My favorite kitchen tools

I don’t know about you but, but I’ve really needed to take a step back from the pandemic. Uncertainty is hard, and this is uncertainty on steroids. Not only is it reshaping our lives for the foreseeable future, but I think we can’t help but be somewhat changed when it’s over. I need a “news” break, so I’m heading for the kitchen where I think a lot of us have been hanging.

In fact, my kitchen time got me thinking about some of my favorite cooking tools, the things I reach for again and again. Do you have favorites too, things you rely on to make some cooking chores a little easier?

When I snapped this photo a few weeks back while I was making pimento cheese to take to an informal dinner party, i realized I had a few of my favorites in this shot. First, the six-sided box grater is a real champ. It makes freshly grated cheese a snap. (I’ve found that “freshly grated” can make a big difference in the finished product. I’m not sure why, but it does.) This grater is especially nice because it has this bottom piece that easily slides off and on to contain the grated ingredients. And because the six sides are each different, you can also zest carrots for a salad, fruit for baking, etc. It also cleans up easily in the dishwasher.

I also captured two of the small prep bowls from these larger sets of nesting glass bowls. (Yes, I have two sets, perhaps that’s overkill. On the other hand, when I really get cooking, I use more of them than I leave in the drawer.) They’re really designed for mise en place cooking, when you gather and prep all your ingredients before you start. I wasn’t always that organized, but my daughter cooks like that and it’s also the system most cooking classes use. Once I started gathering and measuring all the ingredients ahead of time, I realized I was not spending more time cooking but I was doing a better job! (And I also could know ahead of time if I had 4 eggs and 2 cups of sugar!)

These glass bowls have the advantage of being microwave safe, and in a pinch you can use them for serving. They’re easy to clean and since they nest for storage, they don’t really take up that much space. My daughter-in-law gave me this set of small steel prep bowls (below) with lids that are perfect for prepping ingredients ahead of time and popping them into the refrigerator. I especially like them for nuts or herbs I’ll use later for serving.

I also use this smaller zester all the time for adding a bit of lemon or orange zest, to grate whole nutmeg, or even a bit of Parmesan cheese before serving a plate of pasta. Like my box grater, it also cleans up easily in the dish washer.

Have you noticed that these favorite tools are particularly helpful for prepping and/or using fresh ingredients? I think of “fresh” as a cooking super power. Somewhere along the progression of my cooking skills, I began to use fewer prepared foods and more fresh ingredients. I just think that if I’m going to spend the time cooking, I really need to use the best ingredients I can to get the best outcome. So, I buy whole garlic and chop it and use fresh lemons instead of bottled juice, etc. You know the drill.

What about you? Do you have a favorite kitchen tool? A spatula you use every day or a pot you can’t do without? Or have you become a fan of the newer Insta Pots and are re-thinking your favorite recipes to cook in one? I’d love to hear how and what you’re cooking these days.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping  by. Stay home & stay safe. See you the next time.

Avoiding the rabbit hole

I’m doing all I can to make lemonade out of the lemons this virus has handed us.

Last week my daughter told me one of her co-workers had gone right down the rabbit hole over the coronavirus. In the co-worker’s scenario, everyone was quarantined, their clients’ businesses failed, subsequently my daughter’s employer let everyone go, and they all lost their health insurance.

Whew! Time flies when your imagination runs away with you.

So, how are you dealing with this? Are you taking it in stride or stocking up on hand gel? Learning all you can or avoiding the news altogether? Last week was a tough one. In addition to the spreading virus and the stock market free fall, our favorite neighbors announced they are moving to Arizona at the end of the month. Does bad news come in three’s?

And of course the rabbit hole continues to deepen. More victims, More talk. More uncertainty. I’m thinking about an asphidity bag (an old-fashioned “cure” of various herbs tied in a piece of cloth and worn under your shirt). My best friend and I had a running joke about them growing up, largely because her uncle was certain that as a child he never got the Spanish flu because he wore one. Barb’s mother insisted that its only medicinal value was in reeking so much of garlic that no one came near him.

But, then again, it’s one way to maintain the recommended 6 feet between you and everyone else.

See what I mean about the rabbit hole?

I think it’s important to be informed, but I also think it’s important to keep both feet on the ground. So here are some things that are saving/distracting me right now.

Sunshine. Seems simple, but it’s been in short supply. I’m “cashing in” when ever it’s available. I’ve been walking more outside, but the really good news is that I’ve been able to work a bit outside this weekend too. It’s a little too early for a major clean-up in the yard, but not for cutting back the hydrangeas I never got to last fall as well as cleaning out planters so they are ready to go.

Diving into a good book. I’ve continued reading through Chief Inspector Gamache’s mysteries as told by Louise Penny. (I’m on #10!). I’m about to finish Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, an historic novel as told by the title character, who happens to be the wife of Winston Churchill. I suspect it’s a little light on historic truths, but I’m listening to it on Audible. The narrator has just enough of an upper class British accent and her imitation of Churchill’s bluster is entertaining.

My book group just read and discussed The Overstory by Richard Powers. Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s in a whole other category than my other reads. The novel is populated by truly distinct characters who are individually introduced, by their own stories, in the first section of the book. They merge into a more complex story later. This is why I’m a member of this book group. I would not have chosen this book off the shelf, but it is such a beautiful read that I would have missed something special.

Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers are like a slice-and-bake cookie. Mix and refrigerate or freeze the dough, thaw and bake when you need a quick appetizer.

Mixing it up in the kitchen. As you know, my kitchen is my happy place. I spent an entire day this past week re-stocking my pantry with homemade granola, the freezer with Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers, and making a homemade pizza crust (and then a pizza) based on Martha Stewart’s crust recipe in the March issue of her magazine. This recipe uses yeast, which I’m not good at, but the recipe was so simple even I got it on the first try!

Next up? Retail therapy. When in doubt, shop for shoes.

How are you handling these crazy weeks? I would love to hear your thoughts. It looks like we’re going to be in this — together — for awhile.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

January words & reads

Sunshine and shadow last fall in Chicago’s McKinley Park. I’m hoping it counter-balances our ninth day of gray clouds.

Here we are, one month into a new year and a new decade and I have not cleaned out one closet, de-cluttered one drawer or reorganized my pantry. Perhaps more egregiously, I have not chosen my word or words for the year. Do you do that? Do you look for a word or phrase to guide you? It’s a charming idea, but hard for me to narrow down. There are just too many words. However, I did get a start with my mantra in December.

Do you remember when I said in a December post that my new mantra was “Have the party, buy the dress, take the trip and always, always eat dessert.” They are hardly unique or life-changing words, really just a promise I made to myself to operate more in the present. Life is short enough. Let’s skip the regrets.

After the mantra, I went on to “When in doubt, go old school.” When I wrote this (here) I was referring to falling back on old recipes, pigs-in-a-blanket, mac and cheese — the comfort food our mothers served until we all got a bit (or a lot) trendier. But then I reconsidered “old school” and I thought of a few more ways that it matters: hand-written thank you notes, please and thank you, wear the little black dress, and take a casserole. These were the rules my mother and my aunts relied on.

I know good manners never fell out of favor, but let’s be honest. Unless you have been hunkered down under a rock, we have all been living in a polarized and often isolated time. Everyone is a little angrier, the middle ground is harder to see, and sometimes life’s simple niceties are left at the curb. Perhaps it’s time we smooth off some of our rough edges.

First reads of the new year

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl has been on my list since it came out. The memoir of Reichl’s decade as the editor of Gourmet Magazine was the perfect Christmas gift from my husband and an engrossing read. Reichl was a food editor in Los Angeles and then a restaurant critic for the New York Times, before going to Gourmet. If you think this is just about publishing or food, think again.

This is the story so many of us could write about carving out a career while balancing home and family, finding the right niche for our passions, and working in a high-stakes corporate world. There is a lot about food and its evolving tastes and trends. But Reichl also talks about the impact of the internet on more traditional communications. For a former editor like me, it’s an inside look at the angst behind magazines —  the stories, photos, advertisers, and deadlines. The specialized trade publications I edited don’t come close to Gourmet, but the components are there.

And — she includes recipes! You have to love a book with recipes.

I’ve also been binge-reading Louise Penny’s Inspecter Gamache series of mysteries set in Canada’s Quebec province. I shared my introduction to Armand Gamache here. After the holidays and some admittedly heavier reads, I was happy to return to Three Pines and Penny’s intriguing cast of returning and new characters. I had already read the first three books, so I settled into the fourth book, A Rule Against Murder. I finished it late one evening and promptly downloaded the electronic version of the next. (I know, some people shop for shoes on a sleepless night, I download books!).

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the attraction to these mysteries. They are clever and quirky, but not too gruesome or scare-y. The continuing characters are likable or at least intriguing, and Penny weaves threads of their evolution from book to book. Plus, they dress nicely, eat well, and say please and thank you! There are about a dozen more to read, and frankly I could easily spend these gray winter days binge-reading all of them! Caution: If you decide to jump into the series, you need to read them in order. Start with Still Life. The stories and characters build on each other.

What about you? How would you describe your first month of the new year/new decade? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Going old-school in my kitchen

When in doubt, go old school. And when I’m talking about the kitchen, that does not mean giving up my dishwasher or microwave. However, I have had some small but useful cooking revelations lately and thought they would make an interesting post. Then, as I was writing, I realized I was also talking about bringing back old favorites — mac and cheese, pigs in a blanket, oatmeal. Nothing revolutionary or even trendy here, just some new/old ideas.

Baked brie en croute is yummy and the ever-popular cheese boards that feature a handful of cheeses, meats, condiments, crackers, nuts and veggies are fun to create and make for delicious grazing, but if you want a people-pleasing appetizer, go old-school and serve pigs-in-a-blanket. Cocktail-size hot dogs or sausages wrapped in small triangles of dough (a.k.a. refrigerated crescent rolls) is a consistent favorite. We served them twice over the holiday season. My husband is in charge of these. He uses a pizza cutter to simplify sizing smaller triangles of dough and serves up the finished snacks warm from the oven with grainy mustard. (And yes, you can also buy them pre-made from the frozen food section at your grocery.)

DIY ricotta cheese

Ina Garten points out that of course you can buy ricotta, but it’s so easy to make, why not? I mentioned this to one of my foodie friends who happens to be an outstanding cook, and she said, “Oh, yes! Very easy and very good.” So I checked the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe: milk, cream, vinegar and salt. Yes, it is easy and really, really good. It takes maybe 40 minutes to make, incIuding 20-30 minutes of draining the liquid from the cheese (see photo, left). Plenty of time yo wash a few dishes, check your email or work on the current newspaper crossword.

My inspiration for making ricota was copying a delicious appetizer we’d enjoyed in a restaurant: ricotta spread on toasted baguette slices, then topped with a bit of prosciutto. Yum! I have also used this ricota in lasagna. It was delicious!

Loaded oatmeal

That’s what I’m calling my new favorite breakfast.

When a friend and I meet for breakfast, we both often order an oatmeal dish like this. I don’t dislike oatmeal at home, but it is kind of boring. And bland. It occurred to me that I could make restaurant oatmeal at home. (You’re probably already doing this. Sometimes I’m a little slow.) I make a single serving of traditional Quaker Oats in the microwave (healthy fiber & protein), then top it with a handful of granola (for crunch) and fresh fruit, usually blueberries or strawberries (for sweet). I often use homemade granola, but store-bought works just as well. For me it’s the crunch that dresses up the oatmeal. At this time of year, when we’re all trying to eat healthier, I need all the help I can get.

 

Comfort in a foil-covered pan

Yesterday I made yet another batch of Ina Garten’s mac & cheese to deliver to a care-giving acquaintance and her family. (Does your church or neighborhood do this too? It’s thoughtful and practical, described by a recipient at our church as “love in a foil-covered pan.”) I was in a hurry to deliver my casserole hot, so I didn’t take a photo and am relying on this one from Ina’s Back to Basics cookbook. I added a large, veggie-packed salad to the dinner to balance the richness of the cheese (this recipe uses cheddar and gruyere) and the carbs in the mac. Bottom line: unless the recipient is on a limited diet, homemade mac & cheese is great comfort food and a nice change from the chili, lasagna and chicken soup often offered. And it freezes well, so you can make a batch (most recipes are pretty big) and divide it into two healthy portions in disposable foil pans and freeze. I’m trying to keep a few dishes like this in my freezer, so I have something tasty to share when someone needs a meal, which may or may not be when I have time to cook.

What about you? Have you incorporated any new recipes or ingredients into your kitchen routine? I’m really a cooking junkie, so if you have ideas, please share.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

 

In praise of wonky imperfection

One of my “wonky” individual souffles.

My daughter-in-law recently told me about a PTA presentation that covered, among other things, the quest for “perfection” among children. This is especially daunting for children who are gifted and/or talented. They hear “Perfect!” or “That would be perfect if…” Cue the stress. I’ve been thinking about the quest for perfection. We do this to our kids, ourselves and the adults around us. A lot.

Where does good perfection end and bad perfection start?

There are times when perfection matters: Don’t misspell words on your resume. Then there are times when it’s overrated.

I think the triggers or influences that drive perfectionism can be subtle or not, and they’re probably pretty personal. My dad (who otherwise was pretty perfect) used to say, “If you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.” But I wonder how any times that quest for perfection kept me from attempting something or attempting it again after a less than perfect effort. (Maybe I would have stuck with golf a little longer.)

Pie-making perfection

My grandma was a legendary pie maker. Her lemon meringue was the right mix of sweet and tart, with perfectly browned peaks that never “wept.” Her apple pie was as American as, well, you know. And when she delivered one of them to the church bake sale, they were top sellers.

An imperfect but tasty pie.

Grandma baked pies at lightning speed, her rolling pin banging on the table as she rolled out the crust. (Really, when I got older I realized we all backed away when she got the rolling pin out.) Although my earliest cooking memories are of making pies with her, using my own child-sized pie pans and left over bits of dough that I rolled and re-rolled and played with until it was genuinely grimey, I had no interest in learning how to actually make the crust and the fillings until I had my own family and became the holiday cook. By then, Grandma was gone and I was left to learn on my own. Mostly, I just made a mess of flour in the kitchen that resulted in patched-together crusts that led to store-bought pies. Problem solved.

But my pie-making ineptitude nagged at me. I wanted pie perfection.

And so, I hit the books. Ina Garden is usually my go-to, so I began practicing her crust. She uses the food processor, really cold butter and shortening. And I practiced pie dough. I told myself it was only flour, butter and shortening. And I think I’m beginning to get it. It’s not perfect, but it’s not patched together, it browns nicely and it tastes good.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Marjorie Taylor of The Cook’s Atelier when I attended my second cooking session. We were discussing what I had tried cooking at home and I noted that my souffles rose and browned unevenly.

How did they taste?

Wonderful!

Well, she said, who cares if they look a little wonky.

What wonderful advice. Maybe “a little wonky” is something we should all accept from time to time.

Looks, cooks and books in August

My looks this month can be summed up in three words: Charleston window boxes. They are charming, creative, and put a welcome face on homes and businesses across this charming and historic city.

I think of window boxes as decorating/gardening details, the kind of exclamation point Charlestonians always add and the rest of us wish we had thought of. I love them all and I can’t stop taking pictures of them when I’m in Charleston.

When I assembled the photos I most recently took, I noticed that most of these boxes featured far more greenery than flowers, perhaps a nod to Charleston’s steamy summer weather? I also think a lot of people replant the boxes with the seasons. However, look at the color and texture they get without flowers!

 

I am  a fan of ferns, so this box caught my eye right away.

 

And I thought this box mixed a lot of color although it uses limited  flowering plants.

 

This one also used colorful caladiums as well as some substantial traling plants. Here they pretty much reach the sidewalk!

 

This box was at a business.

 

And I loved this against the brick.

 

What I’ve been reading

We have a new, independent book store in our neighborhood. That alone is good news, but it gets better: the staff is friendly, low-key and eager to help you find something you are going to love reading. In my case it was Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray. This was my beach read, light but lots of fun. This is a dual story that moves between a modern American woman grappling with a family crisis and her French grandmother who cooked and eventually modeled for Picasso during his stay in Juan les Pins in 1936.

This sounds contrived and it was. But we actually stayed in Juan les Pins while in France last fall. Picasso and his artistic contemporaries are inescapable there as well as in Antibes and Nice. We visited the Picasso Museum in the former Chateau Grimaldi, which also makes an appearance in the novel. We loved this part of our trip, so it was really fun to read a novel in that setting.

After Picasso, I needed to read Where the Crawdads Sing for my morning book group. Everyone is reading this, it has been on the best seller list for dozens of weeks, selling more than a million copies since its release last year. It was also something of an unusual choice for AM Lit. We don’t typically pick something that current; on the other hand, we assumed we would all be reading it, so why not read it together?

Author Delia Owens tells the story of Kya’s survival as a child essentially alone in a remote marsh of North Carolina. Kya’s story is both disturbing in that she is left alone to fend for herself and inspiring in the way she handles it with the help of just a few others. Owens alternates telling Kya’s story with relating the events surrounding a mysterious death several years later.

Crawdads generated a lively discussion. This book raises so many questions, not the least of which for me is the role of a celebrity recommendation. In this case Reese Witherspoon chose Crawdads for  her book club. How much does that shape a book’s popularity and recognition with both critics and readers in general?

Then our discussion leader for this month pointed us to a recent article in Slate which detailed Owens’ role related to another murder. (And no, she is not a suspect.) If you have read the book, read this. It’s interesting to consider how this real life murder may have shaped the mystery in the novel. If not, wait until another time since the Slate article includes a spoiler about the book’s quirky ending.

Finally, I just finished The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin. And guess what? This is also a story told in two different time frames, but with an interesting catch. It begins in 2079 when the narrator and the youngest of the Skinner siblings is 102. I was totally unprepared for this opening, but quickly got caught up in the story. The plot is somewhat familiar: it centers on a group of four siblings who are forced to raise themselves after their father dies unexpectedly in 1981 and their mother takes to her bed for two years. They later refer to this as “The Pause.” Their bond is remarkable and the role each assumes in the family is unique. This engaging story caught me completely off-guard. I didn’t always like the characters, but I couldn’t put the book down.

What’s next on my list? My grandson has pointed out that I’ve fallen behind on my Harry Potter reading, so The Prisoner of Azkaban is next.

One quick cook

If you have not heard of sheet pain suppers, where everything is essentially roasted together on a standard sheet pan, you’re missing out on some delicious, easy cooking and clean up. Although a lot of these recipes are geared to larger families, I have easily modified them for the two of us. And it’s also easy to tweak the main ingredients to your preferences. My latest effort starred smoked sausage (my husband’s request) which I paired with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers and slices of polenta. Despite the fact that the cherry tomatoes pretty much cooked down to nothing (I think I might try halved or quartered romas next time), we really enjoyed this. We had never tried polenta this way, but it roasted beautifully. The peppers were delicious, and I would add more next time.

That’s it lately. Pretty quiet actually, but that’s fine with me. Thanks for stopping by.

See you next time!

 

 

Looks, cooks, and books from May

One of my favorite perennials, these are much earlier than my Shasta daisies and far more prolific.

Perhaps you’ve noticed? I’ve been in a bit of a blog funk, waiting for a spring that teased rather than settling in, getting caught up in a big round of volunteer meetings, and more. But I’m back. And here are the looks, cooks, and books I’ve been up to lately.

Digging in the dirt

It happens every spring. Like the fans who love getting back to baseball, I’m eager to get out to my garden. The season is short in Chicago, so you need to make the time count. I love seeing the perennials push their way up each spring, unfolding and leafing out. I worry over gaps, where a plant didn’t survive the winter or where I made a note last year to fill in with another specimen. I love this! It’s like styling a bookshelf or tabletop, but with plants in the dirt.

This year the cool, rainy spring has been both blessing and curse. The good news is that many of the perennials like hostas, dallies, and astilbes have loved the cool, wet spring. They are bigger than ever and many need to be divided. The bad news is that it is absolutely squishy and muddy in most of the yard. It’s just too wet to work.

I’m also challenging the familiar garden pot recipe — a thriller, a filler and a spiller — in patio pots this year. I did some like that and then planted a few others with just one kind of plant per pot. I had this idea last year, but didn’t quite get it done, so this year I planted two pots with nothing but cosmos. And I filled another pot with three marguerites, though I also tucked in some alyssum around the edges. They’re doing well, but the plants need to get bigger to make more of a statement.

After I planted cosmos seeds in one pot, I found these at the garden center and loved the color.

I read Harry Potter!

You’re probably saying, been there, done that. Well, I didn’t. (And I didn’t watch the movies either. I was waiting until I read the books!) Now that our eight-year-old grandson has started reading them, I’m catching up. I totally understand what the fuss is about because these are wonderful characters and stories. Second, and even better, it’s just so much fun sharing this discovery with Jack! He’s well ahead of me (of course), but a great cheerleader so I’ll be catching up.

When I finished Harry, I went on to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was the choice of one of the readers in a small, informal book group I meet with. Our choices are all over the map: fiction, non-fiction, especially biography, and sometimes we skip a book and watch a film together instead. This is a page-turner, about an aging Hollywood legend telling her life story — which includes seven husbands! — to a much younger writer mysteriously selected for the job. Check it out!

Two from my kitchen

When it’s too rainy to be outside (and we’ve had a lot of rain, have you?), I play in the kitchen. I discovered this recipe for copycat Starbucks blueberry muffins on the Cafe Sucre Farine. I happen to love those muffins (and have eaten more than my fair share of them), so I decided to see how close they really come. Well. they’re awesome and they do bake up with these lovely puffy, crunchy tops. There are a few extra steps in this recipe, but I think they’re worth it.

I’ve also been perfecting this chicken dish, recommended by Elizabeth at Blue & White Home. It began as a Southern Living sheet pan recipe using chicken thighs and drumsticks. And in that incarnation (check their website for Lemon-Rosemay-Garlic Chicken and Potatoes) I agree with Elizabeth that it’s perfect for serving a family or friends.

I wanted to try using white meat (my husband’s preference) in a smaller quantity. I’ve now made it three times, tweaking a bit each time. I used two, skin-on, bone -in chicken breasts (more than enough for our dinner and leftovers for a salad or two for me later in the week). While the oven preheated to 450, I browned the chicken pieces skin-side down along with a few handfuls of small potatoes, halved, in a small amount of olive oil. Use a pan than can go right into the hot oven.

While the chicken was browning I mixed 1/3 cup of olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup), half of a 3.5 ounce jar of capers drained, 4 smashed garlic cloves, and a generous tablespoon of fresh rosemary. I also sliced up another lemon and added that to the mix.

When the chicken was browned on one side, I turned chicken skin side up, poured the lemon/oil/herb mix over all and put the pan into the hot oven. It took about 40 minutes to reach 165 degrees. (It could be longer if you have more pieces in a larger pan). When it was done, I took the chicken and potatoes out and added a generous splash of white wine and a pat of butter to the pan juices and stirred and simmered for a few minutes until both were incorporated. I spooned this “sauce” over the plated chicken and potatoes. Voila! Dinner is served.

 

Pretty pictures

Some days Instagram is so full of great images, I just have to save some. I have always loved a sunroom, especially with a black & white floor, but this one with the baby grand breaks all the rules!

 

And then there is this beautiful vintage frame, with the asymmetrical arrangement of blue and white. (Yes, I’m trying to figure how to duplicate it!)

 

And finally, I just can’t resist a pretty windowbox!

           

How was your May? And what’s your plan for June?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!