August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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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.

New reads and a great new recipe

One way to soothe my September/back-to-school nostalgia is to look ahead to a year of good reading with my AAUW book group. This group has met for decades, long before Oprah launched her book club and the Internet spawned bloggers (like me!) with all manner of lists.

I have already shared with you (here) that we meet on the first Friday morning in September to select eleven books for the year ahead. Nominations are submitted in advance and additional options from the floor are not accepted. Since so many blog readers and bloggers are avid readers, I thought I would share our choices and invite your comments.

Not surprisingly, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly are on the list. (They’re on everyone’s list, and for good reason. I blogged about Gentleman here and recently finished Lilac Girls, which is based on a true story of a New York socialite who brought to light the details of Polish detainees at Hitler’s women-only concentration camp.)

We’re also reading The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, another nod to WWII. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers recounts the life of an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See takes on the lives of a U.S. adopted Chinese girl and her birth mother.

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, about Einstein’s wife, and The Stars Are on Fire by Anite Shreve, about a fire in Maine in 1947, are both considered historical fiction. News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post-Civil War Texas, may also fall into that category.

We also chose So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman, a murder mystery told over 17 years. (A bit of a surprise since we don’t often choose mysteries.) The protagonist in An Unnecessary Woman by Almeddine Rabih is a 72-year-old woman looking back on her life and her books. (I’m very curious about this one!)

We always try to include at least one classic and this year it’s Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. I read this in college and I’m anxious to delve back into it. But we decided against Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. Maybe I’ll have to put that on my personal list. We also did not have room for LaRose by Louise Erdrich or The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ll have to add them to my non-club list as well.

So, what do you think? Are any of these on your list? I’d love to know what you’re reading this Fall. And if you need more ideas, check out Katie Clooney’s picks at The Preppy Empty Nester.

(Actually, between Katie’s book, movie and TV recommendations, Mocadeaux’s wine picks, and Everyday Occasions recipes, one could enjoy a genuinely delightful time this fall!)

An easy, elegant appetizer

Last week I was searching for a new appetizer recipe, something simple, and maybe make-ahead, to simplify a midweek dinner for friends. My solution to these dilemmas is often to cruise my collection of Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. (Ina never disappoints!)

The recipe as pictured in Cooking for Jeffrey. I think mine looked almost as good!

What I settled on was this easy and delicious pot of herbed goat cheese. In addition to the cheese, the only ingredients were fresh dill and basil (both plentiful in our garden right now), olive oil, salt and pepper. I used a cute jelly jar and a log of fresh goat cheese that I cut into four portions and flattened them a bit to make appropriately-sized disks for the jar. I made this a day ahead. Before my guests arrived, I let the jar of cheese come to room temperature before adding it to a small cheese tray, serving it with a choice of hardy crackers and toasted baguette slices. Yum! I loved it, but more importantly, my guests did too. You can find the recipe here.

I’d love to hear what you’re reading and cooking these days. And by the way, I hope you’ll follow me on Instagram to you can get a peek at a new adventure.

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time.

Recipe gold, whipping cream and other kitchen thoughts

My kitchen is one of my happy places. I like to cook. I like to eat. I like to read cookbooks and food blogs and try new recipes. And once in awhile I strike what I think of as recipe gold, a dish worthy of adding to our regular repertoire, serving to guests and sharing with friends.

You may or may not follow Jenny Steffens Hobick at Everyday Occasions. She writes a fun, informative blog, often but not always about food, and has a wonderful online shop that stocks simple, quality homemaking goods like classic white serving pieces and cooking gear. I am especially smitten with her recipes. As a former caterer, Jenny is very good at easy and elegant, as well as assembling recipes for a complete menu.

Earlier this winter she shared her recipe for Slow Simmered Beef Ragu. I have now made this three times! The first time was just for us, testing it for an upcoming dinner party. It was a success the first time and at that dinner party, so I served it to company again last weekend. It’s delicious, hearty, comfort food (especially appropriate for this fickle winter!) and everyone loved it. This includes my friend’s Italian-born mother-in-law, a real honor.

This beef ragu is very much like a delicious dish we enjoyed at a winery in Tuscany last year. Even better, it’s easily made early in the day or a day ahead. In my book this makes it perfect for dinner guests.

I made it with short ribs, though the recipe gives an option for stew meat. And I have served it with fresh pasta from the grocery store, rather than making my own as Jenny does. It starts with a fair amount of chopping:

But look what you get for your efforts! Yum! Grab her recipe and try it.

My favorite new gadget

I try to limit the number of gadgets I add to my cooking gear. They take up space and I find they are often just plain unnecessary. However, a recent acquisition is too fun not to share.

My daughter-in-law works for a small chain of charming, upscale restaurants. Jen does a bit of everything: payroll, wine taster, employee trainer, and much more. And, thanks to her familiarity with the food industry and her appreciation of my love of cooking and entertaining, she buys the best kitchen gifts ever.

My gift this Christmas was this mini dessert whip. So much fresher than cream in a can and easier than using the Kitchen Aid to whip cream. With this you add a cup of cream, a little powdered sugar and vanilla, screw down the mini gas canister and presto, change-o you have cream! Okay, there are a few tricks, the first being careful where you aim. (Yes, I sprayed myself with cream in setting up this photo.)

But, if you come to my house for dinner this spring, expect dessert to include whipped cream!

 

And while we’re talking about kitchens…

I think kitchens deserve the same design respect as the rest of the house. Artwork. Rugs. Accessories.  These recent pins illustrate my point (along with my willingness to dive deep into Pinterest for eye candy!). I love how these traditional pieces — gold frames and all — glam up these tidy, bright white spaces:

And has anyone else seen this gorgeous blue and white kitchen with the traditional red runner:

From homebunch.com

And then there is this hood mantle with the silver and transferware:

From Nell Hills

And this kitchen fireplace mantel from Patina Farm:

I’m not sure how or if any of this fuels my creativity, but it does make me think it may be time to freshen things up for spring.  In the meantime, what’s cooking in your kitchen these days?

See you next time!

Laissez les bon temps rouler

roosterswithbeadsOr, let the good times roll (but it sounds so much better in french!). Fat Tuesday — the culmination of Mardi Gras for the uninitiated — is this week.

We are getting ready to celebrate.

Fat Tuesday was essentially unremarkable in our household until our son began attending Tulane and we fell in love with New Orleans.

And how could you not? The food, the music, the Spanish moss, the St. Charles streetcar running from Tulane to Canal Street (I must have ridden it a hundred times, trying to take in every detail of those remarkable houses along the way), but most of all the joyful essence that permeates this city (not the Bourbon St. vibe, which is certainly something to see), but the live music that pops up everywhere, the funerals celebrated with a parade, the food, the food, the food.

But, I digress…

It’s time for a celebration. January & February have been gray and surprisingly snow-less in Chicago. The post-election hangover lingers on and spring is still several weeks away. So we invited a few friends to dinner on Fat Tuesday and unearthed our trove of Mardi Gras beads, except I think they call them throws.

img_1135I am cooking up a pot of gumbo and we have a genuine King Cake (Google is a wonderful thing!).

Although I’m not big on themed parties, Fat Tuesday calls for extra oomph. In my case that means purple, green and gold feathers and beads and a vintage New Orleans souvenir tablecloth I bought years ago for just such an occasion.

fattuestable

At the heart of it all, of course, are good food and good friends.

This is the lesson of New Orleans and good times, why would you just cook and serve dinner when you can add a few more beans to the pot, invite the neighbors, and make it a feast! The perfect antidote to gray days!

Happy Mardi Gras!

See you next time!