perfectly applied; it’s crooked on the bottom. I suppose it makes it a little less valuable, but I think it also reveals the hand-work that went into this piece.

redbowlinsideout redbowlsm

Most of the pieces I have collected are from England, but others are French and some are American. I think there are just greater quantities of English transferware in the marketplace. Many of these pieces were manufactured for the 19th Century’s growing middle class. Bigger, more elaborate pieces and designs were created for the higher-end market. (There’s always a higher-end market!)

transferwaregrapes

It did not take long for my transferware collection to reach beyond blue and white to encompass a number of red and white and brown and white pieces as well. I’m not sure why a particular piece “calls my name.” I’m often attracted to a plate or platter by the detailed border of the design or if a piece is shaped by scallops or fluting. These days I am searching out shapes beyond plates and platters. The compote in the image above is a new find. Some pieces are antique and others are reproductions. I guess I’m an equal opportunity collector!

3sugarbowls

These sugar bowls are a great example of my haphazard collecting. They share a common shape. Although the red one is round it also has a fluted base and the red and blue versions both have interesting lids. Sadly, the brown piece is missing its lid, but I really admire the crisp detail in its design.  It’s much sharper than the other pieces. And look at the upswept handles on each piece! I’m crazy abut these details!

Sometimes transferware designs use more than one color. I found this fairly large bowl on a cold, sometimes rainy day at an end-of-season antique market. It’s less than perfect (you can see where it’s chipped). However, I loved the rich colors and the floral pattern which continues inside the bowl. I snapped it up for less than $50 (it pays to shop in the rain!) and it has been the star of the china cabinet for several years since. Or at least that’s the role it assumes when it’s not holding fruit or a holiday centerpiece.

multibowl multibowlinside

 

bluerustThis blue and orange plate is a more recent find. It’s proof that blue and white transferware rocks the orange/rust shades of autumn.  Unfortunately, it has no identifying mark on the back, but it shows significant age.

My attachment to transferware drove some of the design decisions I made during our kitchen renovation a few years ago. I insisted on the “mantle” over the stove so I could show off a few special antique pieces. And I chose the green tile backsplash because it looked so good with the transferware. (Yes, I shopped for tile with a small plate in my pocket!)

thumb_DSC_0543_1024

I’ve been thinking about what drives this particular collection for me. It started with color and certainly that continues to play a role, but I also love the process behind these pieces and the fact that some of these designs are so well-loved, they are often revived in contemporary versions of their antique forebears. It’s also clear that some of my pieces are well-used, and I like to think that someone long ago set their table with the same plate or platter.

redplate

This is another favorite plate. It has the kind of details I really like: a fluted edge and that remarkable light and dark pattern that repeats on the lip of the plate. Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to these design nuances when I find something new to add to my collection.

I should add a disclaimer here that not everything in my collection is vintage or antique. I do have a number of reproductions, including all of the ginger jars that I display with some of the larger platters.

lrtransferwareAfter I snapped this photo of a number of pieces I show off in the living room in my grandmother’s china cabinet, I realized that whether I consciously intended to or not, I continue to channel those photos I’ve saved. Compare this image to the one from Nell Hills at the opening of this post!

This collection is not especially valuable. I’ve acquired the pieces in a haphazard, whatever-is-affordable way. And, clearly, it has morphed considerably from my first purely decorative purpose. But like any collection — cookbooks, garden plants, quilts — it has been a joy to acquire and I can’t imagine our home without it!

See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laissez les bon temps rouler

roosterswithbeadsOr, let the good times roll (but it sounds so much better in french!). Fat Tuesday — the culmination of Mardi Gras for the uninitiated — is this week.

We are getting ready to celebrate.

Fat Tuesday was essentially unremarkable in our household until our son began attending Tulane and we fell in love with New Orleans.

And how could you not? The food, the music, the Spanish moss, the St. Charles streetcar running from Tulane to Canal Street (I must have ridden it a hundred times, trying to take in every detail of those remarkable houses along the way), but most of all the joyful essence that permeates this city (not the Bourbon St. vibe, which is certainly something to see), but the live music that pops up everywhere, the funerals celebrated with a parade, the food, the food, the food.

But, I digress…

It’s time for a celebration. January & February have been gray and surprisingly snow-less in Chicago. The post-election hangover lingers on and spring is still several weeks away. So we invited a few friends to dinner on Fat Tuesday and unearthed our trove of Mardi Gras beads, except I think they call them throws.

img_1135I am cooking up a pot of gumbo and we have a genuine King Cake (Google is a wonderful thing!).

Although I’m not big on themed parties, Fat Tuesday calls for extra oomph. In my case that means purple, green and gold feathers and beads and a vintage New Orleans souvenir tablecloth I bought years ago for just such an occasion.

fattuestable

At the heart of it all, of course, are good food and good friends.

This is the lesson of New Orleans and good times, why would you just cook and serve dinner when you can add a few more beans to the pot, invite the neighbors, and make it a feast! The perfect antidote to gray days!

Happy Mardi Gras!

See you next time!

Reading, writing and watching

books2Despite my angst (see my last post here) over gray January skies, I have kept myself busy lately with my nose buried in a few books, trolling the Internet and even caught a few current movies. I’ll save my Pinterest and Instagram revelations for a later date, but here are some good reads, good looks, and new ideas that caught my eye.   

My books-to-read list keeps growing…

Last month one of the book groups I belong to read and discussed The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. This is the story of a young Jewish woman raised on St. Thomas in the early 1800s. Rachel’s family is a pillar of their Jewish community, and strong-willed Rachel must conform to its conservative standards. What begins as a predictable struggle for independence evolves into a passionate love affair and a scandal that alienates her from the community. The story unfolds against the lush island landscape, with its own passions and mysticism. And, oh, yes, Rachel’s youngest son is artist Camille Pissaro, who ultimately must engage in his own struggles against conformity for the sake of his art. Like mother, like son?

What else have I read? Madame Bovary, because this same group likes to tackle a classic, and what a great discussion we had! (Start with this footnote: not only was this a very early novel, but it was originally published as a serial, chapter by chapter.) No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (disclaimer: I’ve read this before), about the Roosevelts and the homefront in the years leading up to and through WWII, because after the election I needed to read more substantive American history.

And, before you think I only read really heavy (boring?) stuff, I also just picked up What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, because I absolutely loved What the Husband Knew. Another book group is reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which has had rave reviews. My daughter recommends A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (he also wrote Rules of Civility, another great read) and I’m adding Recipe for Disaster by Stacey Ballis because Out to Lunch by the same author was so much fun (and her books always come with recipes)!

Everybody’s blogging about…

journalBullet journaling. Have you heard of this? I read about this first on Modern Mrs. Darcy, (a wonderful blog I found, initially, as a resource for readers, but it’s so much more.) I followed some of her links, and while I was mulling this over in my brain as a way to better manage the blog, I started seeing the subject pop up elsewhere.

It appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First, I think it may help me plan and track blog posts. But also, for some time now I have been looking for a way to document the books I read. This is mostly just for me, a way to look back over what I’ve read, what I liked (and didn’t like), favorite authors, thoughts on the book(s) and even comments from other readers or reviewers. I know this seems like a job for a database, but I’m old enough to appreciate and enjoy hand-written comments. The bullet journal encourages and facilitates the use of lists, perfect for lists of what I have read and what I want to read.

I am also notoriously disorganized. In my working days, my desk was the messiest in the office, though I always eventually found what I needed. But messiness is a time waster, looking for notes, resources, receipts, keys, etc. Bullet journaling is touted as way to address a certain level of disorder, without being burdensome or complicated. We’ll see.

Lately, I’ve been watching…

victoria“Victoria,” the new PBS series on Masterpiece. I have already admitted I love history and London (I binge-watched “The Queen”), so I was excited to see “Victoria,” and I have not been disappointed. Though we often think of Queen Victoria as a frumpy dowager dressed in black, mourning the loss of Prince Albert for decades, this is a young, flirtatious Victoria who suddenly finds herself on the throne. And, she is determined to be queen on her terms.

While we are talking about young women thrust into challenging positions, have you seen “Jackie”? Wow! Natalie Portman turns in a stunning performance. I am old enough to remember that weekend in November, and I’ve read a number of accounts of it since. But this is totally different. As a friend of mine pointed out, despite her sophistication and the cultured circles in which Jackie Kennedy traveled, she was very young and very sheltered, and not at all prepared to deal with this tragedy. I’m not sure this is flattering, but it’s potent.

Finally, “Hidden Figures” has been out for some time and gotten a lot of attention, but I need to throw in my two cents here and just say, see it. What a great story (and why we’re just learning it now is both a travesty and a whole other blog post!) and a great cast.

What about you, any interesting, thought-provoking or just plain fun finds lately? I’d love to hear!

See you next time!

One very good friend and two museums

We have not seen the sun here in Chicago for 10 or 12 days. It’s getting old. Really old.

It hasn’t been “Chicago cold” (sub-zero or at most in the teens) and there is no snow. And while I certainly don’t bemoan the absence of cold and snow, they at least provide a little drama. This is just bleak, damp, often rainy, and gray. Very, very gray.

What have I been up to, besides complaining?

placewhite3Last week one of my oldest friends, one I never get to see enough of, suggested we meet in Elmhurst (another Chicago suburb) to check out exhibits at the local art museum and historical society. What a great day she planned for us!

The art museum is connected to the Mies van der Rohe McCormick House (one of only three houses that he built in the United States) which it acquired some time ago. The pairing of the house with the museum reflects the museum’s philosophy that “people from all walks of life and professions can learn how to see and to think differently through the study of art, architecture and design.”

The exhibit we saw is called “Sense of Place,” and it’s designed to consider the various ways we “map the places of our lives.” It also celebrates the museum’s 20th anniversary by recognizing its founding artists. I have to say, Laura and I were both (a) impressed by the museum and (b) taken aback by the opening gallery in this exhibit, a residential room, completely washed in white paint — chairs, sofa, tables, lamps, books. And it invited visitors to leave their mark, so to speak, using available crayons or colored pencils, to doodle, scribble, whatever. (Mine is at the start of this post.)

Since the exhibition opened in December, it was already heavily doodled. In fact, finding a blank space for our own doodles was tricky. And I honestly don’t know which I found more unnerving, the totally white background or the scribbles everywhere. What do you think? (This was called Welcome Home Coloring Book, by Donna Castellanos, mixed media, colored pencils, salvaged furnishings.) I think initially at least Laura and I both started channeling our mother/grandmother selves, “you wrote on what?”

placewhite4 placewhite1

The exhibit as a whole (it included 39 artists, some with more than one work) offered a genuinely diverse view of “Sense of Place,” everything from video to collage to oil on canvas. (And this is where I wish I’d taken more photos, but I just got caught up in looking! And I have to apologize for what I do have here, it’s pretty paltry.)

bestmedicineWe both loved this oil on canvas, Best Medicine, by Cassandra Swierenga. Did we like it because it was a familiar medium, great color, a happy, loving moment between a mother and three daughters? Probably all of the above. It seems reminiscent of a time and place you have experienced and hope to again.

marionmahonygriffinAfter the art museum, we stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant, then walked over to the Elmhurst History Museum to acquaint ourselves with Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), one of the country’s first female architects and a central figure in the Prairie School of Architecture. It’s impossible to overlook the impact of architecture on Chicago, particularly the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright, but Marion Mahony Griffon was a revelation to us.

Marion Mahony was Wright’s first employee and a key member of his Oak Park Studio for 15 years, but her work, as well as that of others in the studio was downplayed by Wright. Interestingly, her senior project at MIT was the design for this home and studio. If you visit the Wright home and studio in Oak Park, built somewhat later, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities.

mmgrendering

Architectural historians believe that Mahony’s distinctively-styled renderings, which share many similarities with Japanese woodblock prints, contributed significantly to the Prairie School style of architecture, landscape and design.

According to Wikipedia, when Wright left his first wife and fled to Europe with his second in 1909, he offered the Studio’s commissions to Mahony. Although she declined, she was subsequently hired by Hermann V. von Holst, who had accepted the work. In this capacity, she retained design control and was the architect for a number of commissions Wright had abandoned. She eventually partnered with Walter Burley Griffin on a number of projects. Mahony and Griffin married in 191l, eventually taking their prairie style to projects in India and Australia. After Griffin’s death in 1937, she completed their unfinished commissions but did little more to further her own career.

In so many ways, it seems, Marion Mahony Griffin’s talent was co-opted by the men around her. And that’s a familiar story.  I’m so glad we “discovered” her!

See you next time!

Friendship lessons

vernelillI’ve been thinking abut this post for some time. Last spring I reconnected with two old friends. It made me think about the friendship between my mother and her best friend and what it taught me about friendship.

My mother first met her best friend when she was just 3 or 4 years old. At the time, Mom spoke English, and Lil spoke only German. (Not at all unusual in their pre-depression era Chicago neighborhood.) But you know kids, a doll is a doll and pretend is the same in any language and they became friends. Lil moved away for several years, before moving back across the street in time for them to be high school buddies. They were best friends until my mother died at age 89. Mom used to say that their friendship as adults was helped by the fact that their husbands and kids got along, and I’m sure she was right about that. But I also think it was a long, shared history, a healthy respect for their differences, and their determination to not let the friendship ball drop. (That’s Mom, left, and Lil, in a WWII-era photo. )

I learned an important lesson from them. Friendship has to be elastic to accommodate changes large and small throughout a lifetime.

This spring I had lunch with a high school girlfriend I had not seen in decades. We rekindled our friendship on FaceBook in a group for an upcoming class reunion (it’s a whopper!) and that in itself is amazing since I am terrible at FaceBook. It turns out that we both have adult children and grandchildren living in the same  city. (Which I guess means we also could have run into each other in a Columbus, Ohio, Barnes & Noble!)

As sometimes happens with old friends who knew you best and knew you when, time stopped and we picked up our conversation as if it was never interrupted by husbands, children, and careers. This is someone I went to Sunday school with and to algebra class, we sewed together and worked on the year book, and eventually we began to shape what would become our adult lives.

We didn’t waste time reminiscing; we were too busy filling each other in on the last few decades. As we recounted the joys and challenges of raising children, working inside and outside the home, and negotiating life with our aging parents, we realized we had traveled parallel paths and operated with the same values that had launched us years ago. There are some things that just never change.

So, Pris and I sat in a Panera Bread, talking for four and a half hours. Even then we only stopped because we had long drives home. And it got me thinking about the friends we leave behind however unintentionally because we get busy, move away, have babies, take another job.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of friendship.

A few weeks after lunching with Pris, my friend Barb and her husband were in town to visit family and they met us for breakfast. Barb is my Lil, my friend who lived down the street the whole time we were growing up. We spent as much time at each other’s houses as we did at our own. We have moved off in different directions any number of times, but always manage to reconnect. We just resume the conversation.  (Which sometimes requires a marathon phone call!)

withbarb

(Here we are, in late grade school I think. I’m on the left. And since neither of us has ever had a naturally curly hair on our head, I’m sure that was taken shortly after our mothers had worked their “home permanent” magic!)

Barb and I don’t just know each other well, we know each other’s extended families, and family histories. We understand, without asking questions, the little mini-dramas that play out. We share and laugh over memories that even our husbands can’t appreciate, because after 40-odd years of marriage to our spouses, Barb and I have known each other longer. We mourn each other’s losses as our own (Our breakfast together was all the more heart-warming since our last meeting had been for her father’s memorial service) and share our joys (we became grandmothers at about the same time).

There really are friends with whom you can lose touch for many months, then pick up the conversation as if it never ended.

Friendship is so quirky. Some friends pass in and out of our lives easily. We work together but then one moves on to a new job, or we have kids in the same class or on the same team, but then they grow up. And that’s okay, because I think we are  enriched by any friendship.

But then there are the others, happily, that are with us forever. One of the real rewards of retirement, for me at least, has been the opportunity to spend more time with friends and nurture the friendships old and new that I often just didn’t have time for during those demanding career years. It’s a wonderful and surprising bonus!

See you next time!

The party, the painters and an empty nest

Was it just last week that I was blogging about our “Annual Open House”?

The party was fun for us, and, I trust, for our guests. We ate, we drank, we toasted, we kissed hello and good-by. We told stories and jokes. We made promises to get together more often in the New Year. Yes, it was good.

In fact, we had so much fun that I never did get a chance to snap any pre-party or party photos. I did, however, think to get a few post party shots. If tables and countertops littered with empty wine bottles, glasses and platters are any indication, this was a successful event.

postparty

But wait, the week gets better.

The morning after the party, the painters arrived at 7:30 to paint the upstairs and downstairs hallways, the stairs, the bathrooms, the master bedroom and related woodwork (which had been stained a dark walnut, necessitating sanding and priming before moving on to two coats of white paint). They’ve done a beautiful job and we love the colors and the new white woodwork. We’ve also trashed the house, emptying the master closet and the linen closet into a spare bedroom, along with miscellaneous lamps, artwork, and accessories. We can’t find the laundry. The power cord to my laptop was missing for more than a day. You know how this works. Maintaining any sense of order during a project like this is hopeless for us.

Friday, they finished up by painting the ceiling in the kitchen and family room. So, that morning we cleared the counters, took down the mantle decorations, and I took another picture of the same island countertop.

painterkitchen

Actually, I think this picture (below) says it all. New paint job, Christmas angel and artwork re-hung in the hall amid the painters’ gear. Not the schedule I would set, but as my husband, a.k.a. “the scheduler,” pointed out, we’ll begin the new year with all this freshened up. And sometimes you just have to roll with it…

painterhall

Which brings me to the second half of this post.

The holiday season always delivers an emotional mix. There is joy in the unvarnished excitement of children awaiting Santa, the good cheer of family and friends savoring the season, the music, the traditions large and small, and, if you are so inclined, the Christmas story itself. For me and for many others there is also nostalgia for holidays past.

My mother and father and my grandparents before them absolutely loved Christmas. We had no exotic traditions and some Christmases were leaner than others, but there were always festive trees and tables and visits with extended family and friends. Lots of laughter and story telling. And that is what I think of when I think of holidays past.

Steve and I did our best to carry those traditions forward with our own family, sharing the holiday with my mother and aunt and uncle, and, when they could join us, cousins, and friends. There was always a harried dash to church on Christmas Eve that ended with the magic of singing Silent Night in a candlelit sanctuary. (Never mind that my daughter once attempted a short nap in the midst of the live creche scene and my son came this close to singeing the hair of a fellow acolyte as they walked down the aisle.) And that was just Christmas Eve.

Although my mother, aunt and uncle are no longer with us, we now have a pair of grandsons who bring a whole new kind of joy to the holiday. So we travel to Ohio to celebrate with our kids there and my daughter-in-law’s family. And our traditions morph with theirs. And I am so very gad we are part of it.

Like dealing with the painters, sometimes you just have to roll with it…

Being an empty nester is not always easy. You have to learn to share your kids with their adult lives, careers, new cities and new partners. You can’t always have everyone at your holiday table or even preside over your own table. If you’re going to let change taint your holiday, well, I really think that’s your fault.

Yes, I want my kids to call me, visit me, invite me and still need me. Once a mom, always a mom. But I think my kids also deserve my respect: to live their own lives, make their own decisions, raise their own kids. (And if, as my friend Jill says, I have to sometimes bite my tongue, I can learn to do that too.)

We’ve been empty nesters for more than a decade, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to succeed in these multi-generational times, we need to bring a little more to the equation. We need to continue to grow ourselves. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in “I was…” or “We always…” when we should really be working on our flexibility gene. What difference does it make if we have turkey and all the trimmings or ham and hash brown casserole? More importantly, perhaps we need to stop worrying about the empty nest and start feathering its successor.

It’s something to think about when we’re done wrapping packages, addressing cards, baking cookies, and recalling those Christmases past…

I wish you a wonderful, joyous, overindulgent holiday however you spend it!