Thinking out loud

We’ve enjoyed one beautiful, warm, September day after another here. I’ve been cleaning up the garden, thinking about what I might do different next year, and pondering a few other things.

Gracious living

My late, great friend Sherry was a stickler for “gracious living.” In her book, gracious did not necessarily mean a lot of money (though that would be nice), but it did mean extra effort: candles on the table, fresh flowers (most likely from the grocery store) and cloth napkins. I was reminded of her mantra last week as I lit a handful of votives on the table before we sat down to burgers. Candlelight wasn’t going to turn the burger into a steak, but, hey, we wanted burgers. It’s the “extra” that counts. 

When my son and daughter were in grade school, we tripped into having Sunday dinners in the dining room, complete with candles and the good dishes. (This began with a Yule Log they wanted to light, Christmas dishes, and the good silver. A tale too long to tell here.) And we did that most Sundays at least until the older of the two left for college. 

Last winter during the pandemic my husband and I brought the tradition back just for us. 

I hear a lot of talk on Instagram and in blogland saying much the same thing. Why are we saving the “good stuff”? And it’s all good stuff, whether it’s your grandmother’s heirloom Haviland, your wedding china, or the new plates and mugs your found at HomeGoods to replace the chipped and discolored dishes that have established their residence in your kitchen.

,What is it about the dining room and/or the good china that makes us slow down, enjoy the wine, and linger over the conversation? At least in part I think, it’s just that. We slow down and breathe a little deeper. There is a comfort in tradition — in gracious living — and lately we have lost so much of that.

Obviously, we’ve lost a lot to the pandemic. And maybe almost as much to the pitched political battle that has permeated most of our life for the last few years. I long for a little more grace and I’m looking in new places to find it. If you have some ideas please share them.  

Doing something good about the bad news 

The news has been grim: fires in the west, flooding in the east, the pandemic that does not end. So, last week, I was thrilled to wrap my hands around something I really could do. I shopped to fill two school backpacks with a list of school necessities — everything from pencils and erasers to 3-ring binders and paper, paper, paper. I did this at the request of two much smarter and proactive friends who wanted to do something for the Afghan refugees headed this way. So they talked to one of the agencies who will be helping settle these families and found this was a way to help. It didn’t require a conference call or adding a line item to a budget somewhere. Two women emailed a supply list to their friends and invited them to help. So far they’ve acquired dozens of backpacks.

This is not about taking sides on international policy. The deed is done and now we do what we can to help.  

I can’t think of a better closing line, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. Best wishes to you for a wonderful weekend. Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you here again soon.

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! 

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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

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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?)

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!

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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!

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!

Saving February

I did my part in February to organize and reshuffle shelves and cabinets.

Is February a bore? The holidays are over, but in Illinois, Spring is is still far off. This year the weather has been oddly warm and way too cloudy. Now the sun is out, but it’s bitter cold. (Although honestly, if I can have only one, I’ll take sunny over cloudy whatever the temperature.) The more I thought about February being a bore, the more I realized it wasn’t. I was just sitting in a mental slump. Does this happen to you?  I think I was letting the calendar play mind games, especially on all those cloudy days.

And now, just to prove February’s not a bore, here are three fun things from the month.

A is for Audio

As an avid reader/book lover and participant in more than one book group, I have listened more and more to fellow book readers enumerate the virtues of audio books. They listen while they walk or ride the train or do the laundry. On one hand, it’s a great way to spend otherwise “mindless” time. On the other, the purist in me — the English major — thinks it can’t possibly be the same as actually turning the page, marking a passage, etc. (Yes. I write in my books and even dog-ear the pages. I like to really own them and reread all or parts of favorites.)

Last year my husband and I listened to a book on our drive to the Carolinas. It was a good way to spend the time, though we often got caught up in the drive or a conversation and lost track of the book. Recently, however, my son gave me a really cool pair of wireless earphones for my birthday. (I’m always late to the technology party.) I love them, and I’m becoming a devotee of Audible. I can listen while I walk, “read” in bed without disturbing my husband, and I can’t wait for a plane trip to try them out. I’m certainly not giving up on reading a “real” book, but audio books do help me enjoy more reading experiences. However, I do find that I’m listening to one book while reading another. Do you do that?

Instagram gardening

I was cruising thru some of my Instagram favorites the other day and realized that I’ve been saving garden shots, lots of them. Hmmm. I think I’m getting anxious to get outside, get my hands in the dirt, enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. My garden is not big and, if anything, I aim to simplify the tasks that go into maintaining it. But, my daily morning walk outside to check on plants (and weeds!), deadhead a few spent blooms, snip a few more to bring inside, and consider what more needs to be done nourishes me mentally and physically. But as 
I write this, it’s 12-degrees out, so enjoy a few photos I’ve saved as I plan ahead for spring.

How’s this for lush?I’m a sucker for vines.

 

I’ve never tried foxgloves, so this may be the year.I love the contrast the upright flowers have with the mounded greenery.

 

I also really enjoy somewhat monochromatic colors. I think a single-color garden shows off the diversity of the greenery.

 

This birthday cake

My nine-year-old grandson is currently obsessed with Rubik’s Cube. He has solved not only the original 6-sided puzzle (which leaves me in the dust!) but also the other multi-sided versions. “It’s all about the algorithms,” he explains. I actually looked into its history and the puzzle was designed by a professor who wanted to teach students about solving spacial problems.  For Jack, it’s really all about today’s math. It may not be Grandma’s math, but it sure does look like fun.

Back to the cake. My daughter-in-law always tries to tie cakes into the honoree’s interests. (I should have known what was coming when she ordered a globe-shaped groom’s cake for the rehearsal dinner.) She searched around and found ideas for Rubik’s Cube, then baked a 4-layer cake and carefully decked it with color-coded M&M’s. Is this not awesome engineering? (Okay, one corner is a little wonky, but that’s because the finished masterpiece sat in the fridge for a day!)

What about you? What’s kept you going in February?

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.

I’m skipping Christmas in July

I’m not sure who came up with the idea of Christmas in July, but I am not buying into it. Not the Hallmark movies, not the Christmas in July decorating blog posts, and definitely not the pre-, pre-season sale on artificial trees. And I have my reasons.

July is the heart of the summer. It’s the long, sweet stretch between school years. It should be celebrated with more than picnics and fireworks on the 4th, but with entire days spent at the pool or popsicles for lunch. July is long and luxurious, reading a book in front of a fan. Yes it’s hot and sticky (especially this year!) and sometimes stormy. And even if you can’t get away to the mountains or the beach, there’s always the hose. (On the hottest days, I always “need” to hose down the patio.)

And then there’s the food: sliced, salted tomatoes straight from the garden, sweet corn, cold shrimp or chicken for supper, the best watermelon. This is all the stuff that’s so out of place at Christmas, when we’re thinking hot chocolate and fancy cookies.

Christmas should be savored in its own season.

Christmas is sacred and special. If we preview it six months ahead of time, we risk watering it down. The holiday season is its own, magical, list-making, secret-sharing time. Christmas (and for that matter Hanukah and Kwanza) are nothing like July. It’s about the Christ Child, angels and three wise men, not to mention shorter days, holiday lights, and hoping for snow.

Of course, it’s a busy time and we need to prepare. The smartest among us do just that. But I think the best of us do so quietly, so the holiday season opens with us ready to enjoy the celebration. Otherwise we risk being talked-out and tired of it before the first bells jingle. And don’t tell me you haven’t bemoaned the appearance of holiday goods in stores as soon as the school supplies are sold out.

If you rush Christmas, you could miss something good. I really don’t want to miss back-to-school, falling leaves and Halloween. I want to enjoy decorating with pumpkins and gourds. I do not want to miss Thanksgiving.

I speak from experience

Back in the dark ages, in my twenty-something career before having a family, I was a buyer for a gift catalog. Christmas was our bread and butter. We worked on it all year, literally. In February and March we made the rounds of the gift, toy and holiday shows where we selected items for consideration in the holiday catalogs. In May and June we finalized the merchandise, designed the pages and wrote the copy. In July we delivered it to the printer and signed off on the proofs so the catalog could mail in September. (The print industry runs well-ahead of the calendar.)

By the time Christmas rolled around, we’d already “been there, done that” and were scheduling ahead to start again in February. I used to say I was getting twice as old in half the time. When I left that industry, I was anxious to reset the calendar and live in the present. I haven’t looked back.

Go ahead and savor Christmas in July if you must. I’m fortunate to be writing this from the beach in South Carolina, where life is sandy and salty. And there is no way I’m going to rush the season!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

 

 

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!

Lately: Reading, cooking, and decorating my way out of cabin fever

Spring can’t come soon enough.

I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and winter weather — including snow, ice and bitter cold — is something we just learn to live with. However, this year’s temperatures have challenged the hardiest of us. I honestly cannot remember a time when sub-zero temperatures and wind chill hit 50-below, when the Post Office announced it would not deliver mail and the garbage trucks simply stayed put and these lapses had nothing to do with two feet of snow on the ground.

As my grandson would say, it’s been epic!

Although we have certainly been able to get out for groceries, go to the gym, meet friends for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we have often done so in bitter cold or sloppy snow. With boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. This is fun and adventurous early in the winter, after a few months it gets old, at least for me. Most of all, there have been too many days when we just couldn’t go out. When no one could.

Cabin fever is no joke.

When I look back at what I have done lately, most of it has been centered on coping with cabin fever. First, of course, I read. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was a book club read and, like so many of them, it pushed my typical reading choices. This multigenerational story about Koreans living in Japan (where they were viewed as second class citizens) recounts one woman’s life decision and the repercussions on her family for generations to come. I knew very little about the history of either country, so this was especially eye-opening for me. Pachinko was a little tough starting, but ultimately a compelling read.

Then I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Never assume. This was appearing on so many reading lists, I thought it would be one of those best seller/easy/fun reads. It was all that, but more. Eleanor is way more complicated than the heroine I was expecting. Yes, she has an amusing lack of social skills. Then she crosses paths with co-worker Raymond. (I know, this is sounding contrived, right?) Slowly, their growing friendship begins not only to reveal her terrifying past, but also the importance of human connections.

I’ve moved on now to House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’ll keep you posted, but so far, so good.

I’ve been cooking

In fact, I cooked so much I had to start passing out “samples.” I made Ina Garten’s Winter Vegetable Soup twice in one week. It was just that good! I made the first batch per all of her instructions, minus the pesto which I did not have. The second time, I tweaked the recipe a bit, substituting potato for some of the squash. It was just as good! (I did take Ina’s suggestion to use homemade chicken stock, and I do think it makes a huge difference!)

Since we really can’t live by soup alone, I also made beef burgundy and a batch of meatballs. I would have continued, but the freezer was quickly filling with the soup, homemade stock, etc.

So I turned instead to decorating…

And I re-hung this gallery in the stairway to our finished basement. I am the only child/only grandchild and therefore keeper of family photos. My mother-in-law also passed along boxes of photos to me. These riches are compounded by the fact that my dad was quite the amateur photographer. He had a small darkroom in our house and he enlarged/cropped and otherwise tweaked his own photos as well as old negatives that my mom unearthed. It was a lot of fun for all of us. But it also resulted in a lot of photos. I’m really drowning in prints, often multiples of the same image (though I am increasingly successful at weeding those out!).

Some of these have been hung here right along, some have been displayed on tabletops, others were stashed in the back of closets, behind dressers, under beds — you name it. Would it surprise you to learn I have a few more to add to this? My goal has been to save the best and get rid of the rest. Let’s just say I’m making progress.

My Instagram feed

And, yes, I’ve spent far too much time this winter on social media, which for me is Instagram. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my IG feed is pretty narrow, no celebrities, few FaceBook friends, a lot of designers and lifestyle bloggers. I’ve saved some screenshots, so I could share my favorite finds.

Anyone who has successfully grown a geranium in a porch pot is desperate for spring and the garden season after a winter like this. If you love gardening or decorating, I encourage you to follow Jenny Rose Innes, from Bowral, Australia. Her home(s) are stunning and her gardens beautifully lush. I was initially struck by the brick path in this image (I love the way it periodically cuts into the beds on each side), but I also thought that if my garden just looked this good in green, imagine how it would look when those plants bloomed!

 

I often think that “go big or go home” is a good rule in decorating. Look at the impact this big but simple bucket of lilacs has on this room. It’s not overpowering (though the fragrance must be wonderful), it’s placed to be seen but not in the way, and it beautifully balances the stone wall, wood floor, and baskets.

 

Elizabeth blogs at blueandwhitehome.com. Both her blog and her IG feed are populated with beautifully-appointed, mostly blue and white rooms. She’s traditional, sometimes with an edgier feel, and her daughter, who also contributes to the blog, has a similar aesthetic. Elizabeth also generously introduces a number of her favorite designers, like Caroline Gidiere Design. (Yes, I’m a little obsessed with this room: the gallery, the blue and white and that green!)

 

 

James T. Farmer is an interior designer, gardener, author and speaker whose work is always infused with a gracious, southern sensibilty. His IG is as likely to feature photos of his dog, whatever he’s cooking or eating, and/or his extended family and friends as it does images of his design work. This image says it all! (Check out his latest book, A Place to Call Home.)

 

 

Wouldn’t you love to attend or host a dinner party featuring this lovely table? Enough said.

 

 

Finally, Joni Webb — whose awesome blog Cote de Texas is, well, awesome — posted this image (and several others) of an apartment belonging to the late Lee Radziwell. Is there anyone else out there, of a certain age I suppose, who heard a door quietly close at the news of her passing?

 

 

And that’s my lately. What are you doing to combat cabin fever?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?