In my January Kitchen

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Mise en place on the new cutting board.

January has been a fun month in my kitchen thanks to some new tools from my family. And with new tools, of course, come new recipes and a few new lessons. 

For starters, I have been wanting one of these Boos wooden cutting blocks since I worked on a smaller one at The Cook’s Atelier in France. Working on wood is much kinder to my knives than the vinyl and ceramic mats I have been using. This one is large  ( 15” by 20”) and therefore genuinely heavy. I can’t just snatch it up with one hand, and I may have to re-think how & where I store it, but it’s a delight to work on. It stays in place on the counter and is roomy enough to work with large vegetables, meats, etc.

Wood boards are a bit picky about maintenance. They clean up with soap & water, but must be immediately dried. Wood can be sprinkled with salt, then wiped with lemon  to eliminate strong odors (a.k.a. garlic); wiping with distilled vinegar disinfects the board after cutting raw meat. Treated to regular coats of oil, my board should last a life time. 

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Plenty of yummy comfort here. 

I was eager to give the block a work out, so I launched a two-day soup-making marathon using recipes from Ina Garten’s new book, Modern Comfort Food, a gift from my son & daughter-in-law. Ina’s Chicken Pot Pie soup is fabulous, every bit as delicious as her recipe for the pot pies in Make It Ahead, but with a flavorful broth instead of white sauce. There are a few ingredients that give it an edge over standard chicken soups: leeks, fennel, tarragon and a piece of parmesan cheesed rind that adds a subtle but yummy flavor dimension. 

Then, because I had a hambone left from Christmas and a bag of split peas, I made her pea soup, also in New Comfort Cooking. I love pea soup and this one is delicious and pretty much what I have always made based on my mother’s recipe which was my grandmother’s recipe. (As I write this I realize that my family recipe was never written down. I’d call Mom and say how do I do this and she would walk me through it. I’m sure she learned it from watching Grandma. Do you use recipes like this?)

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Each tray section is marked for 1 and 2 cups. This is a 2-cup porti0n.

Both recipes gave me plenty of chopping and dicing practice on my new board, but making the pots of soup also exhausted my supply of homemade chicken stock. So a few days ago I got out the pot, a cut-up chicken and the requisite fresh veggies to make more. This time in addition to a few quarts of stock for the freezer I also have frozen, 2-cup blocks of stock thanks to these silicone soup blocks, also from my daughter-in-law. Each section holds up to 2 cups of liquid. After freezing, you can pop them out of the tray (like ice cubes) and keep them frozen in a bag. They should be the perfect quantity for recipes calling for a lesser amount of chicken stock and they take less freezer space. Win/win!

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And look: My name is on the cover!

I hope you are’t too bored yet because I have one more tool to share and it’s this kitchen journal from my daughter. I have wanted something like this for some time, initially to track menus and what I served and to whom and when. Sometimes it would also be nice to refer back to how much of a given dish/appetizer/dessert I served. (As in, what cheeses were the favorites on the cheese board and what did everyone pass on?) It’s perfect for recording those unwritten recipes, like Grandma’s pea soup, my stuffing recipe, and how I prep and freeze summer vegetables.

There’s probably an app to track this on my computer, but since I am a paper and pen girl at heart, I love the idea of writing it down.

I know these are essentially small things, details perhaps in the grand scheme. But I am grateful to have this interest to fall back on during the continuing pandemic. Cooking is creating as much as painting, drawing, knitting, sewing, and all the other pursuits so many of us have adopted to stay engaged, to look forward. 

What about you? What’s keeping you going these winter days?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

January landed with a thud

CherryBlossoms2I had planned to talk about the to-be-read and to-be-cooked lists I’ve been compiling for the new year, along with a few stabs I’ve made at de-cluttering and the other ways in which I was planning to entertain myself while we wait out the pandemic. (In the county were I live the Health Department describes the risk of infection as “substantial.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good, does it? 

Then, on last Wednesday afternoon while I was on a Zoom call, my husband passed me a note that read, “The protesters have breached the capitol, and Congress is under lockdown.”

When my call was over and I joined my husband in front iof the television, we both watched, jaws dropping, at the sight of protesters over-running the Capitol Police inside that space. What a stunning violation in the seat of our democracy!

My husband and I have personal connections to the Capitol. Steve grew up in suburban Washington D.C. and spent a fair amount of time working summers on The Hill. I spent a semester off-campus in Washington, where my roommate and I had little blue passes that got us into the House and Senate visitors galleries whenever we wanted. As political junkies we spent a lot of time there. Obviously security has necessarily grown tighter since then, but Steve and I have visited with our son and daughter more than once. On our last visit, my daughter actually led the tour as a summer Senate intern.

I can’t explain the sinking, sick feeling I had when sign-carrying protesters, some of them wrapped in flags, wandered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat in the Speakers’ chair, and pushed and shouted their way thru Statuary Hall. I can count a number of friends from both political parties who I’m sure had the same gut reaction. It was so out of time and place. But that was just the beginning.

Sadly, as the news continues to unfold, the dark, dangerous intent behind this protest becomes darker and clearer. And that raises even more questions. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, ugly and frightening.

This blog is intended to weigh in on life’s lighter side — on looks, cooks, books, and occasional travels — and I’ll certainly get back to that soon.  But January 6, 2021,  is a seminal moment in American history, as stunning as 9/11. This time the enemy came from within. That it was endorsed by a sitting president makes it unspeakable.

I realize we all have a lot to unpack and sort out here. I just had to pause.

27 Books…and counting!

 

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Except for the Marie Benedict book on top, the rest of this stack is “to be read.”

The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!)  I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.

Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.

But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post. 

No apologies

These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape! 

On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it here    One of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based on real events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here  I wrote about three more great reading choices here,  Check them out. 

I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)

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My book group is discussing this next week. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else thinks. 

I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by  Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!)  role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young  Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist  Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.

Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric,  a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)

Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading.  Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!

Thanks for stopping by!

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It’s all about the tree

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Tree simplicity at its best: a tiny tree in antique blue & white.

How are you? I know it’s been awhile. Frankly, I fell into a bit of a mental rabbit hole and needed a break — time to escape with a few Sue Grafton mysteries, watch old movies, and putter around my kitchen. Has this happened to you?

By now you probably have your tree up, most of us do. But you may not, or you may still be perfecting the decoration of it, or maybe you decided you didn’t really want a tree this year. This “Covid year” is a challenge in so many ways and we have a few more months to go.

As I was scrolling thru Instagram last night (and I am always scrolling thru Instagram!), I started thinking about what a personal statement a Christmas tree is.

For some it’s a slice of personal history, ornaments the kids made (you know, the beloved popsicle stick Santas). Many of those trees are also decked with signs of a family’s interests — mini Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty souvenirs, tiny replicas of golf bags, basketballs, and sports cars, tiny picture frames with tooth-y grins, salt-dough figurines.

We hang a lot of ourselves on a Christmas tree. 

Some of the Instagram trees are a decorator’s masterpiece. Color-coded glass balls with matching garlands of ribbon and flowers. I’m frankly dazzled by these trees, but if I committed to a theme, I’d also have to eliminate all the ornaments that didn’t fit. Or, decorate a second tree!

 

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Suzanne of @suzannezingstyle is a stylist, and her trees are perfection.

Others are artfully spare, just a tree and some lights. Some trees are propped in rustic buckets or boxes, others strike a more glamorous pose on a table surrounded with coordinating decor. One of my favorites, below,  is one of the 12 trees by Courtney Allison @frenchcountrycottage with lots of lights, a veritable party of ornaments and sitting in an antique bucket. Her stylist touch is one of the prettiest and most natural around. (This may be my tree goal in 2021).

 

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I’m personally attracted to tiny trees, like my bottle brush forest, which grows annually.

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But then there are others, deceptively simple in their charm.  I love the simplicity of this tree, below. For me it holds the same magical promise of the season as the sparkling lights and ornaments on our own tree in the living room. 

This is one of those years — and we all have them — where tradition goes out the window and we have to improvise on the holiday. We didn’t have family and friends around the table on Thanksgiving, and we won’t be descending on my son and daughter-in-law for Christmas. My forty-odd year string of holiday open houses has been rudely interrupted.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m missing all of that. But, we are all healthy. For that I’m very grateful.

When I sit beside our tree with morning coffee or a book in the afternoon, or Steve and I have a glass of wine there before dinner, I relish the sense of calm. Christmas comes with its own brand of magic, peace, hope and memories. It’s nice to be surrounded by the familiar in an otherwise strange, even scary time. And there is a little light ahead at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The vaccinations have begun. That’s something to hang on to. A kind of hope. Maybe like the Christmas star?

I hope your days ahead are filled with joy, hope, something good to eat & drink and — most of all — good health.  Happy, happy holiday! 

Simple pleasures

An old friend dropped off this RBG “action figure” lsn’t she great?

Hello! How are you doing? We’re doing well here, but if I’m totally honest it takes more effort some days than others.

The pandemic numbers in the Chicago area are going in the wrong direction, disappointing but not really surprising. The experts warned there would be a second wave (or is it the third?) this fall. It has made us rethink some of the small steps we were taking to get out & about. The temperatures here have taken a real dive — into highs in the 40’s — making social distancing outside a really chilly option.

So I’m counting on simple pleasures to brighten the days.

The Zebra Cake

When the going gets tough, head to the kitchen and make something chocolate. Actually, you may have already read about this Zebra Cake on my Instagram. Martha Stewart showed off the cake and demonstrated the technique on the Today Show a few weeks ago. Steve and I were both intrigued. (Okay, it doesn’t always take much to catch our attention lately.) So, I made the cake, which shall forever be known as “the cake that wrecked the kitchen.”

Even the cake plate was messy!

I’m not the neatest cook in the world. My theory is pretty much cook now, make a mess, and clean it up later. But this was exceptional. I have two sets of nesting glass mixing bowls and I used both of them.

This cake makes two 9″ layers. That’s a lot of batter. Then you divide the batter and make half of it chocolate. Next you alternate adding quarter-cup measures of white and chocolate batter to each pan until you have used up all the cake batter. The result is amazing and delicious. (Note: you will need any and all left-over clean bowls to make Martha’s decadent chocolate frosting if you use her recipe.) This would be fun and dramatic to serve to guests, but time-consuming. Find the recipe here.

Retail therapy

It occurred to me, after my shoe mini-binge, except maybe to the grocery store or get a haircut,m etc., but at least my feet will be cute!

Remember those days when you just killed a few hours (or more) at the mall or maybe shopping some local boutiques? Sometimes you came home with purchases and sometimes not. It was just fun to escape your home or office, see what was new, maybe stop for a coffee and/or lunch. The pandemic has really changed that dynamic for me. I’m just not comfortable shopping for the sake of shopping. However, online shopping is a whole other thing. I recently went on a bit of a shoe shop online. (There’s always a way top shop, right?) These boots were on a terrific sale at Talbots and the leopard print Vans came highly recommended by Mary Ann Pickett at Classic Casual Home (they’re so comfortable — thanks for the tip!). The white Supergas — a mainstay in my wardrobe — were on sale. They may seem a bit out of place now, but I’ll be thrilled to pull them out in March or April. I realize we aren’t going out much, but at least my feet will look cute in the grocery store!

Watching & reading

Have you noticed that “what are you watching” and “what are you reading” are big conversation topics whenever you Zoom or FaceTime with friends? We’re all so eager for recommendations.

Like everyone else who loves Paris, I watched “Emily in Paris.” Did you? I thought the Parisian scenery was gorgeous, but the story was pretty thin. On the other hand, I just started watching “The Queen’s Gambit” about a young orphan who discovers chess as an escape from the everyday. She’s an outrageously gifted player and begins to play in competitions. I’m not a chess player and know nothing about the game, but I’m hooked. Both of these limited series are on Netflix.

If you haven’t seen Pete Souza’s documentary, “The Way I See It,” look for it on MSNBC. Souza is a photojournalist who was the official presidential photographer for Presidents Reagan and Obama. His insider’s view of both administrations is revealing, but even more important, he views his role as documenting history. He certainly has a gift for getting the right shot at the right time. You’ve no doubt seen many of his photos, but hearing the backstory is fascinating.

I just finished reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It’s a short, beautifully written novel, the kind of book where every word is measured and important. Strout is an award winning novelist (have you read The Burgess Boys or Olive Kitteridge?). Now I’m reading The Daughters of Yalta, by Katherine Grace Katz. The history nerd in me is frankly fascinated by this story of that fateful 1945 conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, as seen largely through the eyes of Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, Sarah Churchill, and Kathy Harriman, daughters of President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U. S. Ambassador to Russia Averill Harriman respectively. All three women are well-educated and accomplished, used to traveling in heady political circles but also trying to absorb the Russian personalities and the war-torn Yalta landscape. What an amazing view of history they had!

And that’s my world right now. What about you? Keep wearing your mask, and I’ll see you here again soon!

Pumpkins, pasta and more from October

I would say “happy October,” but we’re now halfway thru the month. Where does the time go? I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself just getting caught in the headlights of the pandemic and the non-stop news cycle. I “hide out” in a book or watching old movies, something mindless, you know? When I resurfaced my blogging platform had introduced a whole new format. Yikes! I’m still on that learning curve! But, October is sunny and cool, full of pumpkins and other fun stuff, so here goes…

As part of my never-ending quest for doses of normalcy in this anything-but-normal year, I forged ahead into fall last week and my pumpkin decor for the season. I love these wart-y, non-orange pumpkins that show up everywhere at this time of year. Because I have waaaay too much time on my hands, I give my pumpkins a soapy bath to remove dirt and then spray them with a clear sealer. Presumably this keeps the squirrels and chipmunks away? I arranged them with a few mums and liked it so much I thought I’d buy more to stage a second display.

But I was wrong; before I could move on to more pumpkins and mums, the hungry critters had nibbled the warts on one pumpkin, then tried a smoother one, and finally truly feasted on an especially striking orange gourd with a quirky twist at the top. If anyone knows of a proven repellant, please let me know!

Is Ina Garten your hero?

If you read many of my cooking posts here or on Instagram you know that Ina Garten, a.k.a. The Barefoot Contessa, is a favorite cookbook author of mine. I find her recipes to be spot on: clear instructions, (usually) uncomplicated lists of ingredients (though thanks to Ina we have expanded our repertoire of alcoholic libations), and always a good result — if you follow her instructions. As more than one of my friends has said, “Ina doesn’t disappoint.”

If you follow her at all you know she started out as a budget analyst in the White House, acquired a boutique food store in The Hamptons (The Barefoot Contessa) and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it? I just came across this recent interview with her and found it to be more revealing than most. It puts some meat on the bones of her story. If you’re an Ina fan, and who isn’t, I think you’ll enjoy it.

In my October kitchen…

Once I got past the quart after quart (after quart after quart) of tomatoes my husband’s garden produced, which we then skinned and, chopped and cooked down just a bit, then froze for winter soups and stews, I tried a few new recipes that turned out to be simple, delicious, and perfect for fall. And — no tomatoes!

Peas, pasta and prosciutto is one of those dishes that could be made from pantry staples. Frozen peas are a staple in most kitchens, as is dried pasta. Lately, I’ve been keeping a small package or two of prosciutto in the freezer, mostly as an addition to a fruit and cheese platter that we sometimes assemble as a light supper. The flavor in this recipe relies on quickly, gently crisping bite size pieces of the prosciutto in a frying pan, adding the peas, al dente pasta and some pasta water. I used a recipe from Bon Appetit, here.

My daughter-in-law turned me on to Half-Baked Harvest, a blog/website packed with recipes. Tieghan Gerard got her kitchen start helping cook for her family of nine. Subsequently her recipes feed a group and are slow cooker and

InstaPot friendly. (Happily, she usually includes stove-top directions!) Her healthier creamy tortellini vegetable soup appealed to me. I have made another tortellini soup that featured sausage and spinach, but little else. I really thought it was a little bland. That’s not the issue here.

This recipe includes a handful of spices — sage, fennel, basil, oregano, thyme, red pepper and paprika — that give it a lot of flavor. There’s also onion, celery and carrots and I subbed fresh spinach for kale (a non-starter at my house). But I think it’s the half cup of milk or heavy cream (I used the latter) that really makes a difference in this recipe. I don’t think it’s enough to make a real difference in the fat or calorie count, but it does make the broth richer, especially appealing when you’re serving this as an entree. (Note: I added just a drizzle of cream to each serving. I knew we would be saving some for future lunches and did not think the cream would hold up. I just served leftovers with a last-minute dash of the cream.) If you want to try this recipe, you can find it here.

An unforgettable read

My daughter passed along The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner. Wariner was raised by her mother and stepfather in a polygamous Mormon sect in Mexico, founded by her late father. She had nine siblings; stepfather had other wives and a total of 39 children, making financial support for her family sketchy at best. They lived without electricity or hot water on a “farm” in Mexico and borrowed trailers in El Paso, Texas, where her mother collected welfare.

Like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover, this is the story of a wildly disfunctional family. And I felt — having read both of those books — that this would be just the same. And in many ways it was, but in many ways it wasn’t. This was, after all, Ruth’s story, not Jeannette’s or Tara’s. Her father was absent more than he was physically present, although his role in the family was clear. Ruth’s mother’s unyielding commitment to her husband and her religion, despite the impact on her and her children, drives the story.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a novel, it was true. And it happened just a few decades ago. Ruth would be a contemporary to my adult children.

So that’s at least some of what’s happening here. Enjoy the season and I’ll be back soon. Thanks for stopping by.

Back on my soapbox

My grandfather was a WWI veteran and a founding member of the William McKinley American Legion Post in Chicago. When he died in 1988, his friends from the post showed up to honor him as pallbearers. When the minister had finished his blessing at the cemetery and was about to send the mourners to lunch, one of the legion members, a little white-haired man (in his nineties I imagine, as Grandpa had been) with his legion cap at a rakish angle, stepped forwarded and admonished the minister to “Hold on sonny.” Then he produced a tape player, pushed a button, and played Taps. (And we all cried a little more. )

Several years later when my father-in-law died, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with military pallbearers and a 21-gun salute. It was a small, dignified and extremely moving ceremony. I had been to Arlington before as a tourist and I have been there since to bury my mother-in-law. It has never been possible for me to walk those rows of white markers without being silenced by the sense of duty, honor and loss that this military cemetery represents.

My dad was a WWII veteran and the only decoration on his grave marker, beyond his name and dates, is the insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers he so proudly wore. My uncle was also a WWII veteran and when he died a decade ago, my husband called the William McKinley American Legion Post, where he was also a member, and they showed up with flags and arranged for a sailor from Great Lakes to play Taps at his graveside. (Cue the tissues.)

None of these men were “suckers” or “losers.” Nor was the boy from across the street who played football with my son, went off to college and then joined the army. His job in Iraq was to locate and secure IED’s. He brought everyone on his team home safely.

They were soldiers and sailors who did their job. They were and are proud of the uniform and proud of their service. There are millions more veterans and service men and women, some surely more battle-tested than these.  And we are proud of all of them.

I have tried hard not to be political in this season. Politics don’t necessarily fit with my vision of Ivy & Ironstone. But the allegations from the White House, of “suckers” and “losers,” pale in the face of politics. And I understand that they are “allegations.” But, after the last three and a half years, is there any reason not to believe them?

Please vote.

Stay safe & see you again soon.

 

 

Cranky August

I have always had mixed feelings about August. On the one hand, summer’s winding down, the beach is behind us, my husband’s hay fever settles in for a week or two of misery for him. On the other hand, there are all the new pens, pencils and notebooks (I still buy a few for myself) and the prospect of a fresh start. Here are a few August 2020 ups & downs.

One good read

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson, turned out to be an especially timely choice for my book group to read and discuss last month. The title sounded a little quirky, but the story is based on fact. In the 1930’s the WPA recruited women from tiny Appalachian towns and hamlets to deliver books, magazines and any other available reading materials to isolated homes and schoolhouses. This was a poverty-stricken landscape, and the women had to provide their own mule, horse or donkey to help them travel their forested, mountain routes. Hazards included snakes, bears, weather and individuals who did not want their families to have reading materials. Couple those conditions with the fact that the main character, Cussy Mary Carter, is blue. She suffers from a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia. Her blue skin tone places her with the “coloreds.” In addition to poverty and illiteracy, Cussy Mary’s story also confronts racism head on.

(Hematologist Madison Cawein III eventually studied this condition and was able to treat some families with methylene blue, alleviating symptoms and reducing their blue skin coloring.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek could have been a difficult read, but most of us found it absolutely mesmerizing. And sadly its themes mirror much of what we have been grappling with the last few months. After 85 or 90 years, we still haven’t figured this out.

I know I’m not the only reader who has found it difficult to concentrate on books during the pandemic. Despite the fact that this book really captured my attention, as have a few others earlier this spring (you can read about them here and here  and here ) I have generally found it difficult to read many that I know I’ll enjoy later. I’ve read my way through Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and moved on to Dona Leone’s Guido Brunetti mysteries (They’re set in Venice!). Right now I’m diving into the fourth Harry Potter. One friend told me she re-read Gone With the Wind, “pure escapism,” she said. Escapism is good. Most of all I think many of us want to reach back to another time — maybe any time — even if its a tough time like WWII, Winston Churchill and The Vile and the Beautiful.

What about you? Have your reading choices changed during the pandemic?

My cranky mood

My husband and I set out on our morning walk recently when he mentioned that I seemed to be in a cranky mood. “Yes, I am,” I said, offering no apology. “So,” he said, “should I be heading in the opposite direction?” “No,” I assured him, because I enjoy this time together and it was one of those brilliant, blue-sky August mornings and not really at all hot. And by the time we got back, 40 minutes later, I did feel better. Fresh air and sunshine are therapeutic.

If we have learned anything at all from the pandemic it is to savor good days and time together.

My cranky mood, however, continues to simmer below the surface. And I don’t think it’s necessarily all related to the pandemic. This has just turned into such an ugly time. A pandemic should not be political; it should be about stemming the virus and saving lives. There is so much anger, most of it justifiable. As a lifelong Chicagoan, waking up on a Monday morning to once again see the windows smashed at Marshall Field’s (Yes, I know it’s Macy’s now, but to many of us the building will always be Field’s), I felt literally sick.

I have tried to counter all this with a little more socially distant socializing with friends, and my husband has even pried me out of the house to eat outside at a local restaurant. (Really, the first time sine March.) Being with friends helps. Being with strangers is hard.

How’s your mood? And if it’s at all cranky, what’s your antidote? I’d love to hear.

See you again soon!

 

Tomato, to-mah-to

Since my tomato day in the kitchen, the crop has begun to roll in. I’m guessing BLT’s for supper?

Most of us can agree that fresh garden tomatoes are one of the gifts of summer. Personally, I’m happy eating them warm from the garden, a tomato in one hand, the the salt shaker in the other. However, the cook in me knows there is so much more to do with summer’s best crop: sauce, roasted on the side, chopped for bruschetta. And then there is tomato pie or tart. This year I’m trying to take my tomato repertoire up a notch.

For some time now I have been eyeing various recipes for tomato tarts. They’re pretty and colorful, and seem like they would make a nice summertime appetizer, first course or side. And last week I needed a new kitchen project anyway.

Our garden tomatoes are just now ripening (this is Chicago, after all), so I supplemented with tomatoes from the store to test these recipes. My first try was this tomato tart from the New York Times. I have been having great luck with their recipes lately and this was no exception. The recipe called for heirloom tomatoes, but my grocery store didn’t have a good selection, so I settled for a smaller vine ripened variety.

This recipe starts with a fairly simple, blind-baked crust that is then topped with a thin layer of pesto (which I made myself from some of our garden basil), then mozzarella cheese topped by a simple egg and cream mix, then the tomatoes. We enjoyed this as a side with grilled chicken, but it could easily have been a light entree. It was certainly filling and fresh. Even my husband, who prefers his tomatoes in spaghetti sauce, endorsed it!

And I’m so sorry I didn’t take pictures along the way, but here’s the finished product. This recipe’s a keeper!

A few days later I made Ina Garten’s recipe for Anna’s Tomato Tart from Cooking for Jeffrey. This recipe has fewer layers, starting with a dough made in the food processor. After chilling the dough for about 30 minutes, giving you time to slice the tomatoes and prepare a seasoning mix of parsley, basil, thyme and olive oil (also using a food processor) it’s time to roll the dough into a rough 11 by 17 rectangle. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it bakes in a sheet pan, so you want to achieve that general shape.

After rolling the dough out on a floured surface and transferring to a parchment-lined sheet pan (per Ina’s instructions), I realized it would have been easier to roll it out on the parchment, then transfer the paper and dough to the pan. Next time. After baking the crust, it’s layered with a coat of dijon mustard, then grated gruyere cheese, then the sliced tomatoes tossed with the herb seasoning, more gruyere and a final dusting of parmesan. This all goes back into the oven to roast the tomatoes and melt the cheese. After cooling a bit, I cut it into squares and we ate it warm, though you could also serve it at room temperature. This was good, but very cheesy. As much as I like gruyere, I would use less next time.

This made a bigger recipe overall, so it may work better for a larger group. In the end, Steve and I decided we preferred the NYT recipe, but agreed that the Barefoot Contessa tart would be a fun — and different — party app. Bonus points since it doesn’t need to be served right out of the oven.

So, after all this tomato talk, what did I serve to friends who socially distanced with us over the weekend? Good old bruschetta. I  used a carton of red, yellow and green cherry tomatoes — quartered — seasoned with minced garlic and onion, a dash of red wine vinegar and generous doses of salt and olive oil. I do this by taste. I used toasted baguette slices for serving and this time, to avoid too many hands on the food, I assembled them ahead of time, spreading a thin coat of ricotta (or you could use goat cheese or buratta) on the bread slices, before adding the tomatoes. In pre-pandemic times, I would have served the toasted bread in a basket and the tomatoes in a pretty bowl.

Which leads me to another question: if you are hosting the occasional guests in these pandemic times, what are you serving and how are you serving it? I did beef sliders and individual ramekins of potato salad a few weeks ago. And I pre-plated it to avoid too much handling. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

Choosing my words

Dad and I on a summer day decades and decades ago. Read to the end of my post to see why he’s so important to the topic.

Words have always been part of my business, so of course the language of the pandemic has been interesting to me. It’s also over-used.

The terms we’ve been using to describe the pandemic — unprecedented, extraordinary, unparalleled  (and all the other “uns” like unheard of, unforgettable, unbelievable, unimaginable) — need a refresh. We need to come up with something else — historic (it will be), novel, singular, aberrant. The first synonym for aberrant is abnormal. Yes, this is not normal and in fact many of us are talking about the “new normal” — another one for the vocabulary.

I do like unthinkable. (Did you ever think you would part of a pandemic? It never crossed my mind.)

According to dictionary.com, aberrant means “departing from the right, normal or usual course.” That certainly fits. What about endless? In mid-March when Illinois shut down, it seemed “unimaginable” we would do that for more than three or four weeks at most. Here we are months later. Some of us are dipping our toes into “re-entry” (whatever that means, add that term to the pandemic vocabulary) more than others, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Virus cases are apparently rising more than not and so the race to reopen and expand our own comfort zones is stymied. The friends, family and associations around me are beginning to speak in terms of 2021 before we plan any group face-to-face events.

Catastrophic works. The hospitality industry — from restaurants to major airlines — has been brought to its knees. Any number of players, large and small, won’t survive. Even more grievous, individual households face collapse under financial and medical crises. Oops! Don’t get me started. We’re just talking words here. There are any number of reasons to look on this as a catastrophe.

Actually, for whatever reason, when all this started, the word pandemic had an old-fashioned connotation to me, as in “the black death.” According to Merriam-Webster a pandemic “is an outbreak of a disease occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” It was something I thought went out with the Spanish flu. But here we are.

On a personal level we all know the pandemic is alternately scary, worrisome, lonely, boring, and tiring. We don’t sleep well, our eating is indulgent (and I’m being polite here). We’re cranky (at least I am) and frankly depressed. Disjointed is a good word for right now. It’s a good news/bad news kind of time. Two steps forward and then at least one step back.

And why am I on this vocabulary quest? Two words: my Dad. He was an ad man long before I was ever a writer or editor. He loved language and finding new words. His pithiest writing advice to me was to skip the “50-cent word when a 10-center will work.” For years he wrote new words and their definitions down on 3 by 5 index cards. He did this as he read the paper, magazines, books. This drove my mother crazy. The index cards were everywhere — neatly stacked beside his empty coffee cup, falling out of sofa cushions, tucked into books and magazines. I’m sure she threw away more than half of what he wrote down, but still he collected words. Ironically, he suffered a small stroke in his late fifties that temporarily robbed him of language. He could talk but had no vocabulary. It took weeks just to get the basics back.

So, Dad, this one’s for you.

What about you? What’s your word for the pandemic?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe & see you again soon.