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!

 

 

 

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?

 

Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.