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.