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!

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?

 

Wishing you Christmas wonder and magic!

My daughter texted her brother, asking what was on her 6-year-old nephew’s list beside the kitten, puppy and penguin already discussed and discarded. Good luck, said my son, he’s added a reindeer to the list.

This is what I love about Christmas. Impractical, improbable, a sleigh flying thru the night loaded with presents. I always check the sky, for a sleigh with Santa or the special star announcing Jesus’s birth to the shepherds. It’s magic and wonder and I think we all need that. And I think we are nourished by both faith and fun.

This year I have tried to simplify, making more room for wonder and magic. I limited my decorating to the tree in the living room, the table in the dining room and the mantel in the family room, accompanied by some special pieces like this Santa and my collection of putz houses and bottle brush trees. And candles, lots of candles because I think they contribute to the magic and wonder.

 

My best-ever post Christmas sale find.

 

Don’t you love the rakish tilt to the steeple?

I also got out some old Christmas photos, including this one of my Grandparents with a war-time Christmas tree. I can’t imagine how difficult those holidays must have been.

 

 

Last year we celebrated a simpler, quieter holiday. My husband was recovering from surgery in mid-December for Stage 1 lung cancer. He needed to rest and stay away from everyone’s Christmas cold. And truth be told, we were still reeling from the diagnosis and wrapping our heads around how fortunate we were to find this early and what additional treatment may be ahead. It was a good holiday, good to be with family and friends, good to be getting well.

Fast forward a year, past chemo, recovery, and clean scans, and I think we are Christmas-ing with a simpler but more festive attitude. And I have a new mantra: buy the dress, take the trip and always, always eat dessert.

Wishing you a joyous holiday season, full of wonder and magic and, perhaps, even a reindeer under the tree.

See you next time!

 

Binge-ing on culture

Lately I have found myself on a bit of a culture course. And while I’m certainly not complaining, I am amused at how things sometimes come together. The last few weeks are a good example.

One of the advantages of living in a big city is the access to cultural and entertainment venues. And while that is certainly true, it’s also true that making the time, getting the tickets, and all the other requisite details often get in the way of what the city has to offer. Our suburb is twenty miles west of downtown Chicago, and while we have easy access to the city by car or commuter train, it’s more than a run to the grocery for milk.

My binge started with tickets to see The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakespeare. Perhaps you have seen the movie about Prince Albert, the Duke of York and his struggle overcoming a crippling stutter at the same time his brother, the Prince of Wales, was about to abdicate the throne, making Albert the king as Europe was going to war with Hitler. (Talk about pressure!) The play was enjoying critical acclaim at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Everything I have seen there has been first-rate and this production did not disappoint, including the appearance of Harry Hadden-Paton, of The Crown and Downton Abbey, as Albert. My husband and I totally enjoyed the evening.

But then, less than a week later, I found myself at Symphony Hall. I am joining a girlfriend this season in a series of five concerts. She has been a subscriber for years, but her partner in this venture decided not to participate this season. The seats are good, and the cost when you subscribe ahead of time is do-able, so of course I said yes. Well, these seats are more than good; they’re in the fourth row. I can watch the violinists finger their instruments. We park in the garage across the street, grab a bite to eat and sit back and enjoy. I may be hooked!

But, wait, there’s more!

My usual cultural destination in the city has always been the Art Institute. (I’ve written about various visits here, including the Thorne Miniature rooms, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin in my Miscellaneous File. ) A year or so ago friends introduced us to a monthly lecture/discussion series at the AI. We are all retired, so when schedules allow we meet there to attend the series and enjoy lunch after. Last Friday was especially appealing, because a new Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened. We met early to see as much of Andy Warhol-From A to B and Back Again as possible before the regular lecture. But we may need to go back, because this is an extensive exhibit that takes the visitor well beyond Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

And early pen and ink self-portrait of Warhol.

I wish I had done a little AW research before we went (Note to self: next time do a little homework.) Warhol’s much more than just a pop icon of the sixties, although that certainly describes much of his work. Unlike other artists, Warhol began his career doing commercial art. His first commission was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine in the 1950s, followed by work as a shoe designer for manufacturer Israel Miller.

Much of Warhol’s later work continued to be based on commercial art, like the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes. He was well known for his silk screen process. Many of those pieces, including the famous and familiar Marilyn Monroe image, were based on commercial photos that he copied and successfully turned into iconic images using a silk screen process. (The Marilyn Monroe image was originally a studio publicity shot for her last movie.) The silk-screened portraits, in fact, became so popular that movie stars, public and private figures came to Warhol for what he referred to as “commercial business.”

In addition to the individual portraits, Warhol often produced multiple versions in one work, sometimes with slight variation in color and/or shading.

This oversized portrait of Mao Zedong (it’s about 125-feet tall) is part of The Art Institute’s permanent collection. The Institute’s archive notes that Warhol’s portrait displays some irreverence towards the image that was widely displayed in China: “Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti.” Some art historians view Warhol’s treatment here as commentary on similarities between Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.

Like so many artists, Warhol’s artistic muse went well beyond the canvas. He spent most of his later years exploring videos and movies. Warhol died at only 58, so it’s interesting to speculate on where his art would have taken him. Like many gallery-goers, I’m more drawn to Renoir and Monet than Warhol. But there is no denying the impact Warhol has had on the art world. He used techniques like silk screen and video and blurred the lines between commercial art and fine art. And that alone is saying a lot.

What about you? What kind of art are you most drawn to?

So much for my culture binge. It’s time to take a deep dive into holiday prep, a.k.a. oven cleaning. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon?

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.

So many books

You know that I am an avid reader (you do know that by now, don’t you?). Like  lot of readers, I need to have the next few books waiting in the wings (or piled on an end table or stashed on a shelf). And right now, I have an abundance of good reads lined up.

I picked up Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng because I was just seeing/hearing a lot of buzz about it. My instinct paid off because this book just blew me away. Ng is a wonderful writer with a real gift for deftly setting a scene (in this case the well-planned Shaker Heights community in Cleveland, Ohio), but it was her carefully drawn characters who really captivated my attention. The story revolves around a handful of otherwise disparate families eventually drawn into one compelling story. Ng was able to carefully step back from the developing story to recount the lives of these characters, almost like a short story or a novel within a novel. She does this effortlessly, without jarring the reader. On the other hand, their stories are not always pretty or fun, in fact Ng grapples here with some tough social issues.

Ng offers a lot to think about. A few other friends have also read it; we agree it would be a meaty selection for discussion. You or your book club may have already discovered Little Fires Everywhere, but if not, add it to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

One of my favorite reader friends shared the first three Louise Penny mysteries with me. (Apparently, you have to read them in order.) So I read the first, Still Life, and now I’m well into A Fatal Grace. There’s a lot to like here, starting with the charming Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the small town setting of Three Pines just outside Montreal, and its colorful residents, even if they do have an uncanny homicidal bent. And, there’s more than a dozen more titles waiting.

My lit group read One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This book features an ensemble cast of nine characters who find themselves trapped together after a massive earthquake. To pass the time and manage their fears, they agree to each share one amazing thing about their life. This is a very disparate group in age, education and life experience. You can imagine how their stories must vary. One Amazing Thing is about the power of story telling, about what we are willing to share with strangers that we may never share with family, and how we often make sudden decisions that shape our lives forever. It was a good read and a great conversation.

Up next, There There by Tommy Orange, follows the lives of twelve Native Americans as they are traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. I’m sure there are some parallels to draw between this and One Amazing Thing, but There, There also promises to shed light on the plight of urban Native Americans. I’m looking forward to reading this.

I finally read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the story of a group of international hostages hostages held by rebel forces in South America. (And yes, without thinking I seem to have noted three books here with a similar premise.) I have to admit that this book moved waaaayyy too slow for me in parts, but I kept going and I’m glad I did. Here’s my question if you have read this book: did Patchett purposely slow down the pace of this book to demonstrate how time crept by for the hostages? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

After reading a review of Patchett’s latest book, The Dutch House, I’ve added it to my to-be-read list.

What about you? Any good recommendations?

Hope you’re having a great day! Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?