Hemingway, french toast, & garden starts 

EHemingwayHow are you & how’s your  week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone.  Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!

Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)

Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher. 

What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat. 

Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.

For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character  from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.

(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )

French toast perfection

IMG_4741For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.

IMG_4707The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so. 

We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)

The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper. 

We learned a few things from our recipe testing: 

  • Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body. 
  • Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white). 
  • Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch. 
  • The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick. 
  • We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.

IMG_4708As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched. 

So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects. 

Garden starts

Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures,  Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off. 

Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed! 

IMG_4795

I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!

Thanks for stopping by. See you aqgain soon!

In my January Kitchen

IMG_4569
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. 

IMG_4594
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?)

SouperCube
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!

IMG_2264
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!

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!

A little cooking, a little gardening, and the remarkable Hayes girls

I was writing a lighthearted post when the coronavirus death toll passed 100,000. And while l was trying to wrap my head around that number, one man died on the street in Minneapolis. You know the rest. These have been terrible days and weeks. I am so sad about what’s happened, but also hopeful we meet this challenge. It will take a lot of work. I especially hope you are well. Personally, I just felt numb for a while. Here’s what I’ve been doing to get back on track.

Moving along

Our cooking adventures continue. Earlier this week I made steak fajitas from scratch using a recipe from the New York Times (My new favorite recipe source. I encourage you to sign up for their newsletter.).  First, this recipe was much easier than I expected and required standard ingredients from my kitchen. Who knew? The fajitas tasted even better than they look. (I should have tidied that serving board before snapping any photos.)

That is one of my husband’s tart margaritas in the glass. (He’s not fond of the sugar-y taste of other recipes and I think he has a good thing here!)

I have literally been nagging my garden and potted plants to grow and bloom. I could use the boost. And — I think they are starting to listen. Everything is very lush and green. This bed beside the house has been literally overrun with daisies and perennial geraniums. The awkward patch of green in the front are black-eyed Susans which typically burst into bloom when the daisies are done.  There are also some daylilies along the foundation. If anyone has some advice for getting this under control and maybe some order — without sacrificing bloom — I’m all ears.

 

 

This garden on the other side of the house is the picture of control, almost. There is that one monster hosta in the back. I should have divided and/or moved it early this spring. However, the astilbe are ready to bloom and about the time they fade, the hostas will be flowering.

 

 

Those remarkable Hayes girls

Left to right, my mother-in-law Nelle, Lilian, Sara, Clydene, and Lenny.

My mother-in-law was the middle daughter in a family of five girls in a small, north Georgia town.  Their father (forever known as “Daddy” in true southern speak) was a rural mailman, originally traveling his route by horseback before acquiring a car. In the early thirties, as the second eldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, the principal and a teacher visited “Momma and Daddy” to explain to them that Clydene was really a smart girl and should go to college. They had no objections, but how would they pay for it? The solution was for Daddy to trade his mail route for one in Athens, Georgia, home to the university, so she could live at home and go to school. So the Hayes family rented their house and moved to Athens. Although the eldest daughter had already embarked on her adult life (and eventually ran the local Chevy dealer), the other four girls each graduated from the University of Georgia during the Depression. My mother-in-law actually taught in a one-room school to help cover her tuition on the way to becoming a teacher. Every time I tell this story I think about how devoted “Momma & Daddy” were to uproot the family and give their daughters the opportunity for a college education.

This weekend Sara, the youngest sister and the last survivor, passed away at the age of 98 (four out of five lived well into their 90’s). As the “Aunts” always pointed out, Sara was the tallest and, I think, perhaps the most mischievous. She was funny without trying to be and playful, which, of course, made her a favorite. Our kids loved her, as did our niece and nephew. The last time we were together she convinced my mother-in-law to play a duet with her on the piano in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in DeKalb, Georgia. Quintessential Aunt Sara.

I think of them now, reunited again, recalling pranks, telling stories, arguing over who makes the best Mississippi Mud Cake. I am honored to have been a tiny part of that family and so happy my son and daughter experienced their loving embrace.

There is a joy and strength in this story that makes me feel good, no matter how many times I tell it.

Thanks for stopping by. Take good care of yourself, and I’ll see you next time!

 

 

 

Five books by cooks

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this post…

A few months ago, I wrote here about recent books I’d read and included an enthusiastic review of Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. After that, I started thinking about other books I had read that were written by cooks, and it  occurred to me that the book lovers/cooks among my readers may enjoy learning about them. So here’s a quick look at what that shelf in my library might look like. And — wait for it — here’s the funny thing: If you’re a bit of a Francophile, you’ve hit the motherload, because it turns out that each of these cooks have or are are working and cooking in France!

What does a 36-year-old woman do when she loses her corporate job? How about cashing in her savings and heading to Paris to attend the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school? That’s what Kathleen Flinn did, fulfilling a long-held dream. Then she wrote The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. Sounds romantic and it was, but then again her french was not good and her classmates were very competitive. Not only is this a recipe-laden personal memoir, it’s also the first book-length account of the experience of attending the famous school. The Sharper Your Knife did earn a spot on the New York Times best seller list and was included on a number of “best of” lists in 2007. Since then she has also written The Kitchen Counter Cooking School and Burnt Toast Makes You Sing.

Long before Kathleen Flinn took on Le Cordon Bleu, there was Julia Child. My Life in France recounts Julia and Paul’s early move to France, her discovery of — and passion for — french cuisine and her cooking adventures before, during, and after (including her own time at Le Condon Bleu!). Of course there are recipes, but I really loved this book for the story it told about Julia and Paul. The book is largely based on letters written by Julia and Paul Child to his twin, Charles Child, grandfather of co-author Alex Prud’homme. Julia’s uniquely pitched and enthusiastic voice is everywhere in the book. Most of us think of her as the dynamo behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which many say brought french cooking to America, and the subsequent PBS series The French Chef, both wildly successful. But Julia and Paul weathered more than their fair share of personal and professional challenges along the way, and they too are part of the story.

David Lebovitz is a former pastry chef, who spent 13 years in the restaurant fast lane at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse before heading across the Atlantic to Paris. (Don’t they all?) He writes a dynamite blog on cooking, dining, drinking, and life in France, begun as a website before there were “blogs” and intended to promote his first book, Room for Dessert. In addition to seven recipe books, he wrote The Sweet Life in Paris which recounts his move there and the ups and downs of adjusting to Parisian life. It includes recipes for everything from hot chocolate to spiced nuts, including Carnitas, Absinthe Cake, Fig-Olive Tapenade, and so much more. David Lebovitz is fun because his cooking is all over the map.

I also read L’appart, the Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, which recalls in detail both painful and funny the story of Lebovitz buying an apartment he envisioned (really a large open kitchen) and one he can afford (a derelict space in an uncertain building). In addition to his endless stream of Parisian anecdotes, this book is armed with appealing recipes like Bacon, Green Peas and Tarragon Quiche, Beef Stew with Olives, and an intriguing cocktail called The Truth Serum featuring tequila and Izarra or Charrteuse.

Finally, I’m including The Cook’s Atelier by Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini. They think of it as a cookbook and I do too, but it’s also a coffee table book with it’s oversized, lush photos of the Burgundy countryside and their beautiful shop in Beaune, France. And then there is the story of how Marjorie ran a successful restaurant in Phoenix before following her daughter to France, and their search to build a successful family business around their Burgundian way of life in Beaune, and the business that grew and portraits of the  farmers, shepherds, butchers and more that complete their picture. The atelier’s philosophy is built around seasonal cooking, and the recipes are arranged accordingly. for example, Spring Dinner in the Wine Shop includes White Asparagus with Hollandaise, Green Garlic Souffle, and Rustic Apricot Tart.

Bonus! Virtual cooking from a Charleston, South Carolina kitchen. I’ve just discovered @BrooksReitz on Instagram. Reitz is a Charleston restauranteur and the man behind Jack Rudy Cocktail Company. He is, as he says, a cook not a chef, and his video recipes (filmed at home by his wife) are short, simple and use what you have in your pantry. (He’s big on frozen peas, eggs, celery, and whatever fresh herbs you may have.) But here’s the catch — they don’t taste simple. Reitz  layers flavor to make simple ingredients stand out and gives some great lessons in technique along the way.

So there you have a particular shelf in my “library,” part cooking, part travel and part biography. If I checked out your bookshelves (real or virtual), what would I find?

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re healthy.

See you again next time!

Five to share

A field of poppies in France.

How’s your week going? I was totally energized by warmer weather and sunshine early in the week. We’re in for steady rain today and tomorrow, but that’s okay since I have some indoor projects, too. My mind often seems kind of scattered lately (you too?), so this is one of those “bits and pieces” posts, but I have a few things I really wanted to share.

One: Recommended reading

You may have already read this New York Times Magazine essay (it’s about 10 days old) written by the owner/chef of a 14-table bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, but if not please follow the link. Gabrielle Hamilton writes, beautifully and with brutal honesty, about what it takes to shutdown her restaurant — which was also her dream. This is the inside view of the corona virus economic meltdown. This was not a new business. Prune was well-established and an award-winner. But these are exceptional times and this is no doubt the story of so many dreams.

Whether Prune comes back or not, Ms Hamilton is one of my new heroes.

Two: the non-graduation graduation

Graduation season is just around the corner, except, of course, this year it comes without the anticipated ceremonies and celebrations. Here’s my take: we’re living at an historic crossroads, most of us will mark much of our time as “before the pandemic” and “after the pandemic.” One of the big questions now is how will we be different, how will our lives be changed, after this? It’s a distinction the Class of 2020 should wear proudly.

Missing a ceremony isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a big change from the plan. And in some ways it makes you special. If you read my reunion post from a few years back, you may recall that my graduation was abruptly rained out just minutes after it started. “Most of the class received their diploma from a teacher, standing on a cafeteria table, calling out names. No speeches, no Pomp and Circumstance. Just a lot of wet students and parents milling about.” Fifty years later, we wear that non-event proudly. And I’m betting that in just a few years, the class of 2020 will too.

Plane trees along a road in France.

Three: I need to go to France

Okay, this is a bit selfish, but I need to go to France.

Not tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. But I need to go when we are able to put the virus and pandemic behind us. When we feel safe again. I’m willing to take whatever time necessary to put this behind us. And my husband agrees. France, it seems is one of our happy places. It’s part adventure and part comfortable. And maybe we’d just like to escape right now (wouldn’t we all?). We connect it with food, wine, history ,and sunny days getting lost on meandering, two-lane roads. We loved the people we met there, some of them french and some travelers from elsewhere in the world, we love the history, sitting in cafes with a coffee or an aperitif, the food, the wine. I could go on.

 Four: Bonus reading

This week I’m reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones so I can discuss it at my book group’s virtual meeting. It’s one of those books that’s been on reading lists everywhere and understandably so, since it’s a genuinely compelling read about a young husband wrongly convicted of a serious crime. But it’s also about marriage and race and have’s & have not’s. Have you read it? What did you think? Do you like the different narrators sharing their points of view? Do you think it’s just a little predictable?

Five: What I’ve cooked

In the last several days I have cooked both high and low: Ina Garten’s homemade potato chips (delicious), Rice Krispie treats (because my husband found a box of cereal in the back of the pantry), roast salmon on fresh lettuces dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon (my new favorite way to serve fish), sheet pan chicken with garlic and cherry tomatoes (from the NYT), my favorite granola, a big batch of blueberry muffins (how did I end up with 3 pints of blueberries in the refrigerator) and chocolate chip cookies, because when the going gets tough, the tough make chocolate chips. Whew!

Perhaps I should have called this Friday Smiles; I  think it’s important to keep smiling right now. To look on the bright side. We’ve come this far, we can go a few more weeks, even a few more after that.

Stay safe & stay well. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.

 

Looks, books and cooks from a pandemic, part 1

How are you doing?  Isolation is hard, but I honestly can’t complain. We’re healthy and so is our family. Right now, that’s everything.

I am  struck by the challenge of balancing the practical (stay in, stay safe) and the emotional (stay sane, keep busy) in every day living. Life right now, I think, is made up of small victories.  Here are some of the things saving me these days.

Conversation

Obvious, right?  But maybe we’ve been relying too much on texts and emails. I have long suspected that personal conversation is so much richer, and the pandemic has proven me right.  Phone calls from old friends and family members are golden, the highlights of the day. Those other voices really are reassuring. And then there’s FaceTime, Zoom and all the other platforms that allow us to meet face-to-face. In addition to our usual FaceTime adventures with the grandkids, we have been enjoying grown-up, cocktail FaceTime with friends.

On Friday my book group met via Zoom to discuss The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown. Fifteen of us logged on to talk, check in with each other, share a few war stories about life in a time of social distancing, and then realized we really could not talk all at once. (This happens even when we meet in person!)

These women are challenging readers (as well as some of my oldest friends) and we did dive into the book. We got side-tracked by the history of Jews being re-settled on midwestern farms. And then there was the matter of Chicago’s colorful history on the near South and West sides. This was a challenging read, and it shared a wonderful slice of Chicago history.

Many of us thought it well worth reading. We agreed we’ll do this this next month when we read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and perhaps even in June when we meet to determine our reading list for next year. Thank goodness for books, and my never-ending list of what I want to read next and then after that.

Keeping busy

I learned long ago that tackling a new recipe in the kitchen is — for me —  a great stress-reliever. When I’m concentrating on measuring ingredients and following directions, I am able to put other cares in a better perspective. Like so many of you, I am cooking a lot. Our dinner repertoire now includes Frying Pan Spaghetti, my name for our version of a New York Times recipe that combines dry spaghetti, halved cherry tomatoes, a generous pour of olive oil and a quart of boiling water in a large, shallow pan for a five-minute simmer. Add a little green with a handful or two of fresh spinach or kale, short pieces of asparagus or green beans or even peas. Spice it up with fresh parmesan, parsley, and/or basil. It’s  a great “hip pocket recipe,” one that adapts to what’s in your pantry and fridge.

And speaking of your pantry and fridge, how are you keeping them stocked? My husband and I are learning the ropes of “click list shopping” online and then picking up our order in the parking lot. It is easy and feels much safer than braving the store, but it definitely requires much more organized list-making than Steve and I are used to doing. We’re making it work, but between our accidental omissions from the list and the grocer’s need to sometimes substitute, we’ve come to realize flexibility is key.

I’m embarrassed to say, this is my very messy cabinet of sewing curiosities.

Long before I fell in love with cooking, I found sewing and other needlework to be equally engaging. When I started shopping vintage and antique markets, I was quickly drawn to the vintage tablecloths and fabrics available. (And by this I mean I seem to have an inner sensor that detects barkcloth draperies, 40’s tablecloths, antique French grainsacks and linen towels before I even see them!) This explains the bundles of vintage and new fabrics I have stuffed in a cabinet downstairs. So, I opened the cabinet doors where I keep this stash, and I’ve been measuring, cutting, sewing and letting the creative juices flow. I have no finished projects (except for a few homemade face masks), but I’m having a terrific time. And I will share what I  eventually have to show for this effort!

Like so many of our friends, my husband and I try to get in a walk outside most days. And as the weather has improved here we have found ways to putter in the yard and garage, cleaning up the inevitable “winter residue” and settling on some space for vegetables in our yard since we aren’t sure when or if Steve’s garden plot at the park district will be available. This life is full of unknowns, isn’t it?

Too much news is just too much

I can be a real news junky, but I have sworn off much of what I used to watch. I still flip on the Today show first thing in the morning. It’s my check in with the world, to make sure we’re all still here. And I  try to catch local news to get what’s happening in Chicago. But I don’t let it run on all day.

I have mixed feelings many of these days. I miss simple pleasures like coffee with a friend or guests for dinner. I miss my adult children, self-isolating in their own homes. Although I’m keeping busy, like everyone else I also wonder:  How long will our isolation last? When will we be able to have friends over for Sunday night supper or take a trip? And then there are the big questions. Will we all stay safe and healthy? How different will life be in the post-pandemic?

As so many if us have said lately, “This too shall pass.” And, I would like to add, “We live in interesting times.” What about you? How are you spending your days in these social-distancing times? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

 

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!